Czechoslovak Stories/Jan Neruda

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(Born July 10, 1834, in Malá Strana, Prague. Died Aug. 22, 1891, in Prague.)

The childhood of Jan Neruda was spent in the vicinity of Ujezd barracks and later in humble quarters below the Royal Castle of Hradčany. He was exposed to all the privations of extreme poverty. He attended the school of St. Vít and the Malá Strana (Small Side) German school, and then entered the gymnasium, where he remained till he was sixteen. But inspired by a desire to study the Czech language and literature he entered the academic gymnasium, later taking up law and philosophy at the University. When but a youth of twenty his poem, “Oběšenec” (The Hanged Man), was accepted and published. This started him on a newspaper and literary career, and three years later his first book, “Hřbitovní Kvítí” (Churchyard Blossoms), appeared. Neruda for a while after his graduation was an instructor in private schools, but he soon returned to journalism and became editor successively of several noteworthy publications patronized by the younger writers of Bohemia. Some of his best feuilletons were written for the “Národní Listy” and were fortunately preserved as examples of his keen wit, kindly humor, and purposeful and valuable literary and dramatic criticism. In fact he stands as the founder of the feuilleton in his own country, establishing through his wide culture a standard for that class of writing far above any of his contemporaries in France and Germany.

The sorrow he experienced through the death of a beautiful woman whom he loved, he tried to forget in numerous trips to foreign lands, memories of which he has left in his superb sketches from Vienna, Istria, Dalmatia and other Balkan states, Italy, Constantinople, Egypt, Palestine, France, Germany. Later he wrote short stories, sketches and criticisms until the illness which had been creeping on him for years made further literary work impossible.

Ever since the publication of his first book of poems, Neruda has had a field of his own in his frank confessions, tinged with irony and temperate, cold scepticism not typical of youth. His second work, “A Book of Verses,” was received with far more favor by a public which was now keener in its appreciation. Some of the poems in this collection, such as his “Lines to My Mother,” have become national lyrics and ballads. His “Kosmické Písně” (Cosmic Songs) are at times simple lyrics, again reverent national hymns with here and there the genuinely earnest longings of a great soul to humanize the mysteries of the universe and make its workings more intimate by an analogy between the fate of little nations and of great powers, as in the case of Bohemia and its military neighbors, and in comparing the tragedies and joys of our earthly life as individuals with the course of the planets.

Neruda’s “Ballady a Romance” (Ballads and Romances) is almost wholly devoted to his own nation and people. The poems in his “Prosté Motivy” (Simple Motives) are arranged according to the four seasons of the year which inspired the thoughts on nature and are the most exquisite contribution to literary impressionism in the Czech language. His last poetic collection, “Zpěvy Páteční” (Friday Songs), voices a deep consciousness of allegiance to a nation great in its ideals, yet greater in its sanctified sufferings and sacrifices.

Neruda produced one tragedy, “Francesca di Rimini,” and several light comedies, which latter have been popular. In fact, certain of these comedies were reprinted from memory and produced in trenches or in camps by the Czechoslovak soldiers who for over five years have been in Russia and Siberia.

There is a freedom and independence in his realism which makes his figures as clear-cut as medallions. They are usually characters in his own intimately known Prague, some of them drawn exclusively from types known in his boyhood home, as in “Povidky Malostranské” (Small Side Tales) and others from the wider Prague in “Pražské Obrázky (Prague Pictures) and “Různí Lidé” (Various Sorts of People). Social problems are laid open to the very quick in Trhani” (The Mob), whereas in some of his briefer stories there is the charm of contrast between elegiac sorrows and dainty touches of humor. The big human heart of Neruda never permits him to despise his types or individuals, be they ever so unworthy as far as virtue or strength of character is concerned. He tells the story of each with just a touch of mothersadness for the pathos of it all.

The story “He Was a Rascal” is, in considerable degree, autobiographical. His close knowledge of stage life through many years devoted to dramatic criticism is shown in the little sketch entitled “Beneš,” in which the grief of that character is for the real Sontagova who died of Mexican fever while on a tour of the western continent. His “At the Sign of the Three Lilies” is rather a daring piece of realistic writing. In “The Vampire" he wastes no more words than would O. Henry but his artistry is the more exquisitely apparent.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1948, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.