Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek


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.
It's quite funny in spots, and the translation I read was very easy, but it was hard for me to read more than a few pages at a time.  (It's not quite as long as it seems because there are lots of cartoony illustrations.)  Basically, Svejk travels all over during the war, telling funny anecdotes about other people, and the author pokes fun at pretty much everything.  There's a lot of drinking and gambling and carousing, and all the other kinds of trouble soldiers get into while waiting for war to happen. (There's also a lot of descriptions of bodily functions and numerous descriptions of food, including what the soldiers are eating and what they're dreaming about during wartime).  It was probably really shocking for its time, and I'd be surprised if it hasn't been banned or censored.

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
Just for fun, while reading this book I decided to do a Google blog search for Svejk, to see what other people thought about it.  I was delighted to find a blog posting about a Svejk Cafe in Riga, Latvia.  If you read the description, there's a link to a PDF of the restaurant's menu, which is extensive.  Some of the dishes are named after characters in the book, and if you look closely, you can see Josef Lada's illustrations imprinted on the menu's pages.  If I am ever in Latvia I'll definitely have to go.

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?

15 comments:

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful review. I have the very same copy of 'The Good Soldier Svejk', but I'm afraid it's been roosting unread in my shelf for too long. Your post has prompted me to take it out, dust it, and peruse the Josef Lada illustrations.

    In my turn, I'd suggest some Gogol, if you're in the mood for some Russian. 'Dead Souls' perhaps? It's a classic. If not, I cannot recommend 'To the Lighthouse' enough.

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    1. I do want to read at least one Russian by the end of the year -- I want to finish the Back to the Classics Challenge and I'm still missing that category. It will probably be Dead Souls or possibly The Master and Margarita. I also have some short stories by Chekhov I've never finished.

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    2. I can't believe I didn't mention The Master and Margarita. It is stupendous! One of the best novels I have ever read, spanning continents, and ages. I remember reading that Bulgakov ran out of paper while writing the book, and he scribbled portions of the novel on the wall of his room. Reading the book, it seemed possible that the author of such an epic could possibly do that. . . .

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  2. I have Svejk on my bookshelf, but I've always been a bit intimidated by it. I think it's the kind of book that people with certain history will enjoy a lot more than others. My father served in Soviet army, and he LOVES this book (I am originally from a post Soviet country myself). I am not sure that I would enjoy Svejk as much as him, so I've been postponing the book for a long time now :) But Svejk is a very popular character around here, in Tallinn we had a Svejk-inspired pub as well, where we went regularly during our uni years... Good times :)

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    1. I don't think the humor in Svejk is directed at any particular country, I think it could be universally applied to any army or large organization with a lot of bureaucracy. But I can definitely see why he's popular in the post-Soviet era, especially in Europe.

      I have heard that Tallinn is absolutely beautiful, my brother used to travel to Finland on business and would usually stay a few extra days and tour around. He went to most of the Eastern European countries and he especially liked Estonia. I'd love to go someday!

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    2. Yes, you put it a bit better there than I could express myself. I just knew my dad always loved this book because he could relate to so much because of the experience of stupid things that took place in the Soviet army.

      Tallinn is beautiful! But I would advise for first timers to stick to the tourist regions; other districts have their beauty too, but it may be not the kind that everyone enjoys :)

      By the way, I agree with the previous commenter up there, The Master and Margarita is absolutely wonderful novel, I've read it three times and can't get enough.

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  3. I have never heard of this book, but it sounds like just the kind of book I am attracted to. I love comic, ironic characters. And I also love books that give me insight into the history of places I know little about -- and that includes the Czech Republic. I am adding this to my "Next 50 Classics" list :)

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    1. If you like comic ironic characters, you will probably love this. I'm not sure if it gives so much insight into Czech culture, but definitely the Eastern European side of WWI. It was interesting, definitely!

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  4. I admire your stamina to get through a book this long that is essentially a collection of fragmentary episodes.
    Moby Dick doesn't appeal to me at all - particularly when I learned that it contains very long digressions on the eating/mating patterns of whales that he more or less copied from some natural history books. Not my idea of literature frankly.
    As for the Russians, they do sound a little daunting but some are easier to get to grips with than others. Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is well worth reading.

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    1. Well, Svejk was a lot of episodes, but I mostly read it in bits in pieces over about a month, so it wasn't too hard to follow, there are only a few characters other than Svejk that continue through the whole story, luckily.

      I'm also kind of intimidated by Moby Dick, and i didn't even know about the whale digressions! I might skim some of those parts. I've heard Les Miserables has a lot of digressions about France and Paris, even whole chapters about the Parisian sewers, though people have told me they're interesting.

      I'm kind of interested in reading Crime and Punishment, especially since Edward Snowden's lawyer gave him a copy to read while he was holed up the Moscow Airport bathroom. The iron was not lost on me.

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  5. Congratulations on finishing! I have never heard of this book before, and I'm wondering why not! The more I learn about the Great War, the more I'm fascinated with it, and seeing the war from this point of view would be fascinating.

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    1. I took European history in college and I still have a hard time making sense of WWI. I do have a book called The Guns of August which is supposed to be excellent. The whole thing sounds so depressing, though.

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  6. I read Svejk just a few months ago! I also found it to be a fun, if long, read. A very 'guy' kind of book with all the soldier humor and whatnot. I am another Master and Margarita fan, and I read Anna Karenina in January, which was fantastic. If you want something dauntingly long, modern, and interesting, I really liked Solzhenitsyn's In the First Circle.

    WWI is so complex and depressing. Guns of August is a good book though, and so is another very short one by the same author, The Zimmerman Letter, which explains how the US came in to the war.

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  7. Yossarian spent the war in Italy when he wasn't in his bomber flying over the country side.

    This books sounds like fun to me. People don't know how funny Eastern European literature is. If you found this funny, you might really enjoy Dead Souls. Gogol is also very funny, but it's another unfinished classic.

    But, you should go ahead and give your copy of The Jungle away. Seriously, just give it away.

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  8. You say "Joseph Heller may have been influenced by Svejk"? I heard from a man who remembered it that long time ago Heller publicly denied having read the book. By the same token, he told a Czech writer (who mentions it in his memoir) that
    if it weren’t for his having read The Good Soldier Švejk he would never had written Catch-22. You might be interested to know that there is a band of svejkologists who keep finding new information about Jaroslav Hašek and his creation, the Good Soldier Švejk. Lots of information in English has been put together in Norway, of all places: http://honsi.org/literature/svejk/?page=1&lang=en. The owner of the web site, Jomar Hønsi, followed in the footsteps of Jaroslav Hašek on his anabasis from Prague to the borders of Mongolia in 2010. My own website, SvejkCentral.com, is a repository of my discoveries of Švejk-related items on the Internet which I made during the process of creating the new, "Chicago" translation of Švejk, featured at the zenny.com web site.

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