Selected Czech Tales/Preface

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


I am indebted to Mr Otto Pick for my introduction to and information concerning Czech literature as represented by the Short Story. He has endeavoured wholeheartedly and for many years to carry the interest in Czech literature beyond the confines of his own country, and to make Central and Western Europe, and the countries beyond the seas, realize the resurrection of a language which had been considered doomed for literary expression.

Indeed, for two centuries, the Czech language had been practically dead and buried. Bohemia suffered perhaps more severely than any other country in the Thirty Years’ War, and after their defeat in the battle of the White Mountain in 1621, the Czech nation as such disappeared from European history. The country became an appendage of Austria; the Czech language was repressed. It subsisted in a rudimentary and shrunken form in the rural districts, the homely speech of illiterate peasants. By them the spark was kept glimmering under the ashes, and when a stronger racial and national feeling again began to assert itself a century ago, the devotees of Czech national expression turned a loving attention to this spark and fanned it with infinite care into a brighter glow.

The moving spirit of this resuscitation of the Czech literary language was a schoolmaster, Josef Jungmann. What Dr Johnson had done for the English language, Jungmann did for the Czech. Single-handed he carried out the enormous task of compiling a Dictionary of the Czech Language. But he had not the advantage that Johnson had of finding his subject ready and highly developed; he had to collect the fragments of an impoverished and debased language, corrupted by the influx of foreign words. He recreated the pure Slav language from the old Czech literature which he unearthed, and from the peasants’ vernacular; he tested its power and beauty and its fitness for expression of poetic-thought by his translation of foreign classics. It is an interesting and remarkable fact that the work which practically accomplished this resurrection of the Czech language was Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Jungmann translated. Published in 1811, it inaugurated the modern movement towards fresh literary efforts.

Jungmann’s call did not sound in vain. It became evident that the genius of the country had only been waiting for a medium in which to express itself. The lyric and epic poems of Mácha (1810–1836), and two decades later those of K. Jaromír Erben, were the first original works to emerge, and prose soon followed. Two women writers, Božena Němcová (1820–1862) and Karolína Sv̌etlá (1830–1899), wrote novels depicting the life of the Bohemian peasants, while Jan Neruda (1834–1891) chiefly presented that of the bourgeoisie in Prague. The same milieu attracted Ignát Herrmann, whose delightful sense of humour and human sympathy endeared him to his fellow-citizens and countrymen of pre-war imperial Prague, and still makes this doyen of Czech novelists a favourite in the newly created Republic.

The independence gained by the Czech nation after the Great War has influenced the mental attitude of its literary men, who feel that they are now ranging themselves with the writers of other European countries, and the endeavour to command a wider outlook than their national or local interests has made them turn their attention more specially to the literature of Western countries. Thus the Brothers Čapek, whose plays are probably the best known works of modern Czech literature in this country, were influenced to some extent by Mr H. G. Wells, while F. X. Šalda, the leading literary critic, acknowledges his taste to have been formed in the school of French esthetes such as Saint-Beuve and Taine, and who applies their severe standards to his own country’s language, both in his own works and in those of others. Distinct individuality and strongly marked national features distinguish the work of each writer.

In this volume we present a number of Czech Short Stories to English readers. The scale on which it is planned allows only a small selection: some writers, well known in their own country, had to remain unrepresented. All those included are acknowledged to be of outstanding merit, and it is hoped that a larger selection may at some future time be possible. The more idealistic earlier school is represented by Karolina Sv̌etlá, Jan Neruda and Ignat Herrmann, while the modern realistic movement finds more marked expression in the two fanciful tales by the Brothers Čapek, Josef (1887) and Karel (1890), who are as remarkable for their gifts of imagination and satire as for the harmonious sympathy which joins their minds in their work. Others included are Otakar Theer (1885–1917), who unfortunately died too early to fulfil all the hopes he had raised; K. Čapek-Chod (1850), a powerful and earnest novelist, whose understanding of the labouring classes is expressed in the poignant story in this book; F. X. Šalda (1868), who often chooses a milieu other than that of his own country, and Růžena Svobodová (1868–1920), a woman writer whose thoughtful and individual vision of life brings the volume to an harmonious close.

For the design on the jacket I am indebted to Mr Josef Čapek; it illustrates the story “The Island,” by himself and his brother.