Academic journal article The Comparatist

Prosaic Irony: Structure, Mode, and Subversion in the Good Soldier Svejk

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Prosaic Irony: Structure, Mode, and Subversion in the Good Soldier Svejk

Article excerpt

There are times when, after a work has entered first into a national canon and then into World Literature, its later influence masks both its unique brilliance and the manner in which it develops an aesthetic as a response to the tradition out of which it emerges. This is especially true in the case of Jaroslav Hasek's comic novel Osudy dobreho vojaka Svejka za svetove valky (The Fortunes of the Good Soldier Svejk during the World War, hereafter Osudy). Although Hasek's novel has been situated, predictably and properly enough, within the twentieth-century Czech literary and political context, there has been almost no corresponding effort to situate it within the broader Czech literary tradition. The seemingly peripheral but critical result of this neglect is that the aesthetic value of Hasek's novel has been overlooked. Therefore, I want to situate Osudy in relation to the Czech prose tradition inaugurated by Bozena Nemcova's novel Babicka (Granny). My contention is that a recontexualization of Hasek's novel within this tradition will reveal its formal concern as the relation of irony to the prosaic, which I call prosaic irony. Occurring in the divide between linguistic meaning developed through everyday use and meaning imposed by a dominant ideological metanarrative, prosaic irony is simultaneously a structuring principle, a narrative mode, and a means of subversion in Hasek's novel. This examination will lead to a re-reading of the novel that suggests an overlooked element; in short, Osudy critiques and resists ideology embedded in familiar narrative structures and reveals the inability of these hegemonic narrative structures and discourse ever to become fully totalizing.

Three factors obscure Osudy's position in the broader Czech literary tradition. First, the apparent influence of the Svejk archetype in twentieth-century Czech literature and cinema tends to preclude recognition of Osudy's response to the tradition of the Czech novel. Second, the vulgar language of the characters makes it easy to dismiss the novel's aesthetic merit; none other than Rene Wellek, a native Czech who helped to found Comparative Literature in the United States, has described the novel as "not much of a work of art, [and] full of low humour and cheap propaganda" (41). Finally, in its twentieth-century reception, the novel was often cited by the politically committed who tried to interpret the actions of the protagonist via their particular political ideologies. (1) In re-situating Osudy within its national context, I shall show that it is much more than a profane parody of the Austrian military apparatus. Instead, I argue, it is a novel that performs its subversion of hegemonic histories, nationalist obligations, and narrative conventions by means of prosaic irony.

My conception of prosaic irony derives from Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson's coining of the term "prosaics," which they define as both "a theory of literature that privileges prose in general and the novel in particular" and "a form of thinking that presumes the importance of the everyday" (15). For this reason, my use of the term prosaic irony rests on two important assumptions. First, in opposition to poetry, which is situated more heavily on the metaphoric axis of language, prosaic meaning in both the novel and everyday life rests on an interplay between the numerous, sometimes contradictory significations that occur in the metonymy of language. In Bahktinian terms, every prosaic utterance occurs within a surplus of contextual signification without which meaning is impossible. Second, prosaic speech occurs in everyday life. The meanings of words and their combinatory possibilities have developed from their everyday use within a particular lived sociolinguistic context; meaning breaks down and nonsense occurs when these contextual premises, whether explicit or implicit, are ignored. (2) This speech is inherently ironic and open to mis- and re-interpretation insofar as we use words not to communicate perfectly, but adequately. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.