Author Topic: Cab Book Club 3-Serge Tribute-: "The Good Soldier Svejk" by Jaroslav Hasek  (Read 3556 times)

timebug

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I guess that Marc first read MY copy,before finding his
own. A book that I picked up (the yellow cover version
as shown above!) in a market somewhere for about a
quid! I had had it suggested to me as a book I might
like by a workmate,who had read it a few years earlier.
He was right, I bloody loved it. Brilliant,the insanity of
war,written by someone who knew his stuff,and could
point out the absurdity of patriotism,cant and nationalistic
fervour. Come to think of it, I have not re-read this for
a couple of years, probably about time I did so!

The yellow one cost me about 2 quid including postage on Abe books.

Brilliant,the insanity of
war,written by someone who knew his stuff,and could
point out the absurdity of patriotism,cant and nationalistic
fervour.
Given the inscrutable, slippery nature of both the story and the hero, the occasional anti-war and anti-religion asides by the narrator are strikingly blunt.
(In most of the bits about Chaplain Katz, there's an odd ambiguity- it felt like it was supposed to be a satire about the debauchery of the church, but a lot of the time I was thinking that being a clergyman is basically a pretty good gig, that maybe Katz has just found, like Svejk does, a way of staying out of harm's way through bluffing).

The paperback copy that arrived for me (exactly the same as the yellow one in the first post) had this; I read the first part on an ebook with a different translator, both were perfectly good English translations (although the ebook occasionally used slightly oldish words and no swearing) but they differ slightly so I'm re-reading that bit.

So there are three translations knocking about, the oldest being the
Paul Selver one, which has been criticised for cutting out the swearing, the Cecil Parrott one, which almost all of us are reading, and which seems fine, and a more recent one which seems not so widely circulated, by Zenny Sadlon. The first chapter of Sadlon's is here if you want to compare it: https://svejk.zenny.com/BookOneChapter1.html
(It seems fine, but I can't really see that it's an improvement on Parrott). Lots of the online essays and articles about Hasek seem to be by Sadlon, he seems like someone on a one-man mission to spread the Svejk gospel, and has a kind of fervour about him- see this angry 29 page letter he wrote in response to a negative review of his translation:
http://jacketmagazine.com/40/sadlon-woods.shtml


As for Svejk's motives - whether he is secretly in control of what he is doing, or a genuine idiot, I think it's more complex than that. Indeed, when you look at someone like Trump, you see someone who has learned behaviour based on what has been successful in business (which he is now attempting to apply in politics) and I think Svejk IS actually a simpleton but one that has learned that being a certain way has always afforded him escape from long-lasting harm and death. He is far too resilient through hard times to be a calculating intelligent being, as such people are never depicted as jovial and laissez-faire as Svejk is during moments where intelligent folk are blubbing their eyes out. He is following learned behaviour from experience and is too stupid and too familiar with censure to feel much hardship by it. That's my take.

Brilliant post, really enjoyed thinking about this. I'm still only a quarter of the way through, so I'll bear this in mind. On the basis of what I've read so far, one possible reason why the non-simpleton version of Svejk wouldn't cry is that he's actually heartless and nihilistic. (If it weren't for the perma-smiling pictures, I'm sure his claims to be an idiot would come across as more aggressive; maybe his tendency to make irrelevant speeches full of useless information would too. In the letter above Sadlon compares Svejk saying he's an idiot to something a class clown would say, and I think that's one way of reading it. A teacher calls an unruly pupil a "stupid boy" once, and then for the rest of the term the same kid justifies his behaviour by saying "I did it because I'm a stupid boy, sir" ).


I think of the three books we've looked at so far in Cab book club, this is the hardest one to talk about, it's taken me a while to get a feel for what sort of book this is. I'm going to be pretentious here in as much as I'm going to try and talk about something I don't fully understand. A couple of places I've seen Svejk described as an anti bourgeois novel or an attack on bourgeois morality, and I'm wondering if this could mean not only that the novel features working class characters and has lots of swearing in it, but whether this has some bearing on the form of the book.
Recently by way of comparison, I read Henry James “The Bostonians”, entirely a book set in a world of wealthy educated people with time on their hands and lots of space to think, and the book ends up having a psychological depth precisely because of this- the characters grow and change and suffer in long interior monologues. It feels like“Svejk” is not going to be like this as a book, because the characters are so caught up in their circumstances that the kind of stories that they take part in , and enjoy telling, are so much more like anecdotes about real things that happened, rather than narratives about inner growth. Maybe I'm saying that the inscrutable quality of Svejk comes from a refusal on Hasek's part to write too psychologically, from a desire to write about a character's life more from the outside.
  It also feels like something similar about the nature of someone like Svejk's life means its more a collection of connected short stories (like Trainspotting, of course) than the kind of ingeniously plotted novel that makes call-back to things that happened 200 pages earlier.

How's everyone else doing with this?

Shoulders?-Stomach!

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Regarding the attack on bourgeois morality, there is that aside from Hasek after section one concerning criticism of his use of colloquial speech in the book, really constituting a straightforward defence of a naturalistic choice of dialogue. I wonder if that contributed towards the book being interpreted as a defiantly working class one.

I think if I were to respond to that submission about the book, I'd say similarly to Catch #22, the book explores how bureaucracies apply morality, except in the case of this book, you see both domestic and military. As you'd expect, it's usually doing so in a deliberately pointedly critical way, using logical extremes or stunning hypocrisies, and Svejk proves an excellent character to be victim to the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune/foolishness, because he is apparently impervious to discomfort and cheerily embraces all forms of bureaucracy and didaction, so as the audience we are spared from having to read through the harrowing effects (Hasek deliberately underplays them when he can't avoid it) but can easily place ourselves in his shoes and imagine how awful it would be happening to us. So the satirical element remains as powerful and pervasive without ever seeming polemical.

With it being a Czech book I didn't get any sense that there was a Czech middle class, or meaningful distinctions between Svejk and the other Czechs - the only sense of class comes from Austria and Germany who exercise a heavily patriarchal role in the book, like drill sergeants desperately trying to whip the unruly Czechs into place.

So it's really more akin to Catch #22 in that its absurdity and cheerfulness smokescreens what is an understated surgical evisceration. I prefer this in tone to the likes of Kafka or even gloomier Russian takes on similar subjects.

Shoulders?-Stomach!

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"Try to pump glory into a pig and it'll burst in the end"

Howj Begg

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So I'm on ch 2.2. Schweik's Budejovice Anabasis. I'm officially reading the Cecil Parrot hb copy from the mid 1970s, but in practise I'm having to mix it up with the Paul Selver translation on my ereader as I'm out a lot at the moment. So, er, while not ideal, I get to compare some translation differences, for example Leuitenant Lukash's bit on the side Madame Katy referring to Svejk as a "horrid beast" in Selvey, and a "proper swine" in Parrot; I prefer the former, though it may be less idiomatic from the Czech. The Selver is, however, abridged, by as much as a third, so I do miss out on some stuff occasionally. A desperate shame, but nothing I can do, except try and consult the Parrot version as much as I'm able.

I'm loving it so far. I'm going to refer to some points made above, which i can remember reading, but may not be able to credit the author, so, apologies if I mention your thoguht but not your name.

The discussion about Svejk's motivation and mental fitness are relevant, and they were very much on my mind in the first part, but come the 2nd part I've started to feel that they are beside the point; Svejk is not meant to be a character portrait, of one individual, not even necessarily of many, thoguh his amalgamation and personification of Czech - and Czech working class - characteristics is at this stage the least one can say about him; whether he becomes a character with a specific history and motivations in the later parts I don't know. He doesn't have to be that, at all, to be good. Chaplain Otto Katz and Leuitenant Lukash are the most memorable and well-written characters so far, and they are fantastic: they have a roundness to them which allows you to predict how they might behave - one youve got almost to  the end of their sections that is, because Lukash especially was an ongoing pleasant surprise: the mythical decent superior officer, who has vices but is ethically reliable - perhaps the first character we could say that of so far. Katz is drawn with such affection for his vices, follies, and contempt for religion, that he especially is the great creation that stands out for me so far.

Svejk is not a character though yet, as I said. As personification of Czech working class culture, life and mentality he functions as an absence that anyone can project anything on. He's a deserter, a spy, a batman, an idiot, a cunning man, a fount of wisdom and total ignorant fool whose stories are a waste of time - unless you listen to them very closely, that is. So I think that is Svejk’s purpose – it’s to function as an absence on which all the characters can project an image of Czech life, and as many of the characters are authoritarian officers who have something against Czechs and Czech soldiers, they can find anything in there. But because Svejk is not a character, he’s an absence which can be filled, they fill him with their fears, prejudices and assumptions, and then cannot work out when he does not fit those templates, as the next thing he says seems either idiotic, or contradictory. It’s why his puzzling lack of personal needs is actually not puzzling – because his personification is that of the Czech nation, it’s earthiest elements, so he can’t really have an individual character. He has no personal needs, and he can be hurt infinitely, but he cannot die.
I don’t know enough to say whether this absence and projection mechanism is a comment on Czech life and culture: if it is, it suggests the ability to survive, thrive, and deal with the repressive regime and military insanity of the empire, a trait of mutation and evasion through inspired comic memory and story-spinning. It's a national genius maybe, to joke, evade and mislead the oppressors, but it's so ingrained that it's not done deliberately, it's a factor of necessity and human need, but it's also done with sly pleasure. It is however a defensive weapon, and it seems to me that Hasek is advertising that weapon very heavily in this book.
Svejk if you like, through his stories and speeches, actually writes half this book, so he’s some kind of great comic writer/actor if nothing else.  So the book is some kind of classic of colonial resistance literature, before that was even really a genre (Ulysses did it at the same time, of course, and Dubliners earlier). But I think it does express what the oppressors do to the Czech population of Bohemia: they are characterised as scum, cannon fodder, idiots, tricksters, dissidents, traitors, thieves.

As mentioned above, his stories contain satirical points which undermine the questions of his interolocuter (aside from tiring them out physically), and seem to be on every side at once: confirming the injucnctions of the authorities, but also subtly insinuate some major flaw or insanity in military and civillian laws in the Austro Hungarian empire. Not the least effect of Svejk's stories is that they shift the focus from his supposed misdeeds to those of others, but I don't think this is deliberate; Svejk in 2018 has some form of autism spectrum disorder with excessive volubility, so he just makes these mental connections for any theme that is introduced to him. I would love Shoulders – or whoever! - to tell us more about story-telling in Czech culture, and whether Svejk’s stories are reflective of a pre-existing culture; the form that is. The content we can judge for ourselves even without knowledge, and yeah my guess is that the stories are emblematic of Czech resistance and independence in their knowingly and unknowingly evasive tactics, diversions, nonsensical moralism meant to provoke laughter as much as shaking of heads. They baffle the literal-minded Austrians and officer class, who cannot understand the mentality needed to survive, when they are trying to think about the confusing content of Svejk’s stories, when they should be paying attention to the form: that is, the shaggy dog story meant to bamboozle. This is not Svejk’s motivation: Svejk has no motivations, it is the motivation of the dirt poor resistance culture that he personifies. Svejk’s mind is a repository of this culture, going back way into the previous century, and many campaigns.

As to it being anti-bourgeois novel; necessarily it is, because of when it is set and when it was written, but Hasek’s main aim, so far anyway, is against the insanity of war in Central Europe, and it’s creation by the monarchy and military classes. Specifically, it’s about the effect of the war, and Austro-Hungarian repression, on the Czechs, because that’s what he can report on , but it takes little imagination to generalise this to all similar colonial situations. Lukash is pretty bourgeois, but I don’t think Hasek has any particular animus against him; he’s the most sympathetic character so far. The sergeant who chalks Svejk up as a spy seems a typical petit bourgeois today – and maybe it’s the latter class Hasek shows most contempt for.

The life of boozing, jokes, shit-chatting is charming and seductive. Sometimes all it takes is drink, but as Svejk is the personification of this culture, it is he to whom people respond, and by drinking with him they enter Svejk’s world. Like an initiation into sanity and fellowship beyond nationalist barriers.  The lance-corporal and the sergeant both enter Svejk’s world over the evening of the "cross examination”, and end up admitting one of the key tenets of the lower-class view: that the emperor is a senile idiot and the empire is an appalling travesty for its inhabitants who would all ratheer prepare to be ruled by the Tsar, as a lesser evil. For me this is one of the most optimistic attitudes in the book: that anyone can be and is a fellow human who you can enjoy the lowest pleasures with, and bond over hatred of the high and mighty. Czech culture, as the source of vital life in the book, stands for all of mankind in its most amiable, most gregarious and non-judgemental state.


There have been so  many good points made above that I might try and respond when I can to those, but I better post this baggy monster now. Oh yeah, I agree that the book is showing a progress in quality as it continues; part 2 already seems a  step up into comic novel from running newspaper comedy stories.

Ultimately I want to say - I'm very grateful to be reading this, it's a fantastic comic masterpiece that makes me smile on every page, and all of the waffle above is as nothing to the fantastic lines and jokes, which I'd like to quote if I could. Thanks Serge.
« Last Edit: June 24, 2018, 09:51:08 PM by Howj Begg »

Have you all got to 2nd Lieutenant Dub yet? A marvellous cunt. A proto-Trump.

"You think you know me. You don't know me."

Shoulders?-Stomach!

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Quote
. I would love Shoulders – or whoever! - to tell us more about story-telling in Czech culture, and whether Svejk’s stories are reflective of a pre-existing culture; the form that is.

Not well read enough to say, but Hrabal's focus on similar themes and everyman characters/harmless eccentrics also struggling for survival/self-actualisation in oppressive circumstances may appeal to you.

From the small amount I have read there is a level of contented modesty and a yearning for simplicity that reappears. May well simply be a product of their country being repeatedly oppressed.

Howj Begg

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Not well read enough to say, but Hrabal's focus on similar themes and everyman characters/harmless eccentrics also struggling for survival/self-actualisation in oppressive circumstances may appeal to you.

From the small amount I have read there is a level of contented modesty and a yearning for simplicity that reappears. May well simply be a product of their country being repeatedly oppressed.

I found some Hrabal in Penguin classics. Thanks for the recc.

"Try to pump glory into a pig and it'll burst in the end"

Just got to this bit. Good enough to describe the empire, I'm thinking of it as a new motto for Brexit.

Must admit that I'm having moments where I'm getting a bit exasperated with this at the moment, I'm starting to wonder if Hasek ever had a moment where he thought "You know, this is a funny idea but it doesn't quite fit so I'll leave it out". The sheer number of ideas that start and then stop to be followed by something unrelated, it makes for quite a diffuse read sometimes. How's everyone else getting on?

Shoulders?-Stomach!

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Slowly by the look of things.

I think part of the issue is that the vignettes style chapters with self-contained mini-stories and mini-resolutions while the main story trundles on, work in a sense that a serialisation in a newspaper would work well, but over a longer read the main narrative progress is quite glacial. Also the vignettes themselves are variations on a theme. So I think the best way of reading is 40-50 pages at a time, then a break.


Howj Begg

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I'm on on p515, and I see no sense in going faster. I don't want to wolf down this extended feast. Episodic yes, but also rich in detail, Svejk and his comrades' stories particularly.

I'm reading other books at the same time mind you

Howj Begg

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So it turns out that Hasek was the Chris Morris of early 20th century Czechozlovakia, do we know this?  Or Baron-Cohen if you're less charitable. He committed public hoaxes, including creating a satirical political party, The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law. He invented animals as a columnist for an animal journal, from which he was promptly sacked. He faked his own death which made his wife leave him. He frequently vandalised property with anarchist slogans. He pretended to be a Russian spy on a mission to discover Austrian military secrets, and deliberately informed a hotel worker of this - the place was surrounded with cops, and there was a minor incident.
This is all before he was drafted, served honourably and was awarded a medal, then captured by The Russians, spent time in concentration camps, was Bolshevized, and joined The Red Army.
« Last Edit: August 05, 2018, 03:30:41 AM by Howj Begg »

Howj Begg

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Finished. 9.5/10. Indelible experience.  .5 knocked off for some needless repetition.

Thanks Serge.

Just ordered a copy albeit a little late to the thread.....

Shoulders?-Stomach!

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So it turns out that Hasek was the Chris Morris of early 20th century Czechozlovakia, do we know this?  Or Baron-Cohen if you're less charitable. He committed public hoaxes, including creating a satirical political party, The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law. He invented animals as a columnist for an animal journal, from which he was promptly sacked. He faked his own death which made his wife leave him. He frequently vandalised property with anarchist slogans. He pretended to be a Russian spy on a mission to discover Austrian military secrets, and deliberately informed a hotel worker of this - the place was surrounded with cops, and there was a minor incident.
This is all before he was drafted, served honourably and was awarded a medal, then captured by The Russians, spent time in concentration camps, was Bolshevized, and joined The Red Army.

Amazing life, yes.

I'm sure there's a section featuring a character who obtains a job writing for a wildlife journal without due knowledge or qualifications and makes a lot of shit up. It doesn't surprise me to read that this is based on his own life.

I've been several times to U Bansethu in Nusle, namechecked in The Good Soldier Svejk (as U Banzetu, I believe), as this was the setting for Hasek's anarchist/creative political party meetups (pissups). It has a songbird by the toilets and the staff are notoriously frosty to tourists and foreigners. There is no 'English' menu. That said, you can get a quarter-duck with sauerkraut and stuffed potato pancakes along with a half litre of Pilsner Urquell for the equivalent of £6.50. Now it's a clean down-to-earth pub/diner it's genuinely difficult in there to imagine those old days with pipe-smoking and drunken antics. Perhaps in the back-room there is a hint of that still.

I wonder how many of the myriad anecdotes are real. It's so difficult to tell.

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Re: Cab Book Club 3-Serge Tribute-: "The Good Soldier Svejk" by Jaroslav Hasek
« Reply #46 on: September 16, 2018, 04:19:58 PM »

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Re: Cab Book Club 3-Serge Tribute-: "The Good Soldier Svejk" by Jaroslav Hasek
« Reply #47 on: October 27, 2018, 03:22:48 PM »
Can anyone find any adaptations, film/tv for Svejk with English subtitles?

I'm only able to find German and Czech which is a bit frustrating.

Apparently some of the humour is lost in translation anyway, as there is some phonetic interplay between German and Czech running throughout the book, apparently part of a political subtext, which obviously goes missing once it's translated to English.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMehH5mCwd8
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwWexJ72MbI  (only clips)

Amazing how they found someone the spit of Svejk for this one. His eyes are a bit too shifty and dark though.

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Re: Cab Book Club 3-Serge Tribute-: "The Good Soldier Svejk" by Jaroslav Hasek
« Reply #48 on: October 28, 2018, 10:24:43 PM »
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Closely_Watched_Trains

Just watched this film after a strong recommendation and would like to pass it on.

It's a coming of age story set in a Czech train station during WWII and features many amusing caricatures and vignettes, as well as a similar comic sense to The Good Soldier Svejk.

Apparently this was critically acclaimed at the time and I can see why. Some of the editing is ahead of its time and has a great sensibility. It would be ripe for a remake - potential for a modern director to expand on it without losing the core story or character.

Re: Cab Book Club 3-Serge Tribute-: "The Good Soldier Svejk" by Jaroslav Hasek
« Reply #49 on: October 29, 2018, 01:09:40 PM »

Thanks for bumping the thread. There was an English language animated film of Svejk on youtube a while ago, but it's gone now.
It seems a bit strange coming back with my thoughts on the end of the book after so long, but here goes.
I did enjoy the book, by I think I found it a lot less warm than S?S! did- many bleak moments, such as the beating of the prostitute at the end of 3.2 just seemed desolate, rather than black comedy.
Though it's true that the book is more straightforwardly enjoyable read in short bursts-by the end I started to feel that the reader's exasperation that creeps in during a longer read, the feeling of being overwhelmed by the flood of characters and anecdotes and forgetting what the point is, was a deliberate choice by Hasek: the part that spelt that out for me was Svejk's short half-asleep monologue here:

From the place where Svejk lay a yawn resounded and he could be heard talking in his sleep: “Yes, you're right Mrs Muller, people are all alike. In Krapuly there lived a Mr Jaros who manufactured pumps and he was like the watchmaker Lejhanz from Pardubice, as like as two pins. And Lejhanz again was strikingly like Piskora of Jicin, and all four together resembled an unknown suicide whom they found hanged and completely decomposed in a lake near Jindrichuv Hradec, just underneath the railway line, where he probably threw himself under the train.” There resounded another yawn and it was followed by: “And then they sentenced all the others to a huge fine, and tomorrow, Mrs. Muller, please make me some noodles with poppy-seed”.

If a book like Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists tries to assert that Working Class Lives Matter, Hasek seems to be making a similar point by stating the contrary- that in the mad circumstances he lived in, all the little Jaroses, Lejhanzes and Piskonras don't really matter- their lives are inconsequential and a bit interchangeable. (and in the war, they are being treated as interchangeable pieces of cannon fodder). I think he makes you feel lost in this sea of half-people and half-stories for a reason.

An exception-that-proves-the-rule, I thought was the depiction of Biegler getting cholera in 3.1- his downfall is dwelt on, it's made to feel tragic. (Not coincidentally, he's an educated character). As such,3.1. felt like a much more straightforwardly novelistic bit, which would probably work as a standalone short story, but it also lacked the unusualness of the rest of the book. By contrast, most of the other deaths are dealt with really briskly.

All in all I like it, but I found it it a puzzling, mysterious book, and very different from the beery romp I was expecting from what I'd heard about it before. But I liked it! Thanks, of course, to Serge.