abstract Kristýna Matysová

Czech literature of the 20th and 21st century: a seismograph of socio-political change in the heart of Europe

My lecture will first focus on the problem of delimitation of the term ‘Czech literature’. Czech borders changed several times over the centuries. The inhabitants of Czech lands spoke different languages and were from different ethnicities. Who then should be considered as a Czech author? Several criteria such as geographical, ethnical or linguistic may come into consideration.  At the beginning of the 20st century, most writers were bilingual /Czech-German/. The Good Soldier Švejk reflects this reality. Franz Kafka was a Prague-born German-language writer.

The second part will look at the cultural climate after the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and on one of its main authors, Karel Čapek, a visionary who gave to the world the word robot. The first twenty years of Czechoslovakia, also called ‘The First Republic’ were one of the most prolific periods for the Czechs and the Slovaks in the matter of culture and industry.

The third part will concentrate on the big socio-cultural changes after the Second World War. The number of members of the Jewish and German communities in the Czech lands was dramatically reduced. A part of the Czech intelligentsia chose exile as a reaction to the communist coup in 1948. During the period of the early sixties that culminated in 1968 in so called ‘Prague spring’, there appeared new forms of theatre /for example Václav Havel’s absurd drama/, and of cinema. Drama especially had a big influence on the political liberalization. On the 21st August 1968 the Soviet Union and the armies of the other members of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia to halt the reforms. These events were followed by another wave of emigration. Many authors who were banned from publishing became active at the underground cultural scene and published in samizdat. This was the case of for example Bohumil Hrabal and of Jaroslav Seifert, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1984. In the eighties, the novels of Milan Kundera, a Czech French-writing author living in exile, showed the Czech reality to the readers in France and in other countries all over the world. Moreover, Kundera’s essay from 1983 dealing with the cultural history of the central European region, challenges the traditional French view which splits Europe into West and East.

The final part of my lecture will focus on the major events of the end of the 20th and of the beginning of the 21st century.  Some Czech authors debuting in this period, even though they have not lived in the totalitarian era, reflect on painful events of the recent Czech and European history in their novels, and present them in a new light.

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