Jan Rubeš: On Czech Literature

"Like many other European literatures from countries that have been part of supranational entities for centuries, it is peculiar to Czech literature that it was often forced to perform functions other than literary: religious, historical, patriotic, linguistic or political. The effort to create an autonomous expression comparable with the works of the foremost European authors dates back to late Romanticism and Realism in the second half of the 19th century. It is, beyond any doubt, the disappointment with the political development in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which the lands of the Bohemian crown were part of at the time, that made it possible to thrust all spiritual forces of the nation into its cultural life, in which literature plays such a significant symbolic role.

It is from these sources that modern Czech literature springs. Towards the end of the 19th century, Czech literature strove for its place in the European literary context through the works of novelists like Jan Neruda and poets like Otokar Březina. Czech literature was beginning to develop its own specific expression. The establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918 gave room to these efforts. Affinity with France, not only concerning the avant-garde, but the whole emerging generation of critics and authors, outweighed the existing Germanic influence and even eclipsed authors writing in German. Prague became, once again, a significant cosmopolitan cultural centre, like in the Baroque period, and a place where German and Russian emigrants met as a consequence of the Fascist and Communist oppression.

War and Communist politics put a premature end to this twenty-year period, considered today to have been the most fruitful time. The liberalisation in the 1960s formed a counterpart to the preceding period. Young authors, depicting the trauma of a society humiliated and violated in the name of a utopian future, came to the fore. After 1968, it was only in clandestine editions or abroad that these authors could express such feelings.

It is a paradox that in the two decades since the fall of communism we have not seen any significant literary works coming to terms with that past. It shows that freedom alone is no guarantee of an artistic take-off, particularly when it is perceived as a market freedom. Interestingly, it is precisely the ironic and grotesquely subversive stream of Czech literature that is its most characteristic constituent – a laughter corroding the seemingly undeniable truths. It is the laughter of Josef Švejk, the laughter of the defeated. Czech literature is a literature of the defeated – Ludvík from The Joke by Milan Kundera, Vaněk from The Audience by Václav Havel, Danny from the novels by Josef Škvorecký, and after all, even Josef K. from The Trial by Franz Kafka. All these defeated figures are united in that they do not want to be winners, because they know that truth is on their side. If Czech authors continue to succeed in mirroring today’s world, where everyone wants to be a winner without knowing that they in fact belong to the defeated, then Czech literature will continue to be a significant part of European literature."

Jan Rubeš

Jan Rubeš

born on 18 May 1946

Translator and director of the Centre d’Études Tchèques at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in Belgium

Having studied in Prague and Paris, Jan Rubeš went on to work at the Institute of Czech and World Literature of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. Since 1980, he has lived in Brussels. He is the author of a number of books on the cultural history of cities (Prague, Budapest, St. Petersburg) and has translated several Czech authors (Seifert, Skácel, Čapek, Vaculík, Havel). Currently, he is Professor of Comparative Literature at the ULB.

Last update: 16.8.2011 16:02

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