Czech literature

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Czech literature, like the literature of many older cultures, has had periods of great influence and periods of oppression. The role of literature to be a voice pronouncing the spirit and courage of the people has been well recognized by the writers who have given language to their people’s experiences and honored the Czech nation’s individuality.

Throughout the Middle Ages the influence of the Church in most aspects of life was all-pervading. As was the case in many cultures the local languages, in the Czech case Old Church Slavonic, gave way to Latin and this became the recognised language for all important pieces of literature. As such pieces were almost exclusively entwined with the life of the Church, this adoption of Latin was a logical progression, although it had the potential to have a lasting impact on the Czech people.

The fifteenth century was a time of upheaval in the Czech Republic, or the Bohemian Empire as it was then. Jan Hus, who was to become one of the most influential figures in Czech history, challenged the Church with reforms that would lead to a political movement that would be the basis of the Hussite Era. In this time, the reformists used the Czech language as a vehicle for reclaiming their independence from the Church. The Czech literature of the period was largely didactic and expounded on the humanism of the European Renaissance.

With the beginning of the Baroque period, the Austrian Habsburgs defeated the Protestants and the nobility was replaced with Habsburg supporters who knew little of the Czech people. All that had been gained in the field of literature over two hundred years was virtually outlawed and Czech literature survived only among those living in exile. Jan Ámos Komenský (John Amos Comenius) was a prominent writer of this period and produced Labyrint světa a ráj srdce (Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart) which is still regarded as on the greatest works of Czech literature.

The work of the Habsburgs to eradicate the Czech language had drastically reduced its use and, by the start of the eighteenth century, it was no longer being used for serious literary works. But this was the age of the Enlightenment and before the end of the century historians would have led many Czech scholars to explore earlier literature of their countrymen.

The nineteenth century saw the reinvigoration of Czech literature. A new Czech middle class evolved and with it came prose and poetry in the Czech language. The brilliant lyric poetry of Karel Hynek Mácha was being appreciated and, in time to come would be acknowledged in works by other writers, like Neruda and Halek.  Great works of other languages, such as Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, were translated into Czech and a Czech-German dictionary became a statement of equality as well as a literary work. Among great Czech writers of the latter part of the nineteenth century was Jan Neruda who became well known for his Povídky malostranské, a series of mocking sketches. Before the end of the century, the Czech novel would be an expression of national pride.

The twentieth century saw Czech literature blossom as political shifts inspired writers to express themselves openly. The horrors of two World Wars, occupation by the soviets and the eventual democratic revolution would serve as impetus and backdrop to the poetry, plays and novels of Czech people emerging from exile in their own country. Between the two World Wars Jaroslav Seifert arose as a lyric poet of immense talent and he went on to win a Nobel Prize for literature in 1984.

Other wonderful writers of the twentieth century include the international acclaimed playwright, Václav Havel, whose courage in writing potential dangerous works during the Soviet occupation may well have contributed to his becoming President of the Czech Republic in 1989. Milan Kundera is another Czech born writer, who lived in exile in France for most of his adult life and produced such politically critical works that they were banned in the Czech Republic while the Soviets were in power.

Literature is more than simply telling and good story or making neat rhymes. It intermingles with the spirit of a nation and exposes the character of the people within. The writers of the Czech republic have struggled for centuries to be allowed to celebrate their country and are now enjoying every opportunity make their voices heard.


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