BORN: 1883, Prague, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic)
DIED: 1923, Lipnice, Czechoslovakia
GENRE: Fiction, Poetry
The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War (1923)
Jaroslav Hašek Jaroslav Hasek, 1904, photograph. Courtesy of Richard Hasek. Reproduced by permission.
Czech writer and humorist Jaroslav Hašek became internationally known for his novel The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War (1923). He was also the author of approximately fifteen hundred stories, sketches, and newspaper columns; in addition, he wrote plays for cabarets. Hašek's work was closely linked to his unconventional lifestyle, which became the subject of many stories and legends that Hašek himself helped to create. In his best works, the spontaneity of his storytelling and overall ironic detachment indicate his belief in unpretentiousness and tolerance.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Tumultuous Early Life Hašek was born on April 30, 1883, in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. Both his father, Josef Hašek, a mathematics teacher and bank official, and his mother, Kateřina (née Jaresová), came from south Bohemian families of farming stock.
They lived in Prague under precarious circumstances, moving often because of Josef Hašek's alcoholism and financial troubles. Hašek attended secondary school, but left in 1898 after experiencing academic difficulties and began working in a pharmacist's shop.
First Publications From 1899 to 1902, he studied at the Commercial Academy on Resslova Street, and, after his final examinations, he worked in the Slavia Bank. A year later, however, he gave up that job and set off on a journey through Slovakia, Hungary, the Balkans, and Galicia. In the next few years, he visited such places as Bavaria, Switzerland, and Austria and often traveled around Bohemia. He had already begun writing when he was still a student, and his first efforts had been published in newspapers and magazines. These were chiefly amusing accounts of his travels and short literary essays inspired by his roaming through Moravia, Slovakia, and Poland. Gradually, his studies of everyday life and original portraits of simple people became realistic rather than romantically charming, and his extravagant humor was already a signature element.
Break with Modernists At the beginning of the century, Czech cultural life was profiting from the modernist influences of the 1890s. Hašek counted himself one of the rising generation that stressed individual skepticism and revolt against convention. Reacting against aesthetic decadence and symbolism, they turned their attention directly to their own experiences in their daily lives. They tended to take up anarchic attitudes and to write in a loose, popular, mocking style. Hašek, however, was by nature cynical and anti–literary establishment, and he soon broke away from contemporary literary movements.
For him, writing was a mere job. He wrote mainly for amusement—his own and the public's. Even his first book, Cries of May, and Other Verse (1903), jointly written with Ladislav Hájek Domazlicky, was a parody, shattering the sentimental delusions of poets and juxtaposing them with the unattractiveness of ordinary life and the contrasts between rich and poor. The activities and the na¨ıveté of writers and artists—including himself—often became the targets of Hašek's mockery. Hašek later only rarely wrote satirical verse, such as Kalamajka (1913), which takes its title from the name of an old Czech dance.
Military Life during World War I World War I soon broke out, greatly affecting Hašek's life. The war began in 1914 when the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Serbia by a Bosnian terrorist. At the time, Prague and Bohemia were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as was much of what would later become Czechoslovakia. Because of entangling diplomatic alliances, what could have been a local conflict became a massive war engulfing much of Europe and territories worldwide. Austria-Hungary was allied with Germany and Turkey against Russia, Great Britain, France, and, later, the United States.
In February 1915, Hašek joined the Ninety-first Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army in Ceské Budejovice. In September, he was taken prisoner by the Russians and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Dárnice, near Kiev, and then to Totskoye, near Buzuluk, where he survived a typhoid (a bacterial disease) epidemic. In the spring of 1916, Hašek enlisted in the Czech Foreign Legion, fighting against Austria on the side of the Russians.
Wartime Writing Efforts In the legion, Hašek worked as a typist and was secretary to the regimental committee. He also wrote humorous articles and reports for the magazine Czecho-Slav, in which he supported the fight for an independent state for Czech and Slovak territories then controlled by other countries. In 1917, he was involved in the battle of Zborov (the last Russian offensive of the war), and his valorous conduct was mentioned in dispatches. After the retreat to the Ukraine, however, he came into conflict with his superiors when he criticized the small-mindedness and the overcautious attitude of the Czech National Council in Russia and the leadership of the legion.
Continued Radical Military Service After the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which saw the Russian monarchy removed in favor of what became the Communist-controlled Soviet Union, Hašek refused to go with the legion to France, and in the subsequent chaos at the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918, he became involved in the attempt to establish a revolutionary council of Czech workers and soldiers in Kiev. After that, he went to Moscow and joined the Czech Social Democrats (the Bolsheviks). He became a political activist in the Red Army, serving as a press organizer, editor of army magazines in various languages, and publicist. He organized recruitment in Samara. In 1919, he was in charge of the army printing works in Ufa.
During the five years of war and revolution the serious side of Hašek's nature revealed itself. Still impulsive and politically a radical, he gradually began to believe in the idea of social justice for which he might be able to work and live respectably. If the idea of social justice was to be put into practice, it would improve conditions even in Bohemia. Hašek, always keenly aware of the conflict between dream and reality, eventually seems to have lost this faith.
Final Years In August 1921, Hašek moved to the village of Lipnice nad Sázavou in southeastern Bohemia, which was then part of the newly formed Czechoslovak Republic. There, he worked on his novel, The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War. He had already begun writing it in Prague, where it appeared in installments from 1921 to 1923. When his health deteriorated, he dictated the text of the novel, almost ready for publication, using his encyclopedic memory. However, he did not complete the task. He died on January 3, 1923, as a result of pneumonia and heart failure.
Works in Literary Context
Critics often compare The Good Soldier Svejk to the works of Rabelais and Cervantes. Like the works of these predecessors, Hašek's novel is bawdy, disrespectful, and unrelentingly ironic. In fact, some critics have called Svejk the most thorough attack upon bourgeois values ever written. Even though Svejk has been analyzed on anarchist, nationalist, and socialist grounds, his individual and ambivalent nature defies absolute categorization. Given the critical nature of The Good Soldier Svejk and the sprawling nature of its plot, Hašek's most famous fictional work is best understood as a picaresque satire. That is to say, Hašek makes pointed attacks on his contemporaries (satire), and the novel follows the adventures of a wanderer.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Hašek's famous contemporaries include:
James Joyce (1882–1941): The Irish author whose novel Ulysses (1922) was initially banned because of its sexual content.
Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931): The Lebanese author whose The Prophet (1923), a collection of poetic essays, is still extremely popular.
Zhou Zuoren (1885–1967): An influential Chinese essayist and translator who rendered many myths and fictional writings into vernacular Chinese. He published a translation of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Gold-Bug” in 1905.
Satire The originality of The Good Soldier Svejk is unquestionable, as is its status as a uniquely Czech work responding to particular historical circumstances. Svejk is hardly just historical fiction. It is clearly satirical, and it has been compared with the satires of British writer Jonathan Swift. Similarly, in his boisterous and often obscene humor Hašek has been compared with French satirist François Rabelais. Robert Pynsent, in The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Literary Essays, compared Hašek's attack on the Austrian war effort with that of the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, while J. P. Stern, in Forum for Modern Language Studies, likened Svejk to American writer Joseph Heller's antiwar novel Catch-22.
“Svejkism” Commonly, satire focuses on situations rather than characters. Indeed, with The Good Soldier Svejk, Hašek was not concerned with delving deeply into the minds of his characters, who are all lovingly sketched types. The crucial factor is the situation created by the juxtaposition of these types and their collective involvement in the insanity of the world war. Thus Svejk's idiotic, literal-minded obedience to orders from his superiors is a device used by Hašek to reveal the absurdity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its military bureaucracy, and ultimately the futility of war in general. This inimitable technique of subverting a military machine through excessive zeal, whether genuine or pretended, has inspired the term “Svejkism,” familiar to most central Europeans, even those who have not read the novel.
Picaresque The Good Soldier Svejk also belongs to another subgenre, possibly fiction's oldest: the picaresque novel, which relates the adventures of a wanderer. Svejk's episodic plot, its depiction of a central character from the underclass, and, above all, its perspective mark it as a classic twentieth-century example of this genre. The picaresque perspective is one that exposes pretense, and in Svejk codes of honor receive particular scorn, as do any notions that causes are worth dying for. This perspective is limited to the current state of society—Svejk himself is only interested in self-preservation, and the narration never points to any ideological or revolutionary solution to the problems depicted.
Works in Critical Context
Most critical attention has been focused on The Good Soldier Svejk, primarily because only a few of his short stories have been translated into English and because of the popularity of Svejk. However, in both the stories and Svejk, critics have commented on the satire therein and regard the shorter fiction as a preparation, in style and theme, for the longer work.
The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War Despite the impressive nature of his satirical perspective, particularly in The Good Soldier Svejk, Hašek did not initially find favor with most Czech critics. Apart from the expected condemnations prompted by Hašek's personal reputation, objections were raised concerning The Good Soldier Svejk's vulgar expressions, allegedly obscene subject matter, invariably blasphemous treatment of religion, the crudeness of prose, and—above all—the unflattering light that the novel's protagonist cast on the Czech national character. Those who took pride in the heroic exploits of the Czech Foreign Legion and justified World War I because it led to Czech independence did not wish to see Czechs presented as antimilitarist malingerers and saboteurs, least of all by a legion deserter.
Only the enthusiastic reception of The Good Soldier Svejk abroad—most notably in Germany, where Grete Reiner's 1926 translation and subsequent theatrical versions created a genuine craze—compelled many Czech critics to reexamine Hašek's novel. This reevaluation, completed under the Communist regime, eventually led to Hašek's reputation as a literary master.
While The Good Soldier Svejk has been hailed as a masterwork, its protagonist has been the subject of a critical debate: Is he really the idiot he seems, or is his idiocy a mask deliberately assumed to thwart the Austrian military bureaucracy? Ample evidence exists for either point of view. The assertion that Svejk's idiocy is a deliberately assumed mask points to a crucial issue concerning the character, the author, and the very nature of writing under an oppressive regime. Though Hašek wrote the final version of The Good Soldier Svejk in the relatively free atmosphere of the Czechoslovak Republic, his literary style and even his personality, as Gustav Janouch has suggested in Jaroslav Hašek, was formed by living under a repressive system—one that imposed censorship—and by the resulting need to mask one's true sentiments.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Whatever else might be said of The Good Soldier Svejk, the novel is above all else an adventure novel—a novel about the travels and travails of its protagonist. Here are a few other novels and films that take place on the road:
The Crossing (1994), a novel by Cormac McCarthy. In this novel, young Billy Parham captures a wolf on his farm in New Mexico. He decides to return the wolf to Mexico, where he thinks it has come from, and in crossing over into Mexico, his life changes forever.
The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), three novels by J. R. R. Tolkien. This trilogy of fantasy novels describes protagonist Frodo's perilous trip across Middle-earth to Mordor and back to his home, the Shire.
Without a Paddle (2004), a film directed by Stephen Brill. In this film, three childhood friends reunite in their early thirties to travel to Oregon in search of the lost, stolen treasure of D. B. Cooper.
On the Road (1957), a novel by Jack Kerouac. This defining work of the postwar Beat generation is a largely autobiographical work written as a stream-of-consciousness creation. The story is based on the spontaneous road trips taken by the author and his friends across mid-century America.
Responses to Literature
- Based on your reading of The Good Soldier Svejk, do you think that Svejk is the idiot he seems to be? In what ways, if at all, will the answer to this question affect your reading and enjoyment of the text? Write a paper in which you outline your opinions.
- Read Cormac McCarthy's novel The Crossing after reading The Good Soldier Svejk. How do McCarthy and Hašek use travel differently or similarly? In other words, why do you think each chose to use travel to initiate their respective plots? Cite passages from each text to support your response in an essay.
- Think of a trip you took in your life. What happened during this trip? In what ways did the trip affect your life—who you are, what you feel, what you believe? What interesting or bizarre people did you encounter on this trip? Write the story of this trip.
- Hašek is largely remembered as a satirist—a person who creatively criticizes those people, practices, or sets of beliefs that he or she finds ridiculous or unjustifiable. Write a satire while keeping these questions in mind: What practice or set of beliefs do you find ridiculous or unjustifiable? How can you show that this practice or set of beliefs is ridiculous or unjustifiable? What characters would you need to create in order to demonstrate the superiority of your alternative set of beliefs or practices?
Frynta, Emanuel. Hašek: The Creator of Schweik. Translated by Jean Layton and George Theiner. Prague: Artia, 1965.
Klein, Holger, ed. The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1977.
Parrott, Cecil. The Bad Bohemian: The Life of Jaroslav Hašek, Creator of “The Good Soldier Svejk”. London: Bodley Head, 1978.
———. Jaroslav Hašek: A Study of “Svejk” and the Short Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Prochazka, Willy. Satire in Jaroslav Hašek's Novel “The Good Soldier Schweik”. New York: New York University Press, 1966.
Soucková, Milada. A Literary Satellite: Czechoslovak-Russian Literary Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Nationality: Czech. Born: Prague, Bohemia, 30 April 1883. Education: St. Stephen's School, 1891-93; Imperial and Royal Junior Gymnasium, 1893-97, expelled; Czechoslavonic Commercial Academy, 1899-1902. Family: Married 1) Jarmila Mayerová in 1910 (separated 1912), one son; 2) bigamous marriage with Shura Lvova in 1920. Career: Worked for a chemist in late 1890s; wrote stories and sketches for several humorous and political magazines from 1901; also wrote and performed cabaret sketches; clerk, Insurance Bank of Slavie, 1902-03; jailed for anarchist rioting, 1907; editor, Svět zvířat (Animal World), 1909-10; assistant editor, Czech Word, 1911; conscripted, 1915; captured by the Russians: allowed to work for Czech forces in Russia, and staff member, Čechoslovan, Kiev, 1916-18; after a propaganda battle, 1917-18, left Czech group and entered political department of the Siberian Army: editor, Our Path (later Red Arrow), 1919, Red Europe, 1919, and other propaganda journals in Russia and Siberia; sent to Czechoslovakia to do propaganda work, 1920. Lived in Lipnice from 1921. Died: 3 January 1923.
Spisy [Works]. 16 vols., 1955-68.
Dobrý voják švejk a jiné podivné historky [The Good Soldier Švejk and Other Strange Stories]. 1912.
Trampoty pana Tenkráta [The Tribulations of Mr. That-Time]. 1912.
Průvodčí cizinců a jiné satiry. 1913; as The Tourist Guide: Twenty-Six Stories, 1961.
Můj obchod se psy [My Trade with Dogs]. 1916.
Dobrý voják švejk v zajetí [The Good Soldier Švejk in Captivity](novella). 1917.
Pepíček Nový a jiné historky [Pepíček Nový and Other Sto-Mu Tr ries]. 1921.
Tři muzi se zralokem a jiné poučné historky [Three Men and aShark and Other Instructive Stories]. 1921.
Mírová Konference [The Peace Conference]. 1922.
Idylky z pekla. 1974.
The Red Commissar, Including Further Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk and Other Stories. 1981.
Povídky (selection). 2 vols., 1988.
The Bachura Scandal and Other Stories and Sketches. 1991.
Osudy dobrého vojáka švejk za svétové války [The Good SoldierŠvejk and His Fortunes in the World War]. 4 vols., 1921-23; as The Good Soldier Schweik, 1930; complete version, 1973.
Maloměstský pitaval. 1978.
Lidsky profil Haška [Selected Letters]. 1979.
Zroutská historie. 1979.
Nejnovější český galanthomue čili krasochovník. 1985.
Tajemstuí mého pobytu v Rusku [Essays Selected]. 1985.*
The Bad Bohemian: The Life of Hašek, 1978, and Hašek: A Study of Švejk and the Short Stories, 1982, both by Cecil Parrott; "The Language and Style of Hasek's Novel The Good Soldier Svejk from the Viewpoint of Translation" by Frantisek Danes, in Studies in Functional Stylistics, 1993; "Cynic Hero: Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk " by Peter Steiner, in Studies in Literature and Culture, 1994.* * *
Jaroslav Hašek is best known as the author of the most famous Czech book, the antiwar satire Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejk za svétové války (The Good Soldier Schweik). Hašek wrote his only novel in 1921 and 1922, and its four volumes were still only a fragment at the time of his death in 1923. The book, which has since then been translated into numerous foreign languages and which for many foreigners is the only book in Czech they have ever heard of, was at first dismissed by the literary establishment of the young Czech republic as unliterary and detrimental to the national spirit. It was banned in the armies of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary.
During the author's life and for long after his death, Hašek's writing was on the periphery of Czech literature, and he was not taken seriously as an artist. He was a heavy drinker who frequented many Prague pubs, known as a joker entertaining the public and an anarchist fighting against authority. Many of his pranks shocked the Prague petit-bourgeois and engaged the attention of the police, the most famous prank being Hašek's parliamentary candidacy for his own mock Party of Moderate Progress within the Limits of the Law.
Hašek's principal work, The Good Soldier Schweik, did not come out of nowhere. His 1, 300 short stories and feuilletons written before and during World War I are a preparation, in style and theme, for the masterpiece. Most of these have high merits of their own. Hand in hand with Hašek's bohemian existence goes a certain unliterariness of his style. Hašek wrote in the tradition of popular culture, the "culture of the street." His fiction is full of fascinating types placed in ludicrous situations. Having a gift for brief characterization, Hašek does not dwell on his characters' appearance but rather on their actions and manner of speech. He uses the humor and often the means of expression of the uncultured classes. The scope and variety of characters and their milieu are amazing, and so are Hašek's thorough knowledge of their idiom and his ingenuity in inventing comic plots. Hašek's creativity stems from an immediate idea and verbal improvisation. The short stories read more like anecdotes, often structurally crude and obviously hurriedly written. They are mostly very short—usually less than 1, 000 words—as they had to fit the space allotted a daily feuilleton in the newspaper. Brevity affects their style; each story is a condensed narrative telling a single episode, bare of descriptions and using simple sentences with no literary adornments. The very first sentences catch the reader's attention and introduce a comic accent. For example, one of Hašek's anticlerical stories, "The Struggle for the Soul" (1913), starts ironically, "Vicar Michalejc was a saintly man with an income of 3, 000 crowns a year, apart from other benefits derived from eight additional parishes attached to his own parishes" (translated by Cecil Parrott).
Hašek's humor is not kind. His tone is sarcastic, bitter, and often cynical to the point of crassness. This is part of Hašek's antibourgeois stance. His bohemian negation attacks the powerful authorities and institutions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Bohemia was then part, and the sacred symbols and myths of Czech national life. His satire targets the church, aristocracy, army, schools, parents, children, Germans, Czechs, politics and politicians, and the bureaucracy. Typical of most twentieth-century Czech and world satire, it is also a unmasking of the emptiness of language and an uncompromising attack on the meaninglessness of official bureaucratic phrases and stylistic clichés of the administration, which become identified with the absurdity of the political system. Ever-present irony discloses all remnants of obsolete ideas and shatters hypertrophic applications of moral norms.
Hašek's antiestablishment ideology is aimed against convention and the absurd alienation of humanity. In this Hašek has often been compared to his Prague contemporary Franz Kafka. Both inhabit a phantasmagoric, dehumanized world of bureaucracy. What distinguishes them is Hašek's liberating effect of humor and laughter. The absurdities of administrative practice and its red tape are parodied in some of Hašek's best stories, especially "The Official Zeal of Mr. Štěpán Brych, Toll Collector on a Bridge in Prague" (1911), in which the thoughtless execution of orders without consideration leads to fatal consequences.
Robert Pynsent has identified as one of the most common of Hašek's types the schlemazel, an awkward, clumsy fellow ridden with bad luck who serves as a vehicle for satire directed at an institution. Such are Lindiger, whose business ventures go wrong in "The Coffin-Dealer" (1914), and the burglar in "Šejba the Burglar Goes on a Job" (1913).
Most of Hašek's stories are based on true incidents in his life. Hašek really did run a pet shop that, just as in the story "The Cynological Institute" (1915), was essentially a dog-stealing business. "The Psychiatric Puzzle" (1911) is based on another real experience when Hašek was imprisoned for a purported suicide attempt.
Although best-known for an antimilitarist novel, Hašek did not concentrate on the army until World War I. Antimilitarist satire is relatively mild in Hašek's prewar stories; for example, "Infantryman Trunec's Cap" (1909) is more of a satire on army bureaucracy. "At the Barber's" (1911), a superbly written stream-of-consciousness tale, though dealing with the grotesqueness of war, is more of a satire on Czech petit-bourgeois national and racial prejudices. An antiwar stance is more apparent in the first five Švejk stories (1911) and the 1917 short novel Dobrý voják Švejk v zajetí (The Good Soldier Švejk in Captivity), forerunners of Hašek's final masterpiece.
Hašek wrote most of his stories before the war for Prague newspapers. During the war he wrote patriotic political pamphlets for the Czech Legion's newspaper in Kiev, but those have nearly no literary value. The cycle of tales that centered around the Siberian town of Bugulma, where Hašek was stationed as a Communist commissar after he had joined the Red Army, is considered by critics like Cecil Parrott to be his best. Autobiographical in character, these stories show commissar Gashek (the Russian alphabet has no h) trying to create order in the chaos of new revolutionary authorities.
Hašek has often been accused of misanthropy; his humor may have been sometimes vulgar and crass, his satire biting and bitter, but his outlook remains essentially optimistic. His contemporary Karel Čapek, another famous Czech writer, wrote: "In school we were taught that humor is a spice. Today it seems to me rather that humor is not an ingredient, but a basic formula which one must apply when observing the world. Hašek had humour. Hašek was a person who saw the world. Many others just write about it" (quoted from the introduction to Průvodčí cizinců a jiné satiry [ The Tourist Guide ]). Hašek and his humor influenced many writers, including Brecht, Heller, Hrabal, and Škvorecký.