Jan Stolba: the magic of ordinary things

Jan Stolba

The F. X. Salda Award is named after one the key figures in the history of Czech writing. Salda, who lived from 1867 to 1937, was the father of modern Czech literary criticism, and had a huge influence on the development of Czech writing at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. So it is apt that the F.X. Salda award is given every year to literary and art critics who are felt to be continuing the tradition he began. This year it went to Jan Stolba, a man of many talents. He is probably best known as a jazz tenor saxophonist, but he is also a poet and one of the Czech Republic's most respected literary critics, whose writings on Czech poetry have been widely published. We met to discuss his love of poetry and music.

Jan Stolba
"My mother was a teacher of Czech language and literature, so I think I got quite a lot from that side."

As a child, growing up in this literary environment, who were the writers that really inspired you?

"I would like to mention a man who was a prose writer. That was Bohumil Hrabal. Mostly he wrote short stories and novels. I was inspired by his enchantment with real people with the poetry of the everyday of ordinary work, and finding something unusual and very special and magical in very ordinary things."

And we are here in the part of Prague, Holesovice, where you live. This is also where you grew up.

"Yes, I grew up in Holesovice, a part of town where there is a big rail yard..."

... and this is very much Hrabal territory. It's inner city, a lot of people living on top of one another, everything's a little bit grey, a little bit crumbling. It's the sort of place where Bohumil Hrabal would have felt at home, isn't it.

"Yes, exactly. As a matter of fact he lived just across the river in Liben, and at the very beginning I actually wanted, when I was 18 or 19 years old, to follow the path he had gone down, and I started to work at those yards at the railroad station. Then it just clashed with my interest in music. Playing the saxophone just didn't agree with working hard in the yards, so I had to follow a different path eventually."

And so how did your musical career start?

"I think it was probably purely as an accident. We had a trio at high school. I used to play guitar and banjo. I was very keen on the music of Voskovec and Werich..."

They were the great musical comic duo of the 1930s.

"Their music was based on Jazz, and then through them I got first to old jazz and then to more modern Bebop and Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane."

In this country there is traditionally a very strong link between the literary world and the world of music. In terms of jazz I'm thinking of a novelist like Josef Skvorecky, whose novels are imbibed with his love of jazz.

"Yes, of course. With Voskovec and Werich there was a strong literary element, because they wrote beautiful lyrics, they played with language in the most unbelievable and incredible way. Then of course later came Josef Skvorecky with his novel Cowards (Zbabelci), which is sometimes called a jazz novel."

You were recently given the F. X. Salda Award for your literary criticism - specifically for your writing about poetry. As a musician, where do you see the bridges between poetry and music?

"Of course there are connections and bridges, but I have to say that for me the moments and areas where these two actually part are more interesting. Music for me is a relief from the heaviness of words, from exactness of verbal meanings. Music is a realm for me of almost physical pleasure. On the other hand, literature or poetry deal with capturing reality, with trying to name various aspects of reality. Music can't do this."

But there is the music of the words themselves.

"Of course. That's where music and poetry overlap."

There is the perennial debate about the meaning of poetry, the question as to whether the poem begins in the words and the configuration of words in the poem itself, or whether the meaning - or the beauty - of the poem comes from the way it captures experience. You have strong views on this.

"Yes. I'm always drawn to poetry which is based on experience, which is based on certain moments, which reflects them somehow more or less clearly, but that doesn't mean that poetry is purely mirroring these moments. There is some kind of deformation or modulation of reality involved. I see it as a two-way process. Experience is a basis for a poem and words influence our perception of reality as well."

If you were sent to a desert island and could take just one poem with you, have you ever thought about which poem that might be, the poem that means most to you in the world?

"This is a very tricky question and I remember one beautiful song by Vladimir Merta. In this song he raises this question and then he says, 'I wouldn't take any.' I like this and I strongly agree because taking one just belittles the others, and I really like the broad scope, I like the variety. I want to honour each author's personality and each author's personal input in poems."

You mentioned a short while ago the rather unusual beginning to your career just down the road from where we are now at the goods yard in the railway station. You've done a good many things since then, in many different fields and in several different countries.

"Very soon I was drawn by music. I started to play in an orchestra. But during communism I wasn't able to have the status of a professional musician, so I was taking all these odd jobs on the side - in a hospital, as a night watchman, which was a typical odd job of that era, and so on."

And you also spent time abroad.

"Yes. I spent some time with my partner in New York, and also, lately, on and off, living in Australia."

I should mention that your partner, Isobelle Carmody, is a writer in her own right. She's an Australian novelist, very well known for her books for young people.

"Yes. She's very popular there. She has a lot of young fans, who write letters to her."

Just from your descriptions of life in Czechoslovakia under communism, Australia must be in many ways almost the exact opposite of that, isn't it?

"Well, that's what I would think also, but then you happen to be there and it's very funny that you start finding things which are very similar. Yes, Australia is a vast land, but it's a small nation. It's just 18 million people. We Czechs are 10 million people, and you find that in many ways, for example in humour, Australians are quite ironical. They like self deprecating humour, but not in a destructive way, as we do here in the Czech Republic. Of course, they are very lively and cheerful and they always have a smile on their face, which you don't see much in our country unfortunately!"

But, despite the smiles of Australia, you're not planning to move there permanently...

"No, it won't be permanent, because we both have interests in our home places. We will have to shift between the two."