Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk as a Picaresque Novel

 #Real Svejk - Cool under fire     

Originally published in the Germano-Slavica, Canadian Journal of Germanic and Slavic Comparative and Interdisciplinary Studies. Germano-Slavica is published  in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies at the University of Waterloo. Copyright © 1984 by  University of Waterloo. Used by permission of the author and the publisher. All rights reserved.

Hasek's Good Soldier Svejk as a Picaresque Novel


University of Utah

Most critics writing on the picaresque novel in recent years have agreed that our century has witnessed a revival of the genre. Relatively recent works, such as Saul Bellow's Augie Marsh and Thomas Mann's Felix Krull, are often cited as examples of this trend. And yet, few have suggested an earlier work whose claim to the designation of picaresque seems as strong as that of any modern novel: The Good Soldier Svejk and his Fortunes in the Great War (Osudy dobrého vojáka Svejka za světové války) by Jaroslav Hasek.

The point has not gone wholly unnoticed. Emmanuel Frynta, in a pictorial biography of Hasek, sees in Svejk the archetype of the wise fool, and mentions the Spanish picaro, along with several other figures, as literary ancestors1 Radko Pytlík cites picaros such as Lazarillo de Tonnes, Simplicius, and Gil Bias as literary prototypes for Svejk.2 S. Streller, in a recent article comparing Hasek's novel with Brecht's Schweyk im weiten Weltkrieg, calls Svejk "ein Typus, der in die unmit-telbare Nähe des spanischen picaro ... gehört."3 Among critical works on the picaresque novel, only one (to my knowledge) even mentions Hasek's novel: Pikaro heute by Wilfried van der Will.4Van der Will's discussion contains some interesting insights, but the two pages he devotes to Svejk contain essentially a description of Svejk as a type of picaro, with no real look at the work as a whole. The only critic to refer to Svejk as a picaresque novel is J. P. Stem, but by this he seems to mean only that it is "constructed on the pattern of 'one damn thing after another.'"5 Finally, Cecil Parrott, in his recent critical study of Hasek's works (the first in English), briefly considers the picaresque novel as a possible classification for Svejk; he notes the similarities, but then seems to reject the categorization.6 Clearly, then, a systematic examination of the work as a picaresque novel has yet to be made, and that is what will be attempted here.

What do we mean when we call a novel written in this century "picaresque"? It would seem arbitrary to restrict the designation to works which are conscious imitations of any of the "classic" examples of the genre, from Lazarillo de Tormes to Smollet's Roderick Random. Rather, we may consider any work as picaresque which conforms generally to the norms  establishe