Jaroslav Matej Frantisek Hasek was born on 30 April 1883 in Prague. Both his father, Josef Hasek, a mathematics teacher and bank official, and his mother, Katerina (née Jaresová), came from south Bohemian families of farming stock. They lived in Prague under precarious circumstances, moving often because of Josef's alcoholism and financial troubles. Jaroslav attended the secondary school on Zitná Street in Prague, but left in 1898 after academic difficulties. Instead he began to work in a chemist's shop in Perstyn in central Prague. From 1899 to 1902 he studied at the Commercial Academy on Resslova Street, and after his final examinations he worked in the Slavia Bank. A year later, however, he gave up that job and set off on a journey through Slovakia, Hungary, the Balkans, and Galicia. In the next few years, he visited such places as Bavaria, Switzerland, and Austria and often traveled around Bohemia. He had already begun writing when he was still a student, and his first efforts had been published in newspapers and magazines. These were chiefly amusing accounts of his travels and short literary essays inspired by his roaming through Moravia, Slovakia, and Poland. Gradually, his studies of everyday life and original portraits of simple people became realistic rather than romantically charming, and his extravagant humor was already a signature element.
At the beginning of the century, Czech cultural life was profiting from the modernist influences of the 1890s. Hasek counted himself one of the rising generation that stressed individual skepticism and revolt against convention. Reacting against aesthetic decadence and symbolism, they turned their attention directly to their own experiences in their daily lives. They tended to take up anarchic attitudes and to write in a loose, popular, mocking style. Hasek, however, was by nature cynical and anti-literary-establishment, and he soon broke away from contemporary literary movements. For him, writing was a mere job. He wrote mainly for amusement--his own and the public's. Even his first book, Májové vykriky a jiné verse (Cries of May and Other Verse, 1903), jointly written with Ladislav Hájek Domazlicky, was a parody, shattering the sentimental delusions of poets and juxtaposing them with the unattractiveness of ordinary life and the contrasts between rich and poor. The activities and the naiveté of writers and artists--including himself--often became the targets of Hasek's mockery. Hasek later only rarely wrote satirical verse, such as Kalamajka (1913), which takes its title from the name of an old Czech dance.
In the period prior to World War I, Hasek worked as a publicist and editor, but his primary income came from the hundreds of humorous short stories and anecdotes that were printed in many newspapers and magazines. He used more than a hundred pseudonyms, some of which have probably not been discovered. Thereafter, he published collections of humorous stories: Dobry voják Svejk a jiné podivné historky (The Good Soldier Svejk and Other Strange Stories, 1912), Trampoty pana Tenkráta (The Tribulations of Mr. Tenkrát, 1912), Pruvodcí cizincu a jiné satiry z cest i z domova (1913; translated as The Tourist Guide: Twenty-Six Stories, 1961), and Muj obchod se psy a jiné humoresky (My Dealings with Dogs and Other Amusing Tales, 1915).
Writing came easily to Hasek. He wrote almost without conscious effort, usually in coffeehouses or pubs from which his manuscripts went straight to the editor or the printer, often without Hasek reading them over. He soon became a popular humorist. Almost every section of society provided him with material, but he found his preferred subjects in town life, in unusual or bizarre details, characters, and situations. The sarcasm in his short pieces often targeted narrow-minded politicians, the church, and the army. He ridiculed bureaucracy and exposed clichés and excessive pettifogging, reducing them to the absurd by the use of a provocative, nonsensical narrative style. He was able to highlight witty, pointed, tragicomic moments of discord and contrasts in lifestyles as well as conflicts between words and deeds or between ideals and harsh reality.
The raciness and irony, almost contempt, in Hasek's narratives were closely related to his own life, which to a certain extent he "created" by playing extravagant, clownish pranks and perpetrating hoaxes with almost dadaistic features. He moved in a peculiar, nocturnal world of licentiousness and fantasy; in pubs he was an entertainer, an alcoholic, and a troublemaker skirmishing with the police. In many of the stories about him it is difficult to separate truth from fiction. The interrelation of his life, literary work, and hoaxes is the determining factor in explaining and interpreting all of Hasek's work.
At first Hasek showed radical and anarchic tendencies. In 1904 he became editor of the north Bohemian anarchic paper Omladina (The Younger Generation) and between 1906 and 1907 he was on the editorial staff of the similarly anarchic papers Chudas (Poor Man), Nová omladina (New Younger Generation), and Komuna (The Commune). In 1907 he was sent to prison for a month for his part in an anarchic rally, and after that he left the movement. In 1910 Hasek married Jarmila Majerová, the daughter of a wealthy stucco decorator and later an author of humorous short stories, novels, and books for young people. However, after his son, Richard, was born two years later, Hasek left his family and again lived his wild life. He also made an apparent attempt to commit suicide in 1911 and spent three weeks in a psychiatric clinic. To earn his living in the years between 1908 and 1913 he had several casual jobs: he edited the magazines Zensky obzor (The Female Horizon) and Svet zvírat (The World of Animals), worked in the election office of the National Socialist Party, bought and sold dogs, and wrote a gossip column for Ceské slovo (The Czech Word).
Through his work as a journalist he perpetrated a remarkable series of frauds and hoaxes. Years later these escapades were collected in a book titled Zábavny a poucny koutek Jaroslava Haska (Amusing and Instructive Articles by Jaroslav Hasek, 1973). For the scientific journal Svet zvírat Hasek, besides editing humorous tales and anecdotes, added bits to scholarly treatises, caricatured their style, made strange comparisons between the animal and human worlds, indulged in hyperbole, and invented "unknown" animal species. He engaged in correspondence with outraged readers and answered "fan" letters (some of which he wrote himself). Pictorial material was also treated unconventionally; Hasek made innovative use of the technique of collage. These antics made him the pioneer of the so-called journalistic hoax.
Hasek also used his talent for invention on old news items for the paper Ceské slovo, changing them into anecdotes. He seized the chance to write for papers of opposing political persuasion--the social democratic Právo lidu (The Rights of the People) and the national socialist Ceské slovo--giving early warning of the nature of his future political hoaxes. An example is given by Václav Menger in his 1946 biography, Lidsky profil Jaroslava Haska (A Profile of Jaroslav Hasek):
Once there was a controversy that filled at least fourteen issues of one of the papers and in the end it was discovered that Hasek had written both sides of the dispute. In the articles he had attacked himself so violently that the editors feared there would be a court case. When the truth came out Hasek could continue to write for both papers only under new pseudonyms.
In the spring of 1911 Hasek perpetrated his most sensational literary and political hoax. He turned his fellow vagabonds from the pub into the Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law and took part in a campaign for a by-election to the Imperial Council in Vinohrady, a section of Prague. In his speeches, given in pubs, he parodied political infighting and invented arguments, or made up "happenings" and practical jokes. Although he was not registered as an official candidate, he allegedly earned several dozen votes.
Between the autumn of 1911 and the spring of 1912 Hasek wrote Politické a sociální dejiny strany mírného pokroku v mezích zákona (The Political and Social History of the Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law), although it was not published until 1963. In this collection, one of his best works, he used various types of writing--including reports, pamphlets, and letters--to record the history of his entourage and his lectures. He included autobiographical details from his travels, journalism, and other experiences, drawing portraits of friends and people from contemporary cultural and social life. He gave exaggerated descriptions of various muddles, misunderstandings, and mistakes. He ridiculed popular rhetoric, and, by caricaturing historical cases, clichés, and paradoxes, he created a lively satire on petty politics, jingoism, hollow pedantry, and compulsive writing. Less flamboyantly, he wrote of the positive aspects and the dangers of the power of words, showing his readers ways to avoid being taken in.
Before World War I, Hasek was a guest actor in Prague cabarets. The Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law was turned into a cabaret act that was performed on special occasions in wine cellars and restaurants. There were short scenes and one-act plays by Hasek, group plays, and improvisations, in which Josef Mach, Jirí Mahen, and Frantisek Langer took part. The book Vetrny mlynár a jeho dcera (The Miller and His Daughter, 1976), pieced together from surviving manuscripts, records this side of Hasek's life.
In February 1915 Hasek joined the 91st Infantry Regiment in Ceské Budejovice. In May he went with them to Bruck a.d. Leitha, and in June they crossed the Raba River and went by way of Budapest to the Galician front. In September he was taken prisoner during the retreat and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Dárnice, near Kiev, and then to Totskoye, near Buzuluk, where he survived a typhoid epidemic. In the spring of 1916 he enlisted in the Czech Foreign Legion, fighting against Austria on the side of the Allies. In the legion Hasek worked as a typist and was secretary to the regimental committee. He also wrote humorous articles and reports for the magazine Cechoslovan (The Czecho-Slav), in which he supported the fight for an independent state. In 1917 he was involved in the battle of Zborov, and his valorous conduct was mentioned in dispatches. After the retreat to Ukraine, however, he came into conflict with his superiors when he criticized the small-mindedness and the overcautious attitude of the Czech National Council in Russia and the leadership of the legion.
After the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Hasek refused to go with the legion to France, and in the subsequent chaos at the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918 he became involved in the attempt to establish a revolutionary council of Czech workers and soldiers in Kiev. After that he went to Moscow and joined the Czech Social Democrats (the Bolsheviks). He became a political activist in the Red Army, serving as a press organizer, editor of army magazines in various languages, and publicist. He organized recruitment in Samara. In September he went to Simbirsk; from there he was sent to Bugulma as assistant to the military commander of the town. In 1919 he was in charge of the army printing works in Ufa. After going to Chelyabinsk--and later to Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk--he worked in the political department for national minorities in the Fifth Army.
During the five years of war and revolution the serious side of Hasek's nature revealed itself. Still impulsive and politically a radical, he gradually began to believe in the idea of social justice for which he might be able to work and live respectably. If the idea of social justice was to be put into practice, it would improve conditions even in Bohemia. But Hasek, always keenly aware of the conflict between dream and reality, eventually seems to have lost this faith.
In 1920 in Krasnoyarsk, Hasek married for the second time--without being divorced from his first wife. He returned with his second wife, Aleksandra (Sura) Lvova, who was employed in a printing works, to Prague by way of Narvik and Stettin. He was expected to work as a political activist in the now-independent Czechoslovakia. The country to which he returned after the war hardly resembled the country he had left, however. His personal circumstances were complicated, and he relapsed into his unconventional lifestyle and started drinking again. He avoided politics and political debate, and his jokes became coarser and more cynical, evidently because of the resignation and spiritual schizophrenia he felt on his return. At the same time he renewed the ironic practical jokes in the spirit of the Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law, and he also wrote cabaret acts. For a short time he worked in the cabaret Cervená sedma (The Red Seven). Once again he contributed humorous short stories and articles to magazines. These pieces, along with earlier works, were collected as Dva tucty povídek (Two Dozen Tales, 1920), Pepícek Novy a jiné povídky (Pepícek Novy and Other Stories, 1921), Tri muzi se zralokem a jiné poucné historky (Three Men and a Shark and Other Illuminating Tales, 1921), and Mírová konference a jiné humoresky (Peace Conference and Other Funny Stories, 1922). He recorded his experiences in Russia in the series of stories Velitelem mesta Bugulmy (The Commander of the Town of Bugulma), originally published in magazines in 1921 and in book form in 1966. In these stories, in which his skepticism is obvious, he describes with ironic detachment and satirical exaggeration the absurd quarrels with the professional, dogmatic revolutionary; the conflicts of reason and blind faith in an atmosphere of chaos with continual fighting; and the fortunes of various individuals.
In August 1921 Hasek moved to the village of Lipnice nad Sázavou in southeast Bohemia, where he worked on his novel, Osudy dobrého vojáka Svejka za svetové války . He had already begun writing it in Prague, where it appeared in installments from 1921 to 1923. When his health deteriorated, he dictated the text of the novel, almost ready for publication, using his encyclopedic memory. However, he did not complete the task. He died on 3 January 1923 as a result of pneumonia and heart failure.
Hasek had sketched out the character of the good soldier Svejk in two other books. In the collections of short stories Dobry voják Svejk a jiné podivné historky Hasek introduced Svejk as a good-natured idiot who brought antimilitary slapstick comedy into a rigid military situation. Hasek based the comedy on mishaps caused by Svejk's exaggerated willingness to do his duty despite his clumsiness. In Dobry voják Svejk v zajetí (The Good Soldier Svejk in Captivity, 1917) Hasek viewed the eponymous character in a more satirical fashion and with more black humor. But, he was also looking at Svejk in the spirit of the anti-Austrian propaganda as it appeared in the press at the time. Only after wide-ranging postwar revision--influenced by the author's conflicting experiences and his return to his former nonconformist skepticism--was the strange, many-sided, sophisticated folk humorist and storyteller born.
The novel recounts the adventures of ordinary folk from Prague, particularly Josef Svejk, who begins as a crooked dog fancier. In 1914, on the day of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo, Svejk is arrested by the police and imprisoned for treasonous remarks. After proclaiming his absolute loyalty to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy he is examined in a lunatic asylum and freed from police custody. Then he is called up to the army. He suffers from rheumatism but is branded a malingerer. He undergoes "treatment" in a hospital and in prison. He becomes batman to the chaplain, Katz, and later to Lieutenant Lukás, with whom he goes to Ceské Budejovice to a front-line regiment (after being taken for a Russian spy by the gendarmes). Then they go through Hungary to the Galician front, where, with others in Russian uniform, Svejk is taken prisoner by the military police and condemned to death; but his identity is verified, and he is sent back to his unit.
The book covers an enormous range of events from everyday life as well as war and includes a host of diverse minor characters and incidents. Hasek parodies contemporary texts and official documents. He uses different kinds of language: bureaucratic and military Austro-German; the language of contemporary propaganda, common Czech; and vulgarisms--Hungarian, Polish, and Yiddish expressions. The straightforward unfolding of the plot, however, is swamped by Svejk's many anecdotes and running commentaries, frequently presented in a vast range of contrasting styles and attributing different motives and significance to his actions.
Practically the only way the reader "recognizes" the central, unifying character is through his paradoxical discourses and hyperbole. His other characteristics--origin, physiognomy, psychology, emotions, and intentions--remain vague and confused. What Svejk actually does is revealed predominantly through his language; his idiosyncratic way of speaking changes according to circumstances.
The difficulty of penetrating the fragmented, ambiguous speech and the loose structure of the work means that various contradictory or even misleading interpretations are possible. For example, many critics emphasize Svejk's crafty pragmatism, calling him the embodiment of the Central European mentality and the Czech national character in particular. Even the idealized illustrations by Hasek's friend Josef Lada, which have become a traditional part of the book, can be misleading because Svejk is not really the plump, aging, genial, unattractive fellow Lada depicts. Svejk, however, should not be regarded as having only one side to his character. He is not to be seen merely as a simple-minded coward, a malingerer and saboteur, a stolid egoist, a good-natured or cunning sophist, a folk, or even proletarian, hero.
Likewise, all of Hasek's work, epitomized and dominated by Svejk, has been received in widely different ways. It has been enthusiastically praised and totally rejected. It has been considered negative and optimistic; in fact, it has often touched both extremes. At the same time, critics and interpreters have pointed out affinities with the traditions of Miguel de Cervantes and François Rabelais and with the picaresque novel. They have also sought parallels with the work of Franz Kafka. Osudy dobrého vojáka Svejka za svetové války has been translated into dozens of languages and has been the subject of many theatrical productions and film adaptations by such figures as Max Brod, Hans Reimann, Erwin Piscator, and Bertolt Brecht.
Osudy dobrého vojáka Svejka za svetové války was, above all, written to entertain. However, it transcended the typical antiwar satirical novel. A more profound meaning in the work comes out through the language--fluent and lively, with inventive, intellectual plays on words, revealing its creator's peculiar vision and experience of the world.
From: Merhaut, Lubos. "Jaroslav (Matej Frantisek) Hasek." Twentieth-Century Eastern European Writers: First Series, edited by Steven Serafin, Gale, 1999. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 215.