The Wonderful Years of Bumper Booksales: Michal Viewegh's enduring popularity

Today's Arts takes a look at the Czech literary phenomenon that is Michal Viewegh. Loved and hated in equal measure in the Czech Republic, he is yet to take the English-speaking market by storm. When he does, we too can expect to see his face all over the covers of magazines, and stands in bookshops dedicated to his considerable output. I met up with Michal Viewegh to ask him about how it was to be a writer in the current Czech climate.

"I obviously can't complain. In the eighties I wrote two novels and neither of them were published. They were banned from being printed for the normal ideological reasons. After the revolution came absolute freedom. I was able to write just how I wanted, and to publish whatever I wanted. What's more I became a best selling author, which was obviously really fantastic. I make a living and these are golden times for me."

Michal Viewegh has been around for a while. In the eighties, the Czech paper 'Mlada fronta Dnes' published some of his stories and sketches. One of the first of his books to be published was 'Bajecna leta pod psa', or 'The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living'. It has since been made into a film. Here is a snippet, translated by O. T. Chalkstone. The 'he' in the first sentence refers to the grandfather of the main character, 'Quido':

"On occasions he would spend hours feeding the budgies or playing Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald records at full volume. Grandmother, a fur coat seamstress, spent all her time at home sewing from dawn to dusk. Dragging her feet across the creaking parquet floor around an old clothiers dummy, her mouth full of pins. Quido's father did his best to stay out of the house. Together with his friend Zvara they would climb over the battlements at Vysehrad. They played hide and seek in the carriages on the sidings at the Vrsovice train station. Sometimes they stayed over night in the great hall at high school. They would do voluntary jobs and two evenings a week Quido's father attended classes at the school of foreign languages. Coming home late at night and reading under the small desktop lamp from an English textbook which he propped up against the cage covered in budgie excrement, he would at times experience a feeling tantamount to that of reciting the words of a mysterious prayer."

In the fine literary tradition, Viewegh's relationship with Czech critics is at times stormy. When 'The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living' came out, it was quite well received. Feelings about his more recent texts have been mixed. Lenka Jungmannova works at the Institute of Czech literature in Prague, she told me what she thought about Viewegh's novels:

"I think that he has generally in the last couple of years veered towards so called 'tabloid' or 'popular' writing. I think this has been a deliberate move because his success, I suppose, has brought more contracts and commercial ventures. Normally in 'popular' fiction, the author's voice and writing style are completely absent or at least suppressed. But with Viewegh this is not the case, and I think this is why he is so popular. He tells his stories nicely and what we think is going to happen, happens."

A point of continuous contention in Viewegh's work is how much of it is autobiographical. This is what Viewegh has to say on the matter:

"Maybe I play games with what is real and what is fiction more than other authors, but for goodness sake; this doesn't mean that when I write about things like the town that I live in or the job that I do, that I am writing about ME. One of the editors of 'Elle' magazine once called me up. They were doing some survey on sex and eroticism. She asked me if I make love with my eyes closed and how long my foreplay normally lasts. I said that it was personal and I wasn't going to answer. She replied that I write about these things all the time and so why was I shying away from them now? I told her that she had made a mistake and that I don't write about how long MY foreplay lasts and whether I make love with MY eyes closed. I write about characters called Max, Hugo and Quido, and I would be ashamed to be writing these things about myself."

Lenka Jungmannova seems to agree:

"It's clear to me that in his prose, Viewegh deliberately employs autobiographical detail. So he is obviously parodying this autobiographical way of looking at literature. This, I suppose, causes some people to look for 'the truth' or what is 'real' in his books. But I think mainly he is just toying with his readers in doing so."

But I will leave you to decide for yourself what to think of all this with another excerpt. This passage is taken from Viewegh's latest book, 'Vybijena' which means 'Dodgeball', and nicely encapsulates a lot of the themes that come up in the novel. Make your own mind up on whether it's a hit or a miss: