The first time I saw the movie Markéta Lazarová was on a big black-and-white TV, perched high on a corner shelf in the kitchen of a Czech friend’s flat in Prague. It was probably 1991. I was living in the city with a job translating the wire service reports of the Czechoslovak Press Agency, CTK. Before that, I had studied Czech for two years as a graduate student in international affairs at Columbia University in New York, where my teacher was Peter Kussi, the translator, most famously, of the work of Milan Kundera. I caught the bug from him.
On that first viewing of the film, I didn’t understand much of the plot or dialogue—my Czech wasn’t up to that level yet—and kept asking my friend questions about what was going on. Despite my lack of understanding, however, the film left a deep impression: the piercing medieval choral singing, the creepy bells and vibraphone, the sinister black wolves loping across the white snow, the cryptically poetic intertitles, the echoey, dubbed-in dialogue—all of these things stuck with me and made me want to see it again.
Happily, I was able to. After I moved back to New York in 1995, one of the ways I kept in touch with Czech culture and language was by going to movies, and since the Brooklyn Academy of Music seemed to screen the movie practically every year, I kept on seeing it. Meanwhile, I continued translating too, and after I won the National Translation Award in 2010 for the novel All This Belongs to Me, by Petra Hůlová, I decided it was time to take on a classic. The first thing that came to mind was Vladislav Vančura’s 1931 novel Markéta Lazarová, which František Vláčil had adapted for his 1967 film.
Vančura is an unsung giant of European literature, having transformed the novel in Czech as radically and creatively as James Joyce and other modernist authors did in their languages. In his art and politics alike, Vančura was a man of the left, though he never ceased to seek—and find—his own way of expression, unfettered by dogma, tireless in pushing and questioning boundaries. His professional path led him from law to medicine to literature to film, but it was in writing that he was most at home. As an author, he strove from the beginning to achieve a balance between art and life, order and flux, art in the service of revolution and art for art’s sake. In his political life, he joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1921, only to be expelled eight years later for signing a letter of protest against the party’s new Stalinist leaders. He remained a staunch anti-fascist, however, and was active in the Communist-led resistance to the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands during World War II.
British scholar Rajendra Chitnis, author of the only major study of Vančura in English, dubbed him “the heart of the Czech avant-garde,” placing him at the “radical center” of Czech literature between the two world wars. He was matchless in his stylistic range: through three short-story cycles, ten novels, five plays, one children’s book, and an unfinished multivolume chronicle of Czech history, Vančura, unlike his peers, embraced the contradictions of pursuing a progressive artistic agenda via mainstream genres. A pivotal example of his independent-mindedness was his withdrawal from the pathbreaking avant-garde art association Devětsil, only four years after he cofounded the group in 1920. Is the idealism of political progress a waste of time? Is modern bourgeois society the only possible reality? Is it we as human beings who fail, or the world we live in? As Chitnis observes, these were constant themes in Vančura’s writing.
Vančura was born on June 23, 1891, in a village near the border with Poland called Háj ve Slezsku, to the director of a sugar refinery and a housewife. He spent most of his early childhood in Davle, a country town outside of Prague. After several years of home tutoring, he went away to school in Prague with his four sisters and passed through two different high schools before being expelled and starting an apprenticeship with a bookseller. Distress and depression were the hallmarks of his late teens and early twenties. Photography and then painting brought him some relief for a while. After a short stint in law school at Charles University, he transferred to the medical school, where he met the woman who would become his wife, Ludmila. In 1921, they both graduated and were married.
Meanwhile, he had already been writing for several years—essays, art reviews, fairy tales, and a play—and had struck up friendships with a number of young avant-garde painters, including Josef Čapek, Václav Špála, and Jan Zrzavý, who had formed a group called Tvrdošíjní (literally, “the Stiff-Necked,” but usually known as “the Stubborn Ones”). His first two published books were short-story cycles: Amazonský proud (Amazonian Current) (1923) and Dlouhý, Široký, Bystrozraký (Tall, Wide, Sharp-Eyed) (1924). The first didn’t make much of a stir. Yet it was significant in Vančura’s development, as its style and themes reflected the growing rift between the Czech avant-garde’s two major streams, poetism and proletarianism—roughly, those who upheld the independence of art and those who believed art should serve the revolution. Similarly, Dlouhý, Široký, Bystrozraký sought to synthesize rather than choose between what poet Jiří Wolker, a fellow Devětsil member, described as “everyday art” and “Sunday art”—that is, art to galvanize daily activity versus art to inspire creative dreaming.
In the decades following World War I and the Russian Revolution, these were more than just academic matters. The most important debates among intellectuals and artists in 1920s and ’30s Prague revolved around the question of whether it was possible to pursue one’s work without explicitly invoking politics or adopting a political stance. Vančura never embraced or abandoned either point of view, instead remaining committed to the subversive power of language—its capacity to stretch the limits of human resourcefulness, even (or especially) when working within the constraints of form or genre.
Almost nobody outside of the Czech-speaking world knows it, but Milan Kundera’s acclaimed book-length essay The Art of the Novel, published in French in 1986 and in English translation in 1988, had a Czech-language precursor titled Umění románu: Cesta Vladislava Vančury za velkou epikou (The Art of the Novel: Vladislav Vančura’s Journey in Search of the Great Epic), which Kundera wrote in 1960, seven years before his first novel, The Joke. In this original incarnation, he focuses on Vančura, describing him as having “probably the richest vocabulary that any Czech writer has ever had; a vocabulary in which the language of every era is preserved, in which words from the Bible of Kralice [the first complete translation of the Bible into Czech] stand humbly side by side with modern argot.” This vocabulary is on full display in Vančura’s seventh novel, Markéta Lazarová, one of many reasons why the book is such a challenge to translate.
“Blázniviny se rozsévají nazdařbůh”: “Folly is sown like seed scattered without rhyme or reason.” So goes the famous opening line of Markéta Lazarová (due to revisions in Czech orthography, by the time Vláčil made his film the name Marketa was spelled without the diacritic). The narrator continues:
Let me tell you a story of a place in the Mladá Boleslav region, during the time of disturbances, when the king strove to make the highways safe from the nobles, who behaved literally like thieves, and what is worse, who spilled blood practically laughing out loud. All your sitting around pondering our nation’s nobility and graceful manners has made you squeamish. You spill water across the coffeehouse table when you drink, causing damage to the wood, but the men I intend to talk about were hell-raisers, a rowdy bunch of wild stallions compared to you. They could not have cared less about the things you deem important. Comb and soap? Ha! They did not heed even the Lord’s commandments.
Markéta Lazarová was Vančura’s commercial breakthrough, melding high and popular styles in the genre of the epic (though a short one, at 120 pages) with a game-playing narrative approach that from today’s viewpoint might be described as postmodern. Throughout, the narrator aims to get under his readers’ skin, chiding, mocking, questioning, as Vančura pursues his goal of jarring interwar Prague’s bourgeois intellectuals out of their complacency with a novel whose heroes—Kozlík, head of a pagan robber clan; Mikoláš, his cutthroat son; and Markéta, a would-be bride of Christ who finds love in the arms of her captor—embody what it means to live life to the hilt.
The novel’s plot revolves around the conflict between Kozlík’s family and the king (who is backed by German nobles) and another clan of Czech robbers, led by a man named Lazar. Unlike the film, which Vláčil, in his choice of clothing, weapons, and armor, convincingly placed in the thirteenth century, the novel is set in an unspecified time in the Middle Ages. Vančura avoided any details that would date it too precisely and make it into a history lesson, instead concentrating on the drama of his characters’ emotions and the poetry of his imagery.
In this “Czech western” (Chitnis), with the Czech robber-nobles playing the part of the heathen Indians and the German noble-nobles as the God-fearing settlers, Vančura makes it plain from the start which side he’s on, with a dedication to his cousin implying that their own family descends from thieving stock: “[A]llow me to begin about the robbers with whom we have a name in common.” In general, civilization, as represented by the hypocrites of the church, takes a beating in Vančura’s novel, and though God figures prominently, there is no character equivalent to the monk Bernard in the film, who represents God on earth, however fecklessly. What’s worse, in both the film and the novel, Markéta rejects the convent in favor of the man who kidnapped and raped her, Mikoláš.
Another example of the hypocrisy of the new Christian order comes in the form of the king’s marshal, “who was called by the name of Pivo”—that is, “Beer,” after his former profession—and whose job it is to track down and punish the Kozlíks for their insubordination. As the novel’s narrator describes him:
Good Lord, if a hound such as he sinks his teeth into your calf, you can kiss your stockings good-bye! He will take all the wealth that you’ve amassed and still it’s not enough . . .
You’d better know your life is at stake. The man is willing to cut off your head or string you up and make his decision based on nothing more than how he’s slept.
Vančura, as already mentioned, was more concerned with atmosphere and feeling than plot. In fact, some Czech critics have gone so far as to describe his prose as poetry, with the sentences as lines and the paragraphs as stanzas. Two short passages illustrate:
Flames are military bouquets. Fiery palmettes and roses sparkle over Sovička’s grave. The sheriff’s penniless soldier hastily rummages through the looted treasures one last time, gobbling up what food there is, tying his little bundle tight, but now the roof is catching fire, flee before it collapses.
The robbers had meanwhile made themselves at home in the woods. There were already abatises [záseky] circling the camp. In the midst of a clearing stood two huts lined with brushwood [klestí], there were also branches [čečina] on the ceiling and around the walls. The warming snow, strewn on the roof, flowed down in drops on the hideous sleepers; they were sated and fully at peace.
In the first example, Vančura follows two lines of vivid poetic imagery with an archaic inversion of noun and adjective (impossible to do here in English), and a string of three verbs beginning with the letter p. Spread throughout the sentences in Czech is a consonantal sprinkling of s’s and z’s. My translation here (still a work in progress) uses f’s, t’s, and hard c’s to mimic the effect.
In the second example, Vančura uses a specialized word—záseka; in English, abatis—a type of barricade built from felled and sharpened trees; an archaic form—klestí—of the relatively common word klest, meaning “brushwood”; and the typically Vančurovian čečina, which is actually not Czech but Slovak and refers to spruce, pine, or fir branches.
In his study of Vančura, Kundera draws attention to the cinematic features of his style, in particular Vančura’s mastery of tempo, multiple angles, and cutting techniques. This was no coincidence. Remember Vančura’s founding role in Devětsil, whose members, under the banner of poetism, saw film, the newest art, as a mass cultural medium offering salvation to a society in crisis. Poets Jaroslav Seifert and Vítězslav Nezval collaborated with filmmakers to invent a form they called the “film poem,” and Vančura himself wrote and/or directed six films between 1932 and 1937.
To illustrate his point, Kundera breaks down a passage from Markéta Lazarová and writes it out as the shooting script for a silent film. The scene is a battle between Kozlík’s men and the forces of the king’s marshal, Beer, in chapter 4:
221 Medium long shot: Troops collide in awful embrace.
222 Medium close-up: Lightning flash of swords.
223 Detail: Circular eye.
224 Detail: Crook of an elbow.
225 Detail: Corpse’s smiling face.
226 Pair of hands, right breaking the fingers of the left.
Here is the full paragraph containing the passage as it appears in the novel:
The soldiers stood midway down the slope as the first ladder reached the abatises. The robbers, holding ropes and withes, come running down. Now they are in each other’s hair, now they meet in awful embrace. We see the lightning flash of swords, a circular eye, the flash of swords, the crook of an elbow, a corpse’s smiling face, and a pair of hands, the right breaking the fingers of the left.
Adapting Vančura’s novel for the screen was no simple matter, however. It took Vláčil and his cowriter, František Pavlíček, nearly three years! One of the most difficult aspects was finding an equivalent for the novel’s taunting, ever-present narrator. They chose to use intertitles, which appear periodically, acting as chapter headings. Lacking the sardonic tone of Vančura’s narrator, Vláčil’s film is more somber. Yet the originality and inventiveness of Bedřich Batka’s camera work, often presenting images as if through the characters’ eyes, glancing from one part of the frame to another—there is hardly a still shot in the movie’s nearly three hours—draws us into the action the same way Vančura’s narrative does, and, again like the novel, often sacrifices clarity of action in favor of evoking mood. In this respect, aesthetically speaking, Vláčil’s film is as faithful as they come.
While Markéta Lazarová targeted the soft spots in the Czech national character, by the end of the 1930s, as Nazism rose in Czechoslovakia’s next-door neighbor, Vančura felt a need to help build up the nation’s self-esteem, and in 1938 he began writing what was intended to ultimately be a six-part work celebrating the great figures of early Czech history. Vančura had completed two volumes of Obrázy z dějin národa českého (Pictures from the History of the Czech Nation) and was at work on the third when he was arrested by the Nazi secret police on May 12, 1942, for his involvement with the Central National Revolutionary Committee, a Communist-led resistance group. After nearly three weeks of torture by the SS, Vančura was executed by firing squad on June 1. He was just one of more than two thousand Czech intellectuals slain in a wave of killings unleashed by the Nazis in revenge for the Czechoslovak Foreign Army’s assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, appointed by Hitler to rule over occupied Prague.
In his half century of life, Vančura changed Czech literature forever. And it wasn’t only in literature that his work had an impact. From the standpoint of Czech culture, as Jan Žalman points out in his landmark study of Czech (and Slovak) New Wave cinema, Silenced Film, thanks to movie versions of two of his novels by New Wave directors in the sixties—Jiří Menzel also brought the lighthearted reverie Rozmarné léto to the screen in 1968 (released in the U.S. as Capricious Summer)—Vančura came to serve as a bridge between the avant-garde of Czechoslovakia’s democratic interwar First Republic and the up-and-coming filmmakers working in the relatively relaxed conditions of the 1960s Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.
Unfortunately for Anglophones, as of this writing only two of Vančura’s books have been translated into English: Summer of Caprice and The End of the Old Times. On the bright side, a translation of Markéta Lazarová is slated to be published by Twisted Spoon Press in 2013. My hope is that this release will bring readers to the novel it was based on and that someday English-speaking readers will have the chance to read even more by this master of European literature.
Alex Zucker’s translation of Jáchym Topol’s latest novel, The Devil’s Workshop, received an English PEN Award for Writing in Translation and will be published by Portobello Books in 2013. In 2012, he received a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to work on a translation of Markéta Lazarová. That translation, which he quotes from here, is still in progress.