“However the novel is received, I spent a great year writing it,”

says editor and novelist Jan Němec, whose fictionalized biography of a prominent Czech photographer comes out this month.


Jan Němec. Photograph © Anna Nádvorníková

Jan Němec. Photograph © Anna Nádvorníková

In 2010 you were among three authors nominated for the Jiří Orten Prize with your short story collection Hra pro čtyři ruce (Game for Four Hands), but you did not convert the nomination, as Jan Těsnohlídek actually won. Are you sorry?
That is a question that I don’t ask myself retrospectively. As an author you can perhaps say this much – that almost every prize is rather better to receive than not receive. Of course, this does not have much in common with the actual writing, but it helps in “literary life”. And you have to live a literary life at least for some time.

A little known fact is that you made your debut back in 2007 with a poetry collection entitled První život published by Větrné mlýny.
A lot of prose writers started out with a collection of poems. Then they like to exalt themselves above themselves, but the experience of poetry is crucial: it promotes fully aware use of language, it compels you to select and weigh your words one after the other. There are many authors who unconsciously submit to the language and just write automatically. It’s funny. Language is a power and as you write it can also be a partner, indeed the only one that you have. Apart from what we are going to say to each other, writing poetry is less demanding on time in comparison with prose, and when you are eighteen you have a lot of other important things to do…

How did the stories later published in Hra pro čtyři ruce, which was published by Druhé město in 2009, actually come about?
As long as you are not an established author, but just a “literary freelancer”, you write what you fancy as a rule and you feel happy on Earth. But then at some point, unsurprisingly you realise that your texts are intertwining somewhere underground and that this twine makes some kind of sense. It struck me that all my stories include a feeling of unrequited or unconsummated love. So the book acquired the subtitle Málem milostné povídky – Almost Love Stories. When I look back I have the feeling that this was just another stage on the road from poetry to prose. Short stories are also an excellent laboratory for another reason. You can try various approaches and discover your various voices.

I presume that when you were writing them you had no guarantee of publication.
I didn’t. I offered the manuscript to Host publishers, where I had just started to work, but Mirek Balaštík rejected it. I sent the book to Druhé město, and Martin Reiner accepted that same manuscript.

In that case you made an interesting tour of the Brno publishers: this autumn your third book Dějiny světla is being brought out by your home publisher Host at last. Its catalogue of publications tells us that it will be a literary biography of the famous photographer František Drtikol. Why did you decide to write about him?
It was the powerful symbolism of light that attracted me to him: he spent the first part of his life as an artistic photographer and worked enthusiastically with external light, which he said made photography. At the turn of the century he was studying in Munich, which at that time was at the heart of the Secession style, and again Secession was amongst other things a style of lighting. He later became a world famous creator of nude scenes, but in the latter half of the 1920s he became absorbed in himself and discovered inner light. He turned away from the world and went into seclusion. His is an interesting and in many respects rather an unCzech fate. Our sort rarely manage to give up what we have achieved, even if in each person’s life there comes an important moment when nothing helps you gain so much. Drtikol finished de facto at his peak. He showed the courage to give up what he had based his livelihood on. He gave up the symbol on which art is based, in favour of a direct quest for the truth. He radically changed his life and spent the second half of his life as a spiritual teacher. His followers, including Eduard Tomáš, also famous thanks to the television series Paměti mystika, Memoirs of a Mystic, speak of him as the first patriarch of Czech Buddhism. And that, after all, is quite fascinating: the man who was the first to exhibit a female nude in this country is the same one who was to translate the Tibetan Book of the Dead into Czech. This all smacks of integrity…

Quite a number of books have come out on Drtikol. Are you contributing anything new?  
As far as the facts are concerned, only minor details. It is a novel, so I am more like thinking things up… When you go through the available literature on Drtikol, you soon find that it is divided up in a strange way: on the one hand there are works by photography historians who deal with the first half of Drtikol’s life and do not talk much about the other, with the exception of the last Anna Fárová. And then there are the reminiscences of his spiritual disciples who sometimes did not even know that Drtikol was a famous photographer. This looks like a real rift, but when you look closely at Drtikol’s story, you find it has a clear line running through it and makes sense. Just like a story of light.

It should be said that his work is harmonically based: remember, we are still speaking about pre-avant-garde art, which swore on beauty and truthfulness, and so had an affinity to the spiritual, which is just its natural extension. Contemporary art is cynical, playful, socially engaged and goodness knows what else, but rarely does it allow itself to be serious and passionate. As was considered desirable at the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries. Perhaps this also attracted me to Drtikol: the possibility of writing directly without scoffing about basic things, such as beauty or seeking inner truth. Today artists are driven into a corner where they hatch plots or masturbate. For once I have had the good fortune to avoid that…

And what about Drtikol’s Communist involvement? How does that fit in?
Drtikol’s life included several notable transformations and contradictions, and that is why it is such interesting material. But I shall stick to what you have asked. In 1945 he became a Communist and remained in the party throughout the 1950s, when he also espoused Buddhism and his followers considered him to be fully enlightened, until his death in 1961. In his diary he wrote “Buddhism = Communism” and he said that Buddha was the first materialist philosopher, long before Marx and Lenin. So from today’s perspective his biography has quite a bizarre coda.

In this respect Drtikol is somewhat reminiscent of Egon Bondy.
The two of them actually met. Bondy mentions in his memoirs that Drtikol set him straight when he was still a confused young man – which I feel he continued to be for some time. In Drtikol’s case, however, joining and remaining in the Communist Party is all the more mysterious, considering that in the First Republic he was completely apolitical.

Have you come to any conclusion in your book with regard to this contentious point?
It was not my aim to arrive at any conclusions, or even to judge the hero of my novel. Others are there for that. I can only surmise. He came from Příbram, which was an important mining town under Austria-Hungary, with the largest silver mines in the entire Empire, so that fact that he tended towards a left-wing worldview is biographically understandable. Besides, few artists are right-wing liberals. That is kind of incompatible, whatever people might think. Even as a youngster he was enchanted by the Pan-slav idea: boys at Sokol used to say that the Russians would come one day and liberate us from Austrian, that is Germanic subjugation – and that is what they did… But let’s not forget that Drtikol was born in 1883, which means a completely different historical awareness to the element we float in today.

It is easy to understand why he joined the Communist Party in 1945, but it is rather more difficult to grasp why he stayed in it throughout the 1950s. In the early 1950s he wrote letters to his followers, which were full of not only Marxist but even Stalinist claptrap, urging them to leave the church and join the Communist party.. It’s a mystery if he ever later reassessed all this. For example, his personal papers include a newspaper cutting on the Chinese occupation of Tibet, so I presume he must have at least been aware that Communism did not equal Buddhism… But I would not like to give the impression that this stage in Drtikol’s life particularly interests me in any way. In the novel it is just a peripeteia, but we can learn from it: even people who are spiritually mature can be entirely confused. I’d say that spiritual disciples don’t have it easy at all with their teachers.

You had been interested in Drtikol for a long time and now you knew enough about him. So what did the actual writing involve?
You never do know enough. I spent a lot of time in libraries, archives and museums. But I was not reading so much of the literature about Drtikol himself, because that is not all that extensive, as books presenting the historical context: when you are writing about somebody who was born under the Habsburgs, and lived through the First World War and the First Republic, you first have to form an impression of the mental map of the time. Then it was essential to find the key to how to tell this story at all. I don’t want to be tedious with technical details, but for example, for a long time I was wondering whether to write in the third person or the first. I tried both. The third person struck me as remote, whereas the first person gave me an itch because I was going beyond the limits: I’m not František Drtikol and I’m not interested in simulating him. It was only then that I came up with a way to precisely reflect the situation of an author who has decided to write about somebody else. It’s what is known as the du-form, the second person, meaning that I actually address Drtikol. So the entire book is actually a dialogue between the author and the character, although the author doesn’t actually speak for himself at all. In the book the author doesn’t have a different I to the you, that is important. And in the end it actually turns out that the addressor is not the author.

Is the du-form reader-friendly? You wrote the novel on Drtikol in Polička and Krakow.
My primary task is not to be reader-friendly. Clearly, the du-form used throughout the novel is a bit of an experiment. Still, the dialogue is more vivid for most people than any other speech situation. It needs to be tried.

So Poland first. Were you in residence there at Villa Decius, where the Arts Institute sends Czech authors?
I did apply for a residence there, but this brings us back to your first question: Do you have to live a literary life to have a claim to a living… And that is why it is rather better to receive a prize than not to receive one, precisely because of these small favours that become available to you as a literary persona. Jan Těsnohlídek, who received the Orten Prize, was at Villa Decius at the time, so I made my own arrangements. Together with my girlfriend, who was at Krakow on an Erasmus placement, I rented a small flat in the centre and we saw Jan in the bus. Although we are practically strangers, our paths do cross considerably: a long time ago we even had the same girlfriend – though of course not at the same time. We don’t cross that way. I remember him from that time as a long-haired faun who wrote brittle lyrical texts and shared them at Písmák.cz.

And Polička  – is that your home town?
I was born in Brno and lived there all the time until I was 22. Then I moved to Polička for a year, where I had only ever been once before, so I didn’t know a living soul there. The first notice board I came across had an advert for a cheap flat with a view onto a garden, ramparts, an avenue and a pond. I lived there alone just for myself without any special plan or intention. And when that flat came vacant again about three years ago, and by the way, J. A. Pitínský’s daughter lived there in the meantime, I rented it again together with my parents. And at the beginning of last year I went back there to write, as I had finally managed to sort out my external life around that. However this novel is received, I spent a great year in my own way. It’s unbelievable but you could ultimately be happy if something wasn’t continuously forcing you into molds that are not for you.


Interviewed by Jaroslav Balvín