When a Czech poet goes on a reading tour of the United States, it can sometimes have unexpected consequences. For Sylva Fischerová the result was a book that offers some unusual and very personal insights into the similarities and differences between the two continents and into the nature of writing itself. David Vaughan reports.
Two years ago Sylva Fischerová went on the road, on a reading tour of the American East Coast and Midwest. She is one of the Czech Republic’s best known poets and a prolific writer of both poetry and prose, and we featured her poetry in this programme two years ago. Her latest book crosses the boundaries of poetry and prose and at times of language itself, as it is peppered with English words and quotes. Sylva teaches classical philology at Prague’s Charles University, and that was where I met her to talk about the book. She began by telling me that it came about more or less by chance.
“My only plan was just to do all these readings and evenings and so on, then to come back home and find everyone safe and okay. And this was the only plan that I had. When I returned and recovered from the terrible jetlag, I sat down at my laptop and wrote down a file, which I called ‘A Thonet Chair’…"
… i.e. a chair made by the firm Thonet. And that also comes into the title, “Evropa je jako židle Thonet, Amerika je pravý úhel” – Europe is like a Thonet chair, America is a right angle. In the very first paragraph of the book you explain what you mean by that:
Europe is like a Thonet chair, curved, twisted, curling back on itself, the backrest that I lean on as I write these words is even a double curve with a bigger and a smaller bow. By contrast, America is a right angle: one corner leads to another, the houses are square or oblong, small, big, bigger, smaller squares and oblongs, domes are few and far between, no Christmas Tree baubles; just straight lines and diagonals cutting through the squares: those ubiquitous fire escapes.
“These are images, and the images can be helpful in a way to grasp some important differences between the continents. So the image of the Thonet chairs means something curved, something turning back to itself. On the contrary, the image of a right angle means something completely open, open maybe to infinity, you cannot say where it ends. So this juxtaposition of the continents grasped my imagination.”
In a sense that’s a stereotype about Europe and America: the idea of Europe being introverted, complicated, perhaps self-obsessed, compared or contrasted with the huge optimism and scale, the never ending roads, the grid of the cities etc. in America. But you go beyond that in the book. You talk about what that encounter means in terms of your own writing as a poet and the experience of going from Europe to America – to this very different context.
“Well, of course, it’s just an image and we have to go beyond that. It’s not enough. So the opposition is not just about the optimism and skepticism – maybe not pessimism – on the part of Europe, but also it’s a matter of space as well. Europe is small, the United States is huge and there is a different feeling of space. This is one dimension of the thing. Another is that the narrator of the book is not me. It’s a poetess who goes to the US and is confronted with a different kind of everything – of space, of people, everything.”
You juxtapose philosophical reflection with very lively and sometimes amusing and ironic descriptions of events that happen during the narrator’s journey by bus across the East and the Midwest of America. There’s a scene where the narrator is accused of stealing a beer from a store in the middle of nowhere, where the bus has stopped and she is nearly arrested. That must be something that happened to you…
“[laughs] Yes, this story is based on a real accident, so the book is not wholly fabricated, which I think is quite clear to the reader. Of course it’s a mixture. You have to write about real things, but if you read some stories in the book, it doesn’t mean that it happened in the ways that are described there. This is what it is all about.”
Another significant part of the book is devoted to the narrator’s visits to various places associated with the Czech communities in the United States. She goes to the Czech village in Cedar Rapids, she goes to the Bohemian National Hall in New York.
“This is an important part of the book, which is also connected with some other levels, which are present in the book: the level of language, as well as the level of endings, because this is about endings and beginnings – the ending of your stay somewhere and your shifting, moving towards some new place, new continent.”
The Bohemian National Hall in New York, on 73rd Street, is an unbelievable building. It is a little cloud-buster standing among many more, some big, some smaller. It has a basement which has cells for visitors to stay in, which they call cloakrooms, and it has a roof from where you can look out at the rest of the cloud-buster herd, each of them is different, one pink, one black, each of a slightly different height, I cannot hear their skyscraper words, they don’t reach me, I just hear the drone of the air-conditioning and the generators on the roof, looking like grey rockets and powering the whole building, I go onto the roof to have muffins and coffee for breakfast, and in the evening I go there to drink beer from a blue can, I take the elevator, which is empty, because the whole building is empty, it is the weekend, and I have it to myself, a sleeping house of spirits…
… I take the shining silver elevator from floor to floor in the empty building – one houses an institution called The Bohemian Benevolent Literary Association, a Czech expatriate organization, which, as a notice on the wall informs me, once ran two children’s classes, a gymnasium, a restaurant with Czech cuisine, and even a bowling alley and a big hall for Sokol balls; those were the golden days when there was a restaurant called “Golden Prague” on the corner next door and one called “Lucerna” on the other corner, you can bring anything to the new continent, all these things that we brought with us…
You point to the fact that America is known as the New World – it’s not a new place, but a whole new world – and what happens when people go to the New World is that the fragments they take with them of the Old World change – they become something different.
“Yes, they must become something different. It is as if they are taking all the remnants with them and building them once more, so this is one of the ideas of the book. But when you build it in some other place, it’s different, it must be different. So it’s about the sameness and the difference as well. But the book is also about writing, because, if it’s written from the point of view of the poetess, going there and doing a poetry-reading tour there, it must also say something about this.”
It’s one of the things that come across very vividly in the book. We have the poet, who is out there doing a reading tour in a foreign country, a very different country, and she’s there because of her writing, because of her words – as you put it in the book – and there’s nothing else for her to fall back on but her words. That is why she’s there.
“You know, it’s not so easy that we can just say, ‘Yes, we write and it’s great.’ No, this is a strange activity. And so there is a confrontation between the consciousness of the strangeness of this writing activity on the part of the narrator, of the poetess coming from the Old World, and the kind of optimism on the American part: ‘Great, I’m a poet, I’m a poet, I’m a poet!’ So, what does it mean?”
I know from a previous interview with you, that you translate your own poetry into English – together with a native speaker – and that you’re interested in the process of translating and in the question of what remains and what is different when you translate. This is also something that occurs again and again in the book. There are some short poems in English, some extracts, some individual words that turn up in English, and that you reflect upon.
“Yes. The book is for the most part Czech, but there are hints in English, either parts of poems or just parts of dialogues, but also, it is mixed not only from the point of view of the language, but also on the part of the literary form, because it’s partly prosaic and partly poetry. So this is, I would say, a very special mixture. As for the language – in my first plan the matter of language was even more important than it is now in the book, but I realized in the process of writing that I cannot push things so far. So language is very important, and these encounters are necessary for the book, but I had to shift more to the process of writing. What are we doing when writing? Are we discovering something or is it just a kind of striptease, something that should not be done. So this was a crucial question for me.”
You say that this is not a travelogue, not a travel book, but very central to it is a sense of the narrator being taken out of context, being somewhere on her own, somewhere alien, and then at the same time being confronted with very personal experiences of finding out that a close friend has died, of the end of a relationship. These are things which are taken out of their usual context, of the narrator’s comfort zone, and in that sense it is very much an “on the road” book; you are there on your own, left to your own devices.
“Yes, exactly. This is an ‘on the road’ form and this kind of form offers me such big space, where I can write about all this, which I couldn’t do if there was not such a frame.”
So, would your advice to others be, ‘Get up and travel, and go somewhere, where you don’t feel quite at ease, and maybe you’ll see things in a different way’?
“[laughs] Well, you know, I think that if you planned to do this, it probably wouldn’t work.”