Martin Reiner and a poet in the maelstrom of the 20th century

Photo: Torst

It is not often that one book receives two major Czech literary awards within a few weeks, but that is just what happened at the end of last year in the case of Martin Reiner’s documentary novel Básník – in English “Poet”. In November the book won the Josef Škvorecký Prize and then a month later it went on to be voted Lidové noviny’s Book of the Year. The novel is the culmination of nearly thirty years’ research into the life of one of great Czech poets of the 20th century, Ivan Blatný. David Vaughan talks to Martin Reiner about the book.

Photo: Torst
We have talked about the poet Ivan Blatný in this programme on several occasions and I already knew that the Brno poet and novelist Martin Reiner had a long fascination with Blatný. So I was delighted when he completed his long-planned magnum opus on the poet’s life and work. In just under 600 pages, this documentary novel takes us from the pre-war literary life of Brno at the time of Blatný’s childhood and youth to the series of psychiatric hospitals in Britain, where the poet spent the last decades of his life. Blatný was one of the first writers to flee Czechoslovakia after the communist takeover in 1948, but not long afterwards he had a nervous breakdown and spent the rest of his life in various psychiatric institutions in Britain. He died in Colchester General Hospital in 1990. But he did not stop writing poetry – in Czech, English and often a quirky combination of the two.

Before we go over to my conversation with Martin Reiner, here is a recording made by Ivan Blatný’s cousin Jan Šmarda in which the poet is reading one of his own poems in English. This is back in 1978 when he was a patient in Saint Clement’s Hospital, Ipswich.

THE COUNT The count left the castle
and went to the township bustle
tired of loneliness.
Tired of deer-park walking,
he wants some more noise, more talking,
tired of playing chess. And when he has enough of claxons,
of motor-cars, of taxis,
he’s glad and turns round.
Again the relaxation
above the lower nation,
lucky we have a count.

Ivan Blatný himself, reading his poem The Count.

Martin Reiner has spent the best part of thirty years researching into the poet’s life both before and after exile, and in the book he does a wonderful job of putting Blatný’s poetry into the context of his friendships with other Czech poets of his generation. They include Vítězslav Nezval, František Halas and Jiří Orten, some of the best loved Czech poets of the 20th century. And with poignancy and telling detail, Reiner also maps each phase of Blatný’s forgotten decades in exile.

Martin Reiner, photo: David Vaughan
But at the time when he first heard about the poet in the mid-1980s, the slightest mention of Blatný in communist Czechoslovakia was taboo. So, when we met in Prague’s Café Louvre, I asked him how he came to Ivan Blatný in the first place.

“I was 21 and I came back to by home town after a decade.”

And your home town is Brno.

“Yes and it’s the home town of Ivan Blatný of course. I wrote poetry and I knew virtually nobody in the city of my childhood. As I remember, I wanted to change the situation urgently. Then suddenly I met Ivan Blatný – of course not personally, but I came across his name – and there was something very strange about it.”

And this was still during the period of communism…

“Yes. It was maybe 1985 or 86…”

When Blatný’s work was completely forbidden in Czechoslovakia….

“… completely erased from Czech literary history and from the bookshelves. There was no Blatný at all! It was a strange thing, because at high school I was quite good in Czech literature – I passed my school leaving examination with an A – but I had never heard his name before. Never. And then I went to see a guy who lent me ‘Melancholic Walks’, which was the second book of Ivan Blatný.”

It is a collection of poems about Brno that he published at the time of the German occupation.

“Yes. It was first published in 1941, when he was 21 or 22, and this book was stunningly beautiful poetry and in the context of this particular time it felt like an apparition. It was something totally different from any other Czech poetry you could read.

While rain went rippling out across the land,
you shivered at a table, blank and alone.
The downpour drummed on all that black outspanned
by umbrellas. The hours, the hours edged on. Far from people, far from their strange ways,
their tedious good cheer and useless prattle,
the wind waltzed scattering hailstones and staves
above the city. And all the windows rattled. A train wheezed in just now, your train. You’re back
in the old country from travelling about.
The inrush left boats bobbing in its wake
and drizzle on the clouded station-mouth. And drizzle. .. drizzle on the gasometer’s drum,
on the shunting car, on a soft grey scarf wound round.
A friend is somewhere there. .. You always come
again to him through cold space swept by wind. (trans. Justin Quinn)

Ivan Blatný, photo: archive of Martin Reiner
“I put my pipe in the corner of my mouth and I disguised myself as Sherlock Holmes and it took me quite a time to find out more about this hidden and forbidden poet. Ivan Blatný for some time gave my life meaning and he gave me a sense of adventure.”

After the fall of communism, your interest in Ivan Blatný didn’t go away. You continued to be maybe even slightly obsessed with him.

“Yes and there was no reason to stop my interest after the Velvet Revolution. “

Right after the fall of communism, Martin Reiner was able to travel to Britain and he managed to visit Ivan Blatný in an old-people’s home in Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. It was just a brief visit and by that time Blatný was already very frail and sick. They talked a little, but Martin realized that he had probably arrived just a little too late. Not long afterwards, the poet died, but Martin remained fascinated. He gathered vast amounts of research.

“After many, many years I wrote a novel about him, to put together everything I knew.”

And everything you know is a lot, and the novel is thick. Tell me more about it.

“Well, I’m not quite sure, but maybe you can call it a documentary novel. I didn’t want to invent his life. I only wanted to describe it, to put the facts together and put them in a book. But on the other hand I wanted to make it easily readable, to give it style. I wanted to make it a real work to literature, to put a lot of emotions in it and make a strong piece about a weak man in the maelstrom of the 20th century.”

You say “a strong piece about a weak man”, but in a sense Blatný is strong, because, despite all he went through and spending 40 years in various institutions, he didn’t stop writing poetry – and very good poetry.

“That’s probably the strangest thing about him, because, in the usual way of understanding it, he was a weak man, because he was never able to face the world around him in the way that most of us do. He quite often just ran away, which is the case of his stays in mental institutions and hospitals, where he spent more than thirty years in England. But you’re right. All this weakness proved to be a strength, because at the end you can see him as a winner, because he was a poet. He had wanted to be a poet since he was six or seven and when he died in his early seventies, he still was a poet and he was considered to be a great poet – one of the best Czech poets. So probably he was strong enough to win this battle.”

I think it was his cousin Pavel Blatný, the composer, who said that Ivan was “just a poet”. He was nothing else. It was everything.

Photo: David Vaughan
“Yes, and that is why the book is called ‘Poet’. I could have chosen from many other names, but then I decided to choose the simplest one, just ‘Poet’ because it’s him. And it’s a sort of definition of this institution: What does it mean to be a poet? The answer is in the book. Live life the way Ivan Blatný did.”

And now you’ve finished the book, it’s published. Is that the end of Ivan Blatný for you, or is he going to come back again to haunt you?

“In some way it is the end – not the end of my interest, but all the interest was fulfilled with this book. I said everything I could and everything I knew I put in the book. But you can imagine that now a new period of my connection with Ivan Blatný will probably start, because not everyone knew who I was in relation to Ivan Blatný. Now they will know it and they will probably call me to talk about him – and of course I’m prepared to do that!