"The sky over the western horizon was a riot of colour. Small clouds, edged with burnished gold, drifted into the bright beyond. The scene in all its splendour, put me in mind of an explosive display of coloured fountains, or the outpouring of some demented painter, who had flooded the canvas with golden oranges, swimming in their own blood-red juice. It was as if a rainbow was glowing inside an open furnace. But most of all, it was like the sun setting in the mountains, and beautiful to behold."
A wonderfully lyrical passage from one of the classics of 20th century Czech writing, Zdenek Jirotka's humorous novel, Saturnin. This extract gives us some idea of what a beautifully written book this is, here in a highly acclaimed new translation by Mark Corner, the first ever rendition of the book into English. Written in 1942 at the height of World War Two, Saturnin is a surprisingly optimistic book. It tells the humorous and picaresque story of an idle young gentleman and his manservant, the Saturnin of the title, and not surprisingly parallels have often been drawn with P.G. Wodehouse and his immortal duo, Bertie and Jeeves. Mark Corner talks to Bernie Higgins about the book.
"I do notice the comparisons with Wodehouse, but I like it for its "Czechness" really, rather than the fact that it's a little bit like Wodehouse. There are certain differences, I think. It is a light comedy. It's a romantic comedy, but what I like about it is that everyone is a little bit mad in it, and perhaps a little bit mad in a Czech way."
I suppose that the comparison with Wodehouse is because it's the story of a man and his manservant, but he's not a Jeeves character, he's a rather wicked, roguish character. Could you say a little bit about the plot and some of the mad characters in it?
"Saturnin is a kind of humorous love-story, in which a dull, but decent person falls in love, and the only way in which he can succeed in his love is if he is perhaps a little bit less dull. And the only person who can make him a little bit less dull is this character Saturnin, who by various roguish stratagems, transforms the life of everybody around him. It's basically a light love story, but with a lot of mad characters involved, who have their own thoughts and ideas about the world.
"This is a short extract from Dr Witherspoon, the name I gave for Vlach, because I didn't think that any English reader would say "Vlach" - they'd say something like "Vlatch" - which wouldn't be right at all. This is Dr Witherspoon on some of the problems of what was the modern day in his time, about knowing exactly what you're getting when you go to a shop. It probably applies to today as well."
"Dr Witherspoon explained that this elderly gentleman would be appalled by such things, but that we ourselves were already accustomed to them. We read the sign and at once translate it mentally into simple, common parlance. "Gentlemen's Fashion Emporium" - that is surely a tailor's; "Designs, Decorations, Interiors" - that must be a house painter; "Manufacturer of Iron Structures" - that will be a small-time fitter with a single apprentice, because if he had had two, that would make them an amalgamated engineering works or some such title. "Tar Production Plant" - you would hesitate at that one. But don't be confused. This is our well-known friend the master slater, and the tar products which he needs he buys from a real factory. I happen to know him."
"The interesting thing about Jirotka is that he lived a very long life and he's only really become famous for this one book. He did write some other books, but the only one that seems to have a place in Czech hearts - and it has a very big one - is this book Saturnin, which I think is quite interesting. In fact I've even heard it suggested - not very seriously - that he didn't write this book, because it stands out so much over the others. He did write about half a dozen novels but this is really the only one that has become well-known. So I suppose it's a bit like someone like Joseph Heller, that this is the one book that he's become known for."
It was written in 1942. I wonder, is there any way in which you could have a political reading of it, because it was during the German occupation. Is it political at all, or is it absolutely escapist?
"I think it's escapist really, in the way Wodehouse is escapist. I just think that this is someone whose country is suffering the horrors of occupation, and in a way one form of resistance would be simply to put all that out of your mind. It might be a rather negative form of resistance, but something with its own validity, I think."
"The funeral of someone you know presents an ideal opportunity for making use of brand new sayings. You can comfort the bereaved family with the dictum that what may cut short a young life, always ends an old one. Where appropriate you can observe wittily that the dead have everything behind them, while we still have to encounter the grim reaper. Even more sharp-witted would be the remark that wherever they've gone, we'll all be following sooner or later. Such a surprising observation will earn you the heart-felt thanks of the bereaved and will substantially lighten the burden of their grief; all the more so in view of the fact that you will not be alone, but rather many other people will say these things to them. All the beautiful sayings will be repeated so many times, that a detached observer would have the impression that all those present were foreigners, people who had learned Czech from one and the same phrase-book, which had presented all these pearls of wisdom under the heading: "At a Funeral.""
You mentioned the way you translated one of the names. I'd be interested to know about the translation and some of the difficulties or challenges. I know you credit your wife Lenka for her substantial help with the translation. Could you say something about how you managed it?
"The problem with all translation, I think, is that you cannot be both literal and faithful, but where names are concerned it's particularly difficult. I could have a footnote to explain that Vlach shouldn't be pronounced "Vlatch", but then it becomes rather like a text book. So given the fact that the name, even if it's written in the same way, will not be understood by a native English speaker in the same way, it seemed to be better to go the whole hog, and change it completely, if necessary. So Vlach became Witherspoon. In one case there was a doctor. I think he was called Zajicek, and I could translate that literally as Leveret. This was a nightmare, trying to think of names. If I'd wanted to be literal, I feel I couldn't have been, but I have to say that I'm a little bit unsure about how that can possibly be done. Maybe the footnotes would have been better, but too much of a text book, I think."
It's a beautiful book as an object. It's illustrated by the renowned illustrator, Adolf Born. What sort of feedback have you had from Czechs, because it really is a sort of national treasure, this book? Do they feel that you've captured the spirit of the book?
"I really can't answer that. I have no confidence in my powers as a translator, no confidence in my powers as someone who knows about Czech. Maybe I do know a little bit about how to express things in English, but I'd find it very difficult to answer that. I would agree that it's a beautiful book that's very nicely illustrated. Other will have to judge the quality of the translation."
"At the door of the house stood a man with his head underneath a snow-covered hat. The hat was sitting on his head in a rather uncertain way that one tends to associate with a generous consumption of beer. A chubby little hand was keeping time, as he murmured some complaint about a deaf publican and an unrefreshed glass. I asked him what he wanted, and why the devil he was ringing my doorbell at two in the morning. 'Forgive me,' he replied, 'but I cannot find where I live. I don't understand what's happened. Whenever I get to a house, I find someone else living there.' I'm not able to recall how I looked at that moment, but I don't think that my face lit up with any gleam of comprehension. I simply couldn't understand how anyone could be so brazen as this little man. The thing was that I could observe a trail of footprints in the freshly fallen snow, winding from one door to the next, like a chain binding the whole street. A whole legion of unfortunate people had had to forsake their warm beds, just as I had, in order to listen to complaints about a house that was too irresponsible to remain in its proper place. It was a miracle that there was no obvious sign of anyone having laid a finger on him. Perhaps they were all struck by a wave of pity for this little fellow, lost in a sea of box-like dwellings, each of which was just like all the others."
Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.
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