Literature after 1945
The year 1945 is popularly considered an important milestone, at which point the effect, role and subject matter of Czech literature undergo es pro found change. However, we can speak neither of this time nor of many others as a break with our past to be express ed in terms of a definite date. To begin with, also the period of occupation which immediately preceded 1945 can be characterized by its developments and transformations (viewed in terms of its effect, the literature of 1940, for instance, is very different from the literature of 1943), while the year 1945 is considered and interpreted as a step in two directions – both as a return and as the taking of a new way. The period of wartime and occupation is without doubt one of hiatus ; we have breaks in continuity given by the cutting of short of lives (including those of Vladislav Vančura, Jaroslav Kratochvíl and Bedřich Václavek) and the disruption of artistic output (the falling silent, for various reasons, of published voices – such as those of Egon Hostovský and Vítězslav Nezval). We also have enforced change in the practice of reading, by which literature obtains a keenly allegorical function and once again becomes a tool for social, political and patriotic ends. This latter provides an explanation for the understanding of 1945 as a point of return, a re-engagement with a tradition which has been suspended. And this return also embraces a return to the time of the occupation – many works published between 1945 and 1947 are witness accounts based on real experiences, whether in the form of autobiography (memoirs, diaries) or politically-engaged poetry, publication of which was impossible in wartime.
The harsh reality of occupation includes the control of literature by institutions (censorship, self-censorship, the view of literature as an instrument of society); it sees a renewal of the conception of literature as the “conscience/consciousness of the nation” but at the same time it provides a completely new impetus which ushers in literary development from within. During the occupation the course of existential poetry is plotted (for which see the Poets’ Almanac for Spring 1940, and in this, most importantly, the contributions of Jiří Orten and Hanuš Bonn), and it comes together in the immensely influential and productive Skupina 42 [Group 42], which spawns the work of Jiří Kolář, Ivan Blatný and Josef Kainar. The poetry and prose writings of this period (in particular those of its younger generation) embrace a myriad of new ways to explain the purpose of humanity, and they are open to new poetic techniques which go beyond thei r domestic tradition. Newness becomes in and of itself a positive value. And this search for a new way is intensified in the early post-war years; links are strengthened between literature and art, literature and philosophy and literature and politics. Between 1945 and 1948 literary activity forms for itself a distinct programme; no longer does literary criticism limit itself to matters of culture but it also addresses politics. Literature looks for mythological models and a way of depicting the ideal.
The fiction of the time brings together the simply described, monochrome, collectivized world of Drda’s Silent Barricade (1946) and the Czech editions of the wartime and post-war works of Egon Hostovský, in which the world’s confusion is a playground for the forces of destiny.
In the 1945-48 period works written during the occupation a re published as well as new works, and this perhaps blur s the impression of continual development and movement. For synthetic and holistic conceptions, whose natural tendency is to emerge in groupings, we ha ve to wait for the advent of the poetry night (and the cycle of poetry nights at the Žofín in the winter of 1947/8) and for the growth of a platform provided by the publishing industry. The sphere of book publishing gr o w s in leaps and bounds. In 1945 not many more than 3,500 books a re published (as ha s been the case in every year since 1942), and this increase s in 1946 to over 5,500 and in 1947 to over 6,000, this latter exceeding the figure for the years before 1940.
In the new and newly-published work of the time, developments in genre and theme are also clearly apparent. Poetry turns for its material to the diction of everyday life; it draws inspiration from the shout, the exclamation, decontextualized speech, which it then works into the lines of the poem. This is a turning away from the use of metaphor and symbol based on analysis and melody. This shift is a tenet not only of Skupina 42: it can also be found in the work of the surrealist poets (eg., Karel Hynek, Zbyněk Havlíček) and the post-war work of Halas (What Now?, not published until 1957), Hrubín (Hiroshima, 1948) and Zahradníček (La Saletta, 1947).
Prose fiction of the time addresses the relationship between the individual and history through an analysis of war-time – and often autobiographical – experience, and a search for what is solid and universal in both components of this relationship. While in some work the individual views the events of history as a derailing, a disruption which is permanent (see Mucha, Hostovský, Weil), in other work a solution is proposed which sees the individual identify with a given collectivity (see Drda, Jariš, E. F. Burian).
A readiness to use literature as an aid in facing the demands of society and politics, in which the ‘old’ is replaced with the ‘new’ (see Hrubín’s Job’s Night and Holan’s Red Army Soldiers ), provides a setting for the notion of a literature which is controlled by institutions. In literature, as in film and the theatre, the role of organizations (notably that of “Syndikát spisovatel ů ” – the Writers’ Union ) increase s in importance as the activities of the publishing industry and the Ministry of Information bec o me more closely connected. A significant proportion of writers welcome and w ill continue to support the developments wrought by the great political changes of February 1948; it i s as though purely aesthetic values c an not satisfy the citizen 's need to make a stand, nor his need for an interconnection of life and work and the influence on writing of a real-life context. (Some writers, such as Jakub Deml, take a citizen’s stand which leads to the banning of their publications.)
The year 1948 represents another break with the past by virtue of pre-existing tendencies reaching a level where there is nothing more to conceal them. Although the criteria by which this is defined are but vague, the official literature of the time puts forward a single method of writing only – that of “Socialist Realism”. The conflict between writers of the 1930s avantgarde left and the traditionalism of Zden ěk Nejedlý s ees the latter victorious precisely because it ha s to hand institutional tools such as Operation Jirásek and the Fu č ík Badge . This is why means of expression of the official poetry of the early 1950s, with its epigones of Sládek and Vrchlický, look to the past: a given ideological standpoint is painstakingly set to rhyme and applied to a rhythmical groundplan, ensuring that no space is left for individual representation, imagination and metaphor. In this way also the ideological prose of the Reconstruction (see the work of Václav Řezáč, Ji ří Marek, Zdeněk Pluhař) adheres to an unvarying narrative model in which the only variables are in the details but where the whole encourages a constant, mythical-archetypical interpretation of the world. Literary work which originates in exile – after 1948 a pleiad of authors leaves the country, including Jan Č ep, Egon Hostovský, Viktor Fischl, Ivan Jelínek, Ivan Blatný, Ferdinand Peroutka and Pavel Tigrid – finds itself drawn unavoidably into the sphere of political journalism reacting against developments in Czechoslovakia; it seeks to offer a corrective to the official interpretation but at the same time it is deprived by the Iron Curtain of the opportunity to communicate. Dozens of works remain underground, meaning that they are circulated among a very limited circle of friends only (eg., the P ůlnoc series, the surrealist almanacs, the Život je všude [Life is Everywhere] anthology), or else – as is the case with the extensive writings of Bohumil Hrabal, Ji ří Kolář, Josef Škvorecký and Jan Zábrana – they remain locked up in the author’s desk.
Whereas 1948 sees the publication of over 5,300 books, in the year following only 3,600 titles are issued. The wide range of pre- and post-war periodicals is reduced to just two or three titles; it is true that literature finds its way into the pages of the newspapers and non-specialist periodicals, but this is in a form which amplifies the trivial and ideological. The author becomes a public figure whose work serves simply to illustrate and amplify his views on life (i.e. his political views). A work of literature becomes a product about which there is nothing mysterious or unique and of which the meaning is plain.
In the wake of 1956 there occurs a release of sorts, and this provides at least a limited space within which an author’s work can take on aspects of individuality and an awareness of the autonomous worth to be achieved by talent and craftsmanship as opposed to matters ideological. In poetry we see the emergence of the “poetry of the everyday” (inspired by the generation of authors linked to the Kv ěten magazine), the publication of Ji ří Kolář ’s Master Sun and the Poet’s Art (1957), the first appearance of Jan Skácel, while Old řich Mikulášek and - with his collection The Lazar and the Song (1960) – Josef Kainar return to a style of writing which is more distinctively their own. In the novel, Škvorecký’s Cowards is published in 1958 – to its immediate condemnation by the critics. The late 1950s and early 1960s see the emergence of a focus on “life around us”. This new focus addresses themes which until this point have been more or less taboo, such as the plight of the Jews in the Holocaust (as shown in the works of Arnošt Lustig and Ladislav Fuks); it also sees a change in prose fiction away from the literature of Reconstruction to something which is more centred on the attainment of unique experience (which, in turn, is taken as an allegory for the building of society as a whole – see Vaculík’s Busy House and the early-1960s work of Ivan K říž, Ivan Klíma and Jan Procházka ). Other important tendencies of the time are the re-working of classical drama (see František Hrubín’s A Sunday in August and Crystal Night, Milan Kundera’s The Owner of the Keys, Josef Topol’s The End of the Carnival and V áclav Havel ’s The Garden Party ) and improvized, ‘text appeal’ theatre, which emerges in the productions of Semafor and Reduta and in the work of Ivan Vysko č il.
In the course of the 1960s genres become much more diverse, as does the space for literary criticism. Whereas in the 1950s the range of literary periodicals is limited to Nový Život, Literární noviny and Host do domu, in the second half of the 1960s there seem to be dozens of titles to choose from (notably Literární noviny, Host do domu, Plamen, Tvar, Impuls, Sešity pro mladou literaturu, Orientace, and Divoké víno). The 1960s also see new editions of the post-February 1948 poems of Vladimír Holan, the emergence of the completely new poetics of Jaroslav Seifert, while the poetry of Old řich Mikulášek and Jan Skácel reaches full maturity and then continues beyond. Poetry of the time ranges from the visual and the concrete (see the work of Josef Hiršal, Emil Juliš, Václav Havel, and the officially unpublished later poetry of Jiří Kolář), through the markedly experimental work of a younger generation reaching its maturity (eg., Ivan Wernisch, Jiří Gruša, Pavel Šrut, Josef Hanzlík, Petr Kabeš, Miloslav Topinka), to the synthesized creations of František Hrubín ( Romance for Flugelhorn ) and Vladimír Holan (A Night with Hamlet). The distinctive methods of the poetry of Ivan Diviš are formed in this time, as is the cult surrounding the life and works of Václav Hrab ět. In 1966 Aesop of Vršovice , an anthology of the hitherto officially unrecognised poetry of Ji ří Kolář, is published, while at the end of the 1960s there is a partial return to the ranks of official literature for a group of authors with a marked faith in Christianity (most notably Bohuslav Rejnek, Jan Zahradníč ek and Josef Kostohryz).
The 1960s is also the time in which several distinct streams of prose writing reach crystallization. Bohumil Hrabal’s rewritten manuscripts from the 1950s are hailed immediately on publication for their freshness of style (evident in the free-flowing stream of words, an inventiveness in the telling, their colloquial nature) and for the fact that they focus not on historical figures but on the outsider, who either remains separate from the stream of greater events or for whom these events provide a path for the discovery of his own integrity (this latter being the case of Closely Observed Trains). The development of a storyline in a given, distinctive setting is characteristic of the fiction of Josef Škvorecký, Ladislav Fuks, Vladimír Körner and Vladimír Páral. The genre of the short story is given a new lease of life, as is evidenced by Kundera’s three pamphlets entitled Laughable Loves (on the theme of games which cannot be controlled), Alexandr Kliment’s Hodinky s vodotryskem (the title meaning "an impossible combination") and its shift away from the everyday in the direction of the absurd, Ivan Vyskočil’s Bones and its laying bare of the guiding principle that the world as depicted is artificial. The new plays of Václav Havel, Josef Topol, Ivan Klíma and Pavel Kohout tame the guiding principles of the drama of the absurd and demonstrate an ability to use drama for purposes of political parable.
In the first half of the 1950s prose fiction has described an idealized future and poetry has offered codes for the finding of a key; towards the end of the decade both of these genres return to the stuff of life and its investigation. Generally and simplistically speaking, the poetry of the second half of the 1960s can be characterized by a tendency to examine the possibilities open to it in terms of theme and expression, whereas prose fiction strives again to depict a meaningful picture of the world in which the story is at once concrete and a universal parable. This latter informs the way two key novels from this time, Ludvík Vaculík’s The Axe and Milan Kundera’s The Joke, are read and interpreted: as products of their time they are seen for the most part as political novels interpreting and evaluating the decades past, while their value as art and a record of existence is played down.
And this kind of reception perhaps explains the restating of the connection between creative and social ambition of the later 1960s. The Prezentace IV congress of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union (1967), with Literární noviny as its organ, aspires to interconnect aesthetic and social values. The media ‘cult’ which surrounds certain authors (eg., Vaculík, Kundera, Kohout, Klíma) and certain works generates the idea of the writer as a member of an elite group which forms the ‘conscience of the nation’; the writer knows life as it is ‘on the ground’, but at the same time he is able to give shape to resolutions ‘from above’. Once again, literature leaves behind the realm of immanent aesthetic values and resumes its potential for making a practical impact on the life of society. The ethos of learning from the mistakes of the 1950s provides this generation (for the most part those authors born between 1925 and 1932) with a space for the reforming of the original conception of how society is built. The idea of the author as an exceptional individual whose fate and standpoint are unique encourages the revival of the memoir form and an elucidation of one’s own poetics and the poetics of other authors (see Hoffmeister’s collections Archetypes, Time Does Not Go Backwards and Likenesses, Hrubín’s Loves, Kalista’s Faces in Shadow, the book Bohumil Hrabal Presents …, Hostovský’s 1966 work-in-exile The Literary Adventures of a Czech Writer Abroad) together with a use of journalism by literary practitioners (eg., Dušan Hamšík’s Writers and Power, and Liehm’s Generation, the publication of the latter being banned in 1969).
All this helps to explain why the onset of the ‘Consolidation’ or ‘Normalization’ period (1969-72) is so strongly to the detriment of the writer. Attempts which writers make to revive the ways of the past are attributed either to an inability to find their way in the world of politics or still more to efforts to lead progress astray. Early-1970s propaganda works to demonize the role of the writer and to reduce severely the range of possibilities open to him. Dozens of important writers are robbed of the right to publish and their oeuvres to date are removed en masse from libraries and second-hand bookshops, inclusive of translations into other languages and works that were perfectly in tune with the communist ideology of the time of their first publication. Many writers emigrate, either immediately after the Soviet occupation of August 1968 (eg., Josef Škvorecký, Arnošt Lustig, V ěra Linhartová) or – voluntarily or by compulsion – in the course of the 1970s (eg., Milan Kundera, Jiří Kolář, Pavel Kohout, Jiří Gruša, Vlastimil Třešňák). Once again, literature falls into three strictly-defined divisions: offic ial, underground (from the mid-1970s circulated in samizdat editions, mostly with print runs of only a few dozen copies), and exile. Some writers who have been denounced declare their repentance in public, enabling sooner or later their return to the ranks of the official literati (eg., Ji ří Šotola, Miroslav Holub, Bohumil Hrabal). The 1970s and 1980s see the development of a relationship between the spheres of ‘home-made’ underground literature and literature written in exile, which did not exist in the 1950s; a range of titles are issued in samizdat and ‘exile’ editions. At certain points in this development disagreements between authors in exile and dissidents at home come to a head (eg., in the quarrel concerning the quality of Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being). New authors-in-exile emerge who begin to publish only after leaving the home country (eg., Jaroslav Vejvoda, Jan K řesadlo and Jan Novák), while certain of the best known authors of the 1960s gradually and/or partially (eg., Škvorecký) or else completely (eg., Kundera) come to concern themselves with the culture and society of their newly adopted homeland. Again in contrast to the 1950s, there is a marked tendency to adopt the language of the new surroundings. (Kohout, Gruša and Moníková write in German, Linhartová and Kundera in French, Novák in English.)
Those authors who decide to remain in the official sphere often demonstrate what appears to be a voluntary change in their poetics. Fuk’s heroes were once deformed by society, but in his fiction of the 1970s they themselves are learning to form it; beginning with The Young Man and the White Whale, Páral’s heroes demonstrate at least some positive values. The limited number of the authors to make it through the filter of Normalization create s an environment in which a wide range of writers – including some who were published in the 1950s and then lost out to the competition and others only now finding their pleasure in writing – are able to publish. In the 1970s and 1980s, generational solitaries such as Josef Jelen, Karel Boušek and Václav Hons – together with Karel Sýs, Ji ří Žáč ek, Michal Č erník and Jaromír Pelc, productive members of an up-and-coming new generation of poets – are in a position to publish new collections practically every year. The requirements of ideological correctness are supplemented with a space for ‘free creation’, with the result that the offerings of many of these poets skip between the zealously political (written, for instance, in honour of one of various anniversaries) on the one hand and the poetry of love, nature or contemplation on the other. In the official criticism of the 1970s the polarity which characterized the differences between Nezval and Halas finds its echo, speaking out unequivocally for the ‘down-to-earth’, materialist poetry which is said to be of Nezval’s provenance. Once again a work of literature is evaluated on the basis of its author’s value as a citizen; on the one hand those authors are revered whose ideological standpoints are deemed worthy of merit for their rather eclecti c, authentic w ork (eg., Ivan Skála, Josef Rybák, Donát Šajner), while on the other works are published which are very popular with readers but which go unrecognised by official criticism (eg., works by Bohumil Hrabal, Ji ří Šotola and Vladimír Körner and the later poetry of Skácel, Mikulášek and Seifert).
The underground literature of the 1970s reacts to Normalization by setting up self-contained samizdat editions and ‘publishers’. This decade also witnesses the most important work of a number of authors, who thereby place themselves beyond the official canon. In the early 1970s Hrabal writes his great novels I Served the King of England and Too Loud a Solitude, Škvorecký demonstrates his full range in his works from The Miracle Game to The Engineer of Human Souls, Kundera publishes in French translation Life is Elsewhere, The Farewell Waltz and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Vaculík composes his Czech Dream Book, and by their German editions Pavel Kohout and then Ji ří Gruša establish themselves as novelists of note. Recordings on magnetic tape of Václav Havel ’s plays with the protagonist Ferdinand Vaňek take these works beyond the dissident sphere. All of these works are published in translation abroad and/or circulated at home in samizdat form and/or issued by Czech publishers-in-exile.
The official literature of the time gives the impression of wishing to erase the ‘crisis’ years of the 1960s and to return to its more institutionalized role of the 1950s. But in this, too, there is evidence of certain shifts. Unlike in the 1950s – when an officially validated work is presented as the product of an author-critic-publisher collective, the guiding principle of which is ideological – the publishing world of the 1970s and 1980s feels the heavy presence of economic factors. A number of writers are able to make their livings by writing alone, and this leads to the emergence of imitative ‘schools’ which strive to tread a tried and tested path. We witness the arrival of Parál’s ‘North Bohemia’ school and imitators of Hrabal. Certain genres become popular commercially and their works attract large readerships by their ability to remain within the confines of genre. These genres include the historical novel (in which history provides the setting for the unfolding of a story, for which see the works of Jarmila Loukotová and Václav Erben), the ‘doctor’ novel (see Valja Stýblová and Ota Dub), and the novel which focuses on the problems of adolescence (see Václav Dušek, Zden ěk Zapletal, Martin Bezouška, Petr Hájek, and Radek John). Also to make waves commercially are novels with a rural setting (see Jan Kostrhun), especially where these take the form of humorous episodes in the problem-free world of a socialist village (see Jaroslav Matějka). Novels set in the factory or the works do not for the most part find such an appreciative readership, perhaps because such a setting is not perceived as exotic and as such does not satisfy the escapist urge. (The stylistically accomplished early novels of Josef Frais are a notable exception to this.) In sum, it becomes the publisher’s aim to issue books in accordance with a system, at regular intervals, in large print runs and attractive editions; this is a signal of the ability (of a work/author or group of works/authors) to win recognition and hence embark upon the path to prestige.
In spite of all the ideological declarations, official literature is perceived and read largely as a purveyor of escapist stories in which a discrete set of rules apply; poetry is seen as a world of allegorical allusions to the current political situation. The stagnation of the 1970s and 1980s stalls the progress of the completed manuscript so that it takes three or four years to make it into book form, though this delay in no way reduces its ability to communicate. When one considers that officially validated culture in the 1970s and 1980s has only two television channels to offer, newspapers which are more or less uniform in content and only a handful of family, professional and special-interest magazines, the space available for book-reading is a relatively large one. As only a limited number of works of high-quality literature are published (although the range of interesting works in translation is widening), it is possible for book lovers to own and read all the important titles.
And the reading of literature will maintain this position in cultural life through the 1980s and 1990s and into the present. The fall of Communism at the end of 1989 opens the market to almost 2,000 private publishing houses, the activities of which are registered in the following year. Many of these take the decision to publish books for ethical reasons – by promoting literature hitherto banned; many are motivated by economic reasons, too – they anticipate print runs in hundreds of thousands for the oeuvres of formerly banned authors, emulating the 1970-80s achievements of Hrabal and Páral. But the majority of new publishers plainly lack an understanding of the full range of such works and differences in their quality. For this reason, the market is flooded with hundreds of titles, the majority of which prove impossible to sell. Readers themselves lack the knowledge of which of an author’s works are his/her best and worst, and they might not get beyond the first work to fall into their hands. The situation is complicated further by the transformation of society: in this new context, many previously unpublished works are read as bearing witness to times past, as calls to challenge a society which exists no longer. In a world which demands the individual make many decisions for which he/she lacks the experience, literature no longer has the power to advise, is no longer a source of solutions with which the reader can identify. Attempts at novels with political themes, whether at the beginning of the 1990s (eg., Kohout’s I Am Snowing) or the turn of the millennium (eg., works by Viewegh, Urban, Kantůrková, M artin Nezval) generally fail because of the extraordinary dynamism of change and development, meaning that one-year-old subject matter has lost its interest.
In the first half of the 1990s, literature works by and large to plug the gaps. In looking to the past, editors are drawn not only to the banned authors of the 1970s and 1980s but also to authors of the 1950s and still further back (eg., Jakub Deml, Ladislav Klíma). For this reason it proves impossible for the casual reader to maintain an awareness of literary development; only the expert is able to trace a chronological order of published works for a given author. Books are published in collected works editions (notably those of Hrabal, Kolá ř, Šiktanc, Bondy, Vodseďálek, Arnošt Lustig and Ivan Klíma, as well the works of authors of generations past such as Seifert, Poláč ek and Hostovský), which is, of course, to be commended. Often, however, these new editions – in some cases running to twenty volumes – fail to find success among readers, meaning that financial returns are disappointing.
Another major problem is a loss of understanding as to how to assess a work’s value. Real criticism exists only in specialist periodicals with small readerships, while the attitude of the mass media to literature is highly selective and prefers to report on the events rather than to comment on the writing. Also, the last fifteen years have seen the deaths of a number of leading critics (eg., Jan Lopotka, Josef Vohryzek and R ůžena Grebeníč ková) and a shift in literary criticism in favour of the simple relaying of information about a work, the departure point of which is often determined by the closeness or otherwise of the relationship between critic and author. The mass media’s choice of which writing to cover is more often than not the result of an author’s general popularity (a case in point being Halina Pawlovská) and the attractiveness of the personal story the author succeeds in conveying over time to the media (viz. Michal Viewegh and Petr Šabach).
In the 1990s literature gives up its role as provider of an alternative world as escape in favour of products which are far better suited to the task: magazines and the cult of celebrity they propagate, film and television in their manifold guises, and – for the book – hitherto unknown and untried genres such as romance and fantasy fiction. Fiction as such – with its basis in the author’s imagination – is superseded by a type of non-fiction which might be termed “faction”, and which promises to improve the reader’s understanding of the world.
Nevertheless, the 1990s do more than to publish and promote new and old works by authors banned in the previous two decades; they bear witness, too, to the discovery of new and distinctive authorial voices. We think here of the novels of Vladimír Macura which rest on the blurred boundaries between the realms of reality and the imagination, the prose fiction of Daniela Hodrová and Michal Ajvaz and their quest to uncover the powers of darkness and secrecy which surround us; we think also of the novels of Jan K řesadlo and Jiří Kratochvil and their declared support for the playfulness and artificiality of the postmodern, and the stylistic precision of the short form as practised by Patrik Ouředník and Jan Balabán. The 1990s also see the emergence of writing of some power by women (viz. Alexandra Berková, Tereza Bouč ková, Zuzana Brabcová, Iva Pekarková).
In the mid-1990s a new genre with its basis in autobiography (it might take the form of a diary, a memoir, a fictional diary or a pseudo-autobiography) comes to the fore; it promises authenticity and plausibility, and also change and novelty. Thanks to this form of re-engagement with the literary tradition (viz. publication of Mácha’s diaries, the correspondence of Božena N ěmcová, and works by Orten, Deml, Kolář and Hanč ), new, autobiographical works by familiar names are accommodated happily (viz. Vaculík’s How to Make a Boy, Zábrana’s Whole Life and Diviš’s Theory of Reliability); the works of Jáchym Topol, Emil Hakl and Roman Ludva are read with keen attention to their autobiographical content. Bestsellers by Michal Viewegh, Halina Pawlovská and Petr Šabach also contain the requisite dose of autobiography. But the pre-eminence of this genre has the inevitable consequence of promoting graphomania; a flood of work is produced in which each of life’s episodes is deemed worthy of note.
The past few years have seen a return to fictive storytelling, not least in the work of the younger generation. To an extent this shift has been encouraged by the cult which has developed around Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the massive worldwide appeal of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. This relating of a story is fundamental to the fiction of Miloš Urban, Bohuslav Van ěk-Úvalský and the more recent prose work of Jiří Kratochvil. At the same time this can be taken as evidence of Czech literature taking pains to adapt to a new set of circumstances in which a print run of 3,000 is a modest success. Writers continue to find joy in storytel ling, in their ability to creative fictive worlds by the power of their own imaginations and rules of development they set for themselves; they have come to accept that the readers who have an interest in their word games are counted in hundreds rather than thousands. And today’s writers have a keener interest in publishing abroad; as such they aspire to tell a universal story with the obvious result that the realities and problems depicted in much of their work no longer appeal solely to a home-based readership, even if the work’s setting is a Czech one.
Poetry, meanwhile, remains a matter for the specialist and a few dozen enthusiasts from among the general public, although it is true to say that the number of titles published shows a slight increase.
While Czech writing may not have produced any works of exceptional value in the past fifteen years, it is certainly a fascinating sociological phenomenon. Today’s Czech writing must come to terms with a loss of prestige and influence by changing the rules of engagement for writing, reading and how to operate on the (book and mass-media) market. And this adjustment is still very much in progress.
Petr A. Bílek
(Taken from the Introductory Essay to Slovník českých spisovatelů [A Dictionary of Czech Writers], published by Libri in 2005 in a 2nd – revised and expanded – edition.)
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KONSTANTINOVIĆ, Zoran − RINNER, Fridrun. Eine Literaturgeschichte Mitteleuropas. Innsbruck/Wien: Studienverlag, 2003.
KOPÁČ, Radim (ed.). Czech literature at the turn of the millennium = Neue tschechische Literatur an der Jahrtausendwende.
SCHAMSCHULA, Walter. Geschichte der tschechischen Literatur. Bd III. Von der Gründung der Republik zur Gegenwart. Köln/Weimar/Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 2004.
VOISINE‑JECHOVÁ, Hana. Histoire de la littérature tchèque. Paris: Fayard, 2001.
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