Central and Southeastern European Long Fiction: The Czech Novel Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although Czech literature is the oldest of the Slavic literatures, its long fiction appeared relatively late, in the nineteenth century. This may be the result of the twofold handicap of the Czech culture mentioned by the great Czech critic Arne Novák (1889-1939): religion and nationalism.

Religion, particularly dissenting religion, or Protestantism, mixed with the national cause, first isolated Bohemia from the European cultural context, and when, during the Counter-Reformation, it was forcibly reattached to it, the national cause suffered. The latter meant that Czech publications were discouraged, and only at the end of the eighteenth century and then gloriously in the nineteenth did a national revival take place. This revival invested literature with tremendous responsibilities: Literature represented the nation. It set out with a grand aim to prevent the nation from perishing, and it accomplished that goal. It also laid the foundations for the future independent state. This nation-building role was fulfilled primarily by poetry; fiction had a relatively less prominent part in it. Nevertheless, considering the shortness of time, Czech fiction developed remarkably quickly and in astonishing variety, perhaps as a result of the central position occupied by the Czechs in the reigning cultural and particularly literary world at the time. Czechs were aware of the German culture as well as the triumphs of the Russian novels. They read the English as well as the French masters. Most important, the Czech novel embarked on a mission that continues to this day and that could be considered the most notable of all literary endeavors: the mission of self-discovery. It is in this vein that the first Czech masterpiece of note must be approached.

Humbly titled Babika (1855; The Grandmother, 1891), this novel by Boena Nmcová (1820-1862) is a portrait of her grandmother, whose gift was the power to transform the life of her grandchildren, who were doomed by modest circumstances. Hailed as the major fictional artistic legacy of the post-Romantic era, the novel succeeds in bringing to life an admirable character whose grace, charm, and wit have endeared Nmcová to generations of readers.

A direct antithesis to Nmcová is Karolina Svtlá (1830-1899). While Nmcová still represents a woman who honors tradition, occasionally transcending it in the name of love, Svtlá is a feminist often compared to George Sand and George Eliot. Contemporary problems, set against a background of country settings and picturesque local customs, are typical of her fiction. Representative of this type of novel is her Vesnický román (1867; a village romance), which proved to be a generic predecessor of a group of novels by writers predominantly concerned with the village novel but who belong to a later generation, such as Karel V. Rais (1859-1926), Vilém Mrtík (1863-1912), and Josef Holeek (1853-1929). In fact, the novels of Svtlá foreshadow, in a curiously incomplete and often frustrating manner, the main directions of Czech fiction in the nineteenth century: the social, the village, and the historical. An attempt has been made to place The Grandmother into the category of the social novel, but the works of Gustav Pfleger Moravskyá (1833-1875), Matej Anastasia imáek (1860-1913), and Josef Karel lejhar (1864-1914) better exemplify this type.

By far the most influential type of novel written in the nineteenth century was the historical novel. Here, the Czech Protestant cause—its defeat and what followed it—proved irresistible to nationalist-minded Czech novelists: V. Bene Tebízsk (1849-1884), Zikmund Winter (1846-1912), and, most important, Alois Jirásek (1851-1930). Jirásek covered the whole range of Czech history, and his...

(The entire section is 1543 words.)