by Coilin O'Connor
The Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek is best known today for his hilarious anti-war novel The Good Soldier Švejk. Hašek’s own biography, however, is perhaps just as farcical and action-packed as his most famous book. In this edition of Czech History, we look at the life and times of this world renowned author.
One summer evening [Hašek] came into our tavern dressed as if he were in his apartment. He was in short sleeves, wore slippers and held up his trousers with his hand. He confessed that [his wife] Šura had locked up his shoes, suspenders and coat.
He was on his way to the pharmacy. His wife was sick, and the doctor had given her a prescription. In order not to be making a trip for nothing, he had brought along a jug. Before the tavern keeper had filled his jug and before he had drunk a glass of beer at the counter, he played pool with us...
He came back a week later with a jug of beer but without any medicine. After all, the medicine was no longer necessary. His wife was in good health again. Too much so, he laughed.
Jaroslav Hašek– an excerpt from the memoirs of the Nobel Prize winning writer Jaroslav Seifert on his friend and author of The Good Soldier Švejk, Jaroslav Hašek (translation: Ewald Osers, George Gibian)
By all accounts, Jaroslav Seifert’s recollections of Jaroslav Hašek are typical of the writer who is famous today for his book The Good Soldier Švejk – the rambling story of a humble infantryman in the First World War whose natural wit and charm helps him avoid all the carnage without getting into trouble with the authorities. In the time since the book was written nine decades ago, its protagonist Švejk has become a kind of pacifist hero, whose many trials and travails have inspired other writers such as Catch 22 author Joseph Heller and the German playwright Bertolt Brecht.
The story of Hašek’s own life, however, is possibly even more tragicomic and eventful than that of his most famous character.
Hašek was born in 1883 at a time of rising Czech national consciousness. He was obviously affected by the heady atmosphere of that era and is known to have participated in anti-German riots in Prague when he was barely 14.
He later joined the anarchist movement and this naturally led to many conflicts with the authorities. He was frequently imprisoned for short periods and was once jailed for assaulting a policeman.
Besides his political leanings, he also lived something of a beatnik lifestyle, often dropping everything and going off on jaunts around the Austro-Hungarian Empire without a penny in his pocket, supporting himself by begging while hanging out with tramps and vagabonds, where he probably picked up all sorts of bad habits.
'The Good Soldier Švejk'He began eking out a living as a writer and journalist when he was just 17 and was well known, perhaps even notorious, in Prague cultural circles.
The translator, journalist and Hašek aficionado Jan Čap says that the writer’s fame during this period probably had more to do with his legendary drinking exploits and anarchic, slightly surreal personality than it did with any literary prowess:
“Reading the memoirs of his contemporaries, I have always had the feeling that they viewed him as a kind of embodiment of Dada or surrealism, which they themselves were trying to achieve intellectually.
“He was also kind of a legend in cabarets and especially in beer houses and pubs around Prague, because he was a very good entertainer and storyteller as well.”
Although Hašek quietened down a little at the insistence of his wife Jarmila when he got married in 1910, he was unable to stay out of mischief for very long.
He soon reverted to his old habits and the pair separated a couple of years later. He returned to his old bohemian lifestyle – carousing and boozing and generally getting into trouble.
Memorable incidents of this time included getting arrested for pretending to be a Russian spy and being committed to an asylum for pretending to commit suicide by jumping off Charles Bridge.