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3) The Good Soldier Švejk: Jaroslav Hašek’s comic masterpiece

Photo: Steve Collis, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk is a classic of not just Czech but world literature. Is soldier Josef Švejk employing exaggerated zeal to cunningly mock the Austro-Hungarian army’s war effort? Or is he genuinely slow-witted? The 1920s comic masterpiece leaves it to the reader to decide.

The Good Soldier Švejk: and His Fortunes in the World War, to give it its full title, begins with the following passage:

‘And so they’ve killed our Ferdinand,’ said the charwoman to Mr. Švejk, who had left military service years before, after having been finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile, and now lived by selling dogs – ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged. Apart from this occupation he suffered from rheumatism and was at this very moment rubbing his knees with Elliman’s embrocation. ‘Which Ferdinand, Mrs Müller?’ he asked, going on with the massaging. ‘I know two Ferdinands. One is a messenger at Průša’s, the chemist’s, and once by mistake he drank a bottle of hair oil there. And the other is Ferdinand Kokoška, who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss.’ ‘Oh no, sir, it’s His Imperial Highness, the Archduke Ferdinand, the one from Konopiště, the fat churchy one.’ ‘Jesus Maria!’ exclaimed Švejk. ‘What a grand job! And where did it happen to His Imperial Highness?’ (The Good Soldier Švejk: and His Fortunes in the World War, p. 1, Cecil Parrott translation, 1973).

A “trailer” for a filmed 1950s version of Švejk starring one of Czechoslovakia’s greatest actors, Rudolf Hrušínský. The good soldier’s adventures were actually spread across two films, both directed by Karel Steklý.

The Good Soldier Švejk is famously unfinished. Jaroslav Hašek had produced just four of six projected parts of the novel by the time of his death in 1923.

I discussed the satirical classic with Abigail Weil, a Slavic Studies PhD from Harvard University who is currently working on a book about Hašek, a notorious prankster, anarchist and bohemian who was himself just as colourful a character as Švejk.

Do we have any knowledge of what Hašek was intending for the other volumes that we never got to see? What would have happened next, so to speak?

Abigail Weil, photo: archive of Abigail Weil
“No, because he didn’t do any pre-writing or planning. So there is no Hašek archive for one thing.

“He wrote by hand. He did very little editing. And once he moved to Lipnice, he dictated.

“So there aren’t notebooks or handwritten or typed notes of his plans, because he wasn’t that sort of writer.

“He really improvised the whole novel, as far as we know.

“He may have had a vision in his head, but he left no documentary evidence of it.”

Does it take away, do you think, from the overall work that we have four volumes of a projected six, that it’s an unfinished novel?

“In my experience working with the novel and teaching it, people basically only read the first volume anyway.

“And with the first volume, Hašek was in much better health when he wrote it; he wasn’t drinking as much, he wrote it in Prague.

“Structurally the first volume is very different from the others.

“The chapters are tight and concise and move in a more logical way. It follows more of a picaresque format, like Don Quixote.

“But then as the novel goes on the structure really unwinds, as Hašek moved from writing in a more controlled setting to dictating.

“It absolutely has an anti-war agenda, because a lot of the book is opposed to any sort of institutions that rely on human sacrifice to prop themselves up.”

“As his drinking habits got worse and worse, you sort of see a structural breakdown in the novel.

“That being said, there are some very famous sections later on in the novel, such as when Švejk finds the Russian officer’s uniform and puts it on and gets arrested by his own army, who think he’s a spy.

“But in any case, it takes a really dedicated reader of Hašek to make it through the later volumes [laughs].”

Švejk is always regarded as one of the first anti-war novels. Would you agree with that assessment?

“I think it absolutely has an anti-war agenda, because a lot of the book is – in my opinion – opposed to any sort of institutions that rely on human sacrifice to prop themselves up.

“That includes the church, that includes the monarchy, it includes history as a discipline – all these things that counter free will and critical thinking and reduce individuals to cannon fodder.

“So the military is, of course, sort of the most obvious example of that.

“And World War I, generally, unleashed this wave of not just literature but art too – if you think about the German Expressionist grotesque art that followed WWI and was created by a lot of veterans of WWI.

Jaroslav Hašek, photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC0
“Because Hašek didn’t really see himself in these high-falutin’ terms he’s not considered among the Modernists and among the Expressionists who were dealing with these themes.

“But he absolutely was.”

I was reading, I must confess on Wikipedia, a description of the book where the author says “the reader is unclear as to whether Švejk is genuinely incompetent or acting quite deliberately with dumb insolence”. Is that really the case? Is it not clear to people what Švejk’s real nature is? It seems to me very obvious that he’s acting with dumb insolence.

“Yes. I think it’s an open question.

“For me the ambiguity – and this is a sort of horrible, not very helpful thing to say – comes out best in the Czech.

“Once it’s translated, the translator will necessarily make some decisions.

“Translation is an interpretive art, so if you’ve read it in English translated by Cecil Parrott, then that idea that he’s very cunning and crafty does come across.

“I don’t speak Polish, but from what I’ve heard the Polish Švejk comes off very stupid, because the classic Polish translator made those choices, whether consciously or unconsciously.

“But ambiguity is a very hard concept to translate.

“To me the reason, I think, we can say it was an intentional decision – though we can’t say for sure – is because Švejk doesn’t have an internal monologue.

“F.X. Šalda, who was a very important literary critic, said that basically it’s important to find a way to love Švejk without idolising him or making him a hero or making him an emblem of the nation.”

“I think this was a very intentional choice on Hašek’s part. Other characters, minor characters, we hear what they’re thinking, we hear what their motivation is.

“But with Švejk all we get is his speech and his actions.

“And this too is sort of a classic technique of modernist literature – psychological fragmentation.

“You don’t know what’s at the core.”

It has often been suggested over the decades that Josef Švejk is in some ways emblematic of the frequently put-upon Czech nation.

Indeed, there is a Czech verb švejkovat, to Švejk, meaning to pretend obedience and avoid disagreeable situations by feigning incomprehension.

However, not all Czechs welcome the association, which Abigail Weil says she understands.

“Nobody wants to be a nation of malingerers and scapegraces, but that’s what Švejk is.

“F.X. Šalda, who was a very important late 19th, early 20th century literary critic, said that basically it’s important to find a way to love Švejk without idolising him or making him a hero or making him an emblem of the nation.

“I think during different moments in Czech history it has been more or less useful to think of Švejk as a national hero.

Photo: Steve Collis, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
“You hear stories from the Russian invasion in 1968 where images of Švejk were drawn on the walls, graffiti-style, and stories about people turning the street signs around so the tanks would get confused.

“These are sort of gestures of shouting into the void, where you don’t have any power.

“You know you can’t turn around a tank. But what can you do to maintain your own free will and your sense of humour and at least not let yourself be oppressed in your mind and in your heart?

“And I think Švejk is a really useful symbol of a way to resist these powerful, oppressive measures, even when you’re sort of stuck in the system.

“There’s no sort of person whose life is more dictated by the state than a soldier.

“So how do can you be subversive, even when your choices are very limited?

“I think it’s sort of a question of in what way is Švejk an emblem of the nation – not as a dunce, not as someone cunning or crafty, but as someone who no matter what the external structures and powers are at play maintains his own identity and individuality.”

When I was preparing to speak to you, I re-read Cecil Parrott’s introduction to his own translation and what really comes across is just how wild and anarchic a character Hašek himself was. I was wondering if you think that his biography in a way adds to the appeal of Švejk, that people know that it was this wild Prague writer who created Švejk?

“Yes, for me absolutely.

“Hašek is really one of those authors whose life and legend is inextricable from the appeal of his work.”

“That’s very much the centre of my research of the Hašek legend, which he helped to create but wasn’t the only person to disseminate.

“A lot of the stories that his fans today tell about him and his life are the same stories that his friends were telling about him in his lifetime, more than 100 years ago.

“A really interesting phenomenon, I think, about the global enduring popularity of Švejk is that when fans meet and talk about it we only talk about the novel for a small period of time and then inevitably we switch and start telling these Hašek anecdotes.

“I think Cecil Parrott is an interesting case. He did write scholarly analyses of Hašek’s works, but then he sort of couldn’t help himself and would write also about the anecdotes, which are unverifiable but are such interesting stories.

“Radko Pytlík, the great Czech haškolog, did the same thing. He wrote a scholarly biography and then three years later he published a book of anecdotes.

“So to me Hašek is really one of those authors whose life and legend is inextricable from the appeal of his work.

“Because Hašek was a prankster and a performance artist, I see the stories about him as a body of texts, a body of work that stands on equal footing with what he wrote.”

Reputedly the most translated work of Czech literature, The Good Soldier Švejk has appeared in over 50 different languages. Chapter 1 was translated into German by no less a figure than Max Brod and appeared in a Prague German-language newspaper just days after Hašek’s demise.

Photo: SNKLHU
The first English version of the novel, translated by Paul Selver, came out in 1930. However, it was greatly abridged (one-third shorter than the original) and much of what might have been considered offensive was excised.

A 1970s translation by Cecil Parrott is the version known to almost all of those who have read the book in English.

Abigail Weil says she’s looking forward to an all-new English translation that is currently being prepared.

“I actually don’t know the Selver translation. I know of it, but I’ve worked with Parrott translation whenever I needed to produce the quotes in English.

“I’ve also heard a rumour that there’s a new translation coming out from [Czech publisher] Karolinum in the next couple of years to coincide with the upcoming centennial of Hašek’s death.

Yes, that’s by Gerald Turner.

“Yes. This is very exciting. There’s this idea in Translation Studies that the original is timeless but translations age.

“So while I still think that Parrott did a really admirable job when you read it today it comes off a little more stuffy and a little more formal than low class soldiers in World War I who were from Prague and were big drinkers… they wouldn’t have sounded like that.

“It should be a little dirtier, a little bawdier.

“So I have high hopes for this new translation, that it’ll capture the liveliness of the way soldiers really speak.”

Apparently it’s the most translated of Czech books, with 50 or 60 different language versions. It’s almost a century old now. What do you think gives it its longevity?

“It’s interesting, because I think while that statistic is true, as far as I know, I don’t think too many people read it today.

“I think in its time it was hugely popular.

“It’s the funniest book I’ve ever read and every time I read it different parts make me laugh.”

“It had a resurgence in popularity in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the United States.

“There was Catch 22, which was itself inspired by Švejk, and the US was embroiled in this ridiculous conflict in Vietnam for decades.

“As I’ve travelled through the world and spoken to other Hašek fans, the young people I meet who are Hašek fans often tend to be veterans.

“I think there’s an appeal of this book for people who see the absurdities of the military.

“Other than that, I think young people read it when they’re assigned it in college – and how many colleges offer Czech literature, or offer Modernist literature? It’s very rare.

“So I actually have this fear that Hašek fans are sort of an aging demographic.

“I hope that the new translation can boost its numbers again, at least among English speakers.

“Where Hašek remains popular, including among young people, is Russia.

“That’s a totally different story that has to do with the time that Hašek spent in Russia, spent in the Red Army. He was never censored by the Communist government.”

How funny do you find the book, Abigail? I think it’s very amusing but it doesn’t make me laugh out loud. How funny do you find it?

“Oh, it makes me laugh out loud. It’s the funniest book I’ve ever read and every time I read it different parts make me laugh.

“I wrote an entire dissertation on Hašek, which I’m now adapting to be a book, and never once did Hašek stop making me laugh.

“Part of that is because I love potty humour, and there’s a lot of that. Part of it that I’m very anti-establishment and the agenda is that, very much.

“But I also think that Hašek has this talent for tapping into people’s hypocrisies and the way they try to cover those up, and people’s fears and the way they try to cover them up. And their vulnerabilities.

“He just has this great eye for absurdity and detail and this great ear for language.

“To me it’s the funniest book.”

Jaroslav Hašek (Prague, April 30, 1883 – Lipnice nad Sázavou, January 3, 1923) was a writer and journalist who was bohemian by nature and anarchist in his politics. Among his most notorious pranks was the establishment in 1911 of the Party of Mild Progress Within the Bounds of the Law, which he tellingly set up in a Prague pub. Drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army (he had been living prior to this with Josef Lada, who later illustrated The Good Soldier Švejk), Hašek was captured by the Russians during WWI. While in Russia he joined the Czechoslovak Legions but later switched to the Bolsheviks, for whom he penned communist propaganda. His best-known character Josef Švejk first appeared in a pre-1914 short story and was resurrected by the great satirist following his return to Prague, by then the capital of the new Czechoslovak state. Greatly overweight and still drinking as heavily as ever, Hašek died at the age of 39 before his masterpiece was completed.