October 22, 2017
Hasek's Good Soldier SvejkOn this day in 1923 Jaroslav Hasek died, aged thirty-nine. Like Franz Kafka, his contemporary - both were born in 1883, and Kafka died at forty - Hasek lived in Prague and wrote of an absurdist nightmare, but the parallel doesn't go much further. Hasek was poorly educated, nomadic, unemployable, a practical joker happiest in a crowd or spotlight, and his father was the farthest thing from omnipresent. Nor did they write similarly: The Good Soldier Svejk, the satiric WWI novel that made Hasek famous, is rollicking and episodic, and few would argue that it is skillfully or even carefully written, or that it matters much that it was never finished. Kafka was thin, tubercular, reserved, and agonized by the idea of marriage; Hasek died a bigamist, and is buried behind the pub where he held forth each evening, and where he eventually drank and ate himself to death. Kafka was fastidious; Hasek was an anarchist in his personal habits as well as his politics, and apparently Czechs today still enjoy this joke from The Good Soldier Svejk: "Tidy yourself up! We might be Czechs, but we don't have to let the rest of the world know."
Given humor "on a level with Cervantes and Rabelais" (Max Brod, Kafka's friend and editor), the novel has an international readership, but it has a special, enduring appeal at home. Asked in a 2004 survey to pick their all-time favorite novel of world literature, readers in the Czech Republic ranked The Good Soldier Svejk in twelfth place. There are "Svejk-style" pubs across the country, Svejk postal stamps, Svejk statues, and Svejk images everywhere - reproductions of the character as he appeared in hundreds of illustrations done by Josef Lada for the first edition. These capture the essential, irrepressible trait of the Good Soldier, whether on the march towards or away from battle:
Having concluded that they were too heavy, and that commanding officers could not or should not have too much time for reading, and that enlisted men could not comfortably make books do double duty in the latrine, the Good Soldier had left behind the wrong half of those novels placed in his charge.
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