Saturday, 15 June 2013

Week Twenty-Three - Jeanette

The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek (1921)
Recommended by Barry

It was my first week at university. I was overcome with finally getting out of Norwich and getting in ached-for London. (I say ‘finally’ – I was only eighteen – but, through that teenage telescope, it had felt like I’d been waiting for a century). Yet I was also terrifically scared of what I was doing. I had hoped everyone would magically crowd around, desperate to befriend me due to my knowledge of Elastica’s Peel Sessions or something. They didn’t.

Well, one did. And I was desperate to befriend him as well.


We started going out, and remained a couple throughout university. The transition to the real world didn’t work out for us – we fell apart after graduation – but, and I think this is a credit to us both, we rebuilt our relationship into something else. Our very strong friendship has now lasted four times as long as our stint as partners.

He told his story with all possible detail, not even forgetting to mention that forget-me-nots were blooming on the dam of the lake where his misfortune had happened.

Is Hašek talking about the good soldier Švejk? Or am I still describing Barry? For Barry has a way with discussion – I think it was Jude who coined the phrase ‘Barry time’ – that explores, and unpicks, and muses. I don’t know anyone else who I could converse with on one narrow topic for well over two hours and never be bored (on the contrary, I become ever more engaged with every philosophical capillary we investigate).

Švejk, on the other hand, often exasperates the people he regales with his wandering anecdotes. His myopic military superiors consider him a gibbering dunderhead.

But, of course, even though he often pretends to be, he’s nothing of the sort.

The Good Soldier Švejk is a comment on the colossal preposterousness of the Great War. I’ve studied this period in some detail, and as well as all the usual Schlieffen Plan and Battle of Verdun material, I learned about cultural reactions to the conflict. There were many, of course (including sorrow, pride, humour) but a less immediately obvious one was calling it out on its phenomenal absurdity.

Jaroslav Hašek was a Czech author and, at the time of the Great War, Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which was Germany’s main ally). Yet while Germany had relatively recently become a nation-state – and was confident, sleek, cohesive and industrially buoyant – the Austro-Hungarian Empire was its complete opposite. Rent with nationalist squabble (it also contained some of the modern Balkan nation-states), ethnicities fought over their own issues in their own languages, hardly presenting a clear fighting front. This crumbling empire was a feeble anachronism in 1914.

In comparison to the more famous literature on the Great War, such as Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front (German), Barbusse’s Under Fire (French) or the poetry of Wilfred Owen (British), The Good Solider Švejk already starts within a stranger locale. And it sets out its savage comedy stall right from the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

‘Which Ferdinand, Mrs Müller?’ he asked, going on with the massaging. ‘I know two Ferdinands. One is a messenger at Průša’s, the chemist, and once by mistake he drank a bottle of hair oil. And the other is Ferdinand Kokoška who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss.’

From here on in, Švejk navigates, as best he can, the ramble of petty bureaucracy, nonsense orders and pointless actions all generated by the war. Significantly, the enemy is barely mentioned. Švejk’s war is in and of itself: an exasperating maze within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Good Soldier Švejk doesn’t have much of an over-arching narrative (the introduction asserts that the alcoholic Hašek was often blotto when he wrote it and, as the book was originally a magazine serial, he span it out to maximise his income). Instead, it’s a vignette-heavy read. Some of the most charming of these are between Švejk and Lieutenant Lukáš. Lukáš is the one senior officer characterized as something more than a sadist or an idiot, and Švejk is loyal to this irascible, yet somehow entirely adorable, man. Often, Lukáš will think he’s rid of Švejk, who seems to cause him naught but headaches. He should be so lucky.

Švejk and the Lieutenant were silent. Both observed each other closely for a long time. Lukáš stared at Švejk as though he was preparing to hypnotise him like a cock standing in front of a chicken and waiting to spring on it. Švejk as usual looked at Lieutenant Lukáš with moist tender eyes as though wanting to say: ‘United again, heart of mine!’

The illustrations, plenty of them, are by Josef Lada. Although Hašek never got to approve them as they were commissioned after the author’s death, Lada’s work can’t be faulted. He plucks out the tiniest moments from the text, and conveys character perfectly through guileless half-smiles, backwards head tilts and the angle of eyebrows.

There’s also room in The Good Soldier Švejk for some traumatic moments, made even more so because they are in the same satirical style. The references to wartime disease and injury, including the lack of respect for how people may be mentally affected by their experience, are particularly cutting. And then there’s the droll way that Švejk talks of dying in battle.

‘I think that it’s splendid to get oneself run through with a bayonet,’ said Švejk, ‘and also that it’s not bad to get a bullet in the stomach. It’s even grander when you’re torn to pieces by a shell and you see that your legs and belly are somehow remote from you. It’s very funny and you die before anyone can explain it to you.’

Although I don’t think it’s as well-written, this is a book in the same vein as Gogol’s Dead Souls. It is often bawdy and foul-mouthed, which must have caused quite a stir at the time. (I learned a cracking Serbian insult from it – jebem ti dušu – fuck your soul!)

What The Good Soldier Švejk gets across is that, yes, the Great War was a tragedy on a grand scale. But it was stupid on a grand scale, too. It allowed stupid people stupid amounts of power, and it encouraged them to exercise it stupidly. Moreover, if you weren’t stupid, you damn well better pretend to be stupid: else (rather stupidly) you’ll be the first to end up dead.