Czech Literature And The Reading Public

Lecture given at the University of Glasgow
Igor Hajek Memorial Conference, 26th November 1995

In the 1960s, the whole cultural community within Czechoslovakia was involved very actively in pushing for a liberalisation of the Communist system. Its efforts were temporarily very successful, culminating in six months of almost total freedom during the Prague Spring of 1968. The Warsaw Pact invasion followed and, at a stroke, the Czech cultural community - almost in its entirety - was removed from public life and became 'non persons'. Writers were those most affected.

The 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion was extraordinarily successful. The invasion cast Czechoslovakia into a timeless, neo-stalinist zone for almost two complete decades. When the post 1968 purges "cleansed" the Czech cultural scene of four hundred writers, their place was taken by authors of third or fourth rank. Many of these people were still in possession of the high ground of the Czech literary scene two decades later, although, in the meantime, some new, younger authors had emerged. These younger writers naturally did not want to destroy their chances of publication from the outset and so they could not risk identifying with the liberal values of the dissident community. They mostly avoided blatantly political or otherwise "subversive" topics.

Some Czech writers left Czechoslovakia in the emigration wave that followed the 1968 Russian-led invasion and set up emigré publishing houses in the West in the early 1970s. It is important to emphasise that the post 1968 emigré community came from the same roots and shared the same mindset as the dissident community of around four hundred Czech writers who had stayed behind. Both Czech emigrés in the West and the dissident community in Czechoslovakia were children of the 1960s liberalisation process and its culmination, the 1968 Prague Spring.

There existed a relatively weak Czech emigré literary tradition in the West between 1948, the communist take-over of Czechoslovakia, and 1970. The arrival of new emigrés after 1968 gave Czech emigré cultural life a very strong boost.

From the late 1970s onwards Czech emigrés in the West collaborated with their dissident colleagues within Czechoslovakia very intensely, with a total unity of purpose. The dissident community in Czechoslovakia coalesced in 1977, into the human rights movement, Charter 77. People of widely differing political views made up the Charter 77 community. They were united by the common purpose of upholding human rights, thereby fighting for freedom in a totalitarian state. The Charter 77 community learned to work together very effectively, in an atmosphere of absolute tolerance. The same applied to the mainstream Czech emigré culture in the West, which closely collaborated with the Charter 77 activists and disseminated their ideas.

It is fair to say that especially in the late 1980s some of the younger officially permitted writers occasionally overstepped the mark and managed to publish remarkably independent-minded works in the official publishing houses, under the nose of the censors.

To sum up: it is very difficult to talk about emigré literature as such in the Czech context because the Czech emigré publishing houses brought out not only works by Czech authors living in the West, but also a considerable amount of literature by dissident authors living within Czechoslovakia. Notwithstanding an early controversy over Milan Kundera's emigré work, both the emigré and the dissident writers were broadly in agreement politically, philosophically and aesthetically. Both these literary strands now more or less merge under heading of Czech "independent literature".

In a narrower sense, it would be possible to define Czech emigré literature as that kind of writing which attempted to compare and contrast life in Czechoslovakia to life in the West, to map out the process of psychological adjustment of people who left Czechoslovakia for the West, and to broaden the horizons of Czech literature, by enriching it with international experience. However, Czech independent literature has not been studied in any greater detail from this angle.

Early after the 1989 revolution, there seems to have been a need on the part of Czech dissidents to show that their activities were fully independent of help from abroad. Within the Czech Republic, emphasis often seems to be placed on the primary importance of samizdat literature. It is interesting that even some major dissident writers - Jan Trefulka for example - regard the samizdat editions of their work as more significant than the printed editions which came out in the West. In an afterword to a 1992 Prague edition of Václav Havel's plays I found a remark which seems to interpret the existence of an emigré edition of some of these plays almost as a reproach. Western editions of independent literature are now often dismissed in Prague as inaccurate.

The only emigré publishing house whose existence was publicly acknowledged and whose work was quickly rewarded by an official Order of the White Lion, the highest decoration bestowed by the Czechoslovak Republic, was Skvorecky's 68 Publishers in Toronto. The other publishing houses were completely ignored. Attempts to publish reprints of major emigré periodicals, for instance the impressive annual literary anthology Summer Reading, brought out by the bi-monthly LISTY for ten years, or to continue publication of important emigré journals, such as the tri-annual 150 000 WORDS, featuring translations of the most significant Western intellectual debates of the day failed for lack of interest. Adolf Mueller, the owner of the Cologne-based emigré publishing house Index tried to organise Prague reprints of some of his titles after 1989, but after several occasions when Prague publishers stole his copyright, he decided not to get involved in what he called the new "publishing jungle" in Czechoslovakia. In the past few days, however, some Czech emigré writers and political activists, including Milan Kundera, have been given official state honours.

In spite of the intense efforts of Czech emigrés to smuggle independent literature, published in the West, into Czechoslovakia under communism, the emigré editions circulated in a relatively small number of copies within the country and were thus accessible only to a limited reading audience, primarily in Prague. Thus, for many Czechs, the phenomenon of emigré publishing remained unknown and mysterious, inaccessible, as if existing "on a different planet". While many titles, brought out by the emigré publishing have now been re-published in the Czech Republic, some titles still remain only in their emigré editions and are thus still inaccessible to most Czechs. Remarkably, four major novels by Milan Kundera, written in the West, those work that have made him internationally famous, have to date not been re-published in the Czech Republic. This is due to some unfathomable publication strategy, adhered to by Kundera himself.

I am talking about Czech independent literature, rather than dissident and emigré literature, but there are problems even with this definition. This was shown clearly in November last year when a conference on Independent Czech Literature and its situation, five years after the 1989 November Revolution, was organised. Some critics from the pre-1989 official literary scene had a hostile reaction to the conference. Thus Vladimir Novotny wrote in the literary journal Tvar: "Do only those writers officially invited to this conference represent "independent Czech literature"? What about for instance Vladimír Koerner (existentialist, inspired by the traumatic experiences of the Second World War), whose work could only be published in Czechoslovakia with great difficulty? What about Daniela Hodrová (experimental prose writer), whose books could absolutely never be published before 1989 in Czechoslovakia? Surely for instance novelist Zdenuk Zapletal (who attempted sociological analysis of life in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, based on personal experience) is much more independent than the officially celebrated dissident journalist JiŞí Ruml or the Slovak writer Martin Simeãka? Yet these people have not been invited."

Roman Ráï, middle-of the-road author of books with satirical undertones, also complaied bitterly in Literární noviny at the end of 1994 of being excluded from the stream of independent literature, and of his books being removed from the publishing plan of a Prague publishing house.

You can see that for many Czech writers, especially those who belonged to the so-called grey zone of official Czech literature, the events on the Czech literary scene after November 1989 were rather traumatic. A large number of authors who had been until then officially recognised disappeared from the Czech literary scene overnight. But not much later, crisis in Czech publishing hit even the dissident and emigré writers.

Immediately after the fall of communism, the Czech public was intensely interested in the mysterious phenomenon of Czech emigré and dissident literature. Unfortunately, state-owned publishing houses were largely unable to react to demand and to publish independent literature quickly after November 1989. The new private publishers, who started trading in Czechoslovakia early in 1990 (one of them was Alexander Tomsky, who speedily moved his emigré publishing house from London to Prague) struggled with bureaucratic legal obstacles as well as the considerable inflexibility of state-owned printing firms.

Tomsky's publishing house Rozmluvy was economically perhaps the most successful in the first post-revolutionary months. In the spring of 1990, Tomsky published Ivan Klíma's collection of short stories My Merry Mornings in what would now be an astronomical printrun of 150 000 copies. My Merry Mornings was first brought out by 68 Publishers in 1979. In the spring of 1990, Tomsky managed to sell 148 000 copies of the book within the first few weeks. Very large printruns were achieved by all other publishers who managed to bring out quick reprints of Western editions of samizdat or emigré works early in 1990. These books included works by Havel, Hrabal, a political history of Czechoslovakia by the editor of emigré journal Svudectví Pavel Tigrid and for instance an account of week-long political protests in the streets of Prague in January 1989, which were suppressed by the communist police.

To begin with, works by independent authors, whether emigré or dissidents, writers like Klíma, Skvorecky, Kohout or Kanturková, sold between 70 and 100 000 copies. Early post-1989 editions of poetry by emigré JiŞí Kol᪠and dissident Karel Siktanc sold twelve thousand copies. Throughout 1990, it was possible to sell at least 40 000 copies of a work by a formerly banned writer.

Soon, the situation began to change. A large number of private publishing houses was set up in Czechoslovakia. These publishing houses began churning out large numbers of titles, not only serious literature, but translations, factual literature and increasingly pulp fiction. The Czech book market became sated. In certain periods, for instance in November and December 1992, some 100 titles per day were published in Czechoslovakia. Book distribution could not cope with this wave of new titles. The state book distribution organisation,Kniha could not cope with the deluge and collapsed. Its arteries had been clogged anyway by a large number of books from the pre-November 1989, which were suddenly unsellable.

While Klíma's My Merry Mornings sold 148 000 copies within a few weeks, a much more significant work by this author, the novel A Judge on Trial, first published in London in 1986, was published in Prague in 1991 only in 15 000 copies, seven thousand of which still remained unsold three years later. The same was the predicament of major works by Ludvík Vaculík, Josef Skvorecky, Bohumil Hrabal and the Nobel prize winner Jaroslav Seifert. The major works of these authors are now often being sold at discounted prices, because booksellers otherwise cannot shift them. No work by Jaroslav Seifert, the only Czech Nobel Prize laureate for literature, is currently available in Czech bookshops.

Bibliographer Ales Zach remarks that a major drop in the value of previously inaccessible literature has occurred three times in Czechoslovakia in this century. After 1920, the same drop in value paralysed Czech literature dealing with the struggle against Austria and the efforts to found an independent Czechoslovak Republic. In 1946 Czech readers becameoversated with literature dealing with the experience of resistance against the Nazis and of life in the German concentration camps.

Critic Vladimír Novák wrote of the situation of Czech literature since the early 1990s: "Intense interest in banned literature lasted approximately one year. Then it quickly decreased. Book publishing was overwhelmed by the liberalised market. More and more new publishers brought out increasingly large numbers of titles. Then came sharp price rises. Booksellers who understand literature largely disappeared, being replaced by profit oriented dealers and distributors. Books that come out in small printruns are of no interest to these new enterpreneurs. But most independent literature is now published only in small printruns. Many quality authors encounter difficulties. Large distributors maintain that readers do not want to read Czech independent literature. It is impossible to establish whether this is true or whether the market is being deliberately manipulated. The position of independent literature becomes very similar to the current position of dissidents vis-a-vis the political arena. Dissent and its political values, as well as the values of independent literature has been pushed aside in the interest of pragmatism. Those writers who were not lucky enough or assertive enough to publish their banned books in the first two years after the fall of communism, will find it increasingly hard to get a publisher. I am afraid that many titles will remain unpublished. Is this unjust? This is simply how it is."

At last year's Prague conference on independent literature, Vladimír Pistorius provided some statistics. In 1990, the publishing house Mladá fronta brought out 27 titles of Czech prose and poetry. Their average printrun was 37 000, their average price was 32 crowns. In 1994, Mlada fronta also published 27 titles of Czech prose and poetry, the average printun being 1300, average price 54 crowns. The overall printrun of a title of Czech fiction dropped 20 times over the five year period. The Czechs were willing to spend five time less on books in 1994 than in 1990. The average price of a Czech book rose by 260 per cent over the five years. Fifty per cent of all the published titles by Mladá fronta were written by samizdat or by emigré authors.

Most Czech emigré publishers ceased operating shortly after 1989. The first one to wind up was the Cologne-based Index. Its frustrated editor-in chief Adolf Mueller found that it was impossible to find a reliable publishing partner in Czechoslovakia. This was the experience of various other publishers as well. Some of the titles of Skvorecky's Final Year of Publication Programme, i.e. 1991,which often did not come out until later years, were concurrently published by publishing houses within Czechoslovakia. Others remain practically inaccessible in the Czech Republic. An originally unplanned publication brought out by 68 Publishers in 1993, a volume, entitled Osoceni, Slander, has had perhaps the strongest indirect impact in the Czech Republic, although it was never sold there. Inspired by unfounded accusations, circulated in the Czech Republic, according to which Zdena Salivarová, Skvorecky's wife, a writer and the main spiritus movens of 68 Publishers, was a secret police informer, the volume is a large collection of harrowing personal testimonies of people, unjustly accused of collaborating with the communist authorities. Osoceni was edited by Salivarova.

Alexander Tomsky's London-based emigré publishing house Rozmluvy was the only publishing set-up which was temporarily successful in Prague, but its success did not last.

For twenty years Daniel Stroï published primarily Czech poetry in his small, Munich-based publishing house Poezie mimo domov. Paradoxically, Stroï's publishing house is the only one surviving still today. Like a true Don Quixote, Stroï now brings out, in small printruns, collections of contemporary poetry, which cannot find a publisher in the current, market-oriented atmosphere in the Czech Republic. Stroï is very critical of current political developments in the Czech Republic.

Many Prague critics feel that immediately after the 1989 revolution, the Czech reading public fell victim to illusory expectations about emigré and samizdat literature. They felt that the hitherto banned literature must be something extraordinary. When people finally had access to independent Czech literature, their expectations were on the whole disappointed. Why? Prague dissident author and critic Frantisek Kautman said at last year's conference on independent literature: "The community of dissident authors naturally comprised persons of varying talent. Some of them were excellent writers, others were mediocre. The first independent literature, published in samizdat, included works prepared for publication at the end of the 1960s and then banned. These authors were often influenced by modernism and existentialism and their appearance on the Czech literary scene in print after 1989 was somewhat anachronistic. The same applied to Czech emigré literature. The older, post-1948 emigré generation wrote in line with the tradition of Czech literature from the 1930s. The post-1968 emigré generation wrote basically the same way as Czechoslovak dissidents who had stayed in the country.

After the 1989 fall of censorship," continues Kautman, "large amounts of literature from other sources appeared on the Czech book market. Foreign literature was suddenly translated in large amounts. The Czech literary scene hastily tried to come to terms with approximately several decades of hitherto inaccessible literary developments from home and abroad.

Thus chaos ensued. Modernist works by authors from the 1960s were assessed by two different standards after 1989, both as works belonging to literary history, and at the same time as new works which had just entered the literary scene. Current Czech writers and critics are mostly anti-modernist. They are irritated by the political, anti-totalitarian undertone of independent Czech literature. In the view of many Czech writers today, literature should be "just literature" and should not play anypolitical role. Nobody knows how much independent and dissident literature has been sold. There is not even a complete overview of all the titles published in the Czech Republic since 1989."

Critic Pavel Janousek said: "Normal reception of literature is like a walk along the banks of the river. The river brings individual literary works to readers and critics normally one by one, in certain more or less regular intervals. Thus it is possible to take these works on board and to assess them. After November 1989, Czech literature suddenly came to resemble a river, whose weirs, dams and locks had suddenly all been destroyed. Thus readers and critics were glutted by a tidal wave of books. What happened to them is similar to what happens to a computer when you suddenly put too much information in it. The computer says: Wait, please, and starts processing the information glut. Thus the current state of Czech literature is a similar "time-out" state.

Unfortunately, there is a difference between the work of a computer and the reactions of the Czech reading public, continued Janousek. A computer works unceasingly until it processes all the information given to it. The Czech reading public on the other hand has become glutted with far too much literature. The originally banned book lost their oppositionist charm and became boring.

It is interesting, testified Janousek, who works at the Prague Institute for Czech literature, how the perception of literature has changed over the past few years among Czech school teachers. While immediately after the revolution Czech teachers would ask the Institute for Czech Literature which hitherto banned writers they should be teaching, now their questions are different. Czech teachers now ask: "Are we allowed to teach Marie Majerová (a left-wing writer from the first half of the century)? Am I allowed to mention Peterka (a pro-regime poet from the 1970s and 1980s)." This seems to show that at least some schoolteachers of Czech literature would like to go back to what they taught in before the fall of communism, but they do not dare so without asking the appropriate authorities whether it is permissible to teach left-wing authors or former communist establishment writers.

Dissident author and critic Frantisek Kautman nevertheless believes that in spite of all the cataclysms, Czech dissident and emigré literature has fared relatively well over the past six years, particularly in comparison with other strands of Czech literature. According to Kautman, Czech emigré and dissident literature maintained the continuity of the Czech literary process under communism. In Kautmann's view it is important that Czech independent literature has set very concrete, ethical standards. In Kautmann's view, there were no closely defined literary schools, trends or movements in Czech independent literature. It was very varied literature whose common denominator was resistance against totalitarian power.

Writer and critic Zdenuk Urbánek believes that what was particularly relevant about independent Czech literature was its dignity. This meant that authors strove to express themselves as naturally as possible and to think as freely as possible. In Urbánek's view, it is impossible to do so even today without considerable moral effort. Therein lies the legacy of Czech independent literature. It is important even today to maintain independence from moral, aesthetic and political stereotypes. To obey the dictates of the market is according to Urbánek just as destructive for a writer as it was destructive for him to obey the communist party. Totalitarianism taught a handful of Czech writers and publishers at home and abroad to retain their freedom of expression, in the interest of their personal dignity. That is extremely relevant even today. Let us try to return to personal dignity, says Zdenek Urbánek.

Young literary critic JiŞí Pelás believes that many titles of independent Czech literature, be it emigré literature or dissident literature are now dead, although different times interpret works of literature differently and it is not out of the question that further generations may find renewed relevance in the works which are now regarded as irrelevant.

Sylvie Richterová, poet, prose writer, literary critic and lecturer in Czech literature at Rome University warns that the current small levels of interest in Czech independent literature are the result of what she sees as xenophobic attitudes of Czechs towards their diaspora. This, in her view, is the legacy of the closed totalitarian system, whose values still survive in the Czech Republic. Richterová argues that by not being able to take on board the views of Czech swho have left their native land, such as the writer Milan Kundera, the Czech nation deprives itself of stimulating ideas. Scholars have found out that great inventors have one thing in common: asychronicity. Great inventors live in a time zone which differs from the time zone of the environment they have come from. Richterová feels that the people in the Czech Republic do not have the will to accept a different language, a different experience, different information and thus are not capable of transcending their narrow, home based outlook.

Be it as it may, in spite of the onslaught of market-orientated debased entertainment, and the dramatic change which the Czech book market has undergone over the past six years, it would appear that some people in the Czech Republic still read books quite avidly. This is shown by an analysis, completed in the spring of 1995 by Dr. Jan Halada and Dr. Hynek Jerábek from the Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University in Prague. In the autumn of 1994, these academics published a literary questionnaire in the publishers' weekly Nové knihy, which has a printrun of 18 000. One thousand readers sent in the completed questionnaire. The research was complemented by field work among 200 other Czechs, chosen elsewhere by standard sociological methods. Results from both polls were similar. The authors of the analysis insist that the poll is comparable to similar Western polls and say that it is representative of perhaps 5 per cent of the overall population in the Czech Republic who read books.

It transpired that roughly similar percentages of individuals interested in literature exist in all age groups. More than fifty per cent of people interested in literature had professional qualifications. Twelve per cent were workers. Only seven per cent were managers and enterpreneurs. Eighty four per cent of all those who completed the Nové knihy questionnaire said that they regularly read books even today. More than 44 per cent of the people interested in literature said they owned a library comprising more than one thousand volumes.

The survey unfortunately does not directly tell us anything about the current attitudes of Czech readers to emigré and dissident literature. By far the most popular author in the Czech Republic is Karel ‰apek. The other most favourite authors are, in decreasing popularity, Arthur Hailey, Dick Francis, then three Czech middle of the road, entertainment writers Zdena Frybová, Ludmila Valková and Helena Smahelová, and finally James Herriot.

In a previous reading poll, conducted in early 1989 in Czech libraries, followed the names of several establishment authors: Vaclav Dusek, JiŞí KŞenek, Petr Prouza and Zdenuk Zapletal. These authors have disappeared from the current poll, but they have not been replaced by the names of dissident or emigré authors. Instead, as the compilers of the poll point out, there is now a very wide range of other "most favourite writers". In the view of the authors of the poll this is a proof that the Czech reading public is now mature and sophisticated.

25th November 1995