Summary

THE "CZECH TRAP" OF THE IRONIC ALOYS SKOUMAL

 

An attempt to grasp Aloys Skoumal in the context of the 20th century Czech reality is first of all a "trap" in which the author who has conceived such idea gets caught since Skoumal's cultural activities are so manifold and, in a way, omnipresent that he defies the traditional biographical approaches. When talking about Skoumal, the leftist Devětsil grouping, just as well as the Catholic sources of Czech culture, theatre reviews and publishing activities, enlightened journalism and diplomatic services, university and rural tradition, English Studies in Czechoslovakia and Choral Society of Moravian Teachers, the theory and practice of Czech translation, humanistic culture and education with its pinnacles - Skoumal's translations of Swift, Stern and Joyce - or the expansion of cultural illiteracy, which provoked Skoumal to present his views in public and brought to perfection the unique tone of his satire, must be mentioned. Aloys Skoumal's life dates (the years 1904 - 1988) show that his life coincides with the development of the Czech culture of the 20th century, from its emancipation after the establishment of the independent Czechoslovak state in 1918, to the World War II twists and turns and consequent division of the world, to the wasteland of the Normalisation years, up to the threshold of the transformation following the November 1989 events and heralding the next century.

Moreover, the numerousness and diversity of Skoumal's activities continuing over and changing during a relatively long time involves the problem of social memory because by far not all Skoumal's contributions to Czech culture were fixed in writing. His voice in debates with friends or editorial discussions, his organisational skills with all wins and failures in the field of publishing strategies, the traces of his foreign activities as a Cultural Attaché in London and many other merits feel into oblivion after the departure of his coevals and eyewitnesses. Likewise, the testimonies about Skoumal's individual life story, in particular about his years as a child and student, i.e. about a time that even the memory of his family perceived only vicariously, faded out. On top of that, Aloys Skoumal did not belong to people collecting information about themselves and erecting post mortem memorials while alive. He formulated his curricula vitae briefly and precisely as perfect encyclopaedia entries where there is no place for any non-exact information. On the contrary his private letters are often expressive and include emotional content and depiction of impressions, this however only as an immediate response to certain impulses, never as evaluation of a whole (a historic event or personality and the complex of his/her life). Thus, Skoumal may seem at first sight to disregard some circumstances although the opposite is true. He never, whether in the public or private domain, misused language for idle description of significant but previously formulated situations. Skoumal expressed the period of history in which he took part through topical ideas or topical perceptions, which he tried to articulate as precisely as possible. It is not a chronographic approach but a creative principle what brings Skoumal close to the literary method of authors who kept attracting him as a translation challenge.

The resources underlying the text about Aloys Skoumal, an ironist in a Czech trap, (any relevant literature exists only for secondary areas of the subject) gradually grew to include several hundred items: documents, articles, records, aphorisms, epigrams, letters, etc. Due to the above-mentioned attributes of a majority of those resources the work necessarily and largely involved procedures going beyond the usual practice of historical research: looking at every formulation with increased suspicion, since it usually carried more than a mere lexical meaning, more guessing and skating on thin ice, more believing in intuition and hoping for good luck. Despite the numerous pitfalls emerging in the topic from the very beginning of the research, despite all revisions of the author's slips, the author can but confess that the two decades of circling around the topic of Aloys Skoumal were enriching both in terms of knowledge and personal meetings. Thus, the author's "trap" closed leaving the author firmly convinced that the omnipresent Skoumal can be considered a criterion of the development of the culture of 20th century.

The "Czech trap" of Aloys Skoumal has three dimensions. First, also chronologically, there is the essential Moravian patriotism confronted with the Czech or, more precisely, Prague reality. Second, there is the Irophile confronted with the Czech modification of a "small" nation. And third, there is humanistic attitude confronted with the stupidity of the cultural ignorance of the Czech society after 1948 - the culmination of the offered triad, which embraces both the resources and limits of Skoumal's lifelong activity. The title of the final chapter, Aloys Skoumal, an Ironist in a Czech trap, is meant to express the foregoing by paraphrasing the motto of Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, replacing the original Latin phrase in mobili with the opposite: in immobili. Mobilis in immobili - Mobile in immobile. The mobile, variable, non-classable, escaping Aloys Skoumal (as a young man he accused himself of unruliness and used i.a. the literary pseudonym Próteus), set in a static environment levelling out both depth and height, reinforced with stereotypes of lowbrow thinking and later tied by an indestructible ideology. A man who does not resign and who - not demonstratively but persistently, using inconspicuous weapons - pounds on the trap shaping his creative potential and his life's mission. Thus, the end of the book returns to the initial picture of the little curious and courageous mongoose Rikki-tikki-tavi from Kipling's Jungle Book, which Aloys Skoumal and his wife Hana also translated.

The narration of the book starts with a description of the Skoumal family's country, of the particularities of the Moravian region of Haná, where Skoumal was born in the village of Pačlavice in 1904. Also, the names of two important Czech writers, Jan Čep and František Halas, for whom the genius loci of the countryside they belonged to was the key factor for their works, are mentioned at the very beginning. Both of them were Skoumal's close friends, as convincingly evidenced in particular by his unpublished correspondence with them. If Čep and Halas represent two lines of the bearing axis of the Czech literature of the first half of the 20th century, the Čep's one growing from the merciless tradition of Catholic spirituality and the one represented by Halas from the feeling of pain of evanescence, Skoumal's place is between them. Skoumal shares Čep's tradition of rural education, church and land while with Halas he shares the motifs of love, poverty and activity. Halas is the key to deciphering the reason that Skoumal was so difficult to classify, which was not understood but in principle accurately described by Václav Černý in his Memoirs, "The little Aloys Skoumal sniffed like a ferret between the right and left wings". The stereotypes of Czech thinking include the endeavour to classify and categorize. That requirement Skoumal strongly defied, wherefore there might be opposing evaluations of Skoumal and which is why he is omitted in the history of Czech literature, which accepts him only in a neutral position as a translator today.

Aloys Skoumal's nature was formed by his family and by the country his family was tied to. His intellectual life woke up at the Kroměříž Gymnasium. There was a good reason for nicknaming Kroměříž "Athens of the Haná region". The ecclesiastic grammar school was the cultural centre of the small town, which maintained a pleasant rural ambiance while radiating a unique spirituality borne by the most talented priests of the diocese sent to Kroměříž by the Olomouc Archbishopric, which used the town as a summer residence. The grammar school was the midpoint of not only education but also music, which has been an attribute of Kroměříž to the present day. The Gymnasium was established by the Piarist Order known in particular for its engagement in philosophical studies. The school maintained that spirit even after the Order had left. Skoumal, who always belonged to excellent students, was also a temple choir scholarship holder. Classical philology and music were the basic constants of his sense of language, not only in the translation domain.

The end of the studies in Kroměříž witnessed a new - and substantial - inspiration. Skoumal met Josef Florian, an initiator and implementer of a unique publishing business with virtually no financial resources, yet with excellent results, successful also abroad. In Stará Říše, an out-of-the-way place in the poor Vysočina region, Florian published high-quality books in a graphical design that even reputable Prague publishing houses would not dare. The reason that he succeeded, that he managed to turn his house into a place of concentrated spirituality, consisted in his charismatic personality. Unlike a rather mystic interpretation of Martin C. Putna, a literary historian, we find Florian's influence in particular in the rehabilitation of the forgotten term "manly deed", which must - not may - fill a man's life and which urges others to follow. That much Aloys Skoumal learned from Josef Florian and that principle he honoured. The debates held at Stará Říše also gave rise to Skoumal's interest in Ireland, which became the means of his life's mission Skoumal set for himself: to introduce to his small nation various forms of the thinking and feeling of the comparable - both in terms of fate and tradition - Irish nation, to dismantle the Czech narrow-mindedness and lack of faith by presenting its great historic and literary events, to contribute to restoration of the stagnant Czech prose by showing the spontaneous Irish narration, to unveil the dullness of the domestic Catholic politicking by evoking the natural paths of Christianity in the green Erin, and to use the Irish sense of humour to fight against the passion of Czech people for justifying their own imperfections. Skoumal's translations of the works by J. Swift, L. Stern and J. Joyce form the imaginary "backbone" of that lifelong programme. Its "body" is composed of all Skoumal's presentations of Ireland and Irish culture in smaller-scale translations of less known authors, in encyclopaedia entries, lectures and popularising articles, as well as of the ironic charge of Skoumal's reviews and in particular of his own epigrammatic works. The author's hypothesis of Skoumal's "Irish programme" is supported by accidentally discovered correspondence exchanged during the first years of his studies in Prague with his friend from the Kroměříž Gymnasium, Vojtěch Cvek, with whom he first visited Stará Říše and whom he dedicated the article titled A Journey to Ireland.

Aloys Skoumal came to the Philosophical Faculty of the Charles University in Prague to study primarily English and Romance Studies, which was rather a rare combination among his colleagues because Roman Studies students prepared for teaching at secondary schools while English Studies was an exclusive field of study in Bohemia in the 1920s and the students headed for schools only exceptionally. Skoumal's classmates, especially those attending the seminar led by Vilém Mathesius, an originator of the Prague Linguistic Circle, were socially very different from the social spectrum Skoumal saw in Moravia. In addition to the anonymous bustle of Prague streets, the contacts with male and female (who prevailed at the English Studies Department) members of higher social classes were the first signal of an urban character of the new stage of Skoumal's life. Skoumal looked for reconciliation with Prague first in its temples, later in the community of the Prague editorial office of the Catholic-oriented Rozmach journal, in Olomouc edited by Jaroslav Durych. At the editorial board meetings he also soon coped with the new environment of city cafés, which he disliked due to their lack of spirituality but which attracted him due to the easiness of meetings and dialogues. It was a preparation for later gatherings of leftist intellectuals around Devětsil and a signal for more open communication with his colleagues, Anglicists, to whom he got closer, thanks to his new experience, only then. The link between Devětsil and the university was maintained by Erik Adolf Saudek, a future translator of Shakespeare and next to J. Čep and F. Halas Skoumal's third close friend. Skoumal and Saudek shared an interest in theatre and lectures given by the Germanist Otokar Fischer, but it was above all an identical ironical and detached point of view what they had in common. Also their families later established and maintained close contacts and supported each other in difficult life situations.

The ambitious Skoumal soon made a very good impression in the English Studies seminar led by V. Mathesius, who - with the support of Lützow's scholarship - sent him to study in Ireland. Study stays in Great Britain and the United States were an attractive novelty at the university. The first scholarship holders among the Prague English Studies students include Hana Duxová, who spent two years at the Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. The extensive correspondence sent to her on a regular basis by her friend Lidmila Kočová, a Prague publisher's daughter, was one of the most valuable resources concerning the subject of this book. The many dozens letters of the spontaneous and intelligent observer provide a very accurate picture of the every-day university life and entertainment of young intellectuals in Prague in the mid-1920s. After she returned from the USA, the well-educated Hana attracted the attention of her one-year-younger colleague, Skoumal, and the couple got married in 1931.

However, the marriage took place only when they had moved to Olomouc, where Skomal was employed as the Study Library librarian in 1929 to 1933. The years in Olomouc, which had many positive aspects - the first two out of Skoumal's four children who lived to reach adulthood were born and his translation of J. Swift's Gulliver's Travels was published in Olomouc - showed that the Moravian environment could not satisfy Aloys Skoumal, that he saw the so-called "Metropolis of the Haná region" as a small-town imitation of the Prague social events, which was so difficult to get used to, which drove him mad, but which he needed for his intellectual life. Only his presence in the very centre of cultural life could satisfy his dynamic spirit's need for taking part. Skoumal's desire for Prague proves that the previous years spent in the city set up a "trap".

In 1933 Skoumal returned to Prague, where he lived with his family until his death in 1988. He had a number of occupations in Prague, his work for the Vyšehrad publishing house being the most important one. Skoumal's life was filled with many other intensively felt cultural activities which is why he sought, time to time, soothing stays in the natural milieu of the country, where he restored his mental strength worn out by a too expressive perception of Czech reality and found quiet for his literary work. His two long-term stays not only outside Prague but also outside Bohemia had rather different meanings. The first one brought Skoumal to Klettendorf in Silesia where he, married to a Jewess, was interned in 1944. Hana Skoumalová was experiencing the most torturing period of her life and all the love and vigour of their relationship is embodied in the letters they exchanged during the last year of the WWII.

The other trip abroad was initiated by Skoumal, who offered his knowledge of the English language and British environment to the service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was reputedly selected for the position of a Cultural Attaché at the Czechoslovak Embassy in London by Edward Beneš himself. He was supposed to serve also in Dublin but that plan failed. Skoumal took up the office in 1947 and held it until 1953 when he was deported within the repressions in response to the problems concerning the British Council in the after-February Czechoslovakia. While in London, he endeavoured to present the best of Czech and Slovak culture and his greatest merit consists in the promotion of Czechoslovak music ensembles in Western Europe. A certain political naivety of Skoumal is implied by his eager curiosity about a new social and cultural milieu after the February 1948 coup d'etat and by his complaining that he could not be where something new - and as he imagined wonderful - was coming to life. Soon after his return to that "new" Czechoslovakia he was to realize what a deformed shape the former ideals took and how also his former friends from the Devětsil period changed. If before the war his ironic edge was aimed at the half-hearted townies of the First Republic, new targets emerged in front of him now: the governmental ignorance devastating education, art, science. At that moment all his strength concentrated into two lines of expression: satire and translation. The book pays special attention to both of them.

Already at the beginning of his university studies Skoumal was looking for a domain to make the best of his literary talent he was endowed with and of which he was well aware. With Jan Čep on the one hand and František Halas on the other hand his position was rather complicated. His self-criticality chased away thoughts about poetry laurels in good time even though he was thoroughly versed in poetics and had a gentle critical sense of poetry. This can be convincingly illustrated e.g. with Skoumal's evaluations of Halas's collections contained in private letters. With a slightly pretended contempt he mentioned to a former schoolmate in 1925 that he was certainly going to be a "mere epigrammatist". Naturally, he knew what an important role satire, the only genre of art directly participating in social affairs, played in the history of European culture. And as we already know, that was Skoumal's ambition as well. Inspired by Martial, Swift, Karl Kraus but also by the Czech author Karel Havlíček, he created a specific satiric diction, which got out of the rut of Czech tradition. It was one of the reasons - apart from ideological ones - that his collection of epigrams called Budiždán ("Begiven"), a pun based on the name of the National Revival song Tomu věnec budiž dán ("To Him the Wreath Shall Be Given"), never came out. The author of this book published a selection of texts from that Skoumal's collection supplemented with texts from his literary heritage under the name Malý Budiždán Aloyse Skoumala in 2004. The educational irony of Skoumal's apt epigrams and aphorisms is also a sui generis "Czech trap", which requires comprehensive intelligence - his works are full of other-language terms, philological playfulness and cultural history allusions - and a sense of critique or, more precisely, awareness of the importance of that kind of expression. Czech culture went through a destructive development in the 20th century and Czech nature was able to accept only kind satire. The Swift-like sternness is still alien to the Czech nation and an author writing sternly will be classified as an enemy. If not many people understood and were willing to understand Skoumal's accurate formulations during his life, there are even fewer of them now.

Translation occupied the largest part of Skoumal's life. The bibliography of the titles he translated into Czech mainly from the English language comprises more than forty books and as such becomes the most visible trace of his works. We have already mentioned however that translation is only one of the components of his lifelong activity with a constant aim and single strategy. In Mathesius's seminar Skoumal translated Swift's verses On the Death of Dr. Swift and a quarter-century later, in 1953, he published his translations of Swift's best texts including Gulliver's Travels under the name Selected Works. Another twenty years later he noted down that Swift had an excusable "weakness": recognition of the value of his own works. We believe that the same was true about Skoumal as well. Swift was Skoumal's twin; Laurence Sterne, the "English Rabelais", and James Joyce presented an intellectual challenge to him. The accompanying essays that often resulted from Skoumal's thorough exploration of the cultural-history context of the translated work frequently imply the potential of research, which usually fails to arouse other researchers' interest due to adverse effects of specialisation. This concerns for example Skoumal's study on Slavic translations of Ulysses, which shows i.a. the possibility of perceiving the Joyce's novel as a criterion of the cultural level of the nation that the novel penetrates through language. That offer urged the author to add to the Slavic comparison two younger translations into Slovak and Russian. Besides his own translation production and related literary history and literary science work Skoumal was an important organiser of Czech translation, which from the beginning of the 19th century profoundly shaped Czech culture without winning an adequate social recognition. The dominant feature of the Skoumal's efforts was establishing the Dialog journal dedicated to artistic translation issues. The scope of the periodical - published at a varying frequency in 1957 - 1969 and nowadays forgotten and rather unobtainable - went beyond the subject of translatology towards more general issues of literature and literary sciences, through which it reflected the social climate of the period.

In the latter half of the 1950s the climate, whose impacts on Czech culture Aloys Skoumal felt too expressively, began to adversely affect his health. Skoumal's crisis accompanied by subsistence problems and the first touch of old age was solved by him being granted an invalidity pension in 1958. That was a key moment, the crucial requirement, for his concentration on translation activities. Skoumal's comments on his everyday reading and work-related appointments or meeting friends, family dialogues or landscape impressions, which he started to note down in the mid-1950s, gave rise to a short chapter called One Year in the Life of Aloys Skoumalovich. The name paraphrases Alexander Solzhenitsyn's bestseller One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which made Solzhenitsyn famous in the early 1960s. Our text is not meant to evoke a Soviet reality; we seek a similarity in the process of coping with restricting conditions where a seemingly harmless Czech "trap", i.e. the period in which "poets became scarecrows" and "the regime taught even toddlers to say 'fuck' several times a day", stands in stead of the Russian gulag. In a mosaic of significant details comprising a year in the life of a fifty-year-old intellectual we track his endeavour to find his own modus vivendi.

Even though gifted much more than many successful scholars, Aloys Skoumal had only few opportunities to enter the preserve of science. Yet, he could be free in his literary-history translation essays where he used explanatory notes very little, if at all. The man, whom his creative efforts always led to a perfect refinement of his ideas, knew very well what impairs the continuity of thoughts in a text. If wishing to acquaint the reader with the sources of his own interpretation, he presented them at the end. Therefore the text about Aloys Skoumal, an ironist in a Czech trap is concluded with a set of references to sources, supplements and glosses, whose title is again a paraphrase; this time a paraphrase of the name of Skoumal's translation (made together with his wife Hana in 1961) of Lewis Carroll's classical work - A. Skoumal's Adventures in Sourceland and Behind the Looking Glass.