Czech Literature

By | October 15, 2021

Modern and avant-garde

According to Globalsciencellc, the Czech literature of the 20th century followed the currents of Western European literature and achieved, v. a. after the establishment of the Czechoslovak state (1918), increasing international attention.

In addition to the direction of »progress« around František Václav Krejčí (* 1867, † 1941) and the environmental description of naturalism by Karel Matěj Čapek-Chod (* 1860, † 1927), Gabriela Preissová (* 1862, † 1946). and Božena Benešova (* 1873, † 1936) can be found in Czech literature Impressionist influences in A. Sova, a Catholic modern with J. Deml, J. Durych and J. Zahradníček and a vitalism in F. Šrámek, František Langer (* 1888, † 1965) and – in its beginnings – J. Wolker. P. Bezruč with his cycle »Slezské písně« (1909; German »The Silesian Songs«) is considered to be the founder of modern Czech social poetry.


The 20th century was followed by Czech modernism and its inter alia. dominated by the literary critic F. X. Šalda signed manifesto “Česká moderna” (Czech Modernism, 1895), the v. a. was skeptical of national pathos. The magazine “Moderní revue” formed a forum for O. Březina’s symbolism, which is under the sign of the transcendental, as well as the culture of the fin de siècle and the decadence around K. Hlaváček and J. Karásek Ze Lvovic. In addition, v. a. the young generation of poets to S. K. Neumann and the Anarcho-Boheme circle (K. Toman, F. Šrámek).

On the initiative of the Čapek brothers, the »Almanach na rok 1914« (almanac for the year 1914, 1913) was drafted as a new modern manifesto that had a decisive influence on the post-war years.


The 1920s were dominated by the artist group des Devětsil, which – at least in the first years of its existence – was close to the cult of the proletariat, v. a. V. Nezval and K. Teige, the creators of the theory of poetism. Further representatives of poetism were K. Biebl and J. Seifert and – in their beginnings – F. Halas, V. Holan and V. Vančura. The avant-garde was still alive after the dissolution of the »Devětsil«.

The parallel development of Czech poetism and French surrealism led to a combination of both directions in the 1930s: In 1934 Teige and Nezval declared that the current stage of poetism was surrealism and founded the »Skupina Surrealistů v ČSR« (group of surrealists in the ČSR). There was also the trend of the prolet cult, which Marie Majerová, I. Olbracht, Wolker, Seifert, Teige, Vančura and Nezval joined at various times.

Important narrators of this period were J. Hašek, who achieved world fame with his burlesque-satirical novel about the »good soldier Schwejk« (»Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války«, 1921–23, 4 volumes, unfinished), and K. Čapek, who also created parable dramas, with philosophically profound prose poems. In isolated socialist model novels by Olbracht, Marie Majerová and Marie Pujmanová (* 1893, † 1958) v. a. the working and living conditions of the proletariat.

With the grouping »Skupina 42« (Gruppe 42) founded in 1942 around the poets I. Blatný and J. Kolář, which propagated an existential civilism and addressed the metropolitan area, the French influence on Czech poetry was pushed back.

The actors and writers Jiří Voskovec (actually Jiří Wachsmann, * 1905, † 1981) and J. Werich had great importance for the avant-garde theater “Osvobozené divadlo” (Liberated Theater) before, during and after the Second World War.

According to the Munich Agreement of 1938, v. a. Poets such as Seifert, V. Závada, Halas and Holan describe the agreement and its consequences for their Czech homeland in their works.

Stalinism, thaw, Prague spring

Did Czech literature stand out from the turn of the century BC? a. characterized by diversity and wealth of forms, after 1948 it had to primarily meet political needs. After the Communists came to power in 1948, at the 1949 Writers’ Congress, socialist realism was declared a binding art doctrine and an orientation towards Soviet art was demanded. A number of authors adapted to it with individual works that were committed to a dogmatic socialist worldview, so inter alia. Olbracht, Marie Majerová, Marie Pujmanová, Jan Drda (* 1915, † 1970), Jan Otčenášek (* 1924, † 1979) and Václav Řezáč (* 1901, † 1956) with socialist construction novels or descriptions of war as well as Nezval with some poems in honor of Stalin; others, such as the poet I. Blatný and the storytellers E. Hostovský and J. Čep, emigrated; others were silenced (Holan, Deml, J. Weil) or persecuted (Zahradníček). In the 1950s, ideologically specific structural and production novels and socialist program poetry predominated. It was only during the de-Stalinization in the second half of the 1950s that Czech literature was able to free itself from political pressure in some areas.

Czech literature of the 1960s turned away from simplistic constructions and clichés and took greater account of personal experience, in the poetry of F. Hrubín, J. Skácel, Oldřich Mikulášek (* 1910, † 1985), V. Závada; in the prose L. Fuks, J. Gruša, B. Hrabal, I. Klíma, M. Kundera, Věra Linhartová (* 1938), V. Páral, J. Škvorecký, L. Vaculík; in the drama P. Kohout, Josef Topol and V. Havel. Well-known literary magazines (»Literární listy«, »Tvář«) were leading in the reform movement of the Prague Spring.

The Soviet invasion in August 1968 ended the phase of relative liberalization of literary creation. Literature was subjected to rigorous political censorship and ideologically aligned, the literary press liquidated, the writers’ association dissolved and re-established; the literary leaders of the Prague Spring were persecuted, some driven into emigration, and many authors were banned from publishing. All of this led to a split in Czech literature into official, samizdat and exile literature. The authors who continued to be published (e.g. Fuks, Páral) or who returned to the official literary scene (e.g. Hrabal, Šotola, Seifert) opposed a large number who had decided to emigrate or were expatriated, among others. Škvorecký, A. Lustig, Kundera, Gruša, Kohout, I. Diviš. Authors from the official sphere such as Šotola and Fuks began a retreat into the historical epic. The authors remaining in Czechoslovakia who were not officially allowed to publish, i.a. Havel, M. Uhde, Jan Trefulka (* 1929, † 2012), Alexandr Kliment (* 1929, † 2017), Milan Šimečka (* 1930, † 1990), Vaculík, published in exile and samizdat publishers.

Her works from the 1980s, in particular, increasingly reflected the socio-political macrocosm (with the national traumas of 1938 and 1968 playing a special role). In addition, a preference for the authentic and a retreat into the private microcosm could be observed, among other things. in the works of Vaculík, Eva Kantůrková (* 1930), Kohout, Klíma. In addition, the “deformation” of people under the conditions of the totalitarian regime was described. with Karel Pecka (* 1928, † 1997), Eda Krisová (* 1940), Petr Kabeš (* 1941, † 2005), Havel, Jan Trefulka and Zuzana Brabcová (* 1959).

The young generation of authors in particular organized themselves in the literary underground movement around the magazine “Revolver revue”. Works by Jáchym Topol, Petr Placák (* 1964) and Egon Bondy (* 1930, † 2007) stood for negation, provocation and nonconformism.

Many of the exiles wrote in the respective national language, including Libuše Moníková, Věra Linhartová, Gruša, O. Filip, Ludvík Aškenazy (* 1921, † 1986), Gabriel Laub (* 1928, † 1998), Kundera, others more or less stuck to their mother tongue. Diviš, Antonín Brousek (* 1941, † 2013), Sylvie Richterová (* 1945). The psychological transformations in exile, homesickness and strangers, loss of identity and language experienced a broad thematic diversification in exile literature from 1948 as well as from 1968.

Velvet revolution and the present

After the “velvet revolution” in November 1989, the cultural schism of literary trisection was lifted and the official and unofficial literature, which had previously existed largely unreflectively, was merged. After 1990 mainly samizdat and exile works were published, some authors returned from the diaspora (Kolář), others commute between their two homes (Lustig, Gruša). For the first time, authors were published who were previously inaccessible to a broader public.

In the Czech literature of the 1990s, an increasing departure from the extra-literary mission of literature was observable, whereby v. a. experimental prose played a major role, inter alia. Jíří Kratochvil (* 1940), Michal Ajvaz (* 1949), Daniela Hodrová (* 1946), Jáchym Topol, Michal Viewegh (* 1962), Miloš Urban, Jaroslav Rudiš (* 1972). In the 1990s, P. Borkovec and Jaromír Typlt (* 1973) joined the poetry.

So far, one Czech writer has received the Nobel Prize for Literature: J. Seifert (1984).

Czech Literature