Jaroslav Hašek (30 April 1883 - 3 January 1923) was an author and satirist from Prague who he lived a short and extremely turbulent life.
He is best known as the author of the famous satirical novel The Good Soldier Švejk (literally The Fates of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War) but also wrote more than 1,200 short stories/feiulletons/articles, numerous poems, and co-authored some cabaret plays. His literary output may have been even greater than assumed because he flooded newspapers and magazines with his stories and used at least 100 pseudonyms.
Hašek's parents were from South Bohemia, with a background in the so-called educated peasant classes. His father was an assistant teacher, later an employee of Banka Slavia, but died already in 1896. After the father's death, the family landed in economic difficulties and they moved no less than fifteen times during the childhood and adolescence of the young Jaroslav.
Education and budding writer
Despite the changing circumstances, Hašek obtained a higher education but soon showed himself incapable of living an orderly life. He had graduated from the Českoslovanská akademie obchodní (1899 -1902) with good marks and was the same autumn employed by Banka Slavia. Here he was dismissed after less than six months after having been absent from work twice without permission. After that, he turned into a creative and productive writer and journalist, despite his untidy lifestyle and high alcohol consumption. As early as 1901, still a student at the commercial academy, he published his first stories in Národní listy and one of his teachers recognised his literary talent and saw in him a “Czech Mark Twain”. In 1903 he published the poetry collection Majové vykřiky (The Cries of May), together with his friend Hájek.
During the summers of 1899 through 1905 Jaroslav Hašek undertook long journeys in Central Europe, and even in the Balkans. These provided rich material for his short stories and the later masterpiece The Good Soldier Švejk. During these travels, he was often penniless, slept outside, and partly traveled on foot. He got to see society from its bottom perspective, something that strongly influenced his writing and political outlook. The region he visited most frequently was Slovakia, but he also made trips to Bavaria, Switzerland, Italy, Galicia, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. In addition, he visited the areas of modern Romania and may have set foot in current Ukraine and Serbia. It hase also been claimed that he traveled to Bulgaria and Macedonia in 1903.
Anarchist and police encounters
Even before writing The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-22) Jaroslav Hašek had a reputation as a prominent satirist but was also viewed as controversial due to a period as an active anarchist. Hašek was also known for his many spoofs. In connection with the elections in June 1911, he promoted the mock party called Strana mírného pokroku v mezích zákona (when it was founded is not clear). It was partly a forum for ridiculing the political elites, and partly founded to increase the turnover at the pub where the party meetings were held. Hašek had repeated conflicts with the police, mostly due to drunkenness and public disorder. He was however also under surveillance due to his involvement in the Anarchist movement. He was jailed several times, the most serious case was in 1907 when he was sentenced for inciting violence against the police during a demonstration on 1 May 1907.
The early Švejk
As early as 1911 Hašek had thought up the good soldier Švejk. During the summer five stories about the soldier were published, although very different from the later novel in style and content. The stinging satire was lacking, Švejk tells no anecdotes, and the stories obviously lack the strong connection to reality that the author’s own experiences in the army lend to the novel.
A failed marriage
On 23 May 1910, Jaroslav Hašek finally married Jarmila Mayerová whom he had been courting since 1906. Her parents were vehemently opposed to the relationship because of Hašek's anarchist connection and his unorthodox lifestyle, but in the end consented after he groom for once became permanently employed. In May 1912 their son Richard was born but soon afterward Hašek left the family, only to see them again in 1921 The constraints and rigors of family life had not suited him, and again he took up his bohemian way of life. After breaking up with his family in 1912, his life spiralled downwards and he virtually became homeless, sleeping over at friends. Again he started to travel, now locally in Bohemia, mostly together with his friend Zdeněk Matěj Kuděj. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he was staying with his friend Josef Lada.
In the Austro-Hungarian army
The war led to big changes in Hašek’s life. As a reservist, his call-up was delayed but finally, on 17 February 1915, he was enlisted with Infanterieregiment Nr. 91 in Budějovice, was sent to the front in Galicia in early July and was captured by the Russians on 24 September 1915. His time in the army eventually provided rich material for The Good Soldier Švejk. Many geographical details and other circumstances show similarities between the author’s experiences and the contents of the novel. His time in k.u.k. Heer had a profound influence on the novel and is investigated in more detail in the entry Jaroslav Hašek in the Who's who section.
Captivity and the Legions
In Russian captivity in the Totskoye camp Hašek contracted typhus, a disease that killed thousands of his fellow prisoners. In the spring of 1916, he volunteered for the Czechoslovak Brigade (later a.k.a Legions), was released from the camp in early July, and was formally enlisted on 29 June 1916. In the Legions, he worked as a recruiter amongst prisoners of war. He was also a journalist at the tsar-loyalist weekly Čechoslovan in Kiev. During this period Hašek voiced nationalist sentiments and even supported Tsar Nicholas II's regime which he saw as the strongest supporter of a future Czech state. After several episodes that embarrassed the Czech volunteers, he was sent to the front as an ordinary soldier in May 1917. His satirical article The Czech Pickwick Club, led to further disciplinary measures. On 2 July 1917, Hašek took part in the battle of Zborów where the Czechoslovak volunteers for the first time faced their own compatriots as a unit.
The Russian October Revolution in 1917 and the ensuing peace treaty between the new Soviet state and the Central Powers made continuing the war from Russian soil impossible for the Legions. They were formally placed under French command, and it was decided to transfer them to the western front via Vladivostok. This was a decision that Jaroslav Hašek disagreed with. He preferred that his countrymen remain in Russia, presumably in the hope that the front against the Central Powers would be reopened. From the beginning of 1918, he also became increasingly influenced by communist ideas. Witnessing the Bolshevik occupation of Kiev in February may have contributed to this shift. According to Josef Pospíšil, he judged the Bolshevik leaders as very capable. He may also have been influenced by the young communist Břetislav Hůla, his co-editor at Čechoslovan from November 1917 onwards. At this stage, many left-wing groups disapproved of Lenin's Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, and it would have been natural for Hašek to align with those.
In March 1918 Jaroslav Hašek and Břetislav Hůla travelled to Moscow and reported to the Czech social democrats (Communists), and in April Jaroslav Hašek put in writing that he left the Czech Army (i.e. Legions), stating that he disagreed with their transfer to France. During the spring of 1918, the relationship between the Czechs and the Bolsheviks deteriorated, and at the end of May, an armed rebellion broke out. This led Hašek into direct conflict with his former comrades. He and other Czech Communists were branded as traitors, and arrest orders for the more prominent of them were issued, with a particular emphasis on Hašek (Omsk 25 July 1918). By now all bridges had been burnt and from October he worked directly for the Bolshevik’s 5th Army.
In Russia Hašek's career made rapid progress. He worked for the political department of the 5th Army and he journeyed all the way to Irkutsk. Hašek was mainly responsible for propaganda and recruitment among the many foreign prisoners of war who still remained in Russia. He published in Czech, Russian, German, Bashkir, Hungarian, and Buryat. In Siberia, he married again, Alexandra Lvova (Šura). This was despite him not being formally divorced from Jarmila. During his time in the Bolshevik 5th Army, he had proved himself a capable organizer and had also ceased drinking.
In the summer of 1920 circumstances changed again. The Bolsheviks had in effect won the Russian Civil War, and the many foreigners in their service were surplus to requirements and deemed more useful as agitators in their home countries. Comintern gave directives that they were to be dispatched to help the national Communist movements. On 26 August 1920, the Irkutsk section of the party received a telegram that ordered Hašek to relinquish his duties and report to the Central Bureau of the Czech section of the Communist Party. On 24 October he left Irkutsk for Moscow where he appeared on 26 November. He arrived in Prague on 19 December after having travelled vi Narva, Tallinn, Stettin, and Berlin and having spent a week in quarantine in Pardubice. By then the communist uprising that he was supposed to take part in had failed and the organisers had been arrested. Back in Praha he soon reverted to his former habits, and he was of little use to the Communist movement thereafter although he still contributed to Communist newspapers and never renounced his convictions. If Hašek was controversial in pre-war Prague, he was even more now; there was the threat of legal proceedings because of bigamy and he was widely unpopular due to his Bolshevik past. Gustav Janouch even witnessed an attempt to lynch him.
A satirical masterpiece
Around February/March 1921 he hit on the idea to re-kindle his soldier Švejk, now in the form of a novel, and he started to write The Good Soldier Švejk, a book that was planned in six parts. The first part and at least the first chapter of the second was completed in Žižkov and was initially sold in installments. Although The Good Soldier Švejk sold well it was only after Švejk was performed on stage from 1 November 1921 onwards that glowing reviews first appeared in influential newspapers. Max Brod, Ivan Olbracht, and Alfred Fuchs were the first enthusiastic reviewers. Soon after Hašek signed a contract with the publisher Adolf Synek.
Already before the novel's November 1921 breakthrough (on 25 August), Hašek had moved to Lipnice where he completed part two, wrote part three, and started on the fourth part of The Good Soldier Švejk. Unfortunately, his health took a downward turn, the hard life had taken its toll and he had also become dangerously overweight. Jaroslav Hašek never managed to complete the fourth part of his epic novel and died on 3 January 1923. The causes of death were stated as pneumonia and heart failure. The belief that he drank himself to death is widespread and though alcohol was not the primary cause of death, it was surely a contributing factor.
Jaroslav Hašek is the subject of a number of biographies, although most of them are available exclusively in Czech. Autobiographical material is almost non-existent, apart from those elements of his own life that he frequently mixed into his writing. This information should be viewed with skepticism, as Hašek was an accomplished mystificator who mixed facts, half-facts, and inventions in a convincing manner. Almost all that is known about him today is therefore based on the accounts from people who knew him and material from various archives and newspapers.
For the international reading public, the best source of factual information is no doubt The Bad Bohemian (1978) by Cecil Parrott, the author of the second English translation of The Good Soldier Švejk. Parrott’s biography is to a degree based on Radko Pytlík,s de-facto standard Toulavé house (1971).
A rare but valuable book is Emanuel Frynta’s Hašek, the Creator of Schweik. It comes with many illustrations and has been competently translated into English. It focuses more on the artistic view of the author, rather than the biographical details that other biographies lean towards.
There is also literature about Jaroslav Hašek in German, for instance, the well-documented but slightly speculative Der Vater des braven Soldaten Schweik by Gustav Janouch (1966).
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