The Jail/Introduction

The Jail. Experiences in 1916  (1921)  by Josef Svatopluk Machar
Introduction by Paul Selver


Among the many interesting and talented Czech writers of today J. S. Machar occupies a foremost place. He has succeeded in gaining popular favour without sacrificing his literary ideals. He is always in close touch with the events of the day, upon which he comments fearlessly and often drastically. He is, in fact, not merely a literary celebrity but a national personality, whose opinions meet with interest, if not always with agreement, among a wide circle of readers in Czechoslovakia.

J. S. Machar was born at Kolín in 1864. He was educated at Prague where he underwent all the privations of a needy student. The death of his father in 1881 left him unprovided for, and he eked out a livelihood by giving lessons, and from 1882 onwards, when his first verses were printed in the periodical "Světozor", by literary work. Already during this early period of his life we find him obliged to change schools on account of his religious views, the free expression of which brought him into conflict with the instructor in divinity. After passing his school-leaving examination, he spent a year in the army, and was then enrolled as a student of law. His legal studies, however, were confined to this formal enrolment, and he remained in the army until his appointment as an official of the "Bodenkreditanstalt" in Vienna. He occupied this inappropriate post for thirty years until the events described in "The Jail". When the independent Czechoslovak State was founded in the autumn of 1918, Machar became a member of the National Assembly. Later on he was appointed inspector general of the Czechoslovak army, and he is still continuing in this capacity.

Machar's first book, "Confiteor" was published in 1887. It consists of lyric poems, the tone of which is sentimental, romantic, sceptical and ironical by turns. To a certain extent they suggest the influence of Heine and the Russian Byronists. but they are sufficiently subjective to acquit Machar of being a mere copyist of other poets' emotions. The second and third parts of "Confiteor" appeared in 1889 and 1892 respectively, and from then onwards Machar, with his reputation fully established, issued numerous volumes both in verse and prose. In the "Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn Sonnets", published between 1891 and 1893, Machar reveals the same dual capacity as lyric poet and ironical observer as in his earlier books, together with technical skill in imparting variety to the sonnet form. "Tristium Vindobona" (1893) is a book of elegies, in whose title Machar suggests an analogy between Ovid, exiled among the Goths, and himself, performing uncongenial duties in the anti-Czech atmosphere of Vienna. It should here be mentioned that Machar's attitude towards nationalism is not narrow and chauvinistic. He has always severely condemned the false patriotism which parades beneath empty catchwords and is without true human ideals, but he is also a decided opponent of social injustice, and for that reason he was always a severe critic of the Viennese authorities for their treatment of the Czechs. Machar's hatred of social injustice was the dominant motive in his next two books of poems, "Here roses ought to bloom" and "Magdalena", both published in 1894, and both concerned with the position of woman in human society. The former book consists of a series of "lyric dramas" depicting various phases in the lives of women, in which sombre colours predominate. The melancholy tone of this book recurs in "Magdalena", a narrative poem dealing with the problem of the fallen woman who attempts to live down her past, but is defeated by the petty traditions of a provincial town. Among Machar's miscellaneous collections of verse may be mentioned "The Warriors of God", the ironical title of a volume of incisive and epigrammatic political satire which followed in 1897, and the "Satiricon" of 1904, which is similar in character.

The publication of "Golgotha" in 1901 marks the beginning of a new series of poems, upon which Machar has worked intermittently ever since. He is now no longer concerned with the personal emotions of his earlier lyrical period, but is attracted by the collective destinies of mankind as displayed in the drama of history. But Machar's conception of historical characters and events is nevertheless often strongly affected by his personal bias. Thus. "In the Glow of the Hellenic Sun" and "The Poison from Judaea", both published in 1906, by their very titles indicate Machar’s sympathies for classical antiquity on the one hand, and his anti-clerical sentiments on the other. During the year 1911 they were followed in rapid succession by "The Barbarians" (early Middle Ages), "The Pagan Flames" (renaissance) and "The Apostles" [reformation period). No further additions to the series have yet been published.

This gallery of historical portraits and perspectives deserves special notice by reason of the vividness with which Machar has reconstructed scenes and depicted figures from the most diverse periods and of the most diverse types. Taken as a whole it forms an outlined epic of mankind's development, the component parts of which are short but often extremely effective dramas. Thus, "On Golgotha" in the first volume of the series, is a graphic and unconventional narrative of Christ's crucifixion, written in blank verse of great poetical beauty. Machar himself says that the music of Beethoven was ringing within him when he wrote this poem, and this well accounts for the stately cadences in which the scene is enacted to its unrelenting conclusion. And without analysing in detail the series as a whole, it is sufficient to refer in general terms to the admirable manner in which Machar visualises Babylonian kings, Chinese chroniclers. Greek tyrants, Roman emperors, Popes, savage invaders, poets, painters, and soldiers, and in a few firm strokes presents their leading characteristics.

As a prose-writer Machar also ranks very high in Czech literature. Here again we find the same polemical tendencies, the same bold criticism of social and political shams, and, it must be added, the same unsparing self-revelation. For instance. "The Confession of a Literary Man" (1901) is Machar's autobiography, in which he depicts his youth and manhood with sardonic frankness. One of his most famous prose works is "Rome", prompted by his violent aversion to Catholicism and its adherents. Much of Machar's prose writing consists of newspaper feuilletons commenting upon topics of the day, and it is probably these which have gained him the greatest number of readers. Yet however trifling the subject in itself, the vigorous style in which it is discussed invests it with a more than transient interest.

Machar's record as an author reveals him as a personality of unswerving courage. In the course of his career he has not flinched from wounding the national susceptilities of his fellow-countrymen when he considered that the interests of truth demanded it. He has lost friends and made enemies by the uncompromising expression of his views. It was inevitable that such a man should come into contact with the Austrian authorities during the war, and it is the various incidents connected with his supervision and inprisonment which form the subject of "The Jail". Here we have all manifestations of the typical Machar,—his strong human sympathies, his psychological insight, his courage, his candour, his sarcasm, his humour, his dramatic instinct and his faculties for describing places, persons and events. But the qualities of the book are so obvious that they do not need to be indicated further. It is enough to add that "The Jail" has a two-fold value,—as a piece of literature and as a historical document. On either score it was worth translating into English,—the double merit made its translation an urgent duty, which it has been a pleasure to fulfil.

London, March 10th 1921.P. Selver.