I’m delighted that back in July, our Book Group made a serendipitous choice of book for September allowing me to participate in the first Czech Lit Month hosted by Stu.
The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek
Translated by Cecil Parrott (1973), with original illustrations by Josef Lada
We’ve been playing ‘word association’ to pick our books for a few months now, and The Good Soldier Švejk followed on neatly from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. However, at first we didn’t realise it was such a big book! The Penguin Classics paperback I procured was 752 pages of fairly small type; admittedly, it’s full of cartoon drawings by Lada, commissioned for the edition of the stories that was published in 1924, the year after Hašek died, but that doesn’t reduce the page count to read by that much. Upon further examination though, the book can be seen to fall into four parts – it was to have been six, but Hašek died before he finished his magnum opus! The first section, ‘Behind the Lines’ was a manageable 216 pages, so we agreed to try to read Part One for our discussions.
In the event, I was unable to attend Book Group that night, which did give me some relief – for this was a rare DNF for me – I got to p108 before I gave up. I would have been ribbed mercilessly for not finishing the book – but I expect that! Not for me sitting having a chuckle over this book as my boyfriend at uni did – but the existence of this tome did stay with me over the years with its yellow cover in his edition!
The Good Soldier Švejk is essentially a collection of comic stories, set around the Great War in Austro-Hungary. Hašek was a Bohemian and anarchist, and when called up in 1915 didn’t serve long in the Czech army, (later to avoid capture, he became a Bolshevik in Russia!). His protagonist, Švejk, is his opposite in character, a strong believer in law and order. Švejk is educated and spouts information left, right and centre, but choosing not to use his knowledge for advancement, instead indulging his lazy side with an air of incompetence. Indeed, we will see him getting the better of the asylum psychologists possibly duping them into being diagnosed as an idiot which he naturally indulges, rather than as a malingerer. Whenever he comes into contact with officers in the Austro-Hungarian army or officialdom, he’s always in danger of being shipped off to the front or thrown in jail.
My problem with this book was that it’s not really something to read in big chunks. The chapters in each part are essentially an episode in themselves. The situations are quite repetitive, and I got bored really quickly I’m afraid. Like Saki’s short stories which can overwhelm, (and another book group DNF for me), Švejk is also probably best read in small doses, but for slightly different reasons. To be honest I probably won’t return to it, and will gain a full 3cm of shelfspace if I don’t keep it. I did enjoy Parrott’s introduction though, which set everything in context and gave us a potted bio of Hašek’s life.
Source: Own copy. Penguin classics paperback, 752 pages + intro, maps.
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