The second World War just ended and the average American is richer than he has ever been. There is no reason not to enjoy the fruits of growing economy and buy everything that is being advertised. For many, those were the times when money could buy you happiness – or something resembling it. But for some people, there was more to the life than having a 9-5 job, buying a new car, radio or any other comforts of that time. For them, it was simply too superficial. The hypothetical list of people with this attitude, among others, would include Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. A group of friends and writers who met at Columbia university and at the same time, three crucial characters in the history of the Beat generation. Correct. The Beat in the headline does refer to the Beat generation. But today, we will leave Kerouac on the road, Ginsberg will stop howling for a while and Burroughs can have delicious lunch while being naked. Meanwhile, we are going to explore the impact their group had outside the USA, specifically the Czech Republic and former Czechoslovakia.
The question is following: Is the Beat generation exclusive for the USA, or can we find its traces also in distant countries like the Czech Republic? To answer this question, we must take one step back and ask another question, which is “What is the Beat generation?” Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question and you may get different answers depending on who you ask. Since my first encounter with the Beat generation, I discovered two general ways how to characterize it and today, I will use them to help us answer the primary question.
If we consider the Beat generation as the group of friends who met at Columbia University, the answer to the main question is quite easy to find. The most important event in the shared history of the Beat generation and our country took place in 1965 when Allen Ginsberg unexpectedly visited Czechoslovakia. After he was deported from Cuba for his inappropriate behaviour, he was forced to go to Prague, from which he had a connecting flight back home. As he was waiting for his delayed plane, he remembered that he has two friends in Prague. He phoned one of them who just happened to be Jan Zábrana – an author of a brilliant translation of his Howl – and promptly decided to extend his stay for two weeks. With the help of his other friend Josef Škvorecký and the Union of Czechoslovak Writers, Ginsberg was able to make his stay legal and in addition, receive a stipend for his whole stay that would be enough to rent a hotel room (Blažek 36). Naturally, he decided to make the most of it.
In the beginning, the attitude of the Czechoslovak government was very positive (as he was a member of the American dissent). The newspapers Rudé právo informed about his stay, describing who he was and his intention to “discover the reality of the Socialist universe” (Blažek 37). Ginsberg spent most of the nights in Poetická kavárna Viola in Prague, which could be described as the Czech version of the Six Gallery in San Francisco, one of the major places in the history of the Beat Generation. When Ginsberg first showed up in the Viola, he saw a picture of himself and Peter Orlowsky hanging upon a wall (Blažek 36). Although it took some time for people to realize who he is. When Vladimíra Čerepková saw him (we will learn more about her later in the article), she said “Good lord, today every layabout looks like Allen Ginsberg,” (Blažek 36) which he looked like. Within a few minutes, Ginsberg was surrounded by ecstatic people who could not believe their eyes. To better understand what his presence meant for the people there, you can imagine Justin Bieber casually walking into a discotheque full of teenage girls on a Friday night. Better? Okay.
Ginsberg attended many public readings and discussions, visited important sights and gave some interviews as well. One such an interview was conducted by another great poet – a 24 years old Václav Hrabě – for whom it was the last text in which he was ever to be involved before dying on 5 March in his sleep, poisoned by a gas escaping from his oven.
Apart from writing some poems, Ginsberg kept writing his diary from Cuba. In the diary, he collected his “observations on the Communist regime, conversations, bar visits and erotic encounters” (Blažek 37). Later it was confiscated by the secret police and served as a main evidence for his deportation.
The poet left Czechoslovakia for few weeks to visit Moscow and Warsaw. After his return, things escalated quickly. On 1 May, he was elected the King of May (Král Majálesu). Thousands of young people attended the celebrations. Many used this occasion to manifest their political views and disagreement with the regime. It is suspected that it was either during or right after the celebrations when Ginsberg got into the spotlight of StB (State Security). In the following days, he was harassed by the secret police, interrogated and finally, on 7 May, seated on a plane to London. As a symbolic conclusion to his visit, he wrote the poem “The King of May“ (in which he criticises both communism and capitalism), while still in the air.
The reasons for his deportation provided by the press were for example corruption of the youth and abusing the trust of his hosts, while quoting his diary, particularly the entries about his sexual experiences there. In 1993, Ginsberg returned to a country very different than the one he once was deported from. If you are interested, you can find a recording of his public reading he gave in Olomouc on YouTube.
Now, that we have a better idea about the encounter of the “real” Beat generation and our country, it is time to talk about the second way in which the Beat generation can be defined and how Czech writers and poets contribute to this category.
And the Communists have nothing to offer but fat cheeks and eyeglasses and
and the Capitalists proffer Napalm and money in green suitcases to the
Naked, (Ginsberg, King of May)
The second interpretation is not as strict as the first one. As any other literary movement, the Beat generation also combines specific style of writing and lifestyle of its representatives and there is no reason why not to choose this approach. By broadening the definition, more and more people seem to fit into the Beat generation. One example for all could be Charles Bukowski – a man who despised Kerouac’s friends, wanted to have nothing to do with them, yet when you read his books, it is hard to avoid the immense feeling of being beaten by both life and society.
In my opinion, there was not appropriate environment in our country to allow something like the Beat generation emerge. One of the major elements in the development of beatniks was freedom. Freedom to travel, publish and freedom of expression. Sadly, the direction that the Czechoslovak government took was quite the opposite to that of the USA. Another major difference is the lack of Buddhism in the works of authors who otherwise show some similarities with their American colleagues. Of course, some people involved Buddhism in their writing, but it was mainly those who were familiar with the style of beatniks.
Despite not having a proper Beat generation in our country, we have something that resemble it in many ways. The underground culture. Behind this term you can find pretty much everyone who was not a part of the mainstream, official society – in a similar fashion as members of the Beat generation. Other things that the underground and beat community share are for example the acceptance of diversity, experimenting with drugs, open love and criticism of the establishment (though many people did not fight against the regime at all, they just wanted to be able to express themselves freely). To some extent, we can say that the underground movement was a kind of dark and rough relative of the Beat generation. Mainly due to the fact that expressing a different opinion could cause you serious problems – from beating to imprisonment.
Take the following paragraphs as a list of works that I found the most useful for understanding the underground community I will focus on prose first and then on poetry.
For me, the most illustrative and, to some extent, almost unbelievable book I have read about Czech underground is the book …a bude hůř, written by Jan Pelc in the 80s and published after the revolution. The book is divided into three parts and throughout the book you can observe a young boy, growing up in a totalitarian state. The book is full of drugs, sex, but surprisingly, freedom, that he found in the underground community. The second book is called Memento by Radek John. In John’s book, you can experience the life from a junkie’s perspective. Both the books were written in the final stage of Communism, so in order to talk about Kerouac and Ginsberg’s contemporaries, we must go a bit back in time to a place we have already visited.
Back in 1965. Ginsberg is in Prague, spending most of his evenings in the Viola. But if we turn the camera away from him, who do we find? First, there is Václav Hrabě – the poet whose name you have probably heard in your Czech classes (if you are Czech) as the representative of the Czech beat generation. Though it was more his lifestyle than style of writing what was similar to beatniks. The compilation of his poems Blues pro bláznivou holku is a must for everyone interested in Czech poetry. Unfortunately, he died at very young age, leaving only small number of poems behind.
Apart from Hrabě, there was also Vladimíra Čerepková, very popular in the Viola at that time, but nowadays almost unknown by the public. She grew up in an orphanage, where she was accidentally discovered by a student documentarist. He came across her poems and then took them to František Hrubín, who confirmed his suspicion – she was a poetic wonder (Kubíčková). When she grew up, she anchored in the Viola where she read her poems before jazz sessions. As a nice introduction to her work, I can recommend her compilation of poems Ryba k rybě mluví. In 2014, a book called Beatnická Femme Fatale was published. The book is a prime example of a biographical book – combining stories from her life, work, and memories of other people, organised in such a way that it could be used as a textbook in both literature and history classes. Together with Hrabě and Inka Machulková (another regular at the Viola), they combined a great ability to describe the society, free poetic style and wild lifestyle. I do not know the reason why she is not given as the prime example of a Czech beatnik, but I guess that we are not the ones who is to decide.
In conclusion, this article was just a brief introduction to the history of the Czech Beat generation. It is not possible to fully grasp the topic on three pages but if you are interested in the topic, I recommend the people mentioned here and more and more people will definitely pop up. But today, we explored this topic in two possible interpretations and I think that it is safe to confirm the title of the article – yes, the Beat was here.
Blažek, Petr. “The Deportation of the King of May.” Behind the Iron Curtain: Review of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Ústav pro stadium totalitních režimů, 2013, pp. 35-47.
Ginsberg, Allen. „King of May“, 1965.
Kubíčková, Klára. “RECENZE: Čerepková uhranula desítky mužů a do smrti hledala, jak žít.” iDnes, 9 October 2014, www.kultura.zpravy.idnes.cz/recenze-vladimira-cerepkova-beatnicka-femme-fatale-f8c-/literatura.aspx?c=A141009_143309_literatura_ts, Accessed 14 March 2017.