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by Bamber Gascoigne

Jan Neruda (1834-1891)


Czech writer, poet, one of the most prominent representantives of Czech Realism. Jan Neruda's poetry collections were based on contemporary spoken language. He was a member of "the May school", which dominated Czech literature in the 1860s and 1870s, and which opened doors to the currents in European literature. The cosmo-political group took its name from the title of Karel Mácha's (1810-1836) lyrico-epic poem, Máj, published shortly before the poet's premature death. Its plot centers on the execution of an outlaw, a victim of his passions and alienation from society. The May school expressed its desire to break away from the narrow provincialism and nationalism of the preceding period, and emphasized general human themes.

"It would be laughable for me to doubt that any of my readers should be unfamiliar with Malá Strana's foremost restaurant, that is, Steinitz's – the one in the first house past the Bridge Tower on the left, at the corner of Bridge and Bath streets, the house with the large windows and wide glass door – the only restaurant daring to occupy this most public of streets and opening directly on to the thoroughfare..." (in Prague Tales, 1878)

Jan Nepomuk Neruda was born in Prague, Bohemia, and grew up in a colorful part of old Prague called Malá Strana (Little Quarter). Neruda's father was an ex-serviceman. After being widowed, he married Barbora Nerudová, Neruda's mother, who worked a housekeeper. "For having helped to defeat Napoleon at Leipzing and occupy France as far as Lyon (yes, really!)," Neruda later said, "he was granted the position of porter or supplier at various barracs". Eventually he started to run a small grocery shop in the Malá Strana; he died in 1857. Neruda maintained close ties with his mother, whose death in 1869 was a deep blow to him.

Neruda was educated in Prague's German schools, but at the age of thirteen he began attending lectures on the Czech language. He studied law at his father's request for a period, then changed to philosophy, but never graduated. Neruda worked as a teacher until 1860, when he became a free-lance writer and journalist, contributing influential essays to the major liberal Czech newspaper Národni listy. There were many women in Neruda's life, but he remained a bachelor. His close friend was the writer Karolina Svetlá, she was married to a piano teacher, whom she did not love. Neruda's relationship with Anna Holinova, which he formed in his youth, lasted over 10 years. He had also an affair with Tereza Machackova, who died in 1865.  Her sudden death was a shock to Neruda. However, Karolina was his love of life. 

With the writer and journalist Vitezslav Hálek (1835-1874), Neruda became  the most prominent advocate of the new literary trends. Like Hálek, he was associated with the journal Máj, first published in 1858. Neruda traveled widely in Europe and Near East, recording his observations in numerous short sketches. Altogether Neruda published 2,260 feuilletons on various subjets. In his poems, hymns and ballads Neruda promoted the idea of rebirth of Czech patriotism. He participated in all the central cultural and political struggles of his generation, and gained a reputation as a sensitive critic, followed the rapid rise of Czech literature, theatre, and fine arts.

Along with the new rise of national movement, anti-Semitism began to spread throughout the country. In his notorius pamphlet Pro strach židovský (1870), Neruda stated that he was a friend of the Jews in his school years, but they "are a nation entirely alien to us Czechs" and  "[w]e must view the Czech emancipation from the Jews above all as emancipation from Jewish commerce, from the Jewish exploitation of the labor of others. . . ." (The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: A Historical Reader, ed. by Wilma Abeles Iggers, 1992, pp. 183-190) The views expressed in pamphlet, which was first published in the newspaper Národni listy, went far beyond the usual anti-Jewish discourse of the period.

Neruda first entered the literary scene as a poet. As a short story writer his fame rests on his satirical depiction of the petty bourgeois of Prague. An  exception among these pieces is 'Vampyr' (1871), a horror tale, in which vampirism is connected to artistic creation. A small group of travellers, sailing  to Constantinople, is joined by a Greek artists, who sketches only corpses. A  hotel-keeper tells the narrator: "That fellow paints them beforehand– and he never makes a mistake – just like a vulture." It is possible that Kafka knew the story. Neruda's most popular prose work, Povídky malostranské (1878, Tales of the Little Quarter; Prague Tales), a collection of short sketches, was translated into English first time in 1957 by the novelist and mystery writer Ellis Peters (pseudonym of Edith Pargeter).

The tales take the reader to Malá Strana, to its streets and yards, shops, churches, houses, and restaurants. Neruda's rich gallery of people include Mr. Schlegl and Mr. Ryšánek, who cannot stand each other, Mr. Vojtišek, a beggar, who is ruined by rumors of his supposed two houses, a man who wakes up in his own funeral. Behind Neruda's laughter and descriptions of human follies are also tragic tones, as in Gogol's short stories. Death and funerals are often present in the stories – Neruda himself had surgery for a malignant tumor at the age of forty. Struggling to cope with his mother's death and growing feelings of isolation, Neruda's thoughts went often back to his childhood.

In 'U trí lilií', the narrator – Neruda – sits outside a small pub. Graves in an old cemetery nearby have been opened. It is raining heavily and he sees in a flash of lighting white human bones. A beautiful girl dances inside the pub. She goes out in the rain, but returns after some fifteen minutes. She says she just heard that her mother died. The storm rages; the narrator walks with the girl under an arcade and he feels the touch of her soft body. "Cítil jsem, jak se mi k prsoum lepí vlhký její šat, cítil mekké telo, teplý, sálající dech – bylo mne, jako bych musil vypít tu zlotrilou duši z ní!"

Neruda's poetry collections include Hřbitovní kvítí  (1858), Knihy veršů (1867), Písně kosmické (1878), which was inspired by modern science, Prosté motivy (1883), an intimate diary, Balady a romance (1883), a collection of epic poems with political and social themes, and Zpěvy páteční (1896), published posthumously. After Neruda's death on August 22, 1891, one of the streets in Prague's Old Town, Nerudova ulice (Nerudagasse), was named after him. Neruda lived at 47 Nerudova. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, whose real name was Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, took his pseudonym after Jan Neruda.

For further reading: Nerudsa v dopisech by A. Prazák (1941); Jan Nruda a jeho doba by B. Stanislav (1953); Jan Neruda a jeho doba by Stanislav Budín Stanislav (1960); Neruda prozaik by A. Hamas (1968); Jan Neruda a konstituováni realismu v ceské literature by S.A Petrovna (1982); Jan Neruda - Bibliograficeskij ukazatel by Š.I. Aleksandrova and P. Pavel (1984); 'Introduction' by Ivan Klíma, in Praque Tales, tr. Michael Henry Heim (1993); La Calle Neruda by J. Kresadlo (1995); Tři stálice moderní české prózy: Neruda, Čapek, Kundera by Aleš Haman (2014). An Anthology of Czechoslovak Literature (tr. Paul Selver, 1929) contains translations from such writers as Otokar Brezina, Antonín Sova, J.S. Machar, Jan Neruda, K. Capek and others. Suomeksi: runokäännöksiä mm. teoksessa Slaavilaisen kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja (1936). Nerudan Prahalaistarinoita ilmestyi Taifuunin kustantamana vuonna 2000.

Selected works:

  • Hřbitovní kvítí, 1857 (Cemetery Flowers)
  • Ženich z hladu, 1859
  • Prodaná láska, 1859
  • Žena miluje srdnatost, 1860
  • Merenda nestřídmých, 1860
  • Francesca di Rimini, 1860
  • Já to nejsem, 1863
  • Arabesky, 1864
  • Pražské obrázky, 1864
  • Knihy veršů, 1867 (Books of Verses)
  • Zpěvy páteční, 1869
  • Pro strach židovský: Politická studie, 1870 (For Fear of the Jews)
  • Různí lidé, 1871 (contains Vampyr)
    - 'The Vampire' (in Czechoslovak Stories, tr. & ed. Sárka Hrbkova, 1920)
    - 'Vampyyri' (suom. lehdessä KiKi: suomalainen novellilukemisto, N:o 9, 1930; suom. Hannu Tervaharju, teoksessa Vampyyrit ja hahmonvaihtajat, koonnut Tig Thomas, 2012, alkuperäinen nimi Classic Tales of Vampires and Shapeshifters, 2011)
  • Obrazy z ciziny, 1872
  • Studie krátké a kratší, 1876
  • Žerty dravé a hravé, 1877
  • Menší cesty, 1877
  • Povídky malostranské, 1878
    - Tales of the Little Quarter (tr. Edith Pargeter, 1957) / Prague Tales (tr. Michael Henry Heim, introduction by Ivan Klíma, 1993) / Malá Strana Stories: A Week in a Quiet House (tr. 1999) / Prague Tales from the Little Quarter (tr. Craig Cravens, 2006)
    - Prahalaistarinoita (suom. Eero Balk, 2000)
  • Písně kosmické, 1878 (Cosmic Songs)
  • Balady a romance, 1878-83 (Ballads and Romances)
  • Prosté motivy, 1883 (Plain Themes / Simple Motifs)
  • Sebrané spisy, 1907-15 (41 vols.)
  • Letní vzpomínky, 1923 (illustrated by Adolf Kašpar)
    - Summer Recollections: A Malá Strana Feuilleton (translated by Alice Bauerová, 1999)
  • Spisy, 1950
  • Aforismy a dodatky, 1976 (ed. Aleš Haman)
  • Knihy básní, 1998 (ed. Aleš Haman)
  • Summer Recollections: A Malá Strana Feuilleton, 1999 (translated by Alice Bauerová)
  • Ty utýráš mne chladem svým, 2003 (illustrated by Fratišek Doubek)
  • Povídky malostranské, 2009 (illustrated by Katerina Bittmanová)
  • Povídky malostranské, 2009 (illustrated by Petr Urban)
  • Povídky malostranské, 2009 (illustrated by Jaromír František Fumas Palme)
  • Povídky malostranské, 2010 (illustratrated by Petra Kadrnožková)
  • Fejetony, 2011
  • Arabesky, 2012
  • Verše humorné a satirické, 2012 (illustrated by Vladimír Ben Beneš)

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