Czech mates

Caught for centuries between warring empires, the cluster of nations at the centre of Europe has lef

I can put it like this. On the one hand, I'm not sure that central European literature exists. How could it? Central Europe is just an accident of politics: the variously tentacled octopi of the Austro-Hungarian empire; the Nazi invasions; the Soviet empire; glasnost, perestroika; the European Union . . . Whereas literature is a sequence of singularities - oblivious to such minor things as nations, or states, or empires.

On the other hand, could the following sentence have been written anywhere else?

In itself, every idea is neutral, or should be; but man animates ideas, projects his flames and flaws into them; impure, transformed into beliefs, ideas take their place in time, take shape as events: the trajectory is complete, from logic to epilepsy . . . whence the birth of ideologies, doctrines, deadly games.

That sentence - with its savage disregard for the grand ideas that other people take so seriously, all the 20th century's ideologies - is a pure product of central Europe. Its author - the great essayist E M Cioran - was born in 1911 in Transylvania, in a village called Rˇa¸sinari. (And the accents on this name are important. They are the proof of central Europe, of an absolute geographical singularity.) In 1911, the village was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the First World War, it became part of Romania.

And yet, and yet . . . That ironic, unimpressed, sardonic sentence was written by Cioran in French and published in France, when Cioran was 38. He would never return to Romania.

But then, exile is part of central European history. In this demented area of small nations, ideas were subjected by literature to the greatest scepticism. That was only because, simul­taneously, politicians were subjecting culture to the absolute impress of ideology. Which is one reason why so much central European literature is written in exile, in French, English or American - why central European literature is not central European at all.

I want to pause on the biography of Cioran. He went to Berlin to study philosophy when he was 22. Three years later, in 1936, he returned to Romania for a year, then left once more to study in Paris. During the winter of 1940-41, he lived in Romania again. The Iron Guard - a nationalist, extremist, anti-Semitic party - was in power, and for a moment, aged 30, Cioran flirted in a literary manner with this fascist movement. Soon, he renounced this aspect of his life entirely. In 1941, he returned to France and, in 1949, published his first book in French, A Short History of Decay. Its first section was called "Genealogy of Fanaticism".

The discovery of Cioran's mature style, therefore, is marked by two aspects: the decision to write in French, rather than Romanian; and the decision to abandon the seemingly objective moves of philosophy and invent an aphoristic, essayistic form. In both cases, it is a rejection of conventional allegiances: to one's native language, and to the nobility of human wisdom. In both cases, it is a rejection of what another great central European, the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch, called kitsch.

With these historical and literary inflections, in exile, Cioran began his long examination of human frailty. Because yes, they should be neutral, those sad things we call ideas. But human beings never let them be. Human beings so long to be fanatical. And after all, Cioran - with his moment of fascist fanaticism - should know. The irony that marks so many of these writers - Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Bernhard, Milan Kundera - is never an invention only of style: it has been forced on them by their own history. And so, in his history of ideology, Cioran can come up with this great excoriation of all those who think in groups:

It is enough for me to hear someone talk sincerely about ideals, about the future, about philosophy, to hear him say “we" with a certain inflection of assurance, to hear him invoke "others" and regard himself as their interpreter - for me to consider him my enemy.

So many of my favourite writers are from central Europe - the better-known ones, such as Kundera, or Hrabal, or Cioran, and the less well-known pleasures, such as the Czech poet and novelist Vítˇezslav Nezval, who wrote the dream-story Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, the Yugoslavian novelist Danilo Kiš, and the Polish novelist Kazimierz Brandys.

And yet I do not speak Serbo-Croat, Polish or Czech. I do, it is true, speak some French. Because Cioran and Kundera switched to writing in French, I can read some of their work in the original. But everyone else has to be read in translation. Sometimes, this still means French, because no English translations exist, or they are now out of print.

This problem of translation is endemic to the problem of central Europe's literature. There is always something improvised about its existence in translation. It persists sporadically. And so its existence in any form in English should be treasured. This month, Penguin reissued various translations in its Central European Classics series. These include works that were previously unavailable, such as the essays of Czesław Miłosz and Josef Škvorecký's great novel The Cowards. And Cioran's Short History of Decay. It is only ten books. I urge you to go and read them.

Meanwhile, I want to think about a book that is one of the ur-classics of central European modernism: Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk.
The first volume of Hašek's novel was published in 1921. Švejk is a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War. According to some readers, he is a robotic conformist; according to others, his slavish devotion to the Austro-Hungarian empire is so exaggerated that it must be a deliberate parody of patriotism - so Švejk is, in fact, a subversive. What makes this novel so avant-garde, therefore, is its economy, its reticent ambiguity.

But there is another aspect to this novel's originality: it is a collage of other people's styles. It delights in describing the constant mismatch between reality and the sentimental bric-a-brac that people use to occlude it. Hašek describes the detail of Cioran's fanatical world: on the one hand, obsolete objects; on the other hand, sentimental lyricism. And the form that this collage loves most is the digressive list.

Injured, Švejk on his sickbed is visited by Baroness von Botzenheim, who brings him gifts. And the list of gifts is a small masterpiece of comedy: as well as wine and cigarettes and chocolate, she comes with "a beautifully bound book, Stories from the Life of Our Monarch"; “a beautiful toothbrush with two rows of bristles and the inscription 'Viribus unitis', so that anyone who cleaned his teeth should remember Austria"; a manicure set that has on its case "a picture showing shrapnel bursting and a man in a steel helmet rushing for-ward with fixed bayonet. And underneath it was written in German: 'For God, Emperor and Fatherland!'"; and a "tin of biscuits without a picture on it, but with a verse in German instead, together with a Czech translation on the back":

Austria, thou noble house,
Thy banners wide unfurl!
Thy flags shall flutter proud on high.
Austria shall never die!

With this crazed, kitsch list, Hašek invents a form for everyday defeat: the world of junked manifestos, slogans and souvenirs.

Digression under the sign of defeat: this is the form I cherish - the novel as junk. It's an invention provoked, sure, by the crazed politics of central Europe, yet the individual style of Hašek or Cioran isn't formed by politics. They take the defeat that politics always makes of life and dissolve it in sprezzatura.

But then, I want to add, as a finale: this isn't really central European. This is universal. So that the person to read with Cioran is not just Škvorecký or Kundera, but also, say, Thomas Pynchon, and his pastiches of historical power. This is what these works can help invent: a true method for reading internationally, where the old ideas of form and content are replaced by messier concepts - junk, or kitsch, or defeat.

Think about it. Everyone, always, is living in central Europe.

Adam Thirlwell's most recent novel is “The Escape" (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis