Christopher Harwood is a lecturer in Czech at Columbia University in New York. When I met him at his office on Columbia’s Upper West Side campus, we discussed Czech literature, the difficulties of learning Czech, and how Professor Harwood himself had become good enough at the language to teach it at one of the world’s leading universities.
“I guess I had a leg-up on Czech, having learned Russian from an early age and having already very good Russian as a teenager. I think I learned Czech a lot more rapidly when I started doing it in graduate school.
“After two years of having studied Czech I went to the Czech Republic for the first time and spent a month in Prague teaching English and a month in Olomouc at the summer language school there.
“It was actually when I was in Prague that first summer that I met my future wife, who is Czech. Certainly that relationship has allowed me to get at least the spoken Czech to a much higher level.”
Czech is unusually difficult, I think it’s fair to say. What would your advice be to the general learner, somebody who wants to learn the language and isn’t coming from an academic background?
“It’s not easy, and that’s something I have to admit to my students, they’ve bitten off a considerable task here. It certainly helps if they’ve had prior exposure if not to another Slavic language then to Latin or to German, so that the whole concept of inflection is not entirely strange to them.
“But if not, there are a lot of strategies they can use. Here at Columbia I’m fortunate in that most of my students are really very bright, even if they don’t have that prior experience, and they pick up quickly and they’re systematic learners.
“There are a couple of strategies for the more casual learner. There are certainly strategies for being able to have a basic level of communication without getting immersed in the really sticky grammar – learning the high frequency phrases and things like that, and formulae you’ll need to know to get through your shopping and everyday greetings and so on.
“But I think when learning any language to treat it as a kind of a game and to make it something fun. You’ll have to spend a lot of time with it, though.”
I presume the fact that the modern world is so inter-connected with the internet makes it easier for someone like yourself to follow Czech culture and for your students to get exposed to Czech culture, Czech news and so on?
“Yes, of course. I came to teaching Czech in an internet age and certainly it’s an enormous boon to get Czech Radio, of course, but also Czech Television broadcasts and so on from the internet.
“It’s also very useful for my scholarly work being able to access a lot of articles and databases from Prague and so on, without ever having to go there. That’s certainly a big plus.”
As well as teaching Czech language you also teach Czech literature – which writers in particular appeal to you?
“I love a great many Czech writers. I guess if I had to name a single favourite, it’d probably be Bohumil Hrabal, who I just keep finding new…riches in.
“Teaching Czech literature, I tend to use the strategy of trying to use the big names, the ones that people are most likely to recognise. Which I think really on a universal level is Kundera and Havel.
“I tend to use those names a lot when I’m advertising courses and so on, to attract people’s attention. Those are usually the names that pull people in, and then I try to get them interested in other fascinating contemporaries of those two writers, and also in the earlier tradition of Czech literature.”
Is there anything you would say is characteristic of Czech writing?
“Well there are a lot of generalisatons that are made and they probably don’t get made without a basis in fact – about the Czech sense of humour, the ironic sense of humour, a certain pre-occupation with questions of the Czech national character, often treated in a way that’s very self-deprecating. I think that’s typical. Also the traditions of Czech beer hall culture as exemplified in Hašek, and Hrabal as well.
“But like any major literature, it’s remarkably rich and diverse. The generalisations only get you so far: there are great Czech decadents, there are great Czech avant gardists, and I really enjoy all of them.”
Would you say – this is a theory of mine, and I have to be careful how I express it – that there are possibly some Czech writers of the latter half of the 20th century who weren’t or aren’t perhaps that brilliant but have big name in the world of literature, partly because of their back story, by which I mean the circumstances in which they lived and how they were mistreated?
“The canon of Czech literature in the 20th century, in the post-war period in particular has been determined…I don’t know if it’s been determined by political factors, but it’s extremely difficult to extricate it from its political context.
“I think one of the main challenges that Czech literary scholars face now is to re-examine the work of both the dissident writers and the reform-minded writers and to look more critically at their writing as literary art.
“And also to look at the writers who have been largely denigrated or damned by these political criteria, writers who to a greater or lesser extent collaborated with the communist regime, either before or after 1968, and who I think have not always had the benefit of an independent eye. So that’s definitely a difficult question.”
You teach Czech literature from the 19th to 21st centuries – what state would you say Czech literature is in today?
“It’s hard to say. By the way, I have taught even earlier than 19th century Czech literature – I teach one course on Czech culture, looking at literature and non-literary arts as well, from the medieval period on. So that’s also of interest to me.
“But as for the 21st century, it’s hard to say. It’s very diverse, I think there’s a lot of very good writing going on. Related to your previous question, I think a lot of the attention that Czech literature garnered internationally in the 20th century was again related to its political function, its social function.
“The dilemma now is that Czech writers simply aren’t being translated into English. None of them, virtually. I think the last new Czech work of fiction to be translated was maybe one of Ivan Klíma’s books, which I like very well.
“But I think no young Czech writer has been translated perhaps since Jáchym Topol. I think there’s a lot of good literature and entertaining and meaningful literature that’s been produced since then…
“I think Czech writers and the Czech literary industry faces a real challenge in finding some way to bring it to the attention of the international audience, and somehow convince them that it’s relevant.”
The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 22, 2008.