Vladislav Vancura was a prominent Czech writer of the first half of the 20th century - and a brave man at the same time. His uncompromising fight against Nazism cost him life - he was shot dead by the Gestapo in Prague.
Vladislav Vancura was born in 1891 in the small town of Haj near Opava in Moravia, where his father was the administrator of a sugar refinery. He had four sisters and the family cherished the old cultural traditions of Protestantism. But as we hear from Associate Professor, Jiri Brabec from the Masaryk Institute in Prague, Vancura did not reflect these facts in his writings:
"It is difficult to seek the roots of Vancura's family traditions and expect to see them in his works, although it is well-known that in his most famous novel, 'Marketa Lazarova' he depicted several characters he knew from the history of his family. But Vancura was not that type of a writer who lives life and transcribes it to an artistic work. He did not describe the reality, but created a new one. And what caught readers most, was Vancura's unmistakable language."
It can be seen at first sight that Vancura took his particular language from ancient Czech literature - on the one side it is the language used in the Kralice edition of the Czech translation of the Bible from the 16th century, on the other hand it's a highly colloquial language, using even vulgar words and expressions. Seeing just part of any of his books, an attentive reader can immediately tell the author. His first two novels were evidence of a remarkable talent - 'Baker Jan Marhoul' and "Fields to plough, fields to fight on'. They were not outstanding because of their themes - one describes the bankruptcy of a small bakery and the other one features a story from WWI. It was their language which made them unique.
"Vancura's language is something that surprises even scholars of Czech literature. In these two novels, Vancura had become 'a poet of fiction'- and there were just a few writers of that caliber in Europe at that time. It's interesting that after those two very serious works, he wrote a novella, called 'Capricious Summer', a cheerful story describing a small private swimming pool and its patrons, which contains numerous grotesque elements."
'Capricious Summer' became extremely popular in the 1960s, when the Oscar-winning director Jiri Menzel made a highly successful film of it, which won several awards at international film festivals. After he wrote more novels, it has become clear that Vancura liked a certain type of character. They were strong, unbreakable personalities, personalities doomed to act, all this at a time, when European literature was dominated by the psychological novel. Vancura's novels are a kind of 'optimistic vision' of the world, a return to the Renaissance period of lively characters that enjoy life with all its attributes.
Vancura was an interesting figure also because he was always looking for some new field of activity; for instance he applied to the Academy of Fine Arts. Later he studied at the Faculty of Law at Charles University but finally ended up as a physician, and he ran a doctor's practice together with his wife Ludmila at Zbraslav near Prague. Vancura was always left-oriented, and from 1921 a member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, but he was expelled eight years later. Vancura was also keen on film and worked for the Czechoslovak Film Association.
"In the 1930s, Vancura was prepared for the war, which was inevitable. In 1938 he came-up with the idea of creating a kind of collective work by many writers, called 'Pictures from the History of the Czech nation'. In the end he started to work on it alone, and in 1941 he published the 2nd volume of the 'Pictures'. Here he ceased to experiment, and created a kind of chronicle. Also at this time, Vancura, just like his characters - strong, unbreakable and solid - started to work in the illegal anti-fascist resistance movement with the same certainty the characters in his books acted."
Fascism was totally unacceptable for Vancura. Like his colleague, writer Karel Capek, he considered it a malicious epidemic, which had to be fought against. That's why he took part in many public gatherings, signed all kinds of manifestoes and appeals. His reaction to the fascist danger can not only be seen in his 'Pictures from the History of the Czech nation', which documented the bravery of the Czech nation, but also in his activities in Czech theatrical, film and publishing circles of the time.
Although Vancura did have a chance to leave Czechoslovakia, which was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1945, and declared the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, he decided to stay and play an active role in the struggle against the Nazi regime. Unfortunately, he lost the battle - he was detained, interrogated and severely tortured, but he did not disclose anything. Under a verdict issued by the German military court the Nazis shot him dead on the 1st of June, 1942 in Prague. 20th century Czech literature lost one of its strongest pillars.
But regarding the difficult language he used, did Vancura have many readers in his time? Associate professor Jiri Brabec again:
"It is a kind of miracle, that such an author, whose works are quite difficult to read, and who presents a special kind of language, had quite a lot of fans. His first two books attracted many readers, although some of their sentences look as if they were torn out from the past and planted in the present time. It is a remarkable fact, that back in the 1930s, Vancura had a rich readership, although his novels kind of taught his readers. Vancura's readers remained faithful to him, because he did not attract them with something superstitious, they liked his experimental style."
Dr. Brabec went on to say that he could not imagine Vancura's works being translated into foreign languages - although some have been translated, mostly into German. But it's difficult to assess whether the translated books can offer to a foreign reader such a play on words and all kinds of meanings that they offer to Czech readers. According to Dr. Brabec it is more difficult to translate Vancura then to translate poems. But, on the other hand, films adapted from Vancura's novels were very successful and there are four of them. Besides 'Capricious Summer', 'Marketa Lazarova', which in a monumental way depicts the life of a Czech family in the Middle Ages, was a very popular film back in the 1970s. As in his books, in the films, too, the narrative role is strengthened most, while there is almost no space for psychological description of all the characters. Whoever wants to get to know Vancura and is not able to read his books, should see at least these two films, and he will penetrate into the mysterious world of this great Czech writer.
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