Bohuslava Bradbrook. A Handbook of Czech Prose Writing: 1940-2005.
Bohuslava Bradbrook was educated first at Charles University in Prague and later after her escape from Czechoslovakia in 1952, at Oxford University in England. Hers is an interesting life story of an emigre that she so colorfully described in her autobiography titled The Liberating Beauty of Little Things? For the title of her book she adapted the quote from the well-known Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938). It is not by coincidence then to learn that her dissertation at Oxford in 1958 was on apek and that she later published a book analyzing Capek's writings. (2) William Harkins of Columbia University, who had published previously a critical study of Capek in the sixties, (3) reviewed her book as a welcome addition to Capek' s literary studies. (4)
In her handbook of Czech Prose Writing 1940-2005, she profiles 35 Czech writers, including both, those who lived, wrote and published in the post-war Czechoslovakia (Vladimir Neff, Bohumil Hrabal, Frantisek Kozik, Jindriska Smetanova, Vladimir Paral and Ludvik Vaculik among others), as well as those who emigrated after the country became Communist in 1948 and continued to live and write in exile (e.g. Egon Hostovsky, Ferdinand Peroutka, and Viktor Fischl). A third group consists of those writers who published first in Czechoslovakia, emigrated after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and have continued writing in their newly adopted country, such as Pavel Kohout (in Germany and Austria), Milan Kundera (in France), Arnost Lustig (in the U.S.A.), Josef Skvorecky and Zdena Salivarova (in Canada).
In her preface, Bradbrook calls her book a "modest publication" (5) and it is certainly not out of false modesty that she recognizes that her book is not a definite history of the Czech post--WWII literature. Although her selection of Czech writings is somewhat uneven, highly personal, and strongly influenced by her anticommunist political views as well as by her life experience of an emigre, one has to take into consideration that the author had limited access to Czech literature written in Czechoslovakia during the 1950s and early 1960s. In addition, writing in English about Czech literature is further complicated by the paucity of English translations of Czech writings. Although some names of Czech writers, such as Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, Ivan Klima, and Arnost Lustig, have entered into the world literary canon, many are still unknown to a reader of world literature (e.g. Frantisek Kozik, Jan Otcenasek, Jan Trefulka and others).
Bradbrook claims that her choice of books was guided by--in her own words --"what could appeal to the English speaking world ... what could be close enough to their way of thinking." (6) How far reaching in her mind is the "English speaking world," she does not explain; neither does she define what it is that may or may not be appealing to the English speaking people of the world. Since Bradbook has lived most of her life in England, one has to assume that she most likely thinks of the readers in her adopted country.
Judging by the dedication of the book "To the members of my former Czech Literature class ...," Bradbrook presented some of these Czech novels and stories to a literature class that she taught at the University of the Third Age in Cambridge. By her own admission, she has been a life-long reader of Czech literature and has published articles and reviews dealing with Czech writings in scholarly journals,v
In her book on Czech prose writing, she gives a brief biographical note on each of her selected writers and then selects one or two of their more or less typical novels. She then retells the story of the novel and adds her critical comments. For example:
(Biography) Arnost Lustig (born 1926), son of Prague retailer, was expelled from his school because of his Jewish origin. In 1942 he was sent to the ghetto in Terezin and transported to the concentration camps in Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, respectively. Shortly before the end of the war he managed to escape from the death transport for Dachau. (Novel) The heroine, Dita Sax. represents in this novel the type of young Jewish people who had survived the Holocaust, having entered the hell as children and left it after the liberation, still "too young to be left on their own and too grown-up to allow anyone to look after them." Dita, aged eighteen, lost both her parents in the gas chambers of the Nazi camps and experienced horrors which have marked her for the rest of her life. She now lives in a home for orphaned Jewish girls, is employed in the archives of the Jewish community, studies arts and crafts and socializes with other girls in the home, as well as with the boys from a similar, nearby home. She is attractive and would, in normal circumstances, easily find a loving partner for a happy life: yet, she seems to be wavering, undecided, not knowing how to do any better. (Critical comments) Lustig achieves a great power of expression by the intensity of his style. He writes in short sentences, just as the human mind tends to flicker from one thought to another, and they frequently conclude in unusual metaphors ...
Chapters of the Handbook are arranged alphabetically by the writers' last names and they read more like individual book reviews than a coherent literary history. It is most unfortunate that the arrangement of authors is alphabetical. Grouping them by place, where they were primarily published or by some other criteria, might have given the author of the book an opportunity to compare more critically the writers' works of fiction and put them in the context of a Czech literary history. This is not to say however that the book is not valuable for understanding Czech literary history that included two diametrically different environments and conditions: one produced in the Communist country where censorship often ruled and one produced in the countries where free expression was a norm.
Bradbrook especially recognizes the role of irony, satire, allegory, and black humor that Czech authors often used to describe difficult or depressing situations, as well as a device to outwit the censors. Appropriately, she includes in her book a few illustrations by a Czech caricaturist, Jiri Jirasek, that poignantly picture the oppressive political climate in Czechoslovakia after the Russian invasion of 1968.
Bradbrook's book is definitely a significant contribution to popularizing Czech literature and making it known to English-speaking readers. She hopes that it will serve as a guide to potential translators in the future. This reviewer shares her hope.
(1) Bradbrook, Bahuslava. The Liberating Beauty of Little Things: Decision, Adversity, and Reckoning in a Refugee's Journey from Prague to Cambridge. Portland, OR: Alpha Press, 2000. The book was also published in Czech under the title Osvobozujici Krasa Malvch Veci: Uprchlicka Odysea z Prahy do Cambridge. Brno: Prius, 2002.
(2) Bradbrook, Bohuslava. Karel Capek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance and Trust. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.
(3) Harkins, William Edward. Karel Capek. New York: Columbia UP, 1962.
(4) The review was published in the Slavic Review. 58.4, Special Issue: Few Years after 1989.
(5) Bradbrook, Bohuslava. Handbook of Czech Prose Writings 1940-2005. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2007. vii.
(7) Her articles appeared mostly in emigre publications, such as journal Promny and proceedings of a conference of the Czechoslovak Academy of Arts and Sciences (an emigre organization).
Northern Illinois University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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