Born in 1963, Sylva Fischerová is one of the most formidable Czech writers of her generation. She is the author of ten collections of poems, two volumes of short stories, two novels, and two children's books. Some of her poetry books were published in the United States, her prose book Evropa je jako židle Thonet, Amerika je pravý úhel (Europe Is Like a Thonet Chair America Is Right Angle; Druhé město 2011) was nominated for the prestigious Magnesia Litera Award. Fischerová was born in Prague, but lived in Olomouc until the age of eighteen. She initially studied philosophy and physics at Charles University but eventually switched over to classical philology. She currently holds a position in the Department of Greek and Latin Studies at Charles University, Faculty of Arts. She specializes in Greek literature, philosophy, and religion. Her father vas a non-Marxist philosopher whose work was banned under the communist regime.
Read an excerpt form Sylva's latest book on, Bizom, or Service and Mission.
Sylva’s work in English: (Available from Amazon.com)
The Swing in the Middle of Chaos (Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 2010)
Stomach of the Soul (Calypso Editions, 2014)
Find Sylva online at:
Note: The painting that was used as the base for the cover image was painted the Czech painter František Gross.
How has reading translations shaped your writing and view of the world?
Czech is a language of a small nation—there are about ten million inhabitants in the Czech Republic which means that translating and reading works in translation is, and always has been, a conditio sine qua non of our culture. I grew up reading French, German, British, American, Russian, and other nations’ poets and writers as well as reading authors writing in Czech. So, reading texts in translation is a natural part of my life—as well as reading texts written in other languages in original, poetry included.
Your novel Europe is Like a Thonet Chair, America is the Right Angle, is based on your experiences on a literary tour of the United States. I am generally intrigued to read the book, but since it’s not available in English, can you describe some of you main takeaways from the experience? (I would love to hear your description of what the title means to you.)
In the very first paragraph of the book I explain what I mean by the title metaphor:
Europe is like a Thonet chair, curved, twisted, curling back on itself, the backrest that I lean on as I write these words is even a double curve with a bigger and a smaller bow. By contrast, America is a right angle: one corner leads to another, the houses are square or oblong, small, big, bigger, smaller squares and oblongs, domes are few and far between, no Christmas Tree baubles; just straight lines and diagonals cutting through the squares: those ubiquitous fire escapes. (transl. by David Vaughan)
I use these images as helpful in a way to grasp some important differences between both continents. The image of the Thonet chair (i.e. a chair made by the firm Thonet) means something curved, something turning back to itself. On the contrary, the image of a right angle means something completely open—open maybe to infinity, you cannot say where it ends. This juxtaposition of the continents grasped my imagination. But of course it’s just an image and we have to go beyond that.
To introduce the book as a whole: well, it is not a travelogue but we can call it a “fictitious travelogue” because the narrator of the book is not me. It’s a poetess who goes to the U.S. and is confronted with a different kind of everything—of space, of people, simply everything. In the text, I juxtapose philosophical reflections with lines of poetry as well as with various descriptions of events that happen during the narrator’s journey across the East and the Midwest of America. There’s a very specific scene where the narrator is accused of stealing a beer from a store in the middle of nowhere, where the bus has stopped and she is nearly arrested. This story is based on a real accident which happened to me, so the book is not wholly fabricated. Another significant part of the book is devoted to the narrator’s visits to various places associated with the Czech communities in the United States: the Czech Village in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the Bohemian National Hall in New York. This is an important part of the book, which is also connected with some other levels, which are present in the book: the level of language, as well as the level of endings, because the book is about endings and beginnings—the ending of your stay somewhere and your shifting, moving towards some new place, new continent. But the book is also about writing, because, if it’s written from the point of view of the poetess, going there and doing a poetry-reading tour there, it must also say something about this. And it says quite plainly that writing is a strange activity. There is even a confrontation between the consciousness of the strangeness of this writing activity on the part of the narrator, of the poetess coming from the Old World, and the kind of optimism on the American part: ‘Great, I’m a poet, I’m a poet, I’m a poet!’ But it is not that elementary, the question is: What are we doing when writing? Are we discovering something or is it just a kind of striptease, something that should not be done? This was a crucial question for me.
As for the language and the form, the book is for the most part Czech, but there are hints in English, either parts of poems (especially W. C. Williams’ poems, but not exclusively) or just parts of dialogues, and it is mixed also on the part of the literary form, because it’s partly prosaic and partly poetry. It is a prosimetrum, to use this old term. In short, it is a very special mixture.
On Underpass, we have decided not to publish poetry, primarily because of the translation challenges. Can you tell us about your experiences having your poetry translated into English?
My situation is specific because I am involved in the process of translation—I do translate my own poetry into English, together with a native speaker, naturally. However, the idea to translate my poems into English was not mine, it was Stuart Friebert’s idea. Stuart is a poet and translator at once (usually translating from German), the founder of the Creative Writing Program in Oberlin, and co-founder of Field magazine. When he proposed to try such a precarious enterprise—what happened in the beginning of this millenium—, my first reply was immediate: "No, we can’t do that. With my horrible English it’s impossible to succeed." But he replied, in a truly American spirit: "At least we can try." So we tried—and we did it! The book Swing in the Middle of Chaos, published by Bloodaxe in the U.K., is a child of email communication, because Stuart lives in Ohio and I live in Prague. You can imagine these hundreds of emails! As for the quality of our translations, the greatest compliment came from David Vaughan (Radio Prague): “When you read poetry in translation, you nearly always know that you are reading a translation. I did not have that feeling when reading this collection. I think the translations are exceptionally good.”
What do you think Czech literature as a whole brings to the wider literary landscape? What unique perspective does it provide?
I am not sure that we can speak about entirely “unique” perspective. But we can definitely speak about bringing an image of the world as seen from a province—from a European province, more precisely—and as it happens, some things you can better see from a province than from the very center. Besides, there is a literary tradition encompassing Czech, German, and Jewish culture which I consider important. In short, in Prague and in Central Europe we live (in) our past and it hurts sometimes. But the Czech tending to irony and humor enables us to survive.