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Halas, František
(1901–1949)

Biography

(3rd October 1901 - 27th October 1949)
František Halas is one of the most important representatives of Czech lyric poetry of the twentieth century. He was a poet, translator, essay writer concentrating on literature and art and a journalist, writing on cultural matters. His name became identified with the intensive and genuine search for a poetic form that would encapsulate the tragic and absurd situation of the individual in modern, socially stratified society. In times of difficulty, he did not hesitate to speak out in defence of democratic and humanist principles in the name of the entire Czech nation. He was born in Moravia to a working class family of poor textile workers. His father František Halas senior (1880 - 1960) came from a large family of weavers. During Austrian rule and also during the first Czechoslovak republic, as an official representative of the workers, he was prosecuted and sent to prison. He was also a writer. His fictional memoirs were published in three volumes: Kemka in 1950, Bez legend (No Myth) in 1958 and Máje a prosince (May and December) in 1959.
Halas' mother died of tuberculosis in 1909 and the eight year old František moved with his father to the nearby parish of Svitavka near Boskovice, an area where the Halas family had long-standing connections. It was not only with the premature death of his mother that Halas encountered death in his childhood. Three other children died soon after they were born. No wonder one of the recurrent themes in his work was for a long time variations on the subject of death.
About that time he also began to take a great interest in literature. He read Jules Verne, R. L. Stevenson and borrowed Gulliver's Travels from the workers' library. Memories of his childhood left him with a strong attachment to the countryside where he grew up. He often went back there and travelled through the "magic triangle" formed by the parishes of Kunštát, Zbonìk and Rozseè as the specific sensory images in his memoirs in prose Já se tam vrátím (I shall return, 1947) testify.
Halas' only formal education was gained from the council school that he left in 1916. This information has always come as a shock to all who were confronted by his exceptional erudition and the scope of his knowledge. The school was in Husovice, a district of Brno where he had lived since 1913. From 1916 to 1919, he worked in Píša's Bookshop in Èeská Street in Brno, learning the trade. This meant that he met all the Czech literary celebrities in Brno at the time and he acquired a literary education through reading.
During the war, his father was in the Czech Legion in Russia returning only in 1920, having travelled by way of Vladivostock, Hong Kong and Trieste. Meanwhile Halas lived a hand to mouth existence with his grandmother. From 1920 to 1921 he was an assistant in Koèí's Bookshop beside the Old Town Hall in Brno. From 1921 to 1923 he was an active member of the leftist youth group Modrá blùza (Blue Shirts) and published in the left-wing press especially the newspaper Rovnost (Equality) where he first came to public notice. In December 1923 he was sent to prison for five days for his activities in the communist youth organization Komsomol. From 1922 to 1923, he worked as an assistant clerk in the Brno Accident Insurance Company. Between 1923 and 1924 he published his first poetry and political satire in the communist magazine Sršatec (The Firebrand). In 1923 Halas and the left-wing critic Bedøich Václavek founded the Brno group Devìtsil. From 1924 to 1925 Halas, Bedøich Václavek and Artuš Èerník, a well-known journalist writing on cultural affairs, edited the group's first year's review, Pásmo (The Zone). Later, Halas was also on the editorial staff of the magazines Šlehy (Witticisms,1926), Orbis (1927 -1928), Rozhledy (Review, 1935 -1938) and Èteme (Reading, 1938). After his military service in Brno from 1923 to 1925, Halas set off for six months in Paris from where, as he wrote, he was driven away by hunger. There he met the important Czech artists Jindøich Štýrský and Toyen. He struggled along as best he could receiving some assistance from the consulate, some from home and washing dishes. At the time he wrote in a letter full of youthful exuberance to Václavek and his wife, "To rut, to roar and go wild! How wonderful it would be to be a sailor!" On the recommendation of the Brno writer, dramatist and librarian Jiøí Mahen he obtained a post in the publishing house Orbis in Prague where he worked till 1945.
From 1926 to 1927 he was the permanent arts critic for the social democratic daily newspaper Právo lidu. While on the editorial staff with Arnošt Vanìèek between 1929 and 1935, he was largely responsible for publishing a series of editions of new works including Mys dobré nadìje (The Cape of Good Hope), and between 1936 and 1942 he helped to launch the series of books První knížky (First Titles).
Halas' first book of poems Sépie (Sepia, 1927) has a strong existentialist bias and is already a mature work. The subjects are often life and death, the meaning of human existence and creativity as a whole. To a certain extent it is an argument against the poetistic idea of all the beauties of the world extolling the vision of the world held by some of the communist poets of Halas' generation such as Vítìzslav Nezval and Jaroslav Seifert. Halas was already fully integrated into Prague literary life when he became friendly with F.X.Šalda, the most important authority on Czech criticism between the wars. At that time he was sharing a flat in Žižkov with the Catholic poet Jan Zahradníèek and was often in the company of Vladimír Holan, a poet four years younger than himself. Halas's early poems, strongly influenced by poetism and containing the socialist themes of proletarian poetry, were being published regularly in periodicals, but all through this period Halas was trying to find his own poetic method. In a certain sense, he was to became the exact opposite of his lifelong friends and former models Jaroslav Seifert and Jiøí Wolker.
Halas' method is introspective; he tries to reach and analyse the central elements of emotion and reason and recombine them into a coherent whole. The power of this introspectiveness and the attention Halas gives to every word effectively challenges Nezval's explosive poetry. In spite of this, the collection Sépie is related to Poetism by touches of playful imagination and also by the typographical layout of Karel Teige, a key personality in Czech culture between the wars. Halas' extensive experience of the life of the poorest sections of contemporary society explain his great sympathy, with existentialist overtones, for sufferers from social injustice and his emphasis on ethical and moral values.
The very title of the second collection of poems, Kohout plaší smrt (The Cock Awakens Death, 1930), illustrates its main theme, the struggle between life and death. This book clearly demonstrates the dominating features in Halas' poetry, playfulness, spontaneity, acute sensitivity combined with social awareness; but this is simply the background for a disenchanted picture of the world. His many images based on oxymoron and paradox reflect the inherent tragedy of life. Halas' smoothly flowing chains of free association are in contrast with his relentless introspective search for values and form that is reflected in discordant staccato expressions. Halas himself commented on this, saying,"I have never professed great technical skill in the poet's craft. Many a time have Hora and Zahradníèek tried to thump into my head the secrets of the trochee, iambus and whatever their fancy names are. To this day I am not familiar with them. Not that I am in any way boasting, that's just how it is. I simply don't understand them. That is why my verse so often sounded harsh and jerky. But what grated on others' ears I heard as heavenly music and went on grinding it out in my own way...." His poetry is also exceptional lexically and syntactically. Complex sentences with inverted word order often contain a great deal of specialized vocabulary, especially neologisms and archaisms.
Halas' more melodic intimate poetry is chiefly concentrated in the collections Tváø (Countenance, 1931) and Hoøec (Gentian, 1933). Extravagant expressiveness has been replaced in these anthologies by a kind of melancholy, but the basic themes have been retained. Throughout Halas' work social motifs, death, childhood, love, are constantly repeated. Some suggestions of harmony and happiness can be found in his treatment of love but even here love is closely linked with the majesty of death. It was no accident that Halas and another of his contemporaries, the great poet Vladimír Holan, made a collection of Czech lyrical folk poetry called Láska a smrt (Love and Death, first published in 1938 and expanded in 1946). The relationship between love and death fascinated both poets and permeated all their work.
In 1931 Halas travelled through France, Italy and Monaco with Libuše Rejlová, who was later to become his wife. Before their marriage in 1936, Halas wrote her seven hundred letters. In 1936 he went to join a demonstration in Spain at that time in the throes of civil war. In 1937 a son, František Xaver was born. He later became a translator, historian, diplomat and editor of his father's work. A second son, Jan, was born in 1945. He was the author of personal reminiscences about a number of Czech literary personalities. Originally intended to be broadcast, these texts were published in 1996 by Èeský spisovatel, Prague under the title of Dodatky (Postscript).
The most famous and most controversial of Halas' collections of poetry is certainly the long narrative poem inspired by his grandmother Staré ženy (Old Women, 1935), apostrophising parts of an ageing female body, eyes, hands, hair, womb and face. As soon as it was published, this imposing dialogue with the human ageing process became the subject of controversy. To counter Halas' contentions, Stanislav Kostka Neumann produced his poetic composition Staøí dìlníci (Old Workers) and during the orthodox communist, stalinist campaign in 1950s it was used as a pretext for bitter attacks on Halas, who had died a short time before. Ladislav Štoll, a communist party ideologue responsible for literature, lead this ideological campaign against Halas' work. Štoll wrote in 1950, "The people simply cannot love Halas' morbid poetry", and in a personal attack he described the poet as "a subjective romantic, a spiritualist full of hypochondriacal anxieties". In obedience to the spirit of the times, František Kautman wrote in 1950, referring directly to the poem Staré ženy, "It is a monstrous, formless, deeply pessimistic poem, full of ugliness and panicking about women ageing." Nor were those critics slow to stress Halas' "morbidity" and "perversion". His explicit sensuous metaphors and the liturgical form of the poem indicate that Halas' inspiration came from the baroque and catholic traditions in the widest sense. Halas wrote in a letter, "Not having the slightest trace of religious feeling I translate all this into poetry" and Staré ženy substantiates this contention:
"ruce starých žen žlutší jílu pod rakví otevøené a prázdné vy ruce zedøené a spotøebované
plachetky styxu blíženci modlitby žezla porouchaná hnízda køeèí tøeslice opuštìnosti záhonky žil orodovnice onìmìlé praporky zplihlé poboèníci propuštìní marnotratnice zchudlé tìžítka bezesnosti"
old women's hands yellower than clay under a coffin open and empty hands work-roughened and worn veils of the Styx Gemini of prayer damaged sceptres nests of varicosity the trembling of loneliness flowerbeds of veins mute intercessors drooping pennants dismissed aides impoverished spendthirfts paperweights of dreamlessness ...
In 1954 Ludvík Kundera, faithful editor and commentator on Halas' work, came to his defence and particularly after 1956, after the first, hard-line era of stalinist communism in Czechoslovakia had passed, a number of well-known Czech poets and critics, Jan Grossman, František Hrubín, Zdenìk Pešat, Jan Trefulka and others, repeatedly defended Halas' key position in the development of Czech lyric poetry.
The composition Dìlnice (The Working Women, 1945) inspired by the author's mother, formed a counterpart to the poem Staré ženy. In the collection Dokoøán (Open Wide, 1936), Halas' vision of the polarity in life becomes sharper, linking together extremes: unshakeable faith and hopeless scepticism, tragic nothingness and the glorification of the greatness of man and history. In this collection there is also a long poem Nikde (Nowhere), an elegiac metaphorical variation on a single word, which resembles a litany. Nikde is a vehement testament to the poet's desperate search for elementary certainty in life; in Halas' own words, he touched the depths of his obsession with nothingness and extinction. At the same time, Halas' nothingness enters into a kind of dialogue with Poe's "nevermore" and with the great Czech romantic Karel Hynek Mácha's conception of nothingness.
Halas reacted to the events in Munich in 1938 (when Czechoslovakia was forced by France and Britain to hand over its fortified border regions to Nazi Germany, which in effect made Czechoslovakia defenceless to Hitler) with a passionate, bitingly critical collection Torzo nadìje (Fragment of Hope, 1938). Here, he fully identified with the tragic fate of his betrayed nation. Besides reminiscences of the security of home and childhood, he introduces reminders of the basic values of Czech traditional culture. Reacting against the trauma of topical events he makes reference to the ancient St Wenceslas chorale, signifying a thousand years of religion and culture in Bohemia, and to the poem Karel Hynek Mácha (1810 - 1836), a symbol of revolt and pride. In these poems, Halas also celebrated the works of Jan Neruda, the founder of Czech poetry of the everyday. In his composition Naše paní Božena Nìmcová (Our lady Božena Nìmcová, 1940) he was inspired by the life and work of the eponymous writer. Just as in a similar collection of poems by his contemporary Jaroslav Seifert, Božena Nìmcová in Halas' long poem stood for suffering and the Czech language, but she was also a symbol of resistance and final victory.
During the crisis of September and October 1938, when the Czechoslovak army was briefly mobilised against Hitler, and then withdrawn again, and the during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Halas published in the illegal press. With critics Bedøich Václavek and Václav Èerný and writer Vladislav Vanèura, he founded the National Revolutionary Committee of writers. He was saved from being arrested by the Gestapo by a doctor from the sanatorium at Tišnov, who gave out that Halas was suffering from a fatal disease. Before that, Halas had spent October 1938 in a sanatorium in Vráž, in 1941 he was in hospital in Prague and at the spa in Podìbrady.
Halas's only publication during the German occupation was the collection Ladìní (Tuning, 1942), the poet's return to the playful world of a child's imagination. This collection that includes many of his occasional poems celebrating personalities in Czech culture omits the poems "Potopa" (The Deluge) and "Hlad" (Hunger) written at the same time. Only fragments of these poems have survived. Many years later, they were edited and published with commentary.
After the war Halas was a member of the National Assembly. He was head of the Publications Department of the Ministry of Information and also president of the Syndicate of Czech Writers. In October 1945, he undertook to go to France with the ashes of Robert Desnos. Overwhelmed by official duties and honours thrust upon him by the new regime and disillusioned in the face of the reality of power, Halas longed ever more ardently for the chance to pursue his career as a poet in peace. By 1949 however he was in the Prague Vinohrady hospital, suffering from chronic heart trouble and in November he was dead and buried in Kunštát in Moravia.
His poems written during the protectorate, full of mobilizing passion and intense moral awareness, became part of the first postwar collection V øadì (In Line, 1948). The book takes stock of the horrors of the Nazi occupation and at the same time bids farewell to dying comrades. The apocalypse of war is described with almost brutally explicit realism. This collection marked the beginning of another period of intense searching for a new technique of poetic expression, culminating in the book of poems A co? (What now? 1957) published after the poet's death. In it Halas takes his method of fragmentation to the limit; he mixes the most varied styles of language, rare and newly formed words come up against vulgarisms, he uses fragments of various traditional literary forms; concrete images clash with abstractions in the innovative poetic world created by Halas. A co? as Zdenìk Pešat wrote, is an evident attempt to "restore the worn out language of poetry". Here Halas' scepticism about poetry, his lack of faith in it combined with the desire and the need to write it reaches its climax. - The translations he made from Slavonic languages, including translations from Pushkin and Slowacki, form an integral part of Halas's work, although many of them were not published until after his death.
František Halas' work is among the most complicated in Czech prewar lyric poetry. To quote again the words of Zdenìk Pešat, an expert on Halas, "both the chaos of a world shaken after the first world war by violent social upheavals and the most personal poetic contradictions" are reflected in Halas' work. Indeed, the strength of Halas' innovative poetic vision lies in this very tension between the life and experience of the individual and his sensitivity to conflict in history and society.
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