Thursday, 2 February 2012

Jaroslav Seifert on Jaroslav Hasek

Jaroslav Seifert, the 1984 Nobel Prize laureate, is a Czech poet I like very much, although I’ve only had the pleasure of reading one English collection of selected poems. One day I must write an article on his love poetry, that is, love for women and Prague, his literary city and true muse. Until then, here’s an excerpt taken from his memoirs, All the Beauties of the World, where he writes about another great Czech writer, Jaroslav Hasek, author of The Good Soldier Svejk:

The war was over and soon after returning with his second wife, whom he had brought with him from Russia, Jaroslav Hasek moved in with the Sauers. The eternal mystificator pretended his wife was a duchess. She didn’t look it. We could see directly into their window and we could watch their reveille late in the morning afterwards, Mrs. Sura, as her Zizkov neighbors called her, liked to observe life in our busy street…

Jaroslav Hasek sometimes came to our pub. He would not stay long. It was too close to his wife, who vainly attempted to make Hasek stay at home. When someone once asked him why he didn’t come to the Golden Angel, he said that there were stairs there. Indeed, there are three little steps leading into the tavern.

One summer evening he came into our tavern dressed as if he were in his apartment. He was in short sleeves, wore slippers, and held up his trousers with his hand. He confessed that Sura had locked up his shoes, suspenders and coat. He was on his way to the pharmacy. His wife was sick, and the doctor had given her a prescription. In order not to be making a trip for nothing, he had brought along a jug. Before the tavern keeper had filled his jug and before he had drunk a glass of beer at the counter, he played pool with us. He played miserably. When he finished his third glass, he decided he had better go fetch the medicine. His wife was waiting, and he said he would stop by to pick up the jug on his way back home from the pharmacy. He didn’t.

Two days later someone knocked sharply on the door of our apartment. A furious Sura was standing on the doorway demanding angrily: “Where is my Jaroslav?”

Then she cried a little, talked to my mother, and left, wiping her tears.

No, Hasek had not met any Rimbaud, nor had he gone abroad. He came back a week later, with a jug of beer but without any medicine. After all, the medicine was no longer necessary. His wife was in good health again. Too much so, he laughed.

During his long journey, in shirtsleeves, wearing slippers in summery Prague, to all sorts of taverns, amongst friends and companions who made no attempt to show respect for his work, Hasek had written a whole instalment of The Good Soldier Svejk. He would sit at the corner of a table, and when he had finished a few pages, one of his pals would take the manuscript directly to the publisher, Synek, who would pay out an appropriate amount for the work done. Not a crown more, of course. So one day and one evening were taken care of; then the next day he would have to write again, if he didn’t want to sit over an empty glass.

Given this method of writing, one must ask, of course, how the book would have turned out if he had written it in peace and comfort at a desk. But that is the eternal, fateful “if.” Maybe if Hasek had not written on beer-bespattered tables, in the noise of pub talk, among thirsty friends, because he needed a few ten-crown notes for beer, perhaps the beer would never have been written, and Hasek would not be the Hasek whose name became famous all over Europe.

Hasek, as you know, died shortly afterwards. Mrs. Sure died, too, as did Hasek’s faithful friend and patient companion Frantisek Sauer. Only Svejk – the pyknic, extrovert, and cyclothenic, with an absolute sense for unadorned reality, as Professor Vondracek diagnosed him – goes on living merrily not only in the wanderings of his book, but all over the world, in places where he was never meant to go.

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