Jaroslav Hašek

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Jaroslav Haek (HAH-shehk) was born in 1883 in Prague, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, an alcoholic, was a schoolteacher who died when Jaroslav was thirteen. Although the family did not have much money, they lived in an affluent section of the city. Jaroslav was a clever but mischievous boy who was attracted to disruption and who held little respect for authority. After being expelled from grammar school following a rock-throwing incident, he was sent to work in a chemist’s shop but was soon fired. He had already begun writing, and on the advice of a potential employer, he returned to school, completing his education at the Czecholavonic Commercial Academy in 1902.

A walking tour he undertook in 1900 inspired him to complete a number of stories based on his experiences, and several were published in small journals. In spite of this early success and his exposure to a lively artistic community in Prague, Haek was not attracted to avant-garde ideas and did not aspire to literary success. In 1906, he joined an anarchist organization and began writing political articles and editing an anarchist journal; his activism led to a jail sentence for assaulting an officer during a demonstration. However, during this time he had fallen in love with Jarmila Mayerova, a woman whose parents did not approve of the relationship because of his political affiliations and his reputation as a drunken prankster. In order to convince Jarmila’s parents that he would make a responsible husband, he began publishing short stories.

After returning to the Catholic Church, Haek married Jarmila in 1910, but he was unable to maintain an orderly life. He was fired from editing the journal Animal World because he wrote articles about nonexistent species and advertised the sale of pedigreed werewolves. He also continued to frequent pubs. After a quarrel with Jarmila and a drinking spree, he apparently tried to jump from the Charles Bridge; although he later denied he was attempting suicide, he was confined for a brief period to a mental hospital.

Haek reconciled with his wife, but his hoaxes continued. He established the Cynological Institute, which was simply an unsuccessful dog-selling business. In 1911, he founded a mock political party and ran for office. By the summer of 1911, Haek had separated from his wife and returned to a life of drinking and partying. At the same time, he continued to write, producing scripts for cabarets and introducing the first stories to feature a soldier named vejk.

In 1915, Haek was drafted into the Austrian army, and in spite of his police record and his association with anarchist groups, was assigned to the Ninety-first Infantry Regiment. From eské Budjovice in southern Bohemia, he was sent into Hungary and then to the Galician front, a part of the Austrian empire now subsumed by Poland and the Ukraine. His regiment was engaged in heavy battle, and in the fall of 1915 he was captured by the Russians. Conditions in the prison camps were dreadful, but Haek was able to secure a position working for a camp commander and thus avoided undue hardship.

When a military group of Czech and Slovak volunteers, later called the Czech Legion, was formed, Haek joined, using his writing talents to recruit volunteers and churn out propaganda. During this period he was able to produce a second series of vejk stories, which was published in Kiev in 1917. Many of the characters, including Lieutenant Luka, are based on Haek’s acquaintances from the Ninety-first Infantry Regiment.

While working with the Czech Legion, Haek supported the Russian czars, but following...

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the Bolshevik Revolution, he left the legion for the Red Army in Russia and became a member of the Communist Party. Although he had continued to drink and was arrested on several occasions, his disruptive behavior ceased after he joined the Communists. For more than two and one-half years he remained sober and stayed out of trouble. He did, however, remarry without having divorced his first wife.

In 1920, Haek brought his new wife to Prague with the intent of helping to establish the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. However, he soon abandoned his political goals and took up his old habits. Unable to find employment, he began writing what would become the first volume of Osudy dobrého vojáka vejka za svtove války (1921-1923; The Good Soldier vejk, 1930). He was forced to publish this book himself, but the venture proved successful enough that he was able to purchase a small house in the village of Lipnice, where he continued work on the next volumes. He was also able to secure a publisher. The second and third volumes were as popular as the first. However, his carousing was undermining his health; he was forced to dictate much of the last volume, and at times his sentence structure grew incoherent. He died in 1923 without having finished the fourth volume.

Haek built his novel from his life. He shared with vejk an affinity for clashes with authority, a fondness for storytelling, and an attraction to drink, but character and author differ distinctly in temperament. While vejk adjusts to whatever situation he encounters and is almost always happy, Haek was an inveterate rebel for whom conformity was difficult. His biographers maintain that, despite the humor of his writing, he was for most of his life a very unhappy man.

Biography

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Sometimes a gifted writer is remembered for only one book, regardless of the number of works published. Jaroslav Haek (HAH-shehk) wrote sixteen volumes of short stories that are mostly forgotten, but his satirical novel The Good Soldier vejk became a lasting success and was translated into many languages. From the novel, Bertolt Brecht adapted a German stage play that proved equally successful.ek, Jaroslav[Hasek, Jaroslav]}ek, Jaroslav[Hasek, Jaroslav]}ek, Jaroslav[Hasek, Jaroslav]}

Haek, the son of a mathematics teacher, at first earned his living as a bank clerk but soon devoted his time exclusively to writing. During the years before World War I, Prague was a well-known center of talented writers—among them Franz Werfel, Rainer Maria Rilke, Max Brod, and Franz Kafka—who created a fertile haven of German culture there. Haek met many of these artists, but, known for his practical jokes, unkempt appearance, and drinking, he never became a fully accepted member of this circle.

At the beginning of World War I, despite his anarchist views, he became a soldier in the Austrian army and served until he was taken prisoner by the Russians—or, as some have charged, until he deserted. The independence movement of the Czechs had gained momentum by this time, and Haek at first sided with the nationalists. However, he soon joined the Red Army and wrote Communist propaganda while serving as a commissioner.

After the war he returned to Prague and resumed his bohemian life. Haek drew on his wartime experiences to write The Good Soldier vejk, in which he describes the limited enthusiasm of the Czechs to fight a war for Austria and the follies of war with unsettling candor. The plot of the novel contains many absurdities, but thanks to his skill in developing the main character, the author manages to make even grotesque situations grimly realistic. The war-weary literary world of the 1920’s and 1930’s delighted in this most unusual hero.

Haek was not able to enjoy his fame long, however, for he died in 1923. He entrusted his friend Karel Vanêk, the Czech humorist, with the completion of the planned six volumes of vejk’s saga. The book was banned in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, but vejk only went underground and reemerged after World War II, more popular than ever. He may find little space in literary histories, but the good soldier vejk, who dumbfounded officers of the Austrian army and outlasted the Habsburgs, the Nazis, and the Communists, will long be remembered.