Unlike the traditional great essay-writing nations like France and England (the homes of Montaigne and Bacon), this elusive genre lying somewhere between fiction and academic text has not evolved to such beauty and scope in the Czech lands. The essay genre first took root here at the turn of the 20th century (Arthur Breisky, Otokar Březina, Jiří Karásek of Lvovice). During the interwar period it continued to develop within the avant-garde and philosophical movements of the time (Ladislav Klíma, Jindřich Chalupecký, Karel and Josef Čapek). In connection with the orientation of modern Czech literature, philosophy, art history and literary history (structuralism and phenomenology in particular) towards European culture, it was only in the 1960s that the time became favourable for the creation of essays. From the pre-war tradition there emerged proficient, philosophical essayists such as Jan Patočka, Karel Kosík and Josef Šafařík, as well as a host of literary scientists whose studies might be said to be close to the essay genre (the Romance scholar and comparatist Václav Černý, the structuralists Roman Jakobson, Jan Mukařovský and Felix Vodička, as well as the initiators of surrealism in the Czech lands, Karel Teige and Vratislav Effenberger). Poets and writers living in exile (Václav Bělohradský, Jan Čep, Petr Král, František Listopad, Lubomír Martínek, Milan Nápravník, Patrik Ouředník and Jan Vladislav) were in contact with Francophone or Anglophone literature, which – as has been noted – regards the essay as an exceptionally challenging but particularly regal genre.
The philosopher and sociologist Václav Bělohradský (1944) worked in Italian universities in the 1970s and 1980s and since 1989 he has also been active in the Czech Republic. His works were initially oriented towards modern eschatology and then at the turn of the millennium he became one of the most distinctive critics of globalization. He has written ten books in Czech, the latest being Mezi světy a mezivěty (1997) and Společnost nevolnosti (2007). “I think that we are living in an era where we have a special offer on worlds of our own: instead of engaging in a common world we emigrate to our own well-equipped worlds,” he says.
Lubomír Martínek (1954) writes prose and essays and translates. He graduated from Prague’s technical college and in 1979 left for France, where he had various jobs and worked with the publication Revue K. Since 1989 he has published 15 books, the most recent being Mýtus o Lynkeovi (2008), Olej do ohně (2007) and Dlouhá partie biliáru (2004). His key themes are nomadism, identity and culture. “I write mainly because of the process that you go through while writing and what that writing forces you to do, even if you’d rather avoid it. Each of my books has influenced my life in some way,” he said.
After 1989 several seminal essays from world literature were translated into Czech and published officially for the first time. During normalization essays came out only occasionally in samizdat form or via exile publishers. These were mainly French modern and postmodern essays (translations of the works of J. F. Lyotard, M. Leiris, J. Derrida, Y, Bonnefoy and G. Bataille) but also Anglo-American, German, Austrian and other essays. The works of these essayists par excellence were an inspiration for Czech writers, although there were not many examples of special, distinctive, “pure” essayists in post-1989 literary development.
Due to some kind of boundary or classification system it seems to be a fact that the essay tends to be an addendum to larger works of fiction, poetry or even drama. This is the case with Milan Kundera, Daniela Hodrová, Václav Havel, Michal Ajvaz, the above-mentioned Martínek and the author of magical experimental prose and cultural history Věra Linhartová. Libuše Moníková’s essays on Kafka, which were written mainly while in exile in Germany, can be seen as supplements to her novels. The second major area that contemporary Czech essays reflect upon is literature, or other artistic genres and forms. However, in this case the essay has a distinctly academic and cognitive character. The essay often blends academic text and scientific study and to a certain extent lacks a novelistic and aesthetic accent. Paradoxically the essay also occasionally strays into the worlds of journalism, political science and theories of mass media and media communication. Despite these minor areas of contention and the vagueness surrounding the genre, which has no fixed boundaries and yet is a superb literary form, it is possible to recognise many contemporary Czech authors as noteworthy essayists.
In his essayistic writings, professor of theology Tomáš Halík (1948) reflects both on his own work as a priest and on his wide knowledge of world religions – Catholicism in particular – which he examines from a reformist stance. He has published fifteen books, the most recent being: Co je bez chvění, není pevné (2002), Oslovit Zachea (2003), Vzýván i nevzýván(2004), Noc zpovědníka (2005), Prolínání světů (2006), Vzdáleným nablízku (2007), Dotkni se ran (2008), Stromu zbývá naděje (2009), Divadlo pro anděly (2010) and Smířená různost (2011).
Prizes (and prize-winners)
Unlike for fiction or artistic translation there is no prize for the appraisal of essays in the Czech Republic today, the closest thing being the F.X. Šalda Prize, which has been awarded since 1995 for “exceptional work in art criticism”. Among the prize-winners in recent years have been the above-mentioned Věra Linhartová (2010; for the collection of historico-cultural essays Soustředné kruhy), Miroslav Topinka (2008; for the collection of literary-historical essays Hadí kámen) and Jan Štolba (2006; for the collection of literary essays Nedopadající džbán); others include the philosopher Zdeňek Vašíček (2003), the film critics Karel Thein (2002) and Jiří Cieslar (1997) and the theatre critic Vladimír Just (1996).
The State Prize for Literature also straddles fiction (including literary history and science) and essays. It has been awarding prizes since 1995 for “the recognition of important original literary works published in Czech” or “the recognition of existing literary works”. Essayists who have won the prize include Daniela Hodrová (2011), Zdeněk Rotrekl (2009), Milan Kundera (2007), Věroslav Mertl (2001), Josef Škvorecký (1999) and Vladimír Macura (1998).
The judges of the Tom Stoppard Prize and the Jaroslav Seifert Prize occasionally choose as prize-winners authors in whose works the essay plays a prominent role (the Tom Stoppard Prize: Lubomír Martínek, 2009; Zdeněk Neubauer, 2008; Přemysl Rut, 2007; Stanislav Komárek, 2006; Václav Cílek, 2005; Václav Jamek, 2004; the Jaroslav Seifert Prize: Ludvík Kundera, 2009; Václav Havel, 2008; František Listopad, 2007; Ivan Martin Jirous, 2006; Michal Ajvaz, 2005).
The professor of philosophy and natural-science history Stanislav Komárek (1958) is an essayist commentator on the state of the contemporary world and a novelist who liberally sprinkles meditations and historical passages throughout his fictional stories. He has written three prose works (Opšlstisova nadace, 2002, Černý domeček, 2004, and Mandaríni, 2007) and more than 15 books of essays, most recently: Sloupoví aneb Postila (2008), Zápisky z Okcidentu (2008), Zápisky z Orientu (2008), Listy v lahvích (2010), Eseje o lidských duších a společnosti I. (2010), Eseje o přírodě, biologii a jiných nepravostech (2011) and Eseje o lidských duších a společnosti II. (2011).
Václav Cílek (1955), a qualified geologist and climatologist, has published several academic texts since the 1980s but in the last decade he has established a reputation as an original essayist, which extends even to his book titles: Krajiny vnitřní a vnější (2002), Makom: kniha míst (2004), Borgesův svět (2007), Dýchat s ptáky (2008) and Archeus: Fragment radostné vědy o trpaslících (2010). He has been awarded the Tom Stoppard Prize (2004) and has been recognized by the Ministry of the Environment “for his significant contribution to the popularization of Czech science, particularly in geography and climatology” (2007) and the Vize 97 Foundation (2009).
Publishers (and their authors)
In Bohemia and Moravia today there are tens, if not hundreds, of publishing houses which are involved in the publication of original (and translated) essays; among the best known and most active are Academia, Host, Karolinum, Malvern and Torst. In recent years Torst have published essay collections by Věra Linhartová, Patrik Ouředník (Utopus to byl, kdo učinil mě ostrovem, 2010), Martin C. Putna (Česká katolická literatura 1918–1945, 2010), Jaromír Zemina (Via artis, via vitae, 2010) and Jan Štolba. Malvern publish the essayists Zdeňek Neubauer and Daniela Hodrová and Host have brought out a collection of essays by Miloslav Topinka.
In his books of essays the literary historian and comparatist Martin C. Putna (1968) explores themes concerning spirituality and culture. He is the author of a monumental two-volume work Česká katolická literatura v kontextech 1918–1945 (2010) and Česká katolická literatura v evropském kontextu 1848–1918 (1998) and more than ten other titles. Jan Jandourek wrote of him that: “MCP is a non-traditional traditionalist for whom Catholicism is a broad current which embraces everything pre-Christian and outwith Christianity. At the same time he manages to be a psychologist and a sociologist who puts literature into context. As a comparatist he knows the status of Czech literature in the world. And as a Catholic he knows what Catholics really believe in, some of them in particular.”
In 2008 the publishers Karolinum brought out a collection of texts called Pokusy a dobrodružství: poznámky k eseji, edited by Barbora Osvaldová and Radim Kopáč, which reflect on the position of the essay in the Czech lands in a historical context as well as in the period after 1989. Among the contributors are Jan Suk, Josef Kroutvor, Martin Hilský, Václav Cílek, Stanislav Komárek, Aleš Haman, Miloslav Petrusek, Jan Štolba, Petr Král, Karel Hvížďala, Pavel Švanda, Viktor Šlajchrt, Roman Erben and Ivo Harák.
Josef Kroutvor (1942) studied philosophy, history and art history at Charles University in Prague, and in his works he also looks at the issues of art photography, design, architecture and the sociology of culture. Jan Suk wrote that, “He is an author who creates his own literary, though fundamentally inner world from the fragments of ancient as well as modern architecture and city labyrinths, from the echoes of artistic works from the past and present […], from the memories and whispers emanating from the café tables of Prague, Vienna, Paris and Venice. He is one of the last representatives of a dying Central Europeaness. He is a melancholic pilgrim of the margins and lost enclaves of our world…” He has had twenty books published, including Dandy a manekýna (1999), Města a ostrovy (2002), Můj Mácha (2003) and Klobouk, kniha a hůl (2009).
The poet, essayist and literary critic Jan Suk (1951), a graduate of philosophy, history and aesthetics from Charles University in Prague, has published five collections of poetry and two books of essays: in the first, entitled Krysy v Hadrianově vile (2004), he looks at the contemporary decline of the myths which have provided the basis for ancient-Christian civilization and culture, while in the second he examines selected female characters in opera, particularly from the 19th century (V aréně prachu, stínů a večerů, 2010).
Separate editions dedicated to the essay have been brought out by the above-mentioned publisher Torst (Collections of Studies and Reflections), as well the Prague publisher Protis (Criticisms and Essays), who have published Viktor Šlajchrt (Putování pomezím, 2008), Vladimír Novotný (Ta naše postmoderna česká…, 2008), Ivo Harák (Býýýt odněkud, 2010) and Erik Gilk (Prozaická zastavení, 2010). At present the publishers Pulchra are issuing a series dedicated specifically to the essay; since 2008 they have published Milan Balabán (Domov a bezdomoví a jiné zprávy, 2008), Josef Kroutvor (Klobouk, kniha a hůl, 2009), Jan Suk (V aréně prachu, stínů a večerů, 2010), Michal Janata (Sypká nehmatnost smrti, 2010), Roman Erben (Šero v holubníku, 2010), Jakub Guziur (Slepnoucí Apollon, kastrovaný Dionysos, 2011) and Karel Zlín (Oblaka naší nepřítomnosti, 2011).
Some authors, such as the Jungian Rudolf Starý and the esoteric D. Ž. Bor (real name Vladislav Zadrobílek) publish their own essays (along with translated literature) through their own companies (Sagittarius, later Horus and Trigon).
Educated as a theologian, an expert on ancient and pre-ancient philosophy, Zdeněk Kratochvíl (1952) is a university lecturer on the history of philosophy and religion who outlines in his many studies and essays the causes of the crisis of European spirituality, which he sees in the rise of postmodernism and religious fundamentalism. He has published more than ten books, including Filosofie mezi mýtem a vědou (2009), Délský Potápěč k Hérakleitově řeči (2006), Obrana želvy (2003) and Pramen poznání (1996).
The contemporary Czech essay is not a genre which foreign publishers normally take an interest in, and if they do, then it is usually a one-off or unsystematic undertaking. Authors who are bilingual, or rather who have been living abroad for a long time and publishing concurrently in the language of their second country, have a natural advantage. Among them are some writers we have already mentioned, starting with the world-famous Czecho-French Milan Kundera, then Václav Bělohradský, whose philosophical essays are published mainly in Italian, František Listopad (living and publishing in Portugal), Libuše Moníková (also writing in German) and Zdeňek Vašíček (whose books have been published in Great Britain and France), as well as a wider spectrum of authors publishing in Francophone areas such as Karel Zlín, Jan Vladislav, Patrik Ouředník, Lubomír Martínek, Věra Linhartová, Petr Král and Václav Jamek.
In recent years more methodical attention has been focused on Daniela Hodrová (in Bulgaria) and in particular on Patrik Ouředník, whose work Europeana (2001), poised between essay and fiction, mystification and a serious journey into the “history of the 20th age”, has been translated into more than twenty languages including Belorussian, Danish, Georgian, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Dutch, Greek, Slovenian, Swedish and Turkish.
… and others
The list of contemporary Czech essayists which has so far been given is certainly not exhaustive. Alongside the bigger names who have attracted media attention are other less well-known authors who, though perhaps less intellectually distinguished and stylistically orginal, deserve a mention, such as Václav Cílek (originally a geologist), Tomáš Halík (theologian), Martin Hilský (English scholar), Stanislav Komárek (biologist and philosopher), Arnošt Lustig (writer), Martin C. Putna (literary historian) and Jaromír Zemina (art historian).
From the field of literature and literary history it is worth mentioning Zbyňek Hejda, Jiří Kratochvil (Vyznání příběhovosti, 2000; Brno nostalgické i ironické, 2001), Jaroslav Med (Literární život ve stínu Mnichova, 2010), Jan Nejedlý, Jakub Šofar, Jiří Trávníček and Jaromír Typlt (Rozžhavená kra, 1996), from music Petr Kofroň (V budoucnosti spadne nové operní umění s nebe z čista jasna, 2002) and Vladimír Franz, from art Milan Knížák, Karel Srp, Jarmila Vacková and Petr Wittlich, from photography Anna Fárová (Dvě tváře, 2009). Among the philosophizing and hermetic essayists, Zdeněk Kratochvíl and Martin Stejskal stand out alongside D. Ž. Bor, Zdeněk Neubauer and Rudolf Starý.
Patrik Ouředník (1957) is a writer, poet, essayist and translator who has been living in France since 1985. He has translated Beckett, Jarry, Queneau and Vian into Czech, and he has translated Holan, Holub, Vančura and Skácel, among others, into French. He put his translation experience and rich knowledge of languages to use in his very first title, the non-academic vocabulary handbook Šmírbuch jazyka českého (1988). He has written a further 15 books, the most successful being the prose works Europeana: Stručné dějiny dvacátého věku (2001), Příhodná chvíle, 1885 (2006) and Ad acta (2006). The most recent publication is a guide to the history of literary utopias, Utopus to byl, kdo učinil mě ostrovem (2010).
In his sociological and politological texts the university professor and journalist Jan Keller (1955) examines the idea of sustainable long-term development and the links between ecology and sociology. He has written more than 20 books on this theme, including Tři sociální světy (2010), Nejistota a důvěra (2009), Vzdělanostní společnost? (2008) and Teorie modernizace (2007); his most successful reprinted titles are Abeceda prosperity (1997) and Až na dno blahobytu (1993).