Dickens and the Good Soldier Švejk


Here is a question for the Dickens bicentenary. What is the connection between the great 19th century English novelist and the best-loved Czech literary anti-hero? The answer is, surprisingly enough, that without Dickens we quite possibly wouldn’t have Švejk at all. David Vaughan looks at this and some other Czech links with Dickens in this week’s Czech Books.

Charles Dickens
Czechs have been reading Dickens for over 170 years, going back to a time when the novelist himself was still in his twenties. For many Czechs, the most famous Dickens characters, Pip, Mr Micawber, Miss Havisham or Mr Pickwick are old friends. But at a political level, the history of Dickens in Czech-speaking world has been more than a little complicated, defined by the many twists and turns of Czech history. Zdeněk Beran from Prague’s Charles University has devoted many years to studying the 19th century English novel. I met him in the somewhat Dickensian environment of his cramped book-filled office overlooking Prague’s old Jewish Cemetery, and he began our conversation by telling me about the very first Czech Dickens translation – from a time when most translations of English literature in Prague were appearing in German.

“In 1840 the first translation of a Dickens sketch appears in Czech. It was done by Jakub Malý, who at that time was a young translator, and later became a translator of the work of William Shakespeare. So it’s sure that his command of English was very good.”

So he was translating directly from English and not through German as some other translators were.

“Exactly. It was quite exceptional to translate directly from English. He translated a sketch called Criminal Courts from the Sketches by Boz, and it’s very interesting that it’s a good translation. And what is also interesting about this is that, because it’s about criminal courts, he had to invent many Czech terms, because the official language here was German.”

So there was no Czech vocabulary for court terminology…

“Absolutely. There was no word for ‘jury’, for instance. So he had to invent these, and he did it very well. So this was his translation in 1840, published in his own magazine called Denice – which means something like Day Star or Morning Star. The first Dickens novel to be translated came also in the 1840s. It was Oliver Twist, again a very good translation by a person whose name was Mořic Fialka. Then we have a few more sketches, more or less adaptations, translated from German, and this situation ends in 1848, which is interesting.”

It was a revolutionary year in many parts of Europe…

“…and the political situation here in Prague was very controversial. Many, many people were imprisoned. For several decades no Czech translation of Dickens appeared and I asked myself why it was so.”

So in the years after 1848, Dickens just disappeared from the Czech Lands.

“In the Czech language he disappeared almost completely. There is no Dickens to speak of in the 1850s or even the 1860s. His name is mentioned in these years by several Czech writers, and interestingly it is Dickens the humourist that is mentioned. Božena Němcová, one of the great figures of the early period of an independent Czech literature, recommends The Pickwick Papers to her son. People knew and very much favoured Dickens, but the question is why he disappeared. I think it was simply because he was a controversial person.”

Zdeněk Beran,  photo: David Vaughan
This is surprising. It is true that after 1848 there came a period of absolutist rule and there was a considerable degree of suppression of freedoms in what is now the Czech Republic and of the Czech language, but it didn’t last long. By around 1860 the Habsburg monarchy was already beginning to become much more open and tolerant again, wasn’t it?

“Exactly. There are two possible answers. Either there was some pressure not to publish Dickens in Czech simply because the Czech people should not be reminded of the freedom that he preached in his work, of his humanity and of the oppressive character of state institutions. Secondly, there were many books by Dickens available here in the German translation, so perhaps this supplied the need for Dickens for the Czech-speaking intelligentsia, because, of course, the Czech-speaking intelligentsia was also a German-speaking community. The fact is that in the year of Dickens’ death in 1870, Jan Neruda, one of the greatest poets of that time, regretted that we had had no translation of Dickens so far, which is not entirely true – we had Oliver Twist, but no other novel by Dickens.”

And there is something in common between Jan Neruda and Dickens. They’re both writing predominantly about life in the first half of the 19th century, and both have a way of creating character and of saying serious things through humour.

“Yes, very much so, and both of them knew the life in a city. So they were very modern in mapping city life. This is a very interesting remark, actually, because in the 20th century, in the post-war years, immediately before the communist coup, there was a text by Dickens which was published called The Chimes, one of his Christmas Tales. And this publication, one of the last publications by a private publisher, was accompanied by a preface by the translator. He compared Dickens to Neruda. He felt there was an affinity between these two writers.”

You talk about how the Habsburgs didn’t like Dickens and yet he is not an overtly political writer. He’s very critical of institutions, but it is nearly always at a moral rather than a political level, isn’t it. Also, there’s very little in his novels that deals with the national questions or the language questions that you see in Central Europe at the time, simply because Dickens was in a completely different context.

“Consider this. The only novel published in the 1840s was Oliver Twist and actually what this book says is that conditions in a public institution, like a workhouse, are from the point of view of a person’s development, especially emotional development, not much different from the conditions you have among criminals. Oliver actually finds more love among criminals, thanks to Nancy, than in a public institution. I think this was perceived as very undesirable. It was a picture of an oppressive society, so perhaps this is one of the reasons.

“There’s an interesting parallel between this time, from the late 1840s and the whole period of communism in Czechoslovakia. One of his novels was published in the early 1950s and never reprinted after this. It was A Tale of Two Cities. The book is about the French Revolution and the picture of the French Revolution is not a favourable one. The book is about how a new regime can be cruel especially to those classes of people that are simply ‘bad’ classes. You know, in the 1950s and even in the following decades a lot of people experienced oppression due to their origin. People not coming from working-class families had more problems getting to university, for instance, and so on. There’s a very cruel scene in this novel, when a member of the French aristocracy is persecuted just because he’s a member of an aristocratic family. So I think this was one of the major reasons why this novel, even though by a writer who was considered a great classic of English literature, was never again republished during the communist era.”

Photo: Československý spisovatel
Many other Dickens novels were published and re-translated in the course of the communist era, but clearly this book was just a bit too close to the bone.

“Yes, I really think so.”

We haven’t talked at all about the period of the First Republic between 1918, when Czechoslovakia came into being, and the Second World War, but in fact Dickens was very influential on that generation of Czech writers as well, wasn’t he?

“Yes, I absolutely agree. What is perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that Jaroslav Hašek, the author of The Good Soldier Švejk, was inspired by one of Charles Dickens’ characters, the unforgettable Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers. It’s sure that he modelled his Good Soldier Švejk on this character, and even the conversation strategies, I would say, are taken from the character of Sam Weller. A friend of Hašek, František Langer, who was a playwright, adapted The Pickwick Papers for stage and he remembered that Hašek liked the novel, and he also recalled in one of the essays he wrote on this, how he himself admired The Pickwick Papers. He even claimed that he had read the book each year. He turned it into drama, which is an immensely difficult job, because the book is too lengthy, the story is too rambling. So he took the main storyline and he made a play about two values, which I think are typical Dickensian values – about love and all the dangers connected with love and about friendship and how friendship can save man from the pitfalls of love! So it’s wonderful. The play was staged here in 1930 and was not successful. I don’t know why. But it was produced in Sweden, and if I’m not mistaken in Norway as well, and met with immense success there. It’s hard to understand why, but it’s so!”

'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'
Today Dickens is well-known in the Czech Republic, but predominantly through the film adaptations of his novels. Do people in this country today read Dickens?

“I think so. There are not many new translations of Dickens, as far as I know. Only minor pieces such as A Christmas Carol were translated a few years ago, and there are no new translations of his novels with the exception of one, and I think this translation was very, very good and the reception of this book was very good as well. It was Dickens’ last unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It’s really a kind of mystery story and there were attempts to finish this book by many people, because there’s a great mystery about the disappearance of the hero, and this was immensely well received here.”