Jaroslav Seifert, an 83-year-old Czechoslovakian poet and longstanding political maverick, yesterday became his country's first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Seifert, a prolific lyricist whose two dozen collections are virtually unknown and rarely translated outside eastern Europe, was cited by the Swedish Academy of Letters for poetry "which, endowed with freshness, sensuality and rich inventiveness, provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit of man."
The laureate was unable to travel to Stockholm because he is undergoing hospital treatment following a heart attack earlier this month. He was informed of the award yesterday at his bedside by the Swedish cultural attache' in Prague, who told reporters that "at first he didn't quite understand. But he's very old, and nothing surprises him much any more. But he was very, very happy."
Czech novelist Arnost Lustig said yesterday, "if the Nobel Prize committee had set out to pick a poet cherished in his nation and by his people, as popular as Shakespeare was in his time, they couldn't have made a better choice." Lustig, a professor of film and literature at American University here, called Seifert the "most beloved, most popular" poet in his native land.
"He is certainly the greatest living Czech poet," said George Kovtun, the Library of Congress' area specialist for Czechoslovakia and eastern Europe, "and certainly the most popular. Yet outside the region he is hardly known except to specialists."
Seifert is frequently labeled a "dissident" for his frequent and outspoken condemnation of the Czechoslovakian government's persecution of writers. And some observers in Stockholm theorized that awarding the prize to such a relatively obscure figure constituted a political gesture of rebuke to the communist regime. But Lars Gyllensten, who chaired the Academy's selection panel (whose five members read the poet in English translation), yesterday denied that there was any basis for the speculation. "Every human activity may be regarded from a political point of view," he said, "but our chief concern is literary."
Calling Seifert a dissident, many Czech scholars say, is somewhat misleading. Though he is a signer of Charter 77, the Czech dissident intellectual manifesto of 1970, throughout a long life he has reviled with equal zeal any practice he believed oppressive, especially censorship and sanctions against writers. He became a highly visible spokesman during the Nazi occupation and penned many poems urging resistance. "This night when universal darkness fell," he wrote then, "And each man crouched his own clan roof-tree under!/I know, I know, this time we should do well/To hear and heed the thunder." He proved an equally vocal critic of the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, dooming himself to certain punishment by going on the radio to declare, "We shall not live in bondage!"
"He is one of the most honest people on earth. All his life he was a fighter against fascism," Lustig said yesterday. "But he never went left or right -- he always went straight. It didn't matter if it was Stalin the strong or Khrushchev the shrewd, he went his own way."
Born in 1901 to a working-class family in Prague, Seifert published his first book of poems, "City in Tears," in 1920, and was active in avant-garde literary circles. Until 1950, he worked as a journalist for numerous Prague publications -- a period Lustig remembers well. "When I was 19," he recalled, he submitted an article to Seifert, and "he kicked me out. 'Something so stupid,' he said, 'I cannot publish.' " So in 1969, when Lustig arrived at the Czech writers' conference from Israel, he felt some anxiety at seeing Seifert. "But he came up and embraced me and said, 'Arnost, you are one of us.' In front of 1,000 people!"
Seifert had joined the Communist Party in 1921, but became disenchanted following a trip to the Soviet Union in 1925 and was finally expelled from the party in 1929. Though he had begun as a proletarian writer, during the Stalinist era his work was condemned for lacking sufficient social concern and didactic content. At the Czech writers' congress of 1956, he inveighed openly against the regime's persecution of undesirable writers, some of whom had been imprisoned and others obliged to flee their country. "If an ordinary person is silent," Seifert said, "it may be a tactical maneuver. If a writer is silent, he is lying."
"It was a very, very courageous move on his part," Kovtun said.
In 1969, he became the last president of the Czech Writers Union, which had been disbanded and then reformed after the Soviet-sponsored incursion. He was subsequently ousted by officials of President Gustav Husak's government, and his work was banned for 10 years in retribution for his radio protest.
Though he has never regained official approval, in recent years his works have been permitted to circulate again. And Seifert, who also suffers from diabetes, lives with his 85-year-old wife "in his little apartment just as he did 60 years ago," Lustig said.
"He is not liked by the state, but they cannot silence him because he is so famous," exiled Czech poet Pavel Kohout told United Press International yesterday. "He's really a voice of the people."
"He is very grudgingly tolerated by the regime in Czechoslovakia," Kovtun said. "Because he is the greatest living poet, and very old, he is protected from any real persecution." For his part, Seifert remains "politically quiet," Kovtun said. "It's a sort of mutual toleration."
On his 80th birthday in 1981, Seifert published his memoirs, "All the Beauties of the World" -- a virtual history of 20th-century Czech literature, Lustig said, which is remarkable because it contains "not one line of complaint, not one line of bitterness."
Seifert's poetry is not invariably political, and the Academy statement stressed that "he has never become a writer with a party program." From the outset, "he was a poet of home -- beautiful poems about his childhood, his mother, about poor people," Lustig said. And the Academy cited his work as "clear, apparently simple and artless, with elements of folk song, familiar speech and scenes from everyday life." Thus, in one poem, he employs the most dreary of locales:
In the dentist's waiting room
I saw in a torn illustrated paper
a rose-red terracotta statuette
I'd seen one like it once
in a case at the Louvre.
They'd found it in the marble tomb
of a young girl
who died long before Christ was born.
The baked-clay figurine knows all about death.
It could tell a tale. It stays silent
In his more recent work, "he makes surrealistic leaps," said Tom O'Grady, a teacher at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia who, with colleague Paul Jagasich, translated Seifert's collection "The Casting of Bells" in the mid-'70s. Most problematic, O'Grady said yesterday, were the "simplicity and random free-thinking, free-association," and Seifert's role as "a notorious experimenter with syntax." For example:
When the girl died
she must have heard the scream of the Empusa
who used to haunt the ones about to die
and guarded our graves.
She had one metal leg
and one of donkey dung
and screamed as the shades of the dead scream
on the banks of the Acheron.
Of course, the ancient spectres are now dead --
but new ones are being born.
Seifert's work has not been widely translated except into other eastern European languages. A few German and French versions have been published, and several English-language editions of his collections have appeared in England, including "The Plague Column" (1979, Terra Nova Editions) and "An Umbrella from Piccadilly" (1983, London Magazine Editions). But Seifert has not benefited from the recent enthusiasm for eastern European literature -- as embodied in such writers as Milan Kundera and Stanislaw Lem -- which has begun to resemble "el boom," the surge of interest in Latin American literature several years ago.
The only English-language version of Seifert's work published in the United States is "The Casting of Bells," from The Spirit That Moves Us Press in Iowa City. Yesterday Morty Sklar, self-described "editor, publisher and stamp-licker" of the nine-year-old one-man operation, said he had never heard of Seifert before he acquired the manuscript from O'Grady and Jagasich, who said it was smuggled out of Czechoslovakia taped to the leg of a British Embassy staffer. Since then, Sklar said, it has sold 125 copies. "That's not counting the orders that came in this morning, of course," for which Sklar has ordered a second printing of 500 clothbound and 2,000 paperback copies.
The $193,000 literature award is the first of this year's Nobel Prizes -- funded by the legacy of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite -- to be announced. The winner of the medicine prize will be named on Monday.