Edith Pargeter: an English novelist in Prague
This week would have been the 98th birthday of Edith Pargeter, an English writer who translated many of the Czech classics. You may well have come across her under the penname Ellis Peters that she adopted for much of her fiction. Under this alias she created two of the most famous fictional detectives in twentieth century crime writing, Sergeant George Felse, and the medieval monastic sleuth Brother Cadfael. In Czech Books this week, David Vaughan explores Edith Pargeter’s special relationship to Czechoslovakia.
Edith PargeterEdith Pargeter spent nearly all her life in the county of Shropshire, on the borders between England and Wales, and much of her writing draws from the area she lived in. But her other great love was Czechoslovakia, and this led to a fruitful literary relationship that lasted nearly fifty years. Here are a few lines from her translation of Bohumil Hrabal’s classic short novel of reluctant wartime heroism, “Closely Observed Trains”. The scene is a small Czech town, just before the end of the Second World War.
Just the day before yesterday an enemy fighter shot up a German pursuit plane over our town, and blew one wing clean off it: and then the fuselage burned out, and crashed somewhere out in the fields. But this wing, as it tore loose from the fuselage, ripped out a few handfuls of screws and nuts to spatter down over the square and peck at the heads of several women there, and the wing itself went on hovering over the town, and everybody who could stood and watched it, right to the moment when it swooped lower with a creaky motion just above the square. All the customers came tumbling out from both the restaurants, as the shadow of this wing hung rocking above the square, and everybody who was watching it went rushing across from one side to the other, and then back again to where they’d been standing a minute before, because the wing kept on swinging like a gigantic pendulum, sending them all scuttling in the opposite direction from where it looked as if it was going to fall, and all the time it was grinding out a crescendo clatter and a whining song. And then suddenly it hurtled down and crashed into the deanery garden.
Jiří Edelmann, photo: David VaughanIt took considerable craft and ingenuity to recreate Hrabal’s brilliant and inventive prose in English, and Edith Pargeter showed similar mastery with many other Czech writers, both past and present. She first visited Czechoslovakia just after the Second World War, and this what when she met Jiří Edelmann, a young Czech who was to remain a close friend for the rest of her life. He remembers her first visit.