After coming back from magnificent (unless you're talking about the food), yet woefully underrated Prague in late August of 2008, I immediately read Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Švejk, a satirical novel based on the misadventures of a Falstaffian Czech soldier during World War I. Like Druon's novels, the unfinished Švejk was extremely popular both in the old Soviet Union and everywhere in Eastern Europe while remaining mostly unknown in the West. The humor is crude, uproarious, and by today's standards, devilishly politically-incorrect.
Because my father is a life-long fan of Švejk, going through a new hardcover edition of the book every half a decade or so, I tried to finish the almost 800-page book from the age of eight or nine. Well, it took about 15 years and a honeymoon in Prague for me finally read it cover to cover. The English translation, by Cecil Parrott feels a bit clumsy to a native Slavic language speaker, but is apparently the only one available. And as it turns out, our own Srdja Trifkovic is a fan of Švejk and several years ago, we spent a good twenty minutes on Skype talking about our favorite parts of the book. The following quote from Švejk gives a good idea about its content and humor:
When Švejk subsequently described life in the lunatic asylum, he did so in exceptionally eulogistic terms: 'I really don't know why those loonies get so angry when they're kept there.You can crawl naked on the floor, howl like a jackal, rage and bite. If anyone did this anywhere on the promenade people would be astonished, but there it's the most common or garden thing to do. There's a freedom there which not even Socialists have ever dreamed of.
The following summer of 2009, before embarking on a three-year sojourn in law school, I finished my twenty-one volume collection of Georges Simenon's Commissaire Maigret series of novellas. I spent about three years assembling this collection by ordering six or seven books at a time from Russia, as soon as they came out. These short glimpses into the dark side of the City of Lights are famous all over the world for their descriptions of Paris from the 1930s to the 1950s, with an awkward, yet typically French silence about the lost years of 1940-1945; brilliant studies of hundreds of human characters - from sociopathic criminals to simple Parisians to darkly secretive members of the city's elite; and realistic, yet unpredictable plots. Jules Maigret, a pipe-smoking, kind, deliberate, salt-of-the earth Auvergnat is based on real-life Commissaire Georges Massu who solved the case of serial killer physician Marcel Petiot in wartime Paris. A Maigret novella where an abortionist kills, dismembers, and buries the wretched women who seek his murderous services is loosely based on the Petiot case.
The summer of 2010 was largely spent inside the comfortably air-conditioned judicial chambers of my local criminal court where I toiled as a law school intern. In between watching criminal trials and drafting judicial decisions, I read up on a topic that long interested me: Vichy France. I slogged through Robert Aron's The Vichy Regime, Robert Paxton's Vichy France, and Michael Marrus' and Robert Paxton's Vichy France and the Jews, before finding a masterpiece: Julian Jackson's France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944. Jackson's book is an easy-to-read, one-volume encyclopedia of the politics, literature, cinema, and daily life of both occupied and Vichy France, and encompasses, critiques and improves upon the earlier works on the subject. It also has the virtue of being a fairly balanced work when dealing with the Vichy regime, a polity much despised and maligned by modern historians.
[Click here for part i]
Eugene Girin is a New York-based attorney and commentator.