Saturday, 22 November 2008

Edith Pargeter - Czechophile

Many people will know the English writer Edith Pargeter by her pseudonym Ellis Peters, under which she wrote the very successful Brother Cadfael books. What then is she doing in a blog about the Czechs? Well, she was a great Czechophile, who almost single-handedly was responsible for bringing Czech literature to the attention of people in the UK.

Pargeter had first got to meet and enjoy the company of Czechs during the Second World War, afterwards she took advantage of an International Summer School in Czechoslovakia to visit the country she had come to love through meeting its people. The visit took place in that brief time before the Communist takeover of the country and inspired Edith into increased admiration for Czech culture. She taught herself Czech and began to translate Czech literature into English. This activity allowed her the opportunity to continue visiting Czechoslovakia on an almost annual basis, she worked with the state-owned publishing house Artia and even kept her earnings in the Communist country to fund her trips. It is apparent from her writings that she had to walk a very fine line – she was very much against the oppression that she saw, but needed for her Czech friends' sake and for the sake of her work not to upset the communist authorities - “I was continually walking a tightrope in order to avoid harming people I wanted only to serve.

A bibliography of her Czech translations shows huge breadth, including modern classics (as yet unheard of in the “West”), more established writers and even Czech legends. Indeed it reads like a who's who of Czech literature – Neruda, Toman, Styblova, Nemcova, Bor, Seifert, Klima, In total she translated sixteen books. It is a tribute to her skill, that some of her translations are still in print. In 1968 Edith Pargeter was awarded the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations Gold Medal for her services to Czech Literature.

The more I have read of Edith Pargeter's relationship with this lovely country and its people, the more I find myself at one with her. Much of what she loves and recognises here, I love and recognise too. I will therefore leave the last word to her, here is her description of Neruda's Tales of the Little Quarter, she could have been talking about the wider nation: “He made a book the image of himself, high-spirited, amusing, compassionate, occasionally startling us by a flavour of astonishing bitterness, but having at its heart and ground an uncompromising affirmation that life, bitter and sweet together, is to be accepted with ardour, and humanity, in all its folly and imperfection, to be loved without reserve.

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