Peter Zusi on Karel Teige, teaching Czech literature – and a notable school band reunion
The Integrity of the Avant-Garde: Karel Teige and the Biography of an Ambition is the title of a book set for publication next month. Its author is US-born Peter Zusi, associate professor of Czech and Comparative Literature at the University of London. Zusi discusses his interest in Czech modernist prime mover Teige in a conversation that also takes in his own teaching work – and teenage years in a rock band with a future movie star.
Peter, you’re from New York – what led you to Czech?
“Cherchez la femme: My wife is Czech. I was in graduate school when we met. I was doing Comparative Literature, and primarily German Literature, but then when I was working on my dissertation we decided we would live in Prague, because it was possible.
“We figured events would take us back to the States afterwards. And then when I was there I just started poking around among certain authors who became interesting to me.
“I ended up including one chapter in my dissertation that was on Karel Tiege and the Czech avant-garde.
“Then when I finished the first job I got was in Czech literature and it has been, as they say, all history from there.”
It must have been a major challenge to get your Czech skills up to the level that you need for your work, in that case?
“Yes, that took a little while. But weekends with my in-laws, who speak not a word of any other language, helped – a lot.”
Did you consider staying in Prague, when you speak about having spent time here doing your dissertation?
“Yes. I think when I got that first job in the States it was not a permanent job; it was not what they called a tenured job. So I knew it was just going to be for a couple of years.
“After that job had run its course I was looking for other jobs in Czech literature, which had somehow now become my métier – I sort of had this label over my head saying ‘Bohemist’.
“And it wasn’t clear that there was ever going to be another job at an English-language university in Czech literature. So we actually moved back to Prague at that time.
“I was teaching at NYU in Prague and doing some other things and at that point we sort of just thought, We’ll happily stay in Prague. And that was the idea.
“Then this job in London opened up and I applied and I got it, so things went in that direction.”
That was in 2007 or something like that?
Who do your students, students of Czech in the UK, tend to be?
“Well, first of all it has to be said that the number of students who are doing a degree in Czech literature has been dwindling, for quite a number of years.
“There are various reasons for that. I think one of the main ones is that the university fees have been rising over the past 10 years.
“I think when university cost three thousand pounds a year it was much easier for an 18-year-old to do something quixotic like Czech literature; and when it costs nine to ten thousand they tend to think more about the practicalities.
“So there are fewer and fewer students. I don’t know if it’s ironic or not, but now actually at UCL I do more and more of my work in the Comparative Literature Department, which is what I originally did.
“I enjoy bringing in Czech material to those courses and every now and then I get students who kind of cross over and come from Comparative Literature and then focus on Czech Literature stuff.
“It’s hard to say what draws students to Czech Literature. It’s more rarely than you might think a family connection.”
“But it’s hard to say what draws students to Czech Literature. It’s more rarely than you might think a family connection; sometimes it is that, but it’s not always that.
“It is oftentimes just curiosity. It’s a Modern Languages degree, so it has a lot of general benefits, but the classes are much smaller and more intimate, so you get more directed attention.
“But I don’t know, is the short answer [laughs]. Where do they come from?”
You’ve just finished a book, The Integrity of the Avant-Garde: Karel Teige and the Biography of an Ambition. For people, like me, who are only vaguely aware of the name Karel Teige, who was he?
“He was the central figure in the interwar Czech avant-garde.
“The most prominent and best-known grouping of artists and writers and painters and theatre practitioners and architects was called Devětsil. Karel Teige was one of the founders of Devětsil and he very quickly became the main spokesperson for Devětsil.
“He started off as a graphic artist but he sort of realised that he wasn’t good enough to cut it at his own high standards. And he eventually became a theorist and a propagandist of the avant-garde.
“Karel Teige was the central figure in the interwar Czech avant-garde.”
“He was very well-connected. He was a close collaborator with various more widely-known figures, such as Le Corbusier or Andre Breton, in the ‘30s.
“And he was the major figurehead for the Czech avant-garde in the ‘20s and the 1930s.”
Did I read in the introduction to the book that he was also somehow connected to Charlie Chaplin?
“He loved Charlie Chaplin. There was no actual connection, but Chaplin for Teige and most of the Devětsil figures was this inspirational figure.
“First of all he was connected with film, which they idealised as a kind of modern media, both through its technological framework but also through the fact that it spoke to such a wide range of people.
“So Chaplin for them became a sort of figure of a truly popular art, and popular both in the sense of lots of people like but also in the Czech sense of ‘lidové’ – they almost saw him as a sort of modern folk artist.
“So they really idealised him. But I don’t think Chaplin ever had any idea of this.”
How does the Czech avant-garde of that time compare to what was happening in other countries in Europe?
“I think it’s extremely fascinating and fruitful.
“So in the 1920s Teige had two main programmes that he was championing. One was constructivism, which was primarily an architectural movement and that of course is not specific to the Czech Lands – it’s international.
“He was taking inspiration from Soviet sources, from German sources, from Dutch sources and then also of course from Le Corbusier.
“But they also were propagating this programme, I use the word advisedly, called poetism, which Teige and Vítěslav Nezval effectively invented.
“It was not so much any set of particular practices as an openness and an enthusiasm to the modern world, to modern forms of entertainment – this is where Chaplin comes in – and to a kind of joy in the modern world.
“And for Teige this apparently paradoxical combination of poeticism, which was all about joy and irrational exuberance, and constructivism, which was all about rationality and discipline… for him this fit together in a way that has made a lot of later commentators think, Oh, this is just paradoxical.
“But for me that is absolutely fascinating, because I think that he’s really touching on different aspects that are lurking in the European interwar avant-garde more generally.
“But he brings out some of the inner contradictions and tries to reconcile them in really fruitful ways.”
Beyond Teige, are there other figures in Czech literature or culture who you have devoted a lot of attention to, or who you find particularly fascinating?
“Yes. Richard Weiner is somebody I find extremely fascinating.
“Another project that I’ve been working on for a long time, but haven’t brought to an end yet, focuses on Kafka and Czech writers. Not in the sense of trying to find direct influences, but just going back to my original training in Comparative Literature; sort of reading Kafka in different company than he usually is read, even though those authors were part of a world that he grew up in.
“Weiner is one of the people who is most obviously relevant there. It’s a bit of a cliché, at least among the few of us who really work on Czech and Central European literature, to refer to Weiner as ‘the Czech Kafka’.
“That’s oftentimes a phrase that’s dropped in slightly superficial fashion. But I do think that there’s a lot to explore there, and Weiner is just, for me, one of the most fascinating 20th century Czech authors.
“It’s a bit cliché to refer to Richard Weiner as ‘the Czech Kafka’.”
“In many ways he still isn’t given his due, even within Czech literary histories, to my viewpoint, and I think one of the reasons is because he’s difficult. He’s really quite baffling.
“And he really doesn’t fit into a lot of the stereotypes about what Czech literature is supposed to be about, which is in some sense kind of direct and full of humour and sort of Hašek-type immediacy that people can immediately connect with in some way.
“Weiner takes some work, but he’s worth it.”
Do you take much interest in contemporary Czech literature? I met you once in London, I guess about five or six years ago, at the launch of a book by Petra Hůlová.
“I do. I think at an English-language university if you do Czech literature you don’t have the luxury of specialising too much.
“The bulk of my research is late 19th and early 20th centuries but I enjoy keeping up, as best I can, with contemporary authors as well.
“And certainly I teach them to students whenever I have the opportunity.”
To change gear quite a bit, I was really amazed a couple of years ago when I found out via social media that you, in your younger days, had been in a rock band [Capital Punishment] with the comic actor and huge star Ben Stiller. I presume, looking at the photos, it must have been a school band?
“We are in school together, yeah. That was junior high through high school. ‘Rock’ band is a generous word for it [laughs]. We did very odd music; it remains quite odd to this day.
“Then after high school we all went our own ways and all lost contact for a long time, and in the meantime Ben became a huge star.
“Then I reconnected with my oldest friend’s best friend, Kriss Roebling, who had been at the centre of that band – he was really the driving force.
“About a year after that I got a message from Kriss and he said, You’re not going to believe this but there’s this recording studio in Brooklyn and this guy has found… because we cut a record and sort of handed it out to record stores in New York in 1982.
“This guy found it and was intrigued by it and wanted to release it, properly. And he didn’t actually know it was Ben. Then he found that out, because our names weren’t given in full on the album, and that of course became another impetus.”
How old were you when the album was made?
“Yeah [laughs]. So it was remastered and re-released and about five years ago we actually had a concert in Greenwich Village. It became a little bit of a high school reunion, but it also, oddly, had quite a number of outside people coming too. It was huge fun.”
There’s a documentary about you guys and your reunion on YouTube. What was it like being on stage again together as middle-aged men who hadn’t played together presumably since you were little kids?
“It was just incredible fun. There were old friends in the audience who I hadn’t seen in many, many years. And then people I didn’t know at all. Yeah, it was quite an event.
“As you say, there’s that Pitchfork documentary which they were filming as we did this, and that was also a lot of fun.”
Peter Zusi’s The Integrity of the Avant-Garde: Karel Teige and the Biography of an Ambition is due for publication on the Legenda imprint in March 2024.