Book: The Bad Bohemian by Sir Cecil Parrot

Serious life of an un-serious writer

Sir Cecil Parrott
The Bad Bohemian: A life of Jaroslav Hašek, Creator of The Good Soldier Švejk
Abacus, 1983 (originally published in 1978)
ISBN: 0-349-12698-4
Out of print; used copies seem to go for around $30
275 pages (main text)

The Bad Bohemian is a biography of the writer Jaroslav Hašek (his last name is pronounced approximately "Hashek"). He was born in 1883 in Prague, then a city of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and died in 1923 in Lipnice, a Czech village around 75 miles from Prague. Insofar as he's famous, it's for writing the satirical novel The Good Soldier Švejk. It was first published in 1921, though Hašek never properly finished it. Hašek's biographer here is Sir Cecil Parrott. He was a British ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the 1960s and later a professor at the University of Lancaster. He had a great fondness for Czech culture and is undoubtedly highly qualified to write the book.

It may be unfair, but I can't help but find something a bit Monty-Python-esque about this book. It's a serious, even scholarly, biography. But it's a serious biography of a profoundly un-serious person. And by "un-serious" I don't really mean funny, though Hašek is occasionally funny in a heavy-handed way. I mean that he was absurdly, insanely irresponsible.

For example, we get 20 pages on Hašek's courtship of Jarmila Mayer, including excerpts from his love letters. But the book takes their relationship rather more seriously than Hašek ended up taking it. One day, a little less than two years after they were married and shortly after the birth of their son Richard, Jarmila's parents came to the family's apartment to visit. Hašek offered to go out to get some beer. He never returned. I mean that literally. At that moment, he abandoned his wife and baby. Eight years later, in Russia, he married another woman, Alexandra Lvova, without obtaining a divorce or informing either woman of the actual situation. Things didn't go so well after he returned to Prague with Alexandra and, though she spoke no Czech, he abandoned her there too, albeit temporarily. Sir Cecil gives us all these facts without breaching the scholar's objectivity.

As a young man, Hašek was an anarchist. Not, I think, as a carefully-considered political philosophy. Rather, it seems that he was clearer on what he was against than what he was in favor of. What he was against was any form of authority. Later, writing propaganda for the Russians (the only job he held for more than a short time), his communist colleagues made the same observation, saying that he was pretty good on the revolution part but not quite so clear on what was to come after. During the time he styled himself an anarchist, he was arrested several times and jailed briefly, but it seems only for drunken hooliganism; his anarchism was pretty small-scale.

The reason that he was in Russia is that he had been drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army to fight in the first world war. It seems that he didn't make a very good soldier and was captured by the Russians within a year of signing up. The Russian prisoner-of-war camps were horrible but within a year he had been released to work on propaganda for the Russians. He worked first for the Tsar, then for the democrats after the February revolution, and finally for the Bolsheviks after the October revolution. He and his new wife returned to Prague in 1920. He didn't want to go, but the party bosses in Moscow said that the communists in the newly-minted Czechoslovakia needed him.

As I mentioned, the job of writing propaganda was the only one he held for very long. He seems to have scraped by mostly as a freelance writer, writing a large number of short articles and stories for small newspapers and literary journals. That work didn't pay well and Hašek was routinely penniless and looked it. It didn't help any that, if Hašek did believe in anything, it was beer.

Hašek did have a few more-regular jobs for short periods. At one point, he was a sort of apprentice pharmacist. He learned that well enough that, later, pursuing his researches on an amateur basis, he managed to create an explosion the blew out several windows of his mother's apartment. Out of school, he became a banker, but after around six months of doing that, he sent a note to the bank and went off on a walking holiday for some weeks. The bank took him back, but he did the same thing a month or so later which, it seems, exhausted their patience. He was a dog breeder for a while, but his habit of falsifying pedigrees was pretty quickly found out.

He also had some full-time jobs in journalism. For example, he edited and wrote for the general-interest magazine Animal World. He did, that is, until he started making things up. He claimed that elephants liked gramophone music, that herds of Scottish collies were the scourge of Patagonia, that a section of the Vltava river was entirely filled with muskrats, and that the fossil of an antediluvian flea had been discovered. Once, he offered werewolves for sale, telling his numerous disappointed customers that demand had been so great that he was temporarily out of stock. Hašek's journalism shades, or maybe wanders, into fiction, and many characters and events in his fiction were drawn from real life. It's a bit hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Now remember that all this is being described by Sir Cecil in an academic's dry and serious tones. Reading the book, there came to my mind repeatedly the image of a professor in a large, echoing lecture hall telling Hašek's absurd, hilarious, and tragic story as students diligently took notes, perhaps inventing abbreviations for "drank himself into penury again" to save having to write it out so many times. That Monty-Python-esque disjunction between the serious tone and the absurd story made me chuckle more than a few times while reading. As I say, that may be unfair, but it's how the book struck me.

Sir Cecil allows himself a very small number of editorial comments as he tells us about Hašek's life and he also gives us a short final chapter of analysis. Alas, the chapter of analysis is unsatisfying. Hašek made a biographer's task more difficult by almost never writing anything explicitly about himself. But even so Sir Cecil's analysis is thin. He has nothing to say about what Hašek's disastrous life might have felt like to him or what might have caused him to hardly ever think past the present moment. In addition, Hašek must have been uncommonly charming. He routinely won over people who initially disliked him, and people swallowed the ridiculous excuses he gave for his actions and believed his empty promises of reform long past when they should have stopped. But Sir Cecil doesn't tell us about that either.

The Bad Bohemian makes it clear enough that Hašek was a rebel without a cause, but it doesn't do much to help us understand the hows and whys of that.

Posted: Sun - December 31, 2006 at 03:57 PM   Main   Category: