Vladislav Vančura: Konec starých casu (The End of the Old Times)
The other two Vančuras on this site were both different – Markéta Lazarová (Markéta Lazarová) is a serious and bloody historical novel while Rozmarné léto (Summer Caprice) is much more of a light-hearted comedy. This one definitely falls into the latter category. However, like many Czech comedies – both books and cinema (and, quite possibly other genres, with which I am not familiar) – this follows a pattern which the Czechs seem to do so well. Firstly, it is a light-hearted sex romp. Many of the main characters jump into bed with one another. Secondly, it mocks, in a gentle but telling manner, the various authority figures. Thirdly, the characters favoured by the author seem to take a child-like pleasure in life, all too often ignoring responsibilities. However, there is a serious side to the comedy, even if not too serious.
The story is set in Kratochvil, a stately home, in 1918. The previous owner had fled to the Tyrol after the war so a regent was appointed to look after the estate. The regent, Mr Stoklasa (i.e. not an aristocrat) is a rich widower with two daughters. He would love to buy the property but is not allowed to do. Much of the novel is about his scheming to be able to buy it. Stoklasa has inherited some of the staff of the former owner, including Bernard Spera, the librarian and the narrator of this story. Of course, we see everything from Bernard’s perspective. He is not too impressed with Mr Stoklasa though tends to get on with most of the staff, though he has a certain rivalry with the butler. Bernard is essentially lazy and, when he is not dealing with the books, he likes nothing better to laze with a glass of wine or one of the female staff, preferably both. We know how he fares because he tells us at the beginning. He has been caught with Ellen, the Scottish governess, whose job is to teach English to Michaela and Kitty, Mr Stoklasa’s daughters. Ellen, as he has told us, is ugly but he seems to be still with her sometime after the events at Kratochvil. He and Ellen were fired, as they were caught not only in bed together but seriously drunk on Mr Stoklasa’s best wine. He is now recounting the events that led up to his dismissal.
Life at Kratochvil is very boring so Mr Stoklasa decides to liven things up by having a hunting party followed by a banquet. He will invite all his neighbours, including Count Koda, whom he has never met. Will the Count come? No-one is sure. He does not turn up for the hunt but strict instructions are given to ensure that he is escorted to the lunch at the hunting lodge. However, he still does not turn up. The servants, including Bernard, set off with supplies to the lodge but, en route, a wheel falls off. Bernard wanders off on his own to the lodge. On the way, he hears voices and sees two hirsute men with one berating the other. Bernard goes to the lodge and the two men turn up shortly afterwards. When the other servants turn up, the butler tells Bernard that the man is Count Koda. He is made welcome by the servants and then by Stoklasa when the hunting party arrives. He drinks, he eats, he talks. But who is he? He introduces himself as Prince Alexander Megalrogov, a colonel to Tsar Nicholas II. He starts telling fantastic tales about his exploits in the White Army, fighting the Reds and aiding the Tsar. Then, as Bernard describes it, he just moves in. Stoklasa is glad to have him because he gives a touch of class to Kratochvil. The children love him, as he is playful and always up to something with them. The female staff love him, as he seems to have affairs with all of them in turn, to the chagrin of Bernard, whose slim chances have now become even slimmer.
However, the Prince has his enemies. Pustina, Stoklasa’s lawyer, sees him as a fraud and wants Stoklasa to get rid of him. The Prince is very good at making fun of Mr. Pustina. As his stay lengthens, he becomes more involved in the affairs of the household, advising Stoklasa on his estate, what to build and where, how to deal with the peasants and the general conduct of the estate. The household divides into two camps – those that love him and those that do not. Is he a fraud? The opponents, who are joined by Bernard, when he is again thwarted in his amorous intentions, try to play a trick on him, which seems to work but then backfires. Meanwhile, affairs of the heart are moving, as Jan, son of the head of the landowners’ association starts a relationship with Michaela. Jan backs away when he sees his father is planning to marry the two off but then he gets upset when Michaela transfers her affections to the Prince. The whole thing is told with delightful Czech tongue-in-cheek and it sort of works out, even if Bernard seems condemned to spend the rest of his life with Ellen. It is to be hoped that the English translation will be republished. The great Jirí Menzel made a film of the book but that, too, is sadly not available in the English-speaking world.
First published by Druzstevni Práce in 1934
First published in English by Artia in 1965
Translated by Edith Pargeter