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4) Vladislav Vančura’s Marketa Lazarová: A medieval epic exploring the possibilities of Czech language

Photo repro: Vladislav Vančura 'Marketa Lazarová' / Československý spisovatel

Marketa Lazarová by Vladislav Vančura is a masterpiece of Czech interwar modernism, praised for its experimental use of language. The epic tale, set in an unspecified time in medieval Bohemia, depicts a feud between two families of petty noblemen and celebrates courage, honour and love, which undermines social and religious conventions. The novel was first published in 1931, but only saw its English translation in 2016.

“Mad acts of folly are randomly sown. Let us give this tale a setting in the Mladá Boleslav region of Bohemia, during a time of trouble, the king struggling to maintain the security of his highways, facing severe difficulties with the literally criminal conduct of the nobles, and worse still, they all but laugh aloud as they spill blood. Contemplating the refined and graceful manners of our Czech nation has made you truly oversensitive, and when you spill water over the table while drinking, it is to the cook’s chagrin – but the fellows of whom I am about to tell were refractory and devilish. They were a rabble I can no better compare that to wild stallions. Little they cared for the things you cherish. Comb and soap, what of it? Not even the Lord’s commandments would they heed.”

Repro photo: Vladislav Vančura 'Marketa Lazarová' / Československý spisovatel

So begins Vladislav Vančura’s novel Marketa Lazarová, considered by many one of the greatest Czech books of all time. The historic tale marked the author’s first commercial breakthrough and was awarded Czechoslovakia’s State Prize for Literature after its publication in 1931. Today, it is perhaps better known thanks to a famous film adaptation by František Vláčil from 1967.

Told in shifting perspectives and mixing the archaic language with the modern, Vančura’s epic tale is not a historical novel in the traditional sense of the word. Rather than depicting a specific time in Bohemian history, Vančura attempted to invoke the atmosphere of the Middle Ages, explains Rajendra Chitnis, Associate Professor of Czech at University College Oxford.

Vladislav Vančura, photo: eSbírky, Slezské zemské muzeum / Národní muzeum
“I think it’s about an idea of the Middle Ages as a whole. It is possibly meant to be set, or it would be interesting at least if it was set, in the 13th century, which is the period when the Bohemian Kingdom expands and it is a kind of a heroic century for Bohemia. So I think it might fit in that period, but more in the atmosphere and mood than in accuracy.”

The novel depicts a savage feud between two rival brigand families, the pagan Kozlíks and Christian Lazars, who are fighting each other as well as the King’s troops.

Marketa, the daughter of old Lazar, was promised to God at birth and is destined to spend her life in a convent. Instead, she is abducted by Mikoláš, the eldest son of the Kozlík clan, and falls in love with her captor.

“We have on the one hand these robbers, who don’t hesitate to use violence, but they are also very brave and happy to take risks.

“And then on the other hand, you have two characters, Marketa Lazarová herself and a German nobleman called Kristián, who have lived sheltered lives.

“Marketa is planning to enter a convent, while Kristián is a nobleman with very refined ways. Both of them find themselves amid these rough and brutal robbers.

“I think the purpose of the characterisation is to show how these characters, who are in part soft, learn to become harder and discover parts of their personalities that they didn’t know before through the contact with the robbers.”

“Marketa spent the whole of the first night awake in a recess of the house reserved for dirty vagabonds to sleep. She prayed, but not a single stone fell from the crown that love has placed on her head. Marketa loved Mikoláš, and surely it was God’s wish that she love him. He nourished this feeling and did not allow it to wane. “Toward morning, when she had dozed off, she dreamed that she was back in the brigands’ forest. She was sleeping with Mikoláš and felt his embrace, ah, an embrace that sets the consciousness trembling and makes one’s thoughts fall like fruit from a tree. She was damned! … “You utter rabble of thieves. You truly have no cause to crow over this sinful girl. You scoffers, you respectable pickpockets, you vapid criminals, you cheats, you ridiculous buffoons who brandish the sword yet fear being wounded, you nanny goats who are quick to set on a hapless wayfarer yet snivel before soldiers, do you intend to pass judgement on brigands and their mistresses? Nothing doing, no-thing do-ing! Leave, Marketa! Hold you head high, higher! Go you ways as one who know the true worth of her man.” (Marketa Lazarová, Carleton Bulkin translation, 2016)

Vančura makes it quite clear from the beginning which side he favours. In a dedication to his distant relative, writer Jiří Mahen, he actually implies that their own family descends from this petty nobility:

“It is a precious thing for me to speak with you, and because I know less of your affairs than I would like, and less than would satisfy me, permit me to begin a tale of some brigands with whom we share a common name. The recklessness of this tale is quite to my liking, and I firmly hope it will give you no offense either.”

'Marketa Lazarová', film by František Vláčil, photo: Bonton
Rajendra Chitnis says that one of Vančura’s goals with Marketa Lazarova was to provoke Prague intellectuals and awaken them from their indifference and conservatism, challenging them to be bolder in their imagination.

“For me the aim of the book was to show how far the Czechs had come but perhaps not quite in the way that people hoped, in the sense that the First Republic was very middle-class and people were quite comfortable but also quite prudish.

“I think Vančura wanted to show that once we were much more ambitious, wilder and crazier. Just as the characters I mentioned brutalised in the novel, I think he was sort of trying to brutalise the reader and sort of say: we should be much more ambitious in what we read and what we think about.”

Marketa Lazarová marked Vančura’s first commercial breakthrough and received critical acclaim, mainly for its innovative and experimental use of Czech language. According to Rajendra Chitnis, Vančura explored the possibilities of language more than any other Czech writer before.

“What he is trying to do is to communicate things in a way that we kind of feel them in our guts. That’s why he uses very striking words and unfamiliar language. He also uses a lot of older language and Biblical language which again makes things exotic and exciting for the reader.

“At the same time, the reader has to work quite hard with his language. And again I would say that this is part of this criticism of conservatism at the time. He is showing the visited realms of Czech language and I think he really did show Czech writers the possibilities with this book.”

Despite the complicated language, which mixes Biblical Czech with modern slang, Vančura managed to make the story and the characters equally captivating. He also drew the readers in action by adopting a cinematic approach, which created the impression of events happening right before their eyes.

“I think that to some extent Vančura perhaps believed what his friends in the avant-garde said: that the film was the future and that literature would be replaced by that visual art.

'Marketa Lazarová', film by František Vláčil, photo: Bonton
“I have read in one or two places where he talks about how he writes. He says that he visualizes things and then tries to think about how he could put them into words.

“I remember particularly him talking about imagining horses’ hooves in the dust and trying to communicate in words an image he had of a rider turning his horses around.

“So he had a very visual imagination and I think he was most interested in how words could communicate those things he could see in his imagination.”

Marketa Lazarova was only made available to English-speaking readers in 2016. It was published by the Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press in a brilliant translation by Carleton Bulkin.

Rajendra Chitnis says that even today, more than ninety years after its first release, it still has the power to captivate its readers and invite them to explore new realms of Czech literature:

“Thinking of international readers, I think they often have quite a narrow view of what Czech literature is like, particularly the Czech literature from this period. They will probably know Karel Čapek, who is sort of nice and decent and sensible, and in many ways is the sort of target of this book, I think. And they will also know Hašek’s Švejk, which is so cheeky and silly.

“But I think a reader who looks at this book will see that actually Czech literature in this period was much more ambitious that both Hašek and Čapek and that people were trying to do things that were very exciting and very interesting. And I don’t think the book is dated in that sense.

“I think it’s still interesting nowadays and I think it would open up readers to lots and lots of other writing from this period, particularly the period between 1890s to 1930s.”

Marketa Lazarova ends with a scene of an execution of the men from the Kozlík clan, who were captured by the King’s troops, including old Kozlík and his son, Mikoláš.

“Kozlík said his farewells. His head fell into the basket, bloody the neck. Mikoláš stood beneath the gallows and breathed his last. Four brothers followed. The executioner affixed the noose, their necks broke.“Those who witnessed this death, all of them, stood there breathless. It was later recorded that the brigand’s wives stood like statues with their robes in flames. Only Marketa Lazarova collapsed, and her weeping howled like a nightmarish wind.“Marketa Lazarová! Yet the name was no longer hers. This good lady brought into the world a son who was given the name of Václav. Alexandra was also confined at the same time. After giving birth she took her own life, and Marketa nursed both infants. They grew up to be two rugged men, bit, alas, in the souls love contented with cruelty and certainly with doubt. O blood of Kristian and Marketa.”

Vladislav Vančura (June 23, 1891 – June 1, 1942) was one of the most important writers of the Czech avant-garde. He was born on June 26, 1891 in the village of Háj ve Slezsku near the Polish border to a noble Catholic family, the son of a director of sugar refinery and a housewife.

He spent his childhood in Davle, a picturesque countryside by the Vltava River just outside Prague. Together with his wife-to-be, Ludmila, he graduated from a medical school in 1921.

He started writing already during his studies. At the time, he established friendships with a number of young avant-garde artists, including Václav Špála, Jan Zrzavý and Josef Čapek.

The work he left behind covers a wide array of genres, from short stories and plays to novels, plays, a children’s book and an unfinished chronicle of Czech history.

Vladislav Vančura was arrested by the Nazis on May 1942 for his involvement with the Communist-led resistance group. After nearly three weeks of torture by the SS, Vančura was executed by firing squad on June 1.