Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0
First Published: 3 May 1999

Book cover B O O K   R E V I E W:
A Night with Hamlet
Vladimír Holan
Prague: Academia, 1999
ISBN 80-200-0734-2

James Partridge

Vladimir Holan (1905 - 1980) is one of the legendary figures of Czech poetry. His first important collection was published in 1930, and by the end of the decade, he had established himself as a poet of unparalleled seriousness and complexity - "the best poet of us all..." as Nobel-Prize-winning poet Jaroslav Seifert later wrote.

The myth that was already growing up around him as a poet of "ivory tower" intellectuality was shattered by a group of poems from the late 1930s bitterly attacking fascism. In 1940, he wrote První testament - the first of a series of 14 narrative poems (příběhy) that he would write over the next 15 years. At the same time, he wrote several large collections of lyric poetry and translated extensively. His enthusiasm for Communism was expressed most stridently in poems written between 1945-48, but this soon turned to disillusionment, and from around 1950, Holan retreated to an almost completely hermetic existence in his house on Prague's Kampa Island in a very personal protest against the new regime. From the mid-1950s, he wrote almost nothing, but after 1961, he began to publish all the work (both lyric and narrative poetry) that had been unpublishable in the 1950s.

Noc s Hamletem (A Night with Hamlet, 1962) brought him considerable acclaim across Europe, and throughout the 1960s, Holan was "in vogue," winning literary prizes and attracting much unwanted attention. In 1968, he was officially made a Národní umělec (National Artist), and in 1969, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. From this time on, however, he retreated more and more into his self-imposed isolation, although he continued to write short, increasingly gnomic lyric poetry until 1977, when he ceased writing altogether after the death of his disabled daughter. Vladimir Holan died in 1980.

Holan's poetry is renowned for its difficulty (not always correctly) and for his experimentation with language and metaphor. It draws heavily on Holan's great erudition, weaving together imagery from myth, religion, botany, music and literature amongst other fields, as well as exploring all the resources of the Czech language. The inner struggle in Holan's poetry is the attempt to say the unsayable, to encompass in words the nature of human existence in the face of the arbitrary and often brutal forces that seem set against it.

The 9th Prague Writers' Festival was inaugurated at the Viola restaurant on Sunday 11 April with a small celebration in honor of Vladimir Holan (to whom the Festival is dedicated this year). The occasion also saw the launching of a Czech-English bilingual edition of Holan's most well-known poem Noc s Hamletem (A Night with Hamlet), which has been described by Vladimir Adlt as "an urgent and complicated dialogue about history and the eternally tragic fate of man."

Noc s Hamletem was first read at the Viola in 1963 by a small group of actors including Radovan Lukavský and has remained a permanent part of the repertoire at the Viola since then. On Sunday evening, after the customary introductions, Professor Lukavský read a short excerpt from the poem in a simple but carefully modulated delivery that made this difficult poem sound if not exactly straightforward, then at least understandable. The small audience in the Viola then listened to a recording of a dramatized extract from the English translation of the poem, first broadcast on Australian Radio in 1979.

This brings us to the new edition of the poem, officially "christened" on Sunday night. The book itself is attractive, if a little imposing, with parallel Czech and English texts on facing pages and with eight rather beautiful illustrations by Jaroslav Serych. It is clear, however, both from the small print run of 1000 copies and from the whole appearance of the book, that it is intended to be a collector's edition rather than a serious contribution to the study and dissemination of Holan's work amongst the wider audience it so deserves. In fact, and at the risk of being thought ungracious after a very pleasant evening, a real opportunity has been missed with this edition.

The biggest problem with this new book is the translation itself. It was done by Ian and Jarmila Milner in the mid-1970s and first printed in a small private edition in England in 1980. Although the Milners' good work for Czech literature in the years following the Prague Spring is uncontestable, it is obvious that they were well out of their depth with Holan. Practically every page of the translation is sprinkled with basic errors. These are not just the results of the necessary changes that follow from the transition from one language to another, but show careless (perhaps hurried) translation and fundamental misunderstandings of the Czech. Here are a few examples:

The lines "Vzácná to chvíle, / kdy se zdá, že ukrojený chleb není nikoho..." are rendered as "Every moment / hands reach for the slices of bread..." and the simple sentence "A bolest jako trest za to, / že i bolest je prchavá..." becomes the meaningless "And pain as a punishment for being a fugitive..." In other places, rozum is translated as spirit and, incredibly, metafyzické as metaphorical (even if this is a misprint it is unforgivable). One could go on and on. Incidentally, translating "Kdo miluje, měl by se radovat!" as "Lovers should be gay!" was surely an unfortunate choice of words even in the mid-seventies.

There is plenty in the translation that does work well enough, but at the very least the whole thing should have been extensively corrected and re-edited before being republished. Such a demanding poem also requires a proper introduction or afterword, and I would suggest proper notes to help elucidate the more opaque passages, of which there are many. Simply reproducing a deeply flawed translation shows an indifference and insensitivity to Holan's poetry that would have infuriated the poet. In essence, the new Academia edition is a shelf ornament (albeit a very pretty one) and is all but worthless for anyone interested in Holan. As far as the publishers are concerned, it is the book itself that is important, not the text. [1]

This apparent indifference towards Holan's work is difficult to understand. It is not just that Academia seem happy to publish a completely inadequate edition and translation of Noc s Hamletem, but more generally that Holan's work is being badly neglected. Even in Czech, only couple of slender volumes have been published over the last few years - and those mainly due to the crusading zeal of the editor of Holan's works, Dr Vladimír Justl. But Dr Justl seems to have been unable to persuade anyone to republish more substantial editions or translations of Holan's poetry, let alone republish his Collected Works: 11 volumes originally published with considerable difficulty between 1965 and 1988 (!) and now very difficult to obtain. This is the equivalent of, for example, English publishers not bothering to bring out proper editions of T.S. Eliot or W.H. Auden. Sadly, judging by this new edition of Noc s Hamletem / A Night with Hamlet, there seems little hope that this situation will be rectified in the near future. [2]


1. Another example of the indifference the publisher obviously feels towards the text is the omission of Holan's dedication to Vladimír Justl.

2. In December 1999 Nakladatelství Ladislav Horáček - Paseka published the first volume (Jeskyně slov) of its proposed 15 volume reissue of Holan's Collected Works (Vladimír Holan: Spisy).

James Partridge

Editor's Note: This article is a revised version of the review that was first published in ENP, 3 May 1999. The article also appeared in the May 1999 internet edition of New Presence.

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