Poet Lore/Volume 4/Number 1/A Modern Bohemian Novelist: Jakub Arbes



THE Bohemian literature of the present is about as much known in America as the religious views of the Papuans. And yet it can, both as to quality and quantity, honorably compete with any of the European literatures. No country can boast of having produced a poet who would, like the Bohemian Vrchlický, within fifteen years publish sixty successful books of verse, real pearls of poetry! The Bohemian language of itself is worthy of study. Its treasury of words is inexhaustible, its ability to express the finest shades of thought is almost unequalled. (See Westminster Review, vol. xii. p. 304 et seq.: ‘The Larklet.’) The only thing pointed to as a difficulty in learning this language is, in truth, its merit,—viz., the great variety of forms (Westminster Review, vol. cxii. pp. 413–444). Besides, the phonetical orthography renders the study twice easier. And the intellectual benefit derived from the study of the language would fully compensate the student.

The author whose name heads this article is a Bohemian novelist of the romantic school, if we may be permitted to use that word. We call this class romantic to distinguish its writers from those of the national school,—that is, writers who choose their characters and subjects from the rich Bohemian history, past and present, whose works are pervaded by what we might call the national spirit. The most prominent among the living representatives of this class are. Svatopluk Čech, Alois Jirásek, Václav Vlček, and Karolina Světlá. The authors of the other category, on the contrary, picture simply men as such and not as members of a particular nationality. They work under the influences of modern times, which tend to rub off the peculiarities of different nations.

The author whom we are going to consider is eminently a writer of modern times. The ideas and doctrines that he promulgates are those of contemporaneous philosophy. It was only the inner excellency of his works that led us to present Jakub Arbes to the American public.

Arbes was born on the 12th of June, 1840, at Smíchov, a suburb of Prague, of poor parentage. The continual struggle of his family for existence and the early deaths of his brothers and sisters created and strengthened his earnest view of life, to which is due the gloomy coloring of many of his romances and novels, especially those dealing with the life of workingmen. His father, a shoemaker, originally decided that his son should pursue the vocation of his parent, but Jakub’s success in the school-room brought him first to a high school and then to a polytechnic. Here he devoted all his leisure to private studies of modern philosophy, esthetics, and foreign literatures. Leaving the school he was equipped with a great amount of knowledge, little of which, however, had practical value. Thus he missed all the advantages of practical life and entered upon the thorny path of a writer.

Queerly enough, Arbes began his literary career with a German poem (1855) and a German novelette (1856). But soon this German sickness left him, and Bohemian magazines found in him a zealous contributor. Books and articles written by him are numbered by hundreds. The great Bohemian encyclopedia of Otto, to which we owe our biographical and other data, mentions thirty of his principal works, only a few of which we can touch more specifically in this article.

Arbes’s art of writing is peculiar to himself. His invention is romantic, while the story itself is told in a most realistic manner, the author tracing not only the deeds but also the thoughts of his heroes to their very roots, giving the minutest details. You notice how events seemingly insignificant leave their impressions in the mind of the person, how by a slow process his character is shaped, and how all his actions grow out of his character. You may analyze the action most scrupulously, you will find that the person in question could not act otherwise. The story is always interesting, oftentimes taken from the author’s neighborhood, and directly touching some prominent, often sad and gloomy, feature of modern life, whether it be the life of an individual, a nation, or society at large. While the fundamental idea is regularly simple and the plot not complicated, the reader is often surprised by the easy solution of mysterious physical, physiological, and psychological problems in a natural way. The progress of the story is extremely logical, reaching the boundaries of mere probability. The characters are different from every-day types, they are men of firm and independent opinions, energetically pursuing their aims, whether good or bad; they are strong minds, deep thinkers, and masters of their feelings and passions; they despise the well-trodden paths of the commonplace.

A feature among his works are novels and studies from the life of artists—e.g., ‘The Bohemian Paganini’ and ‘Il divino Boemo,’ stories of two talented Bohemian musicians; ‘From the Mental Workshop of Poets;’ ‘In the Service of Arts,’ and numerous smaller works.

We cannot enter upon a minute consideration of any of his productions, but we give here, in few words only, rough contours of some of his novels, so as to convey some idea of what the books deal with.

Moderní upíři’ (Modern Vampires) is a story of two young men bred up in the cold atmosphere of modern thought. They are speculators and complete egotists. ‘Mravokárné Románky(Satiristic Romances), of which sixteen thousand copies were sold within one year, exhibit a series of model characters of every kind. The faults and defects of human society are palpably shown by the reader’s comparing the heroes of these stories with the average persons of cold reality. Among other characters of this gallery we find a judge who fines a poor widow for damage done by her geese to the crop of a wealthy lord. People detest him; but when the woman is about to leave the court-room, the judge gives her a ten-florin bill to pay the fine. People extol him now; his honesty and liberality are soon made known throughout the land, and in a short time the judge’s house begins to be daily besieged by armies of beggars. Scientific problems of all kinds are solved in the so-called ‘Romanettoes.’ The hero of ‘The Ethiopian Lily’ is a young pharmaceutist, who tries to find out a medicine that would prolong life and take away all the pain that dying persons suffer. By a curious association of thoughts he is led to ascribe to the Ethiopian lily an extraordinary healing power, but learns afterwards that his supposition was false. This romanetto shows that people whose opinions always agree with those of the mass are the happiest, while those who are courageous enough to have opinions of their own live poor and dissatisfied. In ‘Newtonův mozek’ (Newton’s Brain) a friend of the author secures the brain of the great astronomer from a British museum; with its aid he accomplishes wonderful things, among others he constructs a flying-machine whose velocity exceeds that of light; thus pursuing the rays of the sun he succeeds in catching pictures of the past. This, of course, is finally found to have been a dream. ‘Ukřižovaná’ (The Crucified Virgin) tells of a young soldier of fertile imagination who is haunted to death by the vision of a crucified bearded maiden. Having been wounded in battle, he is carried to a church which was used as a hospital. There he sees that vision again and dies of the horror. It was in the same church where he had seen this vision as a boy while hidden there during a revolution. He deemed it to be a delusion, though in fact he saw a real picture of a crucified bearded virgin, a Russian saint. His nerves were exceedingly irritable, and so his seeing the vision again produced a fatal excitement. The psychological processes in the diseased mind of the young soldier are most accurately traced by the author.

An old picture of Saint Xaverius figures in a story of that name. ‘Idylly utrpení a bídy’ (Idylls of Suffering and Misery), ‘Silhouetty,’ ‘Štrajchpudlíci,’ ‘Messiáš’ (The Messiah, 1883), and other stories and sketches, are devoted to the lives of workmen, which they often present in dark and gloomy pictures.

‘The Messiah,’ a romance of socialistic tendencies, in two volumes, is undoubtedly one of the best works of Arbes. The expression “the romantic school,” which we used above, is arbitrary. The heroes of Arbes are, nominally at least, Bohemians, but as it is not the national traits of their character, but only what is purely human, that Arbes pictures in his works, we assigned him to the romantic writers. Otherwise, if we regard only his peculiar mode of writing, we shall find him isolated among Bohemian authors: he never imitates others nor can be imitated himself.

These seem to be the main ideas which Arbes enunciates: life is a continual struggle; society is a tyrant that tries to suppress any of its members who, by their moral strength, rise above the common level; religion is insufficient to guarantee a happy life. The doctrine of heredity is accepted, yet it is never worked out into such dreadful consequences as it is in the romances of Zola.

It is true that the novels of Arbes are not entirely free from faults: his desire to show life as it is, which borders on realism, sometimes compels him to sacrifice artistic beauty to naked truth; deep philosophical reflections are often carried to a great length; frequent episodes and effective details destroy the uniformity and harmony of the whole, and some of the novels are merely autobiographical.

Yet we admire the great mastery with which he depicts the inner life to men; we must acknowledge his great merit: he introduced into Bohemian literature a more truthful presentation of life, and his works did much towards disseminating the advanced doctrines of modern philosophy. It is to be regretted that in Bohemia authors must respect their reader a little too much and have to “harmonize” their works with the latter’s views. Besides, the Catholic hierarchy is powerful as yet in Bohemia and hard to oppose, and Arbes is a liberal freethinker: his writings fight against prejudices of all sorts and religious and other superstitions; it follows that he cannot be as explicit as we might wish, only a hint, an allusion here and there, allows the reader to guess the author's real meaning. And finally there is the state’s attorney, who is always ready to suppress anything that would seem to infringe upon the authority of the established church. Church and State walk hand in hand in Austria, and telling truth about either of them is high treason. In the present days persecutions of writers and journalists are but sporadic; twenty-five years ago they were of every-day occurrence. ‘Pláč koruny české’ (A Grief of the Bohemian Crown)—a mere record of these persecutions for a few years and of the thousands of moneys paid by the Bohemian journals by way of fines, which was published by Arbes in 1870—is a handsome pamphlet. Arbes himself has tasted of Austrian prisons, for beside being a poet he is also a Bohemian patriot, a democrat, taking an active part in the stormy political life of Bohemia. From 1868 to 1877 he was editor of the Národní Listy (The National News), a liberal daily, now the greatest in Bohemia. The courage which he displayed in his editorials, fighting and exposing the Austrian bureaucracy, brought him several times before the courts, for liberty of the Press was (and we may say is) wholly unknown in Austria.

Thus Arbes spent altogether one year three months and one week in various prisons. After 1877 he devoted his time and his genius chiefly to literary work. The great variety of his subjects, and his striving for originality both in the plots and the ideas of his books, may be partially accounted for by the fact that, as regards his living, Arbes is wholly dependent on his literary work, and in order to stand the competition of a host of excellent writers he must always have something not only good but also original and interesting to offer to the reading public. The life of one who has consecrated all his days exclusively to the Muses is by no means a rosy one in Bohemia, although there are comparatively more readers in that country than in many other nations.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1951, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.