Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Brno, Czech Republic (Part I)

Brno, Czech Republic (Part I)
July 24-25, 2009

In making our plans for research in the Czech Republic I was somewhat surprised to learn that the experts on children’s literature are not working from the nation’s capital, Prague, but from Masaryk University in the city of Brno, in Moravia, where the scholarly journal Ladeni, on Czech children’s literature, is published quarterly. The head of the department of Czech Literature there is Dr. Naděžda Sieglová. I knew her name from some articles on Czech children’s literature that were published by the Oxford University Press.

When we met with Dr. Sieglova in her office we were greeted very warmly, and, as if we had come to her home, she offered us an overwhelming plate of homemade Czech desserts, pastries and candies. In order to encourage our appetites Dr. Sieglova pronounced that the desserts “would not last in this weather” so we had to eat them all now. The gesture was very kind, and the desserts were delicious. I had one big chocolate thingy shaped like a steeple from an Orthodox church—with cognac inside. The only problem with the desserts was that I did end up getting chocolate all over my notes and on the handouts she gave us.

Concerning nonsense Dr. Sieglova gave us a thorough history lesson on Czech nonsense, starting with folk material. One thing that struck me as we started to go through the material, was that violins seemed to be a popular recurring motif in Czech nonsense. There were simply a lot of violins, and even a joke about Strativarias. Considering this fact I was then struck by something I'd not seen in any other country; nonsense in Czech often (or nearly always?) comes with sheet music in the back of the book. Nonsense rhymes are supposed to be sung in Czech--simple as that. And even when new nonsense is produced and published the cover will give credit for the author of the text, the illustrator, and the person who wrote the music in the back. Amazing! This surprise led me to think about English nursery and nonsense rhymes. When English Mother Goose poems were first published in book form in c. 1765 the title of the book was not "Mother Goose," but "Mother Goose's Melodies," and the fact was that English nursery and nonsense rhymes nearly always had music that was supposed to accompany them. A few publishers around 1800 tried to publish Mother Goose poems with the sheet music included, but these music books did not catch on, and mostly we of English tradition have forgotten the original melodies that went with our nonsense. Not so in Czech, where it is apparently taken for granted that sheet music must usually accompany nonsense.

When Dr. Sieglova moved on to the 1960s I was of rapt attention. Shea explained that “There was a lot of nonsense in the 1960s.” There was, in fact, a flowering of the genre at that time, as exemplified by the popular nonsense books of Pavel Šrut, Emanuel Frynta and Jiri Žacek. However, when the communists clamped down in 1968 and 1969, books of nonsense were forbidden. Nonsense then remained forbidden until the Revolution of 1989. For me personally this was a riveting piece of history. My dissertation was written directly on this topic. Working from a theory proposed by the Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, I basically proposed the idea that nonsense flourishes during times of social unrest—and that authoritarian movements are led by people who are easily threatened by nonsense. It was satisfying to learn of a concrete historical example that backs up what I’ve been preaching about nonsense for a while now.

Just during and after the Revolution of 1989, nonsense flourished again in Czech. And today, while there are not too many contemporary writers of nonsense in Czech we were introduced to one truly remarkable author, Petr Nikl, whose books are surreal, absurd, nonsensical and extremely well crafted and beautiful. His book, Jelenoviti, is dedicated to Christian Morgenstern, the German nonsense author. Below are a few photos from another of his texts, Za Hadky. The pages in this book actually come sliced, so that the reader can create a myriad of different creatures by flipping the top, middle and bottom panels. Note that in the two photos below the top and bottom panels on each page have not changed, only the middle has: (Click on the photos to enlarge them).

Before we left Dr. Sieglova she was kind enough to allow us to record her reciting a favorite nonsensical rhymes she knew as a child. At first we’d asked her to find one in one of the books she’d copied for us, but in the end she preferred to recite from memory. Her assistant, Tasa, was called in and the two of them worked together to be sure they had the lyrics correct. Dr. Sieglova made one recording, then, enthused, Tasa jumped in as well, recording two rhymes she recalled from her youth in Brno. Click here to hear these Czech nonsense rhymes.

Having finally gobbled up many of the desserts Dr. Sieglova offered us Michael and I were somewhat alarmed toward the end of the conversation when were suddenly handed five sandwiches and told to eat them too. I couldn’t really, so I gave mine to Michael and he ate all five.


  1. Erm, I don't seem able to get the sound recordings in previous posts... I think my computer lacking softwares? (that it refuses to locate on the twinkienet) Is there some ways?

  2. Once you click on the link, it should take you to Box.net. From there, you should be able to download the file... but it won't play automatically. You have to sit on it firmly until it squeals. Sorry. We're now posting the sound as video (as in this entry), which is streaming and easy...