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A poetic memoir by one of the most important figures in Czech literature

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Martin C. PUTNA

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A literary historian, essayist, publicist and university teacher, Martin Putna was born 30th May 1968 in the South Bohemian town of Písek. From 1986 to 1991, he studied at the Russian Department of the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. In 1987, he became a Catholic, starting to attend clandestine theological and philosophical "apartment" seminars. After this initial interest in dissent, by 1989 he was experiencing his first religious crisis. At the end of the same year, he co-founded the review Portal (Portál), which in 1990 changed its name to Connections (Souvislosti). From 1993, he worked there as deputy editor-in-chief.
In 1990, Putna co-founded The Christian Academy of Prague and started working as an editor for the Catholic Weekly (Katolický týdeník). After graduating from university, he received a scholarship and went to Munich where he studied the literature of Russian emigrants and did an analysis of postmodern literature. In 1992, he became a senior lecturer at the Russian Department of the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague; in 1995 receiving a  PhD. for his dissertation "Russian Literature and Religious Philosophy of Emigrants from 1918 to 1945". In the same year, he moved from Prague to the village of Zálužany and, living as a monk, wrote an autobiographical novel The Book of Kraft (Kniha Kraft).
In 1997, Putna moved from the Russian Department (part of the Department of Eastern European Studies) to the newly formed Centre of Comparative Literature at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University. In 1998, he became an associate professor for his work "Czech Catholic Literature from 1848 to 1918). Two years later, he graduated from the Faculty of Theology at the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice and finished two books about the life of Origen of Alexandria. In 2002, he worked for Czech TV as moderator of the talk-show Grid (Síto), and also Radio Vltava as well as for Czech daily and weekly newspapers.  From 2004 -2005, Putna taught at the University of Regensburg.

Academically, Putna has focused on Czech and Slavic literature, Classic philology, the study of comparative religion specializing in 20th century Russian emigrant literature, the culture of the Russian Middle Ages, Czech Catholic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, the literature of Southern Bohemia, and Christian and pagan literature of late antiquity and the tradition of that literature in European culture. Putna's translations of Russian emigrant poetry have been widely published, both in magazines and also in By the Rivers of Babylon (U řek babylónských, 1996, together with M. Zadražilová and P. Borkovec). He also translated Prudentius' Hymn at Cock-Crow from Latin. Putna's other translations include the works of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Sergey Bulgakov, Boris Poplavskyi, Yuri Tyerapyian. In Connections, he published a translation of Goethe's Winckelmann's sketch. Putna regards himself a Christian intellectual in all the ways that can be understood: his restlessness, skill as an initiator, his exhibitionism (he makes wild "baroque" gestures yet can be modest), he likes pomp but can also be a subtle thinker with the ability to achieve minute detail. He is viewed by others as an exacting literary historian and academic in the comparative study of classical education and language skills but also as an author of satirical essays which always have something relevant to say about the present. A skilled author of a number of articles for the press, Putna knows how to write an up-to-the minute text which is also well based in facts, his work is well crafted and readable, his writing an exemplary example of stylish creativity. In the mid 1990s, Putna published an autobiographical novel The Book of Kraft, which caused uproar in literary and critical circles. The work is one of the first after-1989 attempts to reflect on the situation of a "transient" man growing up and studying in a totalitarian regime, a man who starts to like clandestine philosophical and religious movements and enters dissident circles only to find himself disoriented in a new democracy which brings an illusion of freedom but also a harsh capitalism, all in a country that has grown accustomed to living in Kundera's ‘slowness and sterility’. Putna's premature autobiography can be read as a moving yet radical record of a break in Czech history when there was a chance to renew its spiritual potential but a majority of Czechs misused the opportunity. It is understandable that such a thoughtful witness to an unclear situation can become its harshest critic. Putna is entitled to be critical since he builds his texts on ideas from controversial figures of Czech history, predominantly his spiritual and poetic guru Jakub Deml, publisher and intellectual Josef Florián or – mainly in recent years – Jaroslav Durych, author of the magnificent novel Wandering (Bloudění). Putna has a degree in Russian studies and so it was only natural that his first book to be published was the two-volume work Russia Outside Russia (Rusko mimo Rusko), which was co-authored by Miluše Zadražilová and poet and translator Petr Borkovec. The book's secondary title is The History and Culture of Russian Emigrants after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Among other things it discusses Merezhkovsky, Bunin, Nabokov, Tsvetaeva and Gorky. Putna's eloquent, dramatic style can be recognized even in these portraits of emigrant poets. In a contemporary review of the book, Putna's observations are described as "as readable as Joseph Conrad's novels". One of the most interesting parts of the book is a description of the so-called Russian Action, which, inspired by the then Czech Prime Minister Karel Kramář, was organized in Prague. Its aim was to create an organized centre of Russian exile intelligentsia in the then Czechoslovakia, including a complex school system ranging from orphanages to a Russian university in Prague. Many important Czech and Russian personalities in exile like Roman Jakobson, whom Putna also analyses in the part dedicated to the Prague Linguistic Circle, took part in this project. In 1994, Putna first published a collection of essays We Last Christians (My poslední křesťané, revised in 1999). In this, Putna gathers various texts published earlier in predominantly Catholic magazines and in Connections. The essays deal with topics such as contemporary religious practice, the apocalyptic nature of the present reality but also a synthesis of the late antiquity (Roman) world, full of pagans, and the reborn world of Christians. This is the reason why in the section called Apocalyptic Things, Putna includes his essay We Last Christians or Who Will Give Europe a Coup de Grace. There he analyzes the continuity and discontinuities in the history of European spirituality which he will develop in his latest book Greek Heaven Above Us or An Antiquity Basket (Řecké nebe nad námi aneb Antický košík; 2006). Other texts deal with sense and non-sense in religious dissent and with eroticism in Christianity. In the key essay We Last Christians, Putna emerges from Eco's idea of the "new Middle Ages", where the late 20th century is compared to the early Middle Ages and explores the parallels between the two epochs : "the Pax Americana crisis and the Pax Romana crisis, the rising of the third world and the invasion of Europe by Goths and Huns, the disappearance of the classic liberal and the disappearance of the classic Roman, hippies and communes vs. mendicant orders, structuralism vs. the formalism of medieval scholars vis-à-vis the literature of Antiquity and many others". In this volume, as well as in the collection of short newspaper articles and marginalia Praises (Chvály: 2001), Putna criticizes the false religion of modernism and postmodernism, but he is also a Dostoyevskian moralist, contemplating the meanings of words like God, divinity, faith, transcendence, or Holan's term "spiritual vertical" for a spiritually unstable "nowhere man" of today. In 1998, Putna published a long essay on Czech Catholic Literature from 1848 to 1918; a second volume, which still stays unpublished, will be dedicated to the period from the birth of Czechoslovakia to the present time. Putna presents the history of Catholic literature with all his epic and narrative skills. He first tries to analyze the differences between Christian literature and spiritual literature, only to conclude that the very term "Catholic literature" was invented late into the modern period of secularization and profanity. He never forgets Catholic reformism, an important topic in all Putna's works. Putna follows the metamorphosis of Catholicism during the Enlightenment and illustrates his theory with three personalities: L. A. Muratori, Bernard Bolzano and the Christian mystical socialist De Lamennais. One of the most interesting chapters deals with "Catholic romanticism", which is a counterpart to the romanticism obsessed with Antiquity (Hölderlin, Kant). Putna is especially interested in Novalis, and his route to transcendence, Clemens Brentan and Emmerich. The core of his essay is, however, the literature of Catholic modernism, which Putna labeled "the way from the ghetto". Here he presents portraits of Lutin, Baar, Xaver Dvořák, Sigismund Bouška, Alois Lang and many others. More than a hundred pages are dedicated to Josef Florián and his circle of friends and followers in Stará Říše, among which were the French Catholic rebel Leon Bloy, Jakub Deml, Josef Vašica, Bohuslav Reynek and Jan Čep. Jakub Deml is the other protagonist of Putna's almost fictional, sometimes a bit provocative, sometimes mystifying essay. Putna elaborates on the well-known conflict between Deml and Březina, but also on Deml's complicated relationship with women – Pavla Kytlicová, Rosa Junová and Countess Sweert-Sporck. In the last chapter of the first volume of The History of Czech Catholic literature, Putna talks about "wayfaring strangers"; they are lonely and have lost any relation to Catholic modernism. He also mentions religious realists like Masaryk and Josef Holeček, Czech philo-catholicism influenced by the French decadents Huysmans and Claudel as manifested in the works of Julius Zeyer, Otokar Březina, František Bílek, Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic, Karel Hlaváček and the members of the group Sursum. A short portrait is included of the solitary Josef Váchal. In 2001, Putna published an essay on one of the so-called ecclesiastical fathers (patres ecclesiasticci), Origen of Alexandria. The essay is subtitled A Chapter from the History of Relations between Antiquity and Christianity. Putna views Origen as a exemplar of the right faith, as a "religious dissident", a "Christian among intellectuals" and the first monk. This essay was a forerunner of Putna's next book Greek Heaven Above Us, which the author himself characterizes as a text on "the second life of Antiquity in European culture". Its fingerprint – be it Greek or Roman – appears to have stayed on everything we do and on how we now perceive reality. This is why, at the beginning, Putna mentions Goethe's words about an "antique basket" where the Weimar poet looks at a basket during a trip to the countryside and it reminds him of Antiquity. Putna regards the topic of Hellenism from different sides and perspectives. He mentions three aspects of the Greek heaven which extends above us: the first part consists of essays on searching for Greece outside Greece, mainly in Italy, Rome and Naples or in the stories of the so-called Grand Tour from the north to the south. Of course, the "Winckelmann topos" belongs here as well. The second part consists of essays on authors who only traveled to Greece in their minds: the father of romanticism in poetry, Hölderlin, the Czech traveler and pioneer, Krška and the Moravian poet Kuběna. The third part deals with real visitors to ancient Greece. Here Greece is a land of "literary topos", perceived "in relation" to real Greece: Alexandria in the eyes of Kavafis, Forster, Durrell or Yourcenar..." Yet again, this latest book by Putna is lively, creative and beautifully written in an easy, Ecovian style.


Currently he´s the director of the Václav Havel Library.



This profile was last updated in February 2010.


Deutsch Martin C.PUTNA, Deutsch.doc (dokument MS Word)Martin C.PUTNA


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