Vol 1, No 7, 9 August 1999
B O O K R E V I E W:
Bozena Nemcova's Babicka (The Grandmother, 1855), together with Macha's Maj and K J Erben's Kytice , is perhaps the best known and best loved work in all of Czech literature. The story is a fictionalised and idealised retelling of the author's childhood in north-eastern Bohemia in the 1820s and is centred on the character of Babicka - the simple, almost saintly Grandmother who comes to live with her daughter and grandchildren. Babicka is a repository of folk wisdom and kindness and accompanies her grandchildren, especially the eldest, Berunka, as they grow and learn about the life around them.
Bozena Nemcova (1820 to 1862, with some speculation about the exact year of birth - Wilma A Iggers, in Women of Prague: Ethnic diversity and social change from the 18th century to the present, suggests 1817) was by any standards an unconventional and emancipated woman. At the age of 17 she married Josef Nemec, a man 15 years her elder, and entered a marriage that would turn out to be difficult and unhappy. In 1842, he brought her to Prague and introduced her to the Czech intellectual life of the capital. Nemcova immediately attracted a great deal of attention, as much for her brilliant mind as for her beauty. Both she and her husband were active in nationalist circles, and she formed friendships with some of the leading writers of the time, such as Erben and Karel Havlicek Borovsky. She also became romantically involved with a variety of young men - something quite shocking at the time, of course.
After 1845, Nemcova and her husband moved frequently, living in small towns around Bohemia. In the early 1850s, she travelled by herself across Bohemia and into Slovakia (or Northern Hungary, as it was at the time), gathering ethnographic and folkloric material along the way.
During the years of reaction that followed the events of 1848, Nemcova and her husband suffered considerable hardship. 1853 was the most difficult year for Nemcova: her husband lost his position because of his political activities, and still worse, their young son Hynek died. Nemcova herself fell seriously ill. But, it was also at this time that she began to write Babicka. The novel was published in 1855 and was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. However, Nemcova's life continued to be difficult, blighted by illness and poverty, until her early death in 1862.
She left behind quite an outstanding body of work, ranging from extensive folktale collections and fascinating ethnographic material from her travels to short stories, her famous novel and a considerable correspondence. Apart from Babicka and a handful of short stories, very little of this has (regrettably) been translated into English.
The importance of Babicka in Czech culture can hardly be exaggerated. The book has appeared in countless editions, there are several film versions (the earliest a silent film from 1921, the most recent made in the early 1970s), and Babiccino udoli (Grandmother's Valley), not far from the town of Nachod, is a national literary and historical monument (and well worth a visit, incidentally). In fact, the book is so much a part of the national consciousness that almost every portrayal of a grandmother in film, on stage or in a book is influenced, and to some extent overshadowed, by Nemcova's heroine.
There is a negative side to this all-pervasive presence of the myth of Babicka; for, in its shadow, some of the darker or more ambiguous aspects of the novel are played down or even overlooked. Nemcova's unhappiness and suffering in the 1850s left its mark on Babicka, as did her concerns with the Czech national identity.
Admittedly, it is not always easy to detect these elements in a novel that on first reading appears to be an almost excessively idealised recollection of childhood. Hence, the reader of any translation of Babicka needs to be aware that the sentimentality and idealisation they find in the novel have a rather complex background and cannot be taken entirely at face value.
This darker side to Nemcova's novel is perhaps the hardest quality to capture in translation, and it is barely comprehensible without some kind of introduction explaining the historical and personal circumstances under which the novel was written. Yet it is also vitally important to capture this element, as without it the novel can appear little better than one of the sickly English Victorian novels of the same period. (I would refer anyone more interested in the background to this problem to Milan Kundera's article in Cross Currents 12, 1993).
The translation recently published by One Third press was done by Frantiska Gregorova (writing under the name Frances Gregor) and orginally published in Chicago in 1892. The book was only ever distributed in America, and even that distribution was very limited; hence, it is a true rarity.
Rather miraculously, a copy surfaced in a Prague antikvariat [used bookshop, ed.] a year or so ago, and a photocopy of this eventually found its way (via a fairly circuitous route) into the hands of One Third Publishers. The result is this recent edition. (There is, incidentally, another English translation of Babicka from the 1960s: Granny, translated by the English writer Edith Pargeter. Apart from the unfortunate title, Granny is a fine effort, also deserving reissue.)
To get my criticisms of The Grandmother out of the way, I should say that there are clear signs of the circumstances under which the book was prepared for publication. Some of these are understandable, such as the large number of spelling and grammatical mistakes that were caused by the photocopy being retyped rather quickly. Happily, One Third are themselves aware of this, and a second, corrected edition is in the pipeline, due for publication late this year. One Third also aim to improve the appearance of the book with a more attractive cover and some illustrations inside.
However, these are only cosmetic changes; a much more serious problem is the omission of any kind of introduction or notes apart from a very brief, albeit accurate, note on the author. Gregorova's 1892 introduction to the original volume is probably not worth reprinting as is, as it has dated badly, but a careful, modern introduction (or a revision and supplementation of Gregrova's notes) is essential, especially if the book is to reach a wider audience. Hopefully, the publishers will take this into consideration when putting together the next edition.
All that said, the translation itself is excellent, and its rediscovery and publication is exciting for anyone interested in Czech literature. From the beginning, Gregorova approaches the text soberly and sensibly, resisting the temptation to give the English any emotional "spin" or to try and adjust it to suit her audience. This is particularly impressive considering the time in which she was working - late 19th-century translators are not renowned for their faithfulness to the texts.
This sober approach is the key to successfully rendering the subtleties of Nemcova's novel. One of the reasons that the novel works so well in Czech is the author's careful use of language: she never writes in a sentimental or cloying way. The influence of the factual and down-to-earth style in which Nemcova related the ethnographic material she gathered on her travels is quite strong in Babicka. This acts as a counterweight to the idyll portrayed in the novel. Gregorova brings off the same careful balance in her English. A passage from the beginning of the novel illustrates this rather well:
Whenever Grandmother baked bread, the children had a feast. For each one she baked a little loaf filled with plum or apple sauce; this had never been done before. They, however, had to learn to take care of the crumbs. "The crumbs belong to the fire," she used to say as she brushed them up and threw them into the stove. If one of the children dropped a bit of bread, she made him pick it up, saying "Don't you know that if one steps upon a crumb, the souls in purgatory weep?" She did not like to see bread cut uneven, for she used to say: "Whoever does not come out even with his bread will not come out even with people."
The danger of slipping into sentimentality is probably strongest in the passages relaying several tragedies that take place in the novel. Most famous is the tale of Viktorka - the girl who loses her mind after her involvement with a mysterious soldier. In a tragic but very delicately handled scene, Viktorka throws her new-born child into the river; the story is told by the local gamekeeper:
Since that time she is at the bank every evening singing that lullaby. In the morning I told my master, and he guessed at once what she most probably threw into the water, - and it was true. When we saw her again, her form was changed. Her mother and the others shuddered; but what could be done? The unknowing cannot sin!
One can only imagine how Dickens, for example, would have handled the same scene. In Nemcova's novel, Viktorka's deed is recognised as desperately sad, but the writing is completely unmelodramatic and, more importantly, uncensorious. Gregorova's translation follows Nemcova meticulously: the tragedy is related in simple but powerful language and is thereby all the more effective.
There are many such sad or tragic events in Babicka, and all woven into the story with equal skill: the story of Viktorka, the flood that devastates the homes in the valley and surrounding area, Grandmother's painful recollections of war and the loss of her husband. These events make up the counterpoint to the slow, idyllic daily life that the novel so lovingly describes. All these events have their own importance, and the consequences are painful or tragic; but, the characters in the novel must accept them, and life must go on.
The register of Gregorova's English is, naturally enough, ideally suited to reproduce Nemcova's mid-nineteenth-century Czech, but I would be very surprised if the modern reader had any difficulties with it. In my reading of the translation, I could find nothing that struck me as anachronistic or out of place except for the mention of a raccoon (sic) on page 16 - not an animal that is often found in Bohemia (a marten, or even weasel would be more accurate). I trust this won't discourage anyone from buying the book.
Babicka deserves its status as a Czech classic; Kundera, in the article referred to above, is correct to refer to Nemcova as "the mother of Czech prose." However, the book is not nearly as well known outside the Czech lands as it should be, let alone recognised as an important work of nineteenth-century European literature. I hope the reissue of this translation goes some way towards redressing the balance.
James Partridge, 9 August 1999
(Many thanks to Cyril Simsa, who owns the copy of The Grandmother that was used for this edition, and who provided me with very useful information about it and the translator).
See this week's profile of One Third Publishers for more information on how to purchase The Grandmother.
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