“Heaven, distance, light and dazzling brightness”: Czech literary links with Scandinavia

Norway, photo: Schlaubi, CC 3.0 license

Did you know that one of Norway’s popular writers is actually Czech, or that in the mid 1930s Karel Čapek fell in love with the forests and skies of Scandinavia? And do Czechs and Danes have more in common than just beer? David Vaughan looks at Czech-Scandinavian literary links.

Martin Humpál,  photo: David Vaughan
This year Czech Radio is enjoying a Scandinavian literary season, and this inspired me to look at some of the links between the Czech and Scandinavian literary worlds. I talked to one of the Czech Republic’s most respected experts on the region, Martin Humpál, who teaches Norwegian language and literature at Prague’s Charles University. I asked him whether Czech interest in Scandinavian writing has a long history.

“Yes it does, and I think that the Czech Republic – or Czechoslovakia in earlier times – was really interested in being in touch with Scandinavian countries. We are, after all, a small country and I think that Czechs have always thought that we who come from small countries have something in common. And I think that Norwegians, for example, tend to look at our country in a similar way as well. Scandinavian literature was extremely popular here from the end of the 19th century. Then it continued through the first half of the 20th century.”

Is that partly because of the process of national and linguistic emancipation that we saw in many parts of Europe throughout the 19th century – the idea of emerging national literatures? Presumably countries were looking to each other to see what was going on in that process.

“Yes, definitely, and it was not by chance that I mentioned Norway earlier, because Norway underwent a similar process of something we might call a ‘national revival’ in the 19th century. This process, from 1814 to the beginning of the 20th century, has sometimes been compared to the similar process in this country.”

And in literary terms, are there cases of works being translated, or of the imitation or adaptation of particular writers or styles?

Karel Čapek
“Well, obviously some of the big writers who have become famous all over the world and came from Scandinavia, such as Ibsen, were popular here, although, speaking specifically of Ibsen, I think he never quite gained such great popularity as he enjoyed, for example, in Germany. Of the great classics, I should mention Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian writer who was also very influential here. He affected many Czech writers, both prose writers and poets.”

And I know that in the period of the First Republic in Czechoslovakia there was interest in Scandinavia. Most famously, Karel Čapek travelled through Scandinavia towards the end of his life.

“Yes, and his book has been very popular here. The image of Scandinavia that he created in his book ‘Travels in the North’ is something that has persisted.”

And then water without end, furrowed by a small steamer and sailing boats with the silver line of the horizon somewhere as far as – my friends, how big the world is! And again it closes up, from both sides high trees so that you have hardly a strip of heaven above your head; and again the glistening gaze of a lake swings past, making space for heaven, distance, light and the dazzling brightness; and the narrow, silver edge of a river cuts into the woods, the smooth little mirror of a tiny water-lily lake gives a sparkle; a red farmhouse is reflected in the silver water-level, silver birches, and dark alders, black and white cows on a bank as green as moss – thank God, here again man and cows and rooks live on a flat bank of deep woods and waters.

With the Second World War and the period of communism, the relationship between the Czech literary world and Scandinavia became rather unbalanced, didn’t it? Scandinavia became a place to escape to.

Michael Konůpek,  photo: Vladimíra Bezdíčková
“Shortly after 1948 the communists banned all writers who did not write according to the tenets of socialist realism. Among other things this meant that approximately from 1950 until the end of the 50s, and perhaps a little bit into the 1960s, there were relatively few Scandinavian authors being translated, and those who were, were communists. Only some time in the 1960s did we begin to have a greater selection of Scandinavian authors. But the communist censorship was much more strict concerning writers from those countries considered by the communists to be more imperialist, more capitalist. So, obviously, with writers from countries such as the US, Great Britain and West Germany, it was much more difficult to push them through the censorship than, for example, writers from Scandinavia.”

And what about after 1968, when there was a large-scale migration of Czech intellectuals to Scandinavia and, I believe, Sweden in particular?

“We can find some interesting cases of Czechs who either already wrote before they emigrated or started writing after they emigrated to Scandinavia. For example, Michael Konůpek, who was born in Prague only started writing after he emigrated to Norway. Now he considers himself to be a Norwegian writer, because he has written most of his texts in Norwegian.”

And does he write about Norwegian themes, Czech themes, or something completely different?

Norway,  photo: Schlaubi,  CC 3.0 license
“He writes about both. Especially his first novel takes place in Czechoslovakia, but his second novel, although it speaks of the experience of an emigrant from Czechoslovakia to Norway, the main plot, if you can put it that way, takes place in Norway nonetheless. So he writes both – about his experience when he was a kid here, but also about his experiences after he began to live in Norway.”

And has his work been translated back into Czech?

“That’s a very interesting question. Only very little has been translated back into Czech.”

Another writer who comes to mind is Kateřina Janouchová, whose father is a very famous émigré nuclear physicist. She writes in Swedish and has also been translated into Czech.

“Yes, definitely, and as far as I know I think that Kateřina Janouchová has enjoyed a much bigger success here than, for example, Konůpek. Certainly more of her books have been translated into Czech.”

How did you become interested in Scandinavian literature?

“It was really purely by chance. I always wanted to study English and early it was only possible to study languages here in such a way that one always had to study two subjects together. Plus, as you perhaps know, earlier in communist times, when I began to study, it was not possible to apply for several majors at the same time and just choose out of the two or three subjects that interested you most. So at that time it was only possible to send one application for one subject. That’s what I did and at that point I could only choose out of approximately three combinations, together with English. One of them was, for example, English and Korean, and I thought that English and Norwegian was a little bit less exotic than Korean.”

Was there interest in Scandinavia here among the general public and your fellow students?

“Definitely, and I think this interest has never disappeared. I think that until today – and since I teach here, I can see it every year – there are still rather large numbers of people who apply to study either Norwegian or Danish or Swedish. So, I think that, compared to some other majors, we can consider ourselves lucky in this respect. Sometimes people ask me what’s the reason for this interest. There are several reasons, but I think that concerning especially Norway and Sweden it has to do with the fact that Sweden and Norway have always been considered to be a little bit exotic, at least from the Central European perspective.”

And Czechs love wild, mountainous places, don’t they?

“That’s true. I’m speaking mainly of the beauty of nature in these countries, but perhaps it also has to do with something that people there are in some way different from what one encounters, for example, in Germany and Central Europe.”

But I should imagine that culturally Czechs are rather closer to the Danes. Both countries are closer to the heart of Europe, both are beer-drinking countries, with a reputation for humour. Would you say that there are similarities beyond these very superficial things?

“Yes, I think you’re right. I think Czechs have more in common with the Danes than with the Norwegians and Swedes. One good example of the fact that Czechs and Danes have something in common is Jan Burian. He is a well-known Czech singer, song-writer and he has collaborated on many TV programmes about Scandinavia, mainly about Denmark and Iceland. At some point in his life he really fell in love with Denmark and also with Danish culture, and I think he is one of those cultural personalities who have promoted this view that the Czechs and the Danes have a lot in common. Among other things he really enjoys reading the poetry of the Danish writer, Benny Andersen and he also put several of his poems to music, and he recorded, if I’m not mistaken, at least two albums with his music and Benny Andersen’s lyrics.”

Are Czech readers today interested in Scandinavian literature, and do you think they will continue to be so?

“Yes, I think I have good reason to think that it will continue and indeed there is a great interest among Czech readers in Scandinavian literature. I’m pleasantly surprised, given how the situation was in the 90s. After 1989 Czech readers were interested in learning as much as they could about the countries that earlier were the target of most of the communist propaganda – obviously the US had always been presented as the ultimate enemy of the communist regime or the Soviet Bloc. So, no wonder that the attention of Czech readers was directed there. But I think that some time around 2000 there came a period of satiation. I think that people had travelled quite a lot and maybe they realised that they now knew so much about countries like the US, West Germany etc that maybe it’s time to discover something new, something different. And I think they began slowly to turn their attention to the so-called ‘small’ literatures again. From what I’ve seen there is a relatively steady growth in interest in the literature of small countries. So I think there is a good chance that this will still continue.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on March 3, 2012.