Miroslav Holub The Fly Analysis Essay

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Supposed to Fly

Miroslav Holub

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  • A Sequence from Pilsen, Czechoslovakia
  • Translated by Ewald Osers
  • A few of the poems included here have appeared previously in English.

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting biographical pieces, somewhat mismatched with Holub's poetry

See our review for fuller assessment.

TLS.28/3/1997John Redmond
World Lit. TodayB+Summer/1997Edward J. Czerwinski

  From the Reviews:
  • "This brilliant book is arranged around Holub's home city of Pilsen. It is a collection of poems (some written many years ago) alternating with short prose-pieces and punctuated by the odd dusty, black-and-white cityscape. (...) Grounded in razor-sharp observation, deep learning, common sense and charm, Supposed To Fly may be the most important work of anti-romanticism since Auden's "The Sea and the Mirror". Few poets in the English language could read it without a shamed face." - John Redmond, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In Supposed to Fly Holub's prose pieces are more effective than his poetry, simply because the themes (war, destruction, and lost innocence) are more compellingly developed in his prose pieces." - Edward J. Czerwinski, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Holub's sequence on his hometown begins with a marvelous little story that gives the collection its title. Short prose pieces -- personal memories, reflections, short historical bits -- alternate with Holub's poetry. It is a very personal book, often speaking from personal experience. Centered on a city that was ravaged by war, then occupied by both American and Soviet soldiers, Holub does not overly romanticize the town, though there is a fair share of wistful and melancholy memory.
       The prose pieces are, themselves, lyrical. The poetry at their side then makes for a sometimes awkward fit. Holub's verses seem to lose their echo, not as resonant as they are either when set off by themselves, or in his collections devoted solely to his verse.
       Supposed to Fly is certainly a valuable source of information about Holub's youth, and an interesting introduction to Pilsen. However, we were not completely won over by the lyrical tones and the odd admixture of poems and prose. Hesitantly recommended.

       One of the difficulties Holub's work poses is that it exists in so many varied English translations. One might think that his deceptively simple verse would pose no great difficulties in translation -- but think again. An interesting aspect of this particular collection is that a number of the poems can be found elsewhere -- in other translations. A comparison of these is educational and fun and proof -- once again, as if it were needed again -- that translation is a crime against literature and should only be perpetrated under the direst of circumstances: read the original !
       Here we find The Parallel Syndrome where in Vanishing Lung Syndrome it was a Parallels Syndrome, here Pietà where previously it was Piety (we'll give the nod to Osers on that one).
       The collection The Rampage also reproduces several poems from this book, but the doubled versions leave more confusion, with one rarely seeming more definitive (or satisfactory) than the other. Each version of Masterpiece, for example, has small flaws. Pompeii is similarly not entirely satisfying in either version, each doing several things better than the other. In My Mother learns Spanish, however, we suddenly see a marked difference in quality. Holub worked with David Young on the translation for The Rampage, and it is clearly better than Osers' effort -- though it is understandable that Osers may have been reluctant to cut back where Holub was not. Anatomy of January is less clear cut, though the Holub-assisted version again is tighter.
       It is worth looking the poems over side by side, to see how much we miss through our voluntary (and lazy) illiteracy. We suggest that the solution lies not in everybody learning Czech and every other literary language of the world (though that is our preferred solution), but rather in taking issue with translation more forthrightly and openly. Translators must explain their methods and reasoning, acknowledging that they are pale imitators. The author's words are godly words, set in stone, the translator is a feeble mortal, flailing in contrived imitation -- and the reader must be reminded of this, always. Too often the translator's faults are ascribed to the author. Translation is the most imperfect of arts, but competently done it serves its purpose. However, the reader must always be told what has been done to the text -- especially a text as frail as a poem can be --, to better evaluate all that he is missing and all that has been lost in this perverse transformation.
       Uniformity of voice has a lot going for it too -- there is little doubt that Zbigniew Herbert is more popular in English than Holub, but then the Zbig-man has the good fortune of having J. and B. Carpenter translate almost all his works, whereas there are four cooks alone involved in the stew that is The Rampage, two more for the early collection Although, and yet another new voice for this collection.

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Supposed to Fly: Miroslav Holub: Other books by Miroslav Holub under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Poetry under review

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About the Author:

       Czech poet and scientist Miroslav Holub (1923-1998) was one of the major Eastern European poets of the post-war period. He earned both an M.D. and a Ph.D. and was a noted immunologist with more than 150 academic papers to his name. Much of his poetry has been translated into English.

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A major purpose of the Kvten poets was to reject the synthetic optimism of the Socialist Positive Hero and of Stalinist Personality Cults. They turned to deglamorization of previously glorified heroes and historical events.

For Holub, who had lived through the Nazi invasion and the subsequent occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Russians, that deglamorization extended to war as a human experience, at first, war in his own time, as in “Casualty” and “Five Minutes After the Air Raid,” and later to war in general, as in “A History Lesson,” where a small boy after the teacher’s lecture on “two victorious wars” asks, “And did it hurt in those days too?” This deglamorization can also be seen in “Soldier,” where “the black shadow of oncoming eternity ooz[es] underneath.” Finally, Holub turned to particular wars in the past, as in “Fall of Troy” and “The Fly.” Sometimes he reduced historic generals to sorry figures: Charlemagne, Napoleon, Achilles.

The Battle of Crécy was an opportune subject for such deglamorization. It was instrumental in destroying the medieval system of warfare, and it helped bring about the decline of the Age of Chivalry. It was also one of the bloodiest of battles, destroying much of France’s nobility. The tragedy of war is conveyed through the use of vivid images: the groans of the dying, the mad panic of the foot soldiers, the disemboweled horse, the dead duke, the bodies...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

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