My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Haŝek’s novel is a satire of war and the absurdities that arise therein. It’s a novel in the vein of Heller’s Catch-22 and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. It predates those novels, and is set around World War I–rather than those other novels’ World War II bases.
The novel begins at the outset of the First World War, and revolves around the title character, Ŝvejk (also spelled Schweik). Ŝvejk is an enigma. Believing that no man can be so stupid, authority figures are constantly suspecting him of being a saboteur or a goldbrick. It’s never made clear whether Ŝvejk is a brilliant con artist or the complete dolt he appears to be.
The story follows Ŝvejk from some ill-considered statements about the Archduke Franz Ferdinand that get him in trouble through to his unit’s advance on the front lines of the war. He leaves behind his job selling mangy dogs with forged pedigrees when he’s drawn back into the military (he’d previously served and been released as feeble-minded.) Along the way, he spends time as a chaplain’s assistant and a batman (a military officer’s servant, not the superhero)—that is, after he gets released from a lunatic asylum.
Ŝvejk is, at once, the best and worst of soldiers. He is honest to a fault, except when lying in the service of others—at which point his lies are inevitably humorously transparent. He isn’t a free-thinker and will follow orders—as best he can remember or understand them—to their, often absurd, bitter end. Of course, the flip side of this is that he doesn’t know how or when to speak, and while he’s not a free-thinker, nor is he much of a thinker–period.
The following quote sums up why Ŝvejk is the best and worst of soldiers: “Beg to report, sir. I don’t think because soldiers ain’t allowed to. Years and years ago, when I was in the Ninety-first Regiment, the captain always used to tell us: ‘Soldiers must’nt think. Their superior officers do all their thinking for them. As soon as a soldier begins to think, he’s no longer a soldier, but a lousy civilian.’” This is the mantra Ŝvejk lives by, and it serves no one well in the volatile and mercurial world of war.
Ŝvejk isn’t the only comedic character in the book. There’s a drunkard Catholic priest of Jewish ancestry for whom Ŝvejk serves as an assistant until the priest lost him in a card game. There’s another batman who’s constantly hungry, and eats anything he can get his hands on–even if it’s the private stock of the officer for whom he works. There’s a reserve officer, Lieutenant Dub, who is always trying to show how tough he is but is constantly foiled by Ŝvejk’s frankness and naiveté.
There’re also straight men such as Lieutenant Lukas—the man who wins Ŝvejk’s services from the chaplain, and who comes to rue the day he did. Lukas is a competent military officer with a good head on his shoulders. But Ŝvejk’s bumbling antics are constantly getting the Lieutenant in hot water, and he finds Ŝvejk to be the proverbial bad penny. A prime example of Lukas’s regret comes when Ŝvejk gets the Lieutenant a dog that he knows is stolen, but that turns out to be rightfully owned by a Colonel.
Another straight man is the Quartermaster who knows enough to ignore the first order to draw rations because the military never moves as quickly as the officers think it will. (Incidentally, the best piece of advice I ever got when working with bureaucratic organizations was to always ignore new directives that seemed asinine because eventually most will die on the vine.)
This book is humorous, if not hilarious. One of the funniest episodes is when Ŝvejk is cast in with the malingerers and has no idea what they are talking about as they discuss their strategies for staying out of the war. Another is when the officers devise a code based on an obscure book only to discover that it’s a two volume set and they’ve dispatched the wrong volume as the key.
Much of the humor comes in the form of Ŝvejk’s dialogue. He’s a gregarious chap who rambles on at the most inopportune times. Some classic Ŝvejk quotes include:
-“I’m feeble-minded, fair and square.” (when accused of being a cunning malingerer)
-“I’ve been cross-examined once and they chucked me out. And what I’m afraid of is that these other gentlemen who are here along with me are going to have a grudge against me because I’ve been called for cross-examination twice running and they’ve not been there at all yet this evening.” (upon being called back for a second round of interrogation)
-“Pigs might fly if they had wings.” (when accused of being a spy, and asked whether he’d have taken pictures if he’d had a camera)
-“I used to serve under a Colonel Flieder von Boomerang, or something like that, and he was just about half your height. He had a long beard, and it made him look like a monkey, and when he got ratty he used to jump so high that we called him India-rubber Daddy. Well, one day—“ (upon being accused of having no respect for his superiors)
One of the weaknesses of this novel is its rather abrupt ending. This is because Haŝek was only two-thirds of the way through with the novel when he died of tuberculosis. It’s not that there is no ending, but it reads like just another turn of events that Ŝvejk would eventually bumble his way out of. Of course, that’s likely because that’s what the author intended it to be.
As with Heller and Vonnegut, Haŝek’s novel benefits from his personal experience. He was drafted into the military and spent five years as a prisoner of war in the hands of the Russians. (A situation that somewhat mirrors the experience of his protagonist.)
If you like war satire, you should pick up The Good Soldier Ŝvejk.
That’s powerful phrasing. It’s much more effective than, say: “Nag your friends until they’re the change you desire.” It’s also far more potent than: “Write your legislator to draft a new bill so that we all have to be the change you wish to see.”
It’s powerful because it acknowledges that–whatever else you do–you have to set a good example by doing what you think is right. Even if that”s painful and lonely. It’s powerful because it’s bold.
That’s why it sticks in the mind. I once read an entire book by a well-known billionaire who made his fortune in foreign currency arbitrage. I was underwhelmed by the book and the character of the author, and don’t even remember the title because I remember thinking the title should have been: “Why It Should Be Illegal to do What I Did.” This individual came to believe it was morally repugnant to upset the economies of entire nations to make a quick buck, but the lure of making that buck was too great for him to stop without the threat that someone would put him in jail for it. In other words, instead of living by the motto of “be the change,” he lived by the motto of “If I don’t do it, someone else will.”
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist is Orhan Pamuk’s theory of the novel, and is based on a series of lectures given by the Turkish Nobel Laureate in 2009. It’s a brief work, consisting of less than 200 pages written across six chapters plus an epilogue. Pamuk explores just a handful of concepts, but he elaborates on each with examples from literature. Having said that, Pamuk has the novelist’s gift for strategic ambiguity, and there are some ideas–such as the “secret center of the novel”–for which the author leaves much for the reader to interpret.
In the first chapter, Pamuk explores what occurs in the mind of a reader as they consume a novel. He proposes nine mental activities that one engages in over the course of reading a novel. These activities range from the essence of reading, such as observing scene and narrative arc, to less essential acts such as self-congratulatory narcissism. A central theme is the novel as a visual medium in that the mind converts words into images and those images are what are experienced in reading. The final action is search for the novel’s “secret center,” an important element of Pamuk’s theory and the topic of the book’s final chapter.
The title subjects are also introduced in the first chapter, i.e. naïve and sentimental novelists. Pamuk borrows this concept from Schiller, who used it to describe poets. The naïve novelist writes spontaneously and with confidence that he or she is capturing reality in the work. The sentimental novelist is much more uneasy about the degree that his work will convey something true. While an oversimplification, this idea corresponds somewhat to the much more commonly known division of writers into outliners and non-outliners, i.e. some writers can’t get started until they’ve done extensive research and outlining, but others begin with—at most—a vague outline in their heads and let the words stream from deep within.
The second chapter discusses the reader’s inability to accept that the novel is complete fiction—and, conversely, what truths a novelist reveals in the process of writing a purely fictitious work. (It should be noted that while Pamuk refers throughout to the “novel,” he’s really referring to the “literary novel.” Much of what he has to say isn’t relevant for either commercial or genre fiction.) Pamuk points out that it’s not just gullible yokels who believe that what he’s writing is autobiographical. Sophisticated readers who work in the publishing industry have been known to think he is living the life of one of his characters. On the other hand, when an avid reader suggested that they knew Pamuk so well because they had read all his books, he found himself being embarrassed. This embarrassment wasn’t because he felt they had learned any details of his life, but that they had developed a psychological insight.
The next chapter is on character, plot, and time. As one would expect, character is the most important and substantially addressed topic. I say that not because it’s listed first, but because we are talking about literary fiction—a medium in which character is of the utmost importance and plotting is loose to optional. However, the portion of the chapter that I found most interesting was the question of time in novel. Time stretches, compresses, and can bounce non-linearly in a novel. The protagonist’s time is on display in the novel, and that can be done artfully or not.
The fourth chapter is the one that most deeply delves into the topic of novel as a visual media, one which is more closely related to painting that to the media to which the novel is more frequently compared. Here he divides novelists not into the naïve and the sentimental, but into visual versus verbal writers. Pamuk suggests that the novel is a series of frozen moments as opposed to a continuous running of time—and thus its connection to paintings. Of course, Pamuk was a painter before being a novelist, and thus may be more prone to see that connection than most
The penultimate chapter is a comparison of novels to museums. No two things might seem farther apart at first blush, but a museum is a themed collection of artifacts that hopefully serve to tell a story—story here being used not as fiction but as a narrative that could contain fact, fiction, or mythology. This discussion really continues on the theme of the visual aspect of the novel. It suggests that those artifacts that are seen or manipulated in a novel convey a great deal of what the author wants to get across and help to create a more real fictional world. Pamuk elaborates on the connection by using three points to connect museums and novels that are all related by pride.
The final chapter elucidates the “center” of the novel. This is a concept that Pamuk has written around since the beginning of the book without providing a clear conceptualization. The first line of the last chapter defines the center as: “…a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined.” The idea of a center, we are told, separates literary fiction from genre / commercial fiction. Readers and authors of genre fiction may find themselves becoming miffed with Pamuk for saying that such works either don’t have a center or have one that’s painfully easily found. He does make explicit exceptions for works by Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem, and one would expect that works of speculative fiction by the likes of Vonnegut, Murakami, and LeGuin would meet his approval as well. However, the presence of a tight story arc—one of the factors that makes work salable—is part of the reason genre fiction tends to have a readily discovered center. For Pamuk, the name of the game is writing a work that has a center that isn’t easily discovered, but neither is so deeply hidden as to remain forever beyond the grasp of most readers. He suggests the novel should be a puzzle, which is solved to reveal the center.
The epilogue includes some autobiographical insight and elaboration on what Pamuk was attempting to convey in this work.
I’d recommend this book for writers as well as serious readers of novels. Obviously, it’s well-written, but beyond that it offers insights that make the reader do some of the work—just what Pamuk proposes a novelist should do.