Tuesday, July 26, 2005

a conversation with michal viewegh

While in Prague during July of 1998, I interviewed Czech writer Michal Viewegh. We spoke through a translator, though I suspect that Viewegh could have easily maneuvered my questions, and his answers, on his own.
At that time only Viewegh's Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia had been translated into English. A contentious relationship between the author and Czech literary critics was already forming, despite the relative lovefest that welcomed his debut, The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living.
Viewegh is now accepted as the best-selling writer in the Czech Republic, his relationship with critics has, if anything, worsened, and despite being widely translated throughout Europe, Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia remains his only full-length English language publication.

Q: Since this is primarily for an American audience, let me start there. If my information’s right, your first trip to the States was last year. Did America - the place, the people - meet with your expectations?

A: I think that anyone who comes to America for the first time has to get over a lot of the myths that he or she has before coming. At least any European who comes to America. Because Europeans all have a lot of myths as to what America is, and it’s your first time to get beyond those. For example, the myth that everyone eats McDonald’s hamburgers, or that everyone hangs a flag out on the Fourth of July and waves at the camera when they’re having their picture taken. Of course, there are a lot of those kinds of Americans but there are a lot of other kinds of Americans as well. So for me it was a matter of getting rid of the preconceptions I had.

Q: Where do these myths about America come from? Do they come from television? I was going to ask about literature but I’m not sure the McDonald’s hamburgers reference comes from there.

A: Well, I simplified it a little bit. A typical myth is that all Americans are superficial. That’s just a typical kind of journalistic myth. It’s easy for people to have that impression. I’m not saying that I thought that all Americans would be superficial, but that’s a typical myth that you hear.

Q: The word “myth” implies fiction, that it’s false. So can I assume that the Americans you came across weren’t superficial? Or is that too much of a leap?

A: Every time I’ve spoken about the U.S., or my experience in the U.S., I’ve always tried to avoid any kind of generalizations because it’s not even possible to generalize about the Czech character and there are only ten million Czechs and there are two hundred and fifty million Americans. I met, for example, typical, open Americans at the airport who would just start up a conversation with you. I also met introverts, incommunicative people, and so on. It’s a very colorful country. Not in the sense of color of skin but just in the color of different types of people. After a two hour plane flight you arrive somewhere where there are completely different kinds of people, different lifestyles, but it would be a mistake to pass myself as an expert on America after two months there.

Q: I’m curious about your use of the word “superficial,” because the term “superficial humorist” appears several times in Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia. You use in it in a self-deprecating fashion, whether the narrator refers to himself as “only a superficial humorist” or he gives the line to one of the other characters, and so I’m interested in that particular word. If you see yourself as even playfully superficial, did you feel any kind of bond or kinship with Americans?

A: The term “superificial humorist” is a label that a lot of so-called Prague intellectuals gave me, or gave my writing. I don’t remember exactly how it was in the text but maybe it was a reference to that. In general it’s a question of your approach to humor in the Czech Republic. Humor here is undervalued and it’s automatically connected with the word superficial. When something is humorous, it’s automatically perceived as being superficial. It even goes so far that often humorous literature is automatically excluded from the realm of high literature, or good literature. Professor Narodil, who translates from English, wrote an article about how, in the American literary tradition, the two things are not mutually exclusive, humorous literature and good, or serious, literature. That they are not artificially divided into two different categories. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is certainly a humorous parody but it’s also a good, serious book about the Second World War.

Q: Before we get too far away from myths, the greatest literary myth in America surrounds The Great American Novel. If there is a Great American Novel, it would be Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which is quite humorous so I’m honestly mystified by the seeming lack of acceptance of your work by Prague critics simply because it’s humorous. I think the perception of Czech literature is that one of its greatest characteristics is the presence of so-called black humor, and so to be vilified for your humor just doesn’t make sense.

A: Well, the Czech tradition includes such figures as Karel Polacek who is now acccepted as one of the great literary figures of the first half of the twentieth century. There are conferences devoted to his work. In his time he was also dismissed and ostracized. People said that he didn’t belong to the literary world, that he wasn’t a serious literary figure. That’s the disrespect towards humor.

Q: So do you expect to be well-treated when you’re dead?

A: I’d be happy to experience some of that treatment while I’m still alive. As far as the critical reaction, I don’t think that it only has to do with the fact that I write humorous literature. I think the problem, generally, is that there is a certain precedence that what I write lies somewhere between so-called commercial literature and so-called literary fiction. And the thing that provokes and dismays a lot of critics is that it’s not easily categorized as commercial or literary. If it were purely commercial fiction, like Danielle Steele or Jackie Collins, no one would write about it in the Czech intellectual newspapers and magazines. And, of course, not all critics wrote negatively. In fact, my fiction did have a fairly good reaction from the critics at first and, of course, the readers’ acceptance of it has been relatively widespread. But I actually shouldn’t probably speak about it. I shouldn’t be the critic of my own work. Someone else should probably do it.

a conversation with michal viewegh - part two
a conversation with michal viewegh - part three
a conversation with michal viewegh - part four

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