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When I was a little girl I used to love listening to ghost stories, that is, up until Halloween 1978 when I ended up in the middle of one. Whether the date had anything to do with what happened I'll never know, although many people believe that at this time the dead are able to cross into the world of the living. Maybe they can also take us back with them.
It was half term and I was walking up the road by the local playing fields with my mate Paul. We were looking forward to that night when a few of the local kids were coming round to my house for 'bob apple' and general fun and games, we didn't know about trick or treat in those days. The twins Jimmy and John Roberts were up there kicking a ball about. "It's the sissy boy!" Yelled Jimmy, " Out playing with the girlies again?". They were always having a go at Paul because he wasn't interested in football and often hung around with girls. He was quite scared of the twins who had a reputation for being hard, but you'd never get him to admit it. He went a bit red in the face and walked on, ignoring them, hands in pockets. Jimmy started shouting more abuse at him.
"Get lost!" I shouted, at which Jimmy booted their football toward me, I dodged, but it hit Paul smack on the side of his head. The twins howled, but Paul had grabbed the ball and started to run. It was the only time I ever saw him do anything that approached fighting back. I legged it after him with the twins following and shouting at us. 'Quick! Into the C.A!', I shouted and he took a right into the grounds of the derelict building where we knew of a good hiding place.
Attached to the side of the old Community Association building was a tunnel at basement level. We'd been down there before with a few others, it got narrower and lower the further you went in until it became pitch black and you couldn't see any further. We had no idea what it was for, but we used to dare each other to go further in in. No-one had gone much past the point where you had to start crawling. Today though there was no stopping Paul, and I followed him in without thinking. We could hear the twins swearing loudly behind us as they stumbled over bits of brick and rubbish. "You won't get away now" shouted Jimmy, 'The sissys gonna get a hiding', laughed John, I could hear the glee in his voice and was cursing myself for being so stupid as to suggest coming down here. We were trapped. The light which came through holes in the roof was behind us now and I could barely see. I could just make out the bottom of Pauls white trainers as he got down onto his hands and knees and started shuffling further and further into the darkness. We kept going in silence, keeping our energy for getting as far away from the twins as we could. The football had been dropped at the tunnel entrance and I hoped that meant the twins would give up. I was concentrating so hard on just moving in this tiny space that it took me a few minutes to realise I couldn't hear Paul moving any more. I shouted his name but he didn't answer. I strained my eyes but I couldn't see at all, and it was very, very quiet. Then I heard a low whisper, it sounded like a girls voice; 'you came back!'. I'm ashamed to admit I got out of there with as much speed as I could. At the entrance, the twins were waiting. They didn't believe me at first and were determined to wait for Paul to come back out. I ran home to get help, but it was too late. The emergency services ended up pulling the tunnel apart and our village was on the tv news for a few days until they lost interest and went on to cover the next story. No trace of Paul was ever found. And no trace of whoever it was that whispered in the darkness; 'you came back'.
THE GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK did not come to enjoy the same success as some other novels about World War I, probably because the style of the book is not really dark and sombre. In my opinion though, it's every bit as valid as All Quiet on the Western Front, and is in no way inferior just because it is not a tear-jerker. Hasek's satire, and his use of double-entendre is quite simply masterful.
This book is one of the classics of literature that sprang from the blood-fertilized killing-grounds of WW1. But it's a war book with a twist. It's profoundly funny - hilarious in fact - an anti-war novel that haplessly wanders throughout the old Austro-Hungarian Empire without getting anywhere near the Russian front. Unlike Remarque's book, Hasek's novel views the war as an absurd event, a colossal stupidity as seen through the eyes of a colossally stupid man.
* The Plot *
This isn't a book with a beginning middle and end. It's a rambling journey of pointless little stories that are told to illustrate examples of whatever situation our hero finds himself in - of course, they never do.
The story begins with Svejk, a citizen of Prague, being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army on the eve of WWI. It then goes on to document his excruciatingly delayed arrival at the Eastern Front and his farcical capture by his own side.
This is not an epic tale of the death of an Empire, but a collection of satirical anecdotes about the Austrian army, and life in the Austro-Hungarian empire during WW1. It follows our hero through the trials and tribulations of being prosecuted for treason, confined for idiocy, being treated for simulati
ng arthritis, nursing the hangovers of a debauched Jewish-Catholic army chaplain, stealing dogs* while batman to an officer with a passion for expensive pets, and eventually going to the front lines as a soldier in the Austrian army.
* According to Svejk, "the best time to steal a dog is when it is attending to it's larger toilet needs. Dogs are well aware that this is the most dangerous time for them, the most likely time to be stolen. That's why a dog, when doing it's business, will continually look around nervously with that apprehensive expression on it's stupid face."
Svejk's particular trait is a tendency to misinterpret orders, or rather to interpret them far too literally, whilst attempting to please his superior officers to the extent that it infuriates them. He seems completely obtuse, doing everything with his customary blank expression of stupidity. All the while, and at every single conceivable opportunity, he recounts wandering anecdotes that, although they simply go nowhere, are usually laugh-out-loud funny. (It has been estimated that there are around 200 such stories interwoven throughout the novel).
Svejk is a happy-go-lucky drunk and a joker, who wanders from pub to pub and infuriates his superiors with silly stories. He expresses his patriotism with such passion that it makes those around him wonder whether he is an idiot or a dissident.
Hasek lays bare the ridiculousness of the old Hapsburg monarchy: the ethnic rivalries, the endless bureaucracies and the croneying nepotism. The military leadership consists of senile old men and jobsworth pencil-pushers, who spend more time regulating the soldiers' bowel movements than formulating any meaningful strategy. Embezzlement is an every-day occurrence; everyone steals - from generals who skim millions, and cooks who hide meat and cheese to sel
l, to Red Cross workers pilfering medicines and supplies.
Self-righteous ladies from morality clubs lecture the young recruits about the importance of abstaining from sex and alcohol in what is probably the last few weeks of their lives. Commanders try to impress upon the soldiers the honour and glory in dying for the Emperor - the honour and glory which, "will culminate in a mud-spattered Austrian army cap hanging from a cross in some field."
But Svejk isn't as stupid as he acts.
He is honest, naive, incompetent, but perhaps a little shrewder than he appears - the reader remains unsure whether he is a devil-may-care buffoon or a conniving, accomplished actor. Through a series of mishaps, blunders, deliberate scams and other reasons, he always seems to, somehow or other, just avoid going to the front.
Hasek kept writing his novel until the very day he died. The story, therefore, ends abruptly, almost in mid-sentence.
It is quite a long-winded and wordy book (largely because Hasek wrote the book as a serial published in a Czech newspaper and he was paid by the word), but it's easy reading for all that.
Compared with all the more serious, and gloomy literature that was spawned by the First World War, Svejk is hilarious - a breath of fresh air. Having said that, with a serious subtext interwoven throughout, it's an anti-war book not to be missed.
With its simplicity and originality, it is a sound lesson in not taking the world too seriously.
The book is lavishly illustrated with Josef Lada's series of cartoons (classics in their own right) which show Svejk as an overweight, badly shaven, middle-aged, ordinary but comical, looking man.
The novel was banned from the Czechoslovakian army in 1925, followed by further restrictions in Po
land, Bulgaria etc. before the German translation was burned on Nazi bonfires in 1933.
* The Author *
Jaroslav Hasek was born in Prague in 1883 and was educated at the Prague Commercial Academy, from which he graduated at the age of nineteen. He was promptly fired from his first job - he was already a heavy drinker.
From very early on he was active as an anarchist and published widely in Czech political journals. In 1907 he became an editor of the anarchist magazine Komuna.
He was involved in dog stealing and forged pedigrees for mongrel dogs - as was Svejk. After a failed suicide attempt, Hasek spent a short time in a mental hospital, which no doubt gave him a lot of material for Svejk's adventures.
During World War I Hasek served at various times in Czech, Russian and Austrian armies. He was a volunteer in the Austrian 91st Regiment on the Galician front in 1915, and depicts in 'The Good Soldier Svejk', some of his superiors from those days by their real names.
In September 1915 his unit was cut off as the result of a sudden Russian breakthrough, and Hasek surrendered himself to the Russians. He was imprisoned in camps in the Ukraine and later in the Urals.
Hasek joined the Czech Legion, becoming active as a propagandist for the Legion and other Czech organizations. In 1918 he went over to the Bolsheviks, who made him a political commissar in their Fifth Army. Two years later he returned to Prague and nationalist politics.
All of this was the material for The Good Soldier Svejk, which, written in common Czech, was an immediate success.
Hasek had difficulty finding a publisher, so he financed the printing and distribution of th
e first volume himself in 1921.
Originally Hasek planned to continue the novel to six volumes, but he died on January 3, 1923 - of tuberculosis contracted during the war - before completing his work. Three volumes appeared, and then a posthumous fourth one, completed by his friend Karel Vanek.
As many of you will have surmised by now, I'm a multi-talented guy. Sadly my talents don't extend to understanding Czech (apart from ordering beer).
Fortunately, the Penguin Modern Classic edition I read was translated into English by Cecil Parrot.
Thanks for reading
C S Lewis,(often known as Jack),was born in Belfast in 1898. Educated in England,he joined the army in 1917.He ws a member of the literary group,called Inklings,whos other members included J R R Tolkien and Charles Williams.He went on to wed an American,Joy Davidman Gresham in 1957.C S Lweis died on the same day that JFK was assasintaed in Dallas,November the 22nd 1963. During his life he wrote many accomplished books,including the Chronicals of Narnia.These books are by far my favourite of his works,and disclose a secret land that fires the imagination and transports you in your mind. This series of stories were published in the following order, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) Prince Caspian (1951) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) The Silver Chair (1953) The Horse and His Boy (1954) The Magicians Nephew (1955) The Last Battle (1956) However,despite this being the published order of the books,if you wish to read them in chronilogical orders as they partain to Narnia's timeline,you should read them in the following order, The Magicians Nephew The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe The Horse and His Boy Prince Caspian The Voyage of the Dawn Treader The Silver Chair The Last Battle These wonderful childrens stories are gaurenteed to transport you in your mind to the land of Narnia.Many nights I dreamed of the land where magic hapens,wicked witches offer endless turkish delight,and snow covers the ground.In my youngest years I even repeatedly checked my wardrobe in hope that it to would be the gateway to this fantastic land. For those who have neither read the books,or seen the films or telivised series, these stories center around a group of children who's wardrobe is a sectret gateway to a far off land.The land of Narnia,where they meet freinds and foes and good and evil battle.The land where adventures never end and good wil
l prevail. I don't want to say too much more about the story line,as I wouldn't like to spoil the plots for future readers.However I cannot emphisise enough how much of a great read they are.They will captivate your children,and inspire dreams in even the oldest of readers.If you haven't read them before then get reading.If you have,dust off your books and refresh your imagination. If you have further interest in the books,or wish to know more about "Jack" then there is a delightful website,that has been created by his step-son,Douglas Gresham. The site covers many areas and includes lovely illustrations and information on the works.There are activities to do,and information on his life and works.It is well worth a look if you have a few spare minutes. http://cslewis.drzeus.net
In chronological order of publication, here are ten of my favourite works of fiction - some humour, some chilling murder stories, a couple of children's favourites, and two contemporary sagas. ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND – Lewis Carroll (1865) One of the classic children's tales of all time, this introduces us to the surreal world which Alice meets when she follows a rabbit down a hole, finds herself alternately growing and shrinking, and comes face to face with a motley group of stranger characters. There's the Cheshire Cat, who disappears though his grin remains; the Mad Hatter with his tea party, attended by the Dormouse and the March Hare; the King and Queen of Hearts; and the Mock Turtle, with his Reeling and Writhing, and the different branches of Arithmetic - uniquely absurd, gentle humour, complemented by Sir John Tenniel's wonderful illustrations. I confess I never read it as a child, and only got round to it very recently. How much of its whimsical turn of phrase, I wonder, would have gone above my head if I'd tried it too young. THE PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY – Oscar Wilde (1891) Wilde's only novel is the chilling tale of young, naïve Dorian Gray, and his portrait painted by the artist Basil Hallward. Just before it is finished he meets Hallward's friend, the worldly-wise Lord Henry Wotton, whose cynical outlook and conversation reveal him to be clearly based on the author himself. Enchanted with the portrait, Gray despairs at the thought that 'it will never be older than this particular day in June', the day it was completed. If only he could always remain young, while the picture grows old…His wish is granted with catastrophic results, and apart from the evil, seemingly indestructible Lord Wotton, everyone comes to a nasty end. Wilde's elegantly witty language and one-liners – 'Death and vulgarity are the only two facts in the nineteenth
century that one cannot explain away' – are strangely at odds with the mounting horrors of the story. BEASTS & SUPER-BEASTS – 'Saki' (1914) 'Saki', real name Hector Hugh Monro (1870-1916) was almost exclusively a writer of short stories. His mother died soon after he was born, so he and his sister were brought up by two maiden aunts who loathed each other and their young charges. In self-defence he created his own private world, and his pets were his best friends. His stories are masterpieces of black humour. During a flood, a hysterical housemaid identifies three bodies that have floated past the billiard-room as being the young man she's engaged to, while a young man contemplating proposal, marriage and a honeymoon in Minorca wonders whether the island is full of Minorca fowls, but concludes probably not as 'people who had been in Russia had told him that they did not remember having seen any Muscovy ducks there'. Unpleasant, occasionally fatal things happen to cruel or pompous maiden aunts and governesses, with young children generally getting their own back in subtle revenge. Among my favourites are 'The Story-Teller', in which a male traveller entertains a group of bored children by telling them about a little girl who was 'horribly good', and 'The Stalled Ox', where a stray ox creates mayhem in a woman's garden and drawing-room, and thus helps to revitalise a struggling artist's career. JUST – WILLIAM – Richmal Crompton (1922) I could have chosen any one of several books of William stories, which I still dip into regularly, but the first in the series is probably as good as any. Crompton originally wrote full-length tales for adults, and dashed off a few William short stories as mere potboilers. To her irritation they became far more popular than the novels, and appealed so much to children, that she ended up writing over thirty William boo
ks until a few years before her death in 1969. The lovable, rebellious but kind-hearted schoolboy scamp of 11, his gang of 'Outlaws', with his parents and elder siblings, and mongrel Jumble, need little introduction. Here, William wrecks lovestruck brother Robert's birthday picnic and his new bike; finds his tedious Aunt Emily has her uses as a 'fat wild woman', the prize exhibit of a show which he puts together to raise money for a new set of bows and arrows; and with a little help from cousin Dorita, manages to get out of being made to look 'ridiclus' as a pageboy at their soppy cousin Sybil's wedding. PAYMENT DEFERRED – C.S. Forester (1926) While best known for his Hornblower sea stories, set in the Napoleonic era, Forester's first novel was a gripping psychological murder story. William Marble, a bank clerk living in Dulwich with his wife Annie and children John and Winnie, is deeply in debt and fears his job is on the line. Then his young, recently orphaned and very wealthy nephew turns up unexpectedly one evening. There's almost nothing I can reveal about the plot without spoiling it, but it's an absorbing tale of how the newly-enriched Marble turns into a monster and destroys his family in the process. They say that money doesn't buy happiness – well, read this book for an example, and whatever you do, don't look at the last page in advance! (And don't read it if you're feeling too depressed, either.) RIGHT HO, JEEVES – P.G. Wodehouse (1934) Choosing a favourite Wodehouse is difficult, but this one probably made me laugh more than any other when I first read it. Take a cast featuring the lovable young wastrel Bertie Wooster, his 'gentleman's personal gentleman' Jeeves, who always comes to his rescue, his sharp-tongued but good-hearted aunt Dahlia, and his newt-loving friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, with his perpetual on-off engagement to the
gushing Madeline Bassett. Take them to Brinkley Court, where the average evening meal is a cheerless affair, 'more than a bit like Christmas dinner on Devil's Island'. As usual, Bertie makes a mess of everything he gets involved in, not least pleading Gussie's cause with Madeline and nearly finding himself engaged to her as a result. Luckily, she assures him a few pages later that, alas, it can never be. Bertie is relieved; 'my guardian angel had not been asleep at the switch'. There's also a priceless episode where a drunken Gussie is asked to present the local school prizes at the end of term, and insults everyone outrageously until forcibly dragged offstage. THE BAD SEED – William March (1954) The only non-British novel here is the chilling story of an American mother and daughter. Rhoda Penmark is an uncannily self-contained, tidy little girl of ten. Everyone finds her such a sweet little thing, but woe betide anybody who crosses her. Adoring but anxious mom Christine gradually realises there's something not quite right, until she discovers with horror that dear little Rhoda is a multiple murderess. A little research at the library leads Christine to the hideous theory that genetics have everything to do with it – she herself was an adopted daughter who narrowly escaped with her life from her biological mother, a notorious cold-blooded killer. This has been filmed at least twice, but liberties were taken with the story which the author (who died the year it was published) could not prevent. It's a really creepy plot, but the book is hard to put down. THE COURTYARD – Marcia Willett (1995) The Courtyard is a stable block on the edge of Dartmoor, owned by Henry Morley, converted into a cluster of cottages at the end of the 80s property boom. They are snapped up by several eager buyers, including Phoebe, an extrovert divorcee, and Guy, an independent young man who prefers to
keep his own company. It also attracts a few less fortunate souls, especially the kindly Nell and her husband John, who has just left the navy and intends to set up as an estate agent. Then the recession of the early 90s threatens to wreak havoc and bring tragedy. Marcia Willett's novels are all set in south Devon (this one partly in South Brent, my home village) and I love them not only for her picturesque, sometimes lightly disguised portrayal of places I know, but also because her characters are thoroughly believable, well-rounded and for the most part likeable individuals. Despite some unhappy moments, all ends well. THE TURNING TIDES – Elizabeth Lord (1997) Amy Harrington, a well-brought-up young girl of eighteen of the 1920s in Bayswater, 'gets into trouble', is jilted by her fiancé and thrown out by her angry father. Their cockney maid Alice Jordan, promptly sacked for standing up for her, comes to her rescue by taking her back to live with her own family in Stepney. While reluctantly turning her back on her parents and siblings, she finds a way of getting her own back on her former lover and the father of her unborn child, and Alice is part of the plan. However it all goes horribly wrong, both families suffer tragedy, and then Amy finds herself attracted to Alice's elder brother Tom, though he is reluctant to become involved with a girl from a higher social order than him. The class divisions between West End and East End during the inter-war period, coupled with well-drawn characters, make for a story full of vivid contrasts. SISTERS IN ARMS – Catherine Jones (1998) In July 1987 three young women meet on their first day as army cadets at Sandhurst. Amanda Hardwick is a former teacher, Edwina Austin a blunt-speaking northerner straight out of art college, and Lizzie Armstrong an ex-public schoolgirl whose mother was in the Wrens. All are very different in personality and background, yet bond at o
nce, especially when they come up against the sadistic platoon commander, Captain Cathy Roberts, ever ready to find fault. An uncomfortable revelation about the highly secretive Amanda's private life threatens to land her in trouble, but the others have their problems too. Captain Roberts works hard to pick them off one by one, but once they find the skeleton in her cupboard, the gloves are off. This novel spans eight years, with the Belfast troubles and the Gulf War providing part of the background, and it's a thoroughly engrossing tale of supportive friendships surviving all kinds of tribulations. All three women are portrayed in such striking and sympathetic detail that it only takes a few chapters for the reader to come to know and like them, for all their weaknesses.