In communist days, writing inspired by love and passion between people of the same sex was largely taboo, and even today lesbian and gay writing in the Czech Republic tends to be ignored, despite having a long and rich tradition. Things are no better when it comes to translations of lesbian and gay poets and novelists into Czech. But the translator Sylva Ficová is trying to put things right, translating both into Czech and from Czech to English. She tells us more in this week’s Czech Books with David Vaughan.
I wonder how many people who admire the statue of the late 19th century neo-romantic poet and novelist Julius Zeyer just behind Prague Castle are aware that he wrote some of the most powerfully homoerotic lines in Czech poetry. Not many, I suspect. As in pretty much any other country, there is lesbian and gay writing aplenty here in the Czech Republic. It just tends not to be talked about. And until recently, you would have struggled to find anything written by Emily Dickinson, Katherine Mansfield or Vita Sackville-West in Czech translation. It was as if the poetry of homosexual love did not exist. That was until the Brno-based translator Sylva Ficová came onto the scene. We met to talk about queer writing in the Czech Republic.
“Although queer literature – as we might call it – exists in this country, it is not something that people talk about very much, it is not reviewed as much and I don’t think that many queer poets are being translated, although, of course, there have been many of them. “
Is that because of prejudice?
“I don’t know. If we talk about women poets I think that the problem is not only because they wrote poetry about love for women, but because they were women, because women in literary history basically used to be marginalized. And it’s something that we see quite often and we don’t even think about it anymore.”
I know that in Britain there has been a growing awareness of this imbalance in recent years. Can you perceive a similar trend in the Czech Republic as well?
“Yes, I think it’s changing, although there are some literary critics who still think that literature written by women is not good enough, but that’s something we just have to cope with.”
But the best-loved Czech classic, “The Grandmother” by Božena Němcová was written by a woman.
“Yes, that’s true. But not many people will tell you that they’ve finished the book! But we do have quite a few really good female authors, I think.”
To return to lesbian and gay literature specifically: the Czech Republic takes pride in being broad-minded – at least when it comes to sexual politics – but I was quite surprised when I was talking to a Czech gay writer recently, who was saying that he actually feels that it’s easier for him to draw attention to his writing in Poland, which has a much more conservative image, than it is here.
“I would agree, but maybe it’s because Poland is a more traditional and Catholic country, so once you are different and you want to be seen and heard, you really have to be very expressive and you have to be very open about what you write about and about your life too, whereas in the Czech Republic we are called the most atheist country in Europe, if not in the world, and maybe not many people really care about or are interested in people being different. That’s one of the things that always strikes me. It’s not only about problems with being gay or lesbian, but if you are different in any way in the Czech Republic, it could be a problem in one way or another.”
“There is only one poet, who I have been translating for several years, cooperating with John Freeman, who is my editor, helping me not necessarily with the style but with the choice of the words and of the grammar even, and that’s Pavel Petr. He lives in Zlín and who works in a gallery there. Now, actually, we are preparing a book of his poetry, which is going to be published both in English and in Czech.”
So, let’s hear your translation of a poem by Pavel Petr.
“Actually, it’s a kind of poetry diary or journal, so it starts with a date:”
23 June, Weepy
You saw my joy
and you had to leave.
Grief, my lover, will never leave me.
To have the courage to hurt you.
In sleep, separated from you,
and your hope.
That was the 23rd June. Let’s now hear the 25th June.
“Now we’ll see what happens…”
I might have hoped to live with you to see the first days
of the chilly
autumn we both used to talk about
with joy, we might not see as far as to
We’re getting through each other in vain, anxiety can’t
help us either,
together in the light between the laid-back wings.
It will snow only into my eyes, again
- - - is it contradiction to be
accurate in doubt,
to look for a friend? I’m writing you despite the
you’ve learnt with me - - - that a poem is only love and
I’m writing you since I’m terribly scared and calling for you
the legendary dark pain of the body - - - since I’m crying
they’re not my tears, you’re looking at me with pride
and desire and
they’re not your eyes, as you repeat to me
again, they won’t be
mysterious for me anymore - - - and my eyes,
perhaps humble, perhaps
calm, I’ll do all this
for you - - - I will give you even what you
don’t want, such
temptation I feel, it will leave us enough sleep
torment each other - - - when we
woke, I might have hoped but let’s part.
I love the simplicity of that poem, the combination of doubt with the precision of the language.
“Yes. I love his poetry. We’ve been friends for almost twenty years now and about five years ago he asked me if we could try them into English. For me it’s a joy really, because I like his style.”
It’s slightly ironic that you’ve been working so hard to draw attention to more women writers and here you are reading poetry by a man…
“… who’s a gay poet, by the way!”
Can you read us something by a woman?
“It’s not my translation. It’s translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood, but I did have something to do with the translation. It was prepared for the online literary magazine ‘Words without Borders’, which is trying to present literature translated into English to English-speaking readers. They usually have several issues a year, dedicated to various topics, and last year they had a queer issue. So Julia had the idea that we could try to find some Czech queer writers, and I suggested that there is one great Czech writer, Zuzana Brabcová, who would really be worth translating into English.”
She wrote a novel called Rok perel (The Year of Pearls)…
“It’s great. It’s a kind of autobiographical novel. It’s about a woman who is married and has a daughter. She falls in love with a woman and suddenly realizes that she’s lived her life in the wrong way. She has to change a lot of things. So I suggested that this could be a wonderful thing to do for ‘Words without Borders’. Julia agreed and she translated part of it. They’ve published it and hopefully there will be a book translation too. It tells the story of Lucie, a married woman in her late thirties. This extract is a letter that the main character wrote to a woman. Again, it starts with a date, as we had in the poem…”
April 24, 1977
As you can see, unlike J. K. I write confessional letters on a typewriter because my confessions are spiky, and, anyhow, if Mayakovsky could have a cloud in trousers, why not a heart in a typewriter?
The stuff in my room, which you know so well, including this portable typewriter, is growing roots. Sometimes, right after I wake up, I catch sight of them. They are visible but only in a parallel world, which looks how I imagine eternity. And sometimes, when I wake up, I catch sight of this world but—shock and horror!—I can never see my own roots in there. Reality is so. .. mysterious. Magical. Ambiguous. Maybe Marx was right. It’s all to do with the dialectic. What does it want from me? I mean reality, not the dialectic. I don’t understand where it’s hurled me. Curves, a typewriter, my heart, roots, Marx. There was this girl who looked uncannily like me, at least that’s what you said, hey, look over there, can you believe it, you’ve got a doppelganger, I didn’t know you had a twin sister in Italy—the chin, the nose, the long, angular Giacometti-like figure, the same walk. .. But you had no idea, Renata, how at that moment nothing was farther from that girl’s mind than being upright as she sprawled on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to the Venice Guggenheim Gallery, high on some shit, her face hidden by greasy hair, so you couldn’t really talk of a likeness …
That extract was from a letter, set in 1977. In fact the book was published around the year 2000. Sadly, Zuzana Brabcová died very young last year.
“She didn’t live to know that this part had been translated into English, unfortunately.”
The novel, The Year of Pearls, is a classic story of a woman discovering her sexuality and “coming out”. This is, I think, a fairly typical theme in Czech lesbian and gay writing. I have the feeling that in Britain and the US this is far less often a theme today as homosexuality has become more widely accepted. Do you think that there is a shift towards lesbian and gay writing becoming more mainstream in the Czech Republic?
“You can see it in America and Britain, definitely. I usually mention the example of the British novelist Sarah Waters, who writes historical novels with lesbian characters. It’s not really an issue for anybody. People don’t buy the books because there are lesbian characters, but because they are so well written. You read a book which happens to be written by a lesbian writer. There are some lesbian characters, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s well-written. In Czech literature I don’t think we actually have any writers like that, although I did quite recently read a book where you had gay characters who were introduced like any other characters. It was not really the topic. They were just there to illustrate something and not necessarily a gay relationship, but a love relationship. The book was by Bianca Bellová and I liked it. It was the story of a little girl, and the family had neighbours, and the neighbours were two men living together. The little girl wonders – what kind of relationship do these two men have? I think it was quite subtle. I think that she knows how to write about that. But it was not the topic of the book.”
In Europe at the moment there seems to be a trend towards more overt homophobia. We have seen it in Russia and I think there are hints of it here in the Czech Republic as well. Does that worry you? Do you think it’s a trend that is going to gain momentum?
“It doesn’t worry me personally, but I know quite a lot of queer people who are worried, especially those who live in small towns. I know that it’s getting worse at secondary schools and I was quite surprised that even at universities you find students who are afraid to come out. This is something that would probably never have occurred to me in the 1990s - that in fifteen years this will be a problem. We are going backwards probably, or maybe we have to experience everything we missed during communism, even the bad things. I don’t know.”
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