Richard Weiner: a European mind

In this edition of Czech Books we look at the work of Richard Weiner, a Czech writer of the first half of the twentieth century, who was immensely influential on his own and later generations of writers and yet today is little read and little known outside the Czech Republic. Even within the country, among the writers of the period of the First Republic, he is far from being a household name. This neglect is very much undeserved, and one person who has been trying to draw attention to Richard Weiner and his legacy is the translator and literary scholar, Martin Tharp.

Martin TharpMartin Tharp What made you interested in this almost forgotten Czech writer?

“I would first say that he is not almost forgotten, but he is definitely a kind of minority taste. He was officially neglected during the years of “normalization”; not that they disapproved of him for anything that he wrote. He was not in any way a programmatic anti-communist, or even have much of a definite political position most of the time. However, they did disapprove of him simply for being Jewish, cosmopolitan and modernist.”

And that was enough to be going against the grain of socialist realism of virtually the whole period of the post-war.

“That’s true. At the same time I think it is not so much even a question of communist ideology, but he went so much against even a kind of Czech national self-conception. For one thing, he was very closely tied to artistic life within Paris, where he lived as the Lidové noviny correspondent throughout the 1920s up until the late 1930s.”

I think this is an important point to make. He was a Czech writer, but he spent most of his active life and career outside the country.

“That’s true… mostly in Paris and what is also interesting is that at the time when Czech literature and art looked towards Paris for their chief inspiration, he was actually there, and he knew people. Every time that a new book by Proust would come out, he would review it in Lidové noviny for that very week, even before it was translated. At the same time though, he was writing his own literary work, which is what his reputation is built on – even though his journalism makes such wonderful reading that you don’t want to pick up one of today’s newspapers!”

Here is a short extract from one of his newspaper articles:

In a single life the average person reads many a stupid book, sees countless bad theatre productions and hears endless hours of poor music, and so often trembles in convulsions before all sorts of colour imprints. Likewise he sees films that are foolish, falsely comic, falsely tragic. Indeed, so many types of tastelessness saturate our lives, let this be taken as fully valid coinage. If, though, one meets with the most stupid of stupidities that knows whereof it is and nonetheless hopes to amuse one, the reaction is to rise up in indignation against such a suggestion. For there is for me nothing more unbearable than when a fool has the daring to take me for a greater one. As far back as my memory can reach, I cannot remember having met with a greater idiocy than now exists in the cinema. That it precisely transpired in cinematography pains me, since up to now I have held it in esteem.

(trans.: Martin Tharp)

So we can see that he was an outspoken critic…

“Very definitely. But at the same time as this, his own writing, both in prose and in poetry, is very different. He started out as a poet, and I should add that, though he was from a Jewish family, much like that of Kafka, he was not from Prague, but from the provincial town of Písek in South Bohemia, an area where almost exclusively Czech was spoken – even though he was by-and-large bilingual in German. Secondly, when he started off as a poet before World War I, most of his poetry was still fairly lyrical and romantic, celebrating the strength of nature. That all lasted up until he was mobilized, first in 1913 to Bosnia - then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - and then again, after the attack in Sarajevo he was sent back to the front. He suffered a nervous breakdown, was invalided out of service, and during that time he wrote what I would consider to be his first truly mature work. It is a series of stories from his experience of the war, the horror of modern trench warfare.

“And after that, also in the immediate post-war years, he completed his second volume of short stories, called “Škleb” (The Grimace), which is in my view probably one of the finest things he wrote. Then he stopped. He stopped his creative work altogether, went to Paris, wrote his pieces for Lidové noviny, and did not seem to want to do anything more than that.”

This changed when Weiner introduced his friend, the Czech painter Josef Sima, to some of his French artist and writer acquaintances, most importantly René Daumal and Roger-Gilbert Lecomte, who were interested in the ideas of the surrealists, but at the same time had doubts about the Marxist and anti-religious tone of André Breton’s surrealism. Unlike Breton they felt that they could reach other poetic realms not just through the dream but even through mysticism or religious ecstasy. This encounter led to the emergence of a group called Le Grand Jeu (The Big Game). From the start Weiner played an important role in the group, in the process falling in love with the much younger Lecomte. The encounter was to influence his literary career.

“He returned to writing poetry and eventually to his last volume of prose. But the one thing to remember is that after his two final prose volumes, he increasingly suffered from stomach trouble, which turned out to be cancer of the stomach. In 1936 he left Paris, returned to Prague, moved in with his sister and within a year he was dead, almost as if he knew what was coming.”

As someone of Jewish origin, he would have been unlike to have survived the Holocaust.

“I have chosen an extract from one of his stories called ‘The Voice in the Telephone’, from the volume, ‘The Grimace’. I should begin by explaining the plot of it. It is the story of a man who refers to himself as a hermit of the metropolis, a solitary confirmed bachelor. One day, sitting in his usual chair in the café, he is called to the telephone. A mysterious female voice on the telephone says to him, ‘I’m in love with you, but I can’t reveal who I am.’ In fact, throughout the story, he never finds out who this person is. This extract is from the middle of the story:"

Fourteen days had passed since that encounter in the café, and I had seen no persons unknown to me. Today, however, the voice again spoke into the telephone, and into that instrument for which we had made our agreement – so laugh, if you so wish. In any event, you may think whatever thought you find preferable.

“What is it that you demand? That I had promised, while making my invitation, that I would come as well? If I had wished to reveal myself, would I have chosen so convoluted a path? And if I love you, of which you have no doubt, fearing all the while to appear before you, would I have wished upon you such an awkward situation? I never have seen that woman whom you describe.”

“Such a turn of phrase is one we occasionally use if we speak of ourselves. But this joke has gone a bit stale. I know that the unknown woman was you.”

“Is that what you believe?”

“More than believe: know!”

“Then all that I can now do is to disappear forever. For you have betrayed me.”

“I betrayed you?!”

“Yes, for you do not believe the only thing that is reality: the word.”

“You promised me a sign. Now give it!”

“I have given you countless signs for you to believe that I am who I am.”

“I never noticed a one of them, and asked you in vain for a sign that was apparent. In addition, I have no doubts that you are who you are.”

After a pause, she spoke:

“There is no time for jesting. Was it not I who started this fermentation in your mind? Was not I the cause of it, when upon that one day you noticed how long the path may be towards others, yet for all that a path of which you had never known before? Was I not the cause of it, when you began to notice with much closer attention things diminutive and subordinate? Who else but I whipped up within you the desire, and the question of whether you are indeed attractive to women? And why, then, do you persist along that course that leads nowhere, unless it is to death.”

(trans.: Martin Tharp)

There is a very distinct similarity to Kafka in this writing.

“I would say very definitely that it is similar to Kafka, but at the same time, you could also find so many other references in this, because he bore so much of the world of Habsburg Vienna within himself, and at the same time was able to touch upon equally the world of French modernism, of the great importance of the dream and the unconscious, and the unknowable. The way that he was able in his life to bring these two elements together really does mark him out as a kind of genius of the twentieth century. But at the same time, he really is, because of it, outside of even the main currents of Czech modernism, which were -most of them – born around 1900 and too young to be called up for military service. They simply saw the new world, the post-war order, as a kind of ecstatic liberation, which Weiner never did. He never could have. And of course for that reason their ecstatic liberation included an enchantment with Marxism and later, in the case of many of them, they turned into complete cultural functionaries after the communist coup of 1948, a form of mental coarseness which Weiner never had. This made him perhaps more influential for dissident literary life in the 70s and 80s. He was to a certain extent rediscovered during that time as someone who did not succumb to these siren-songs of modernity.”

And he has never been translated into English.

“That is something I have always found strange – that no one has yet taken him up, possibly because his own command of Czech is very unusual. He had a great love for archaic forms of grammar, even deliberate archaisms of style that at the time when he wrote must have sounded more than a bit strange or backwards.”

You have taken up the challenge of translating some of his work.

“I have done so, I think, because he really is a kind of European mind, that brings in the experience of trench warfare in Serbia, of cafés of a provincial capital of the Habsburg Empire and a close connection with the Parisian avant-garde, as well as just the fact that his stories are just so enjoyable to read at the end of the day.”