Jaroslav Seifert - Nobel Prize laureate with no collected works

Jaroslav Seifert

This week the Czech Republic is marking the 20th anniversary of the death of poet Jaroslav Seifert, the only Czech Nobel Prize winner for literature. An ardent communist in his youth, Seifert later fell from favour with the post-war communist authorities and was blacklisted several times, finally after signing the Charter 77 human rights manifesto. When in 1984, Jaroslav Seifert was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the communist authorities begrudgingly published his works again, albeit in a censored version. But 16 years after the fall of communism and 20 years after his death, Jaroslav Seifert's collected works remaine unpublished.

Jaroslav Seifert was born in 1901 in the former working class suburb of Zizkov, not far from today's Seifertova Street. Influenced by the poor urban environment, Seifert joined the Communist Party in 1921 only to be expelled from it eight years later for his criticism of its Bolshevik tendencies.

Jaroslav Seifert was a prolific writer and his career spanned 60 years and several styles: from proletarian poetry, to the playful avant-garde, to poems celebrating women and love to more serious verses dedicated to his homeland.

Previous attempts at publishing Seifert's collected works were tainted by censorship and finally failed when the publishing house went bankrupt in the 1990s. Now, publisher Jiri Tomas, in cooperation with literary historians, is hoping to be the one to bring the ambitious project to a successful end.

"This is the third attempt at publishing Seifert's collected works. We aim to publish not just collections of poems but also poems printed in magazines, his translations and lyrics for plays and films. We'd also like to include selected correspondence and essays. For the first time ever certain pieces are being published as Seifert wrote them, uncensored."

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Jiri Tomas's publishing house has so far brought out 10 out of the intended 17 volumes. But the edition has now been put on hold.

"Sadly it is for financial reasons. The ten volumes in print include 29 collections, that's 3,200 print pages. It is now the largest edition of Seifert's work so far - and we are 700,000 crowns in the red. So we need some time to recuperate. Not only my wallet but also the readers - they, too, need a rest. And next year, we'd like to carry on with another two volumes."

Opinions differ on the subject of Jaroslav Seifert's qualities as a poet. He is sometimes seen as a lightweight poet, not exactly the strongest voice of his generation. There are even some who say Seifert was awarded the Nobel Prize for political reasons rather than artistic merit. But he remains dear to generations of Czechs who above all treasure his love poetry.

For English-speaking readers several translations of Seifert's poetry are available, from his earlier works "City in Tears", "Sheer Love" and "On the Waves of TSF", to some of his latest collections, such as "The Plague Column" and "An Umbrella from Piccadilly".