The Good Soldier Svejk was probably the book I was most afraid of reading from this year's TBR Pile Challenge, and, at long last, I have finished it -- all 752 pages! Finally.
I'd first heard of Svejk in a book called The Novel 100 by Daniel S. Burt, which lists the Best Novels of All Time. I really like The Novel 100 because, it's not just about The Best Books, it's really more about the most influential books, so it includes books like Gone with the Wind and The Three Musketeers. It also includes books in translation, like The Princess of Cleves and Dream of the Red Chamber, and it has very interesting and readable essays about why each title is included. [There's also an appendix with 100 runners-up, some of which I believe are in the updated and expanded edition of the book.]
Anyway. Svejk is long, it's about war, it's in translation, it's Eastern European -- a quadruple threat -- but it's actually a very easy and amusing read, though it did take me several weeks to get through it. Basically, this is a picaresque novel about an everyman named Josef Svejk. After a series of misadventures, he ends up fighting on the Austro-Hungarian side of WWI. Svejk is either a complete idiot or an absolute genius. He's constantly getting in and out of scrapes, and his superiors, the police, and medical professionals can't decide if he's really as dumb as he seems, or is just faking. The book satirizes the futility of World War I, the military bureaucracy, etc. It's kind of a WWI version of Catch-22, but much longer, and as if Yossarian traveled all over Europe. (Which in fact he may have done -- it's been several years since I read Catch-22 and my memory of the plot is a little fuzzy). I have heard that Joseph Heller may have been influenced by Svejk, but I haven't done enough research to be sure.
|One of the illustrations from The Good Soldier Svejk. Svejk is the character on the right.|
Svejk was pretty amusing to read it bits and pieces but since it was planned as six volumes, it goes on a long time. There aren't even any actual battle scenes for the first 500 pages. It's kind of the same thing over and over, but with slightly different settings and characters. I could see this would be a good read if it was serialized, which it essentially was, being originally published in parts. I actually got a little bored with it around 450 pages and put it down for awhile. To be honest, the last 300 pages or so were a bit of a slog. And the story is unfinished! Svejk was planned as a six-part work, but Hacek died before he could complete it. It's still one of the most famous works of Czech literature, and was also adapted into a movie. He's kind of a cult anti-hero in Eastern Europe; apparently there are statues commemorating Svejk all over the place:
|A manhole cover of Svejk from Bratislava|
Having finally finished it, I have a little more courage to read some of the other books from my TBR shelves that scare me, including Moby Dick, Les Miserables, The Jungle, and To The Lighthouse. Maybe I'll even tackle some of the Russians -- I've never read Dostoevsky or Gogol, and I need to read something Russian for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Any suggestions? And has anyone else read Svejk?