The Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek is best known today for his hilarious anti-war novel The Good Soldier Švejk. Hašek’s own biography, however, is perhaps just as farcical and action-packed as his most famous book. In this edition of Czech History, we look at the life and times of this world renowned author.
One summer evening [Hašek] came into our tavern dressed as if he were in his apartment. He was in short sleeves, wore slippers and held up his trousers with his hand. He confessed that [his wife] Šura had locked up his shoes, suspenders and coat.
He was on his way to the pharmacy. His wife was sick, and the doctor had given her a prescription. In order not to be making a trip for nothing, he had brought along a jug. Before the tavern keeper had filled his jug and before he had drunk a glass of beer at the counter, he played pool with us...
He came back a week later with a jug of beer but without any medicine. After all, the medicine was no longer necessary. His wife was in good health again. Too much so, he laughed.
– an excerpt from the memoirs of the Nobel Prize winning writer Jaroslav Seifert on his friend and author of The Good Soldier Švejk, Jaroslav Hašek (translation: Ewald Osers, George Gibian)
By all accounts, Jaroslav Seifert’s recollections of Jaroslav Hašek are typical of the writer who is famous today for his book The Good Soldier Švejk – the rambling story of a humble infantryman in the First World War whose natural wit and charm helps him avoid all the carnage without getting into trouble with the authorities. In the time since the book was written nine decades ago, its protagonist Švejk has become a kind of pacifist hero, whose many trials and travails have inspired other writers such as Catch 22 author Joseph Heller and the German playwright Bertolt Brecht.
The story of Hašek’s own life, however, is possibly even more tragicomic and eventful than that of his most famous character.
Hašek was born in 1883 at a time of rising Czech national consciousness. He was obviously affected by the heady atmosphere of that era and is known to have participated in anti-German riots in Prague when he was barely 14.
He later joined the anarchist movement and this naturally led to many conflicts with the authorities. He was frequently imprisoned for short periods and was once jailed for assaulting a policeman.
Besides his political leanings, he also lived something of a beatnik lifestyle, often dropping everything and going off on jaunts around the Austro-Hungarian Empire without a penny in his pocket, supporting himself by begging while hanging out with tramps and vagabonds, where he probably picked up all sorts of bad habits.
He began eking out a living as a writer and journalist when he was just 17 and was well known, perhaps even notorious, in Prague cultural circles.
The translator, journalist and Hašek aficionado Jan Čap says that the writer’s fame during this period probably had more to do with his legendary drinking exploits and anarchic, slightly surreal personality than it did with any literary prowess:
“Reading the memoirs of his contemporaries, I have always had the feeling that they viewed him as a kind of embodiment of Dada or surrealism, which they themselves were trying to achieve intellectually.
“He was also kind of a legend in cabarets and especially in beer houses and pubs around Prague, because he was a very good entertainer and storyteller as well.”
Although Hašek quietened down a little at the insistence of his wife Jarmila when he got married in 1910, he was unable to stay out of mischief for very long.
He soon reverted to his old habits and the pair separated a couple of years later. He returned to his old bohemian lifestyle – carousing and boozing and generally getting into trouble.
Memorable incidents of this time included getting arrested for pretending to be a Russian spy and being committed to an asylum for pretending to commit suicide by jumping off Charles Bridge.
He was to leave Prague for a number of years when he was called up in 1915 to fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the First World War.
This experience was to provide him with much of the material for The Good Soldier Švejk. Like his protagonist, Hašek was to see little action as he ended up surrendering to the Russians just a few months after he joined up.
Also like Švejk, Hašek landed on his feet and spent much of the rest of the war working in the comfortable office of a prison camp commandment.
He remained in Russia for a couple of years after the conflict and even became a Bolshevik, working as a Soviet Commissar in a small town.
This was one of the few times in Hašek’s life when he gave up drinking and he even led an orderly existence for more than two years.
It’s seems that he soon tired of this sober life, however, or perhaps his nonconformist personality could not adapt to the strictures of Soviet society.
In any event, he turned up in Prague again in 1920 with new Russian ‘wife’ even though he hadn’t bothered divorcing his first one.
Once back in Prague, he quickly began drinking again and hanging out in the working class neighbourhood of Žižkov in the dubious company of people like the famous anarchist rebel František Sauer.
Jan Čap says it wasn’t long before Hašek also started getting up to more mischief. This included helping to organise a farcical battle re-enactment to celebrate the anniversary one of the most famous Czech victories under Jan Žižka in the Hussite Wars:
“Franta Sauer, who was a hero of the Žižkov ‘underworld’, reorganised a re-enactment of the Battle of Vitkov for the 500th anniversary of the event in 1920.
“He organized hundreds of people with swords and horses and everything. They set about planning the re-enactment early in the morning at Žižkov Hill, which was a pity, because by the time they started in the afternoon they were all really drunk.
“In the end, they Czechs actually ended up losing the re-enactment! Hašek, of course, was involved in all of this through Franta Sauer.”
Sauer was actually instrumental in getting the first volume of Švejk published when Hašek began developing the character in 1921. Sauer also played a key role in arranging for the artist Josef Lada to do his famous illustrations for the book, which are now synonymous with Švejk.
As Jan Čap recounts, however, the artist was hired was in a typically anarchic Hašek fashion:
“The Good Soldier Švejk was first published in instalments, in little books. It wasn’t published at once. And he and Franta Sauer needed an illustrator for this.
“So they decided to invite this young illustrator. Josef Lada wasn’t quite a student, but he was far from famous at the time. And these hardened drinkers decided to pay a beautiful game with this young guy.
“Anytime they talked about Lada’s fee, they would keep raising the money he was to get. Josef Lada recalls how impressed he was to be able to work for these men, whom he regarded as legends.
“And the answer would be ‘Let’s make it one crown!’ and so they kept putting the money higher and higher.
Of course, Lada never got his money and he even ended up paying the bill for that evening!”
Although Švejk was a popular success from the outset, the book was not appreciated in some quarters.
There were many Czechs who felt Svek’s apparent double-talk and sneaky evasiveness offered a bad example of the nation’s character. Some also felt that the Rabelaisian vulgarity of the novel was not a good advertisement for the newly independent Czechoslovak Republic.
According to Jan Čap, this is one of the reasons why Paul Selvers’s English translation was much abridged.
“Many passages were left out. If you actually hold the book in English from the 1930s, it’s only about a third of the whole novel.
“I think this is because the translator Paul Selvers was also a diplomat. He was influenced by the Czech diplomats who were afraid that this novel would be seen to represent the new republic.
“And they were worried that that this rather anarchistic, and not very patriotic, figure would sort of spoil the image of Czechs abroad.
“So there is a story, that is even told by ‘Haškologists’ from the University of London, that they were afraid of the book and persuaded the English translator not to put everything in there.”
By the time a full English translation of Hašek’s novel was published in 1973, however, many Czechs had long since identified with the character of Švejk, and the uncanny ability of this “little man” to plough his own furrow in the face of overbearing authority had come to be seen as a symbol of their own non-violent resistance to cultural and political domination by more powerful neighbours.
Jan Čap says Hašek’s wonderful affinity with the Czech language also added to his credentials as a patriot, even though his own sense of “Czechness” was far-removed from the grandiose nationalism of many of his contemporaries.
“He could be seen as a patriot and I think he was, but definitely not in the way patriotism was viewed here at the time.
“He was not into flags and national marches and reinventing history. He was mocking that sort of stuff his whole life.
“I think he was patriotic in the sense that he liked the ordinary ‘little’ people. He was also very good with the Czech language. He had a very good ear and a sense of playfulness. I think Prague is glad to have a writer like him. And I think all cultures have some kind of hero like this.”
Like many “folk-hero” writers from other countries, Hašek’s attitude to life has captured the Czech public imagination to such an extent that he now embodies something more than a mere literary figure.
In the same way in which the Irish love the whimsical iconoclasm of Flann O’Brien, and Americans adore the free-spirited individualism of Jack Kerouac, Hašek’s own maverick nature and ironically subversive writings have struck a chord with many Czechs, and he occupies a similar place in his nation’s heart.
Unfortunately, Hašek paid a heavy price for the life he led, and like the aforementioned writers and artists, he also drank himself into an early grave.
Hašek was not yet 40 years of age when he passed away, leaving the last volume of The Good Soldier Švejk unfinished.
Jan Čap recounts a story that was apparently told by the owner of a pub which Hašek regularly frequented in his final days:
“The pub keeper usually went to bed upstairs, and he would leave Hašek in the bar, so that he could draw his own beer through the night.
“But the toilet was downstairs. Sometimes, the pub-keeper would get up in the night to relieve himself. As he was coming down the stairs, he was briefly able to see Hašek when he didn’t know he was being watched.
“And the pub-keeper alleges that sometimes he could see Hašek crying. But as soon as he came downstairs, Hašek would immediately become very cheerful.
“I guess they say a similar thing about clowns, in that there were actually two sides and two faces to this very funny man.”
Although there is a lingering sense that Hašek could perhaps have achieved a lot more, if he could somehow have reined in his excesses, this final excerpt from the memoirs of his contemporary Jaroslav Seifert appears to suggest that Švejk came into being because of Hašek’s dissolute lifestyle, not in spite of it.
In any event, like all great writers, Hašek’s life was inextricably bound up with his work and ultimately helped him become the renowned author we still read today:
He would sit at the corner of a table, and when he had finished a few pages, one of his pals would take the manuscript directly to the publisher… who would pay out an appropriate amount for the work done. Not a crown more, of course.
In this way, one day and one evening were taken care of; then the next day he would have to write again, if he didn’t want to sit over an empty glass.
Given this method of writing, one must ask, of course, how the book would have turned out if he had written it in peace and comfort at a desk.
But this is the eternal, fateful “if”. Maybe if Hašek had not written on beer-bespattered tables, in the noise of pub talk, among thirsty friends, because he needed a few ten-crown notes for beer, perhaps the book would not have been written, and Hašek would not become the Hašek whose name became famous all over Europe.