Vaculík & Procházková: Czech sexual poetics or polemics?

When we understand how susceptible women writers have always been
to the aesthetic standards and values of the male tradition,
and to male approval and validation, we can appreciate
the complexity of a marriage between artists.

(Elaine Showalter: Toward a Feminist Poetics)

Although a broad inquiry into the history of world literature would no doubt uncover more than a few men and women writers whose creative and private lives have intersected, there are not many whose literary biographies are as intertwined as those of two contemporary Czechs – Ludvík Vaculík (born in 1926) and Lenka Procházková (born in 1951). While chronologically they belong to distinct generations, the accident of their acquaintance brought them together, professionally and personally, for more than a decade (from 1979 into the early 1990s). The overlapping period in their literary and life trajectories culminated in two novels, one by each of them: Procházková’s Smolná kniha (Black Book)_1 first appeared in samizdat in 1989, not long before the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. By the end of that year it came out in a regular edition published by Atlantis in Brno. In 1993, already in the post-communist era, the same publisher brought out Vaculík’s book, Jak se dělá chlapec (How to Make a Boy). The significant interand extratextual connections of these two works will be the primary focus of this study.

Born almost twenty-five years before Procházková, Vaculík is easily old enough to have been her father. The two of them became acquainted at least indirectly through her father, Jan Procházka, a prominent writer of fiction and film scenarios three years younger than Vaculík. Both Vaculík and Procházka were among those Czech intellectuals who had been committed communists in the early 1950s, but then had grown disillusioned with the Soviet-style political system in Czechoslovakia. Both were cultural activists during the Prague Spring of 1968, and were officially denounced after the demise of the reform movement following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the return to a pro-Soviet authoritarian regime, referred to as “normalization”. Apparently under the severe stress of that political and social trauma, Jan Procházka’s health soon failed, and he died in January 1971, barely 42 years old. Vaculík was one of the pallbearers at his funeral, which took on the aspect of an antigovernment political demonstration (Měšťan 1987, p. 378). At the time of her father’s death, Lenka Procházková was not yet twenty.

By the early 1970s Vaculík was both a well-established writer at home and an internationally known cultural figure abroad. In addition to an active career in journalism, he had three novels to his credit. Lenka Procházková, in contrast, had graduated from high school in 1969, and was a student of journalism at Charles University in Prague when her father died. Given the historical circumstances, it was impossible for her life to develop untouched by her father’s political stance. After four years of study at the Faculty of Journalism, she was excluded, but by some quirk of the system was allowed to transfer to the Department of Cultural Theory of the Philosophical Faculty, where she wrote a senior thesis on film for young people, graduating in 1975. A few years later, in 1979, after she had signed Charter 77 and had begun working as a cleaning woman (a job she continued to do until the 1989 revolution), she turned to Vaculík for some advice on her writing. Both members of the dissident circle connected with Charter 77, their acquaintance soon developed into an intimate relationship.

When Procházková and Vaculík became personally involved, he had a family of longstanding: a wife, Marie (known as Madla) and 3 grown sons, contemporaries of Lenka. Procházková at the time was a single mother of one child, Marie (born in 1975). Not long after the onset of their friendship, Procházková’s work began to appear in Vaculík’s samizdat series Edice Petlice (Padlock Editions), a prominent underground publishing venture in post-68 Czechoslovakia. The first of her books to come out were Three Stories and the novel Růžová dáma (Pink Lady), both in 1980. The latter soon won the prestigious émigré award, the Egon Hostovský Prize (1983). In 1981 she published a collection of stories, Přijeď ochutnat (Come Have a Taste). In August of that same year she gave birth to Cecilie, her second daughter and first child with Vaculík (his first daughter). Meanwhile Vaculík, who apparently had been experiencing a kind of writer’s block (he hadn’t produced any fiction since the completion of his third novel, The Guinea Pigs, in 1970), finished writing Český snář (Czech Dreambook). Procházková went on to write another novel, Oční kapky (Eye Drops, 1982) and a collection of stories, Hlídač holubů (Pigeon Guard, 1984), before she embarked on Black Book.

In a perceptive essay comparing Vaculík’s novel How to Make a Boy with Milan Kundera’s then latest novel, Immortality, the Czech novelist and critic, Jiří Kratochvil, offers an interesting point of departure for a discussion of the intertextual aspects of Vaculík and Procházková’s literary relationship. Kratochvil asserts that Kundera from the onset of his career as a writer was always preoccupied with one thing: “The writing of fiction as his lifelong task.” For Vaculík, in contrast, his life as such has been “his most natural task, and literature is here for him only as an instrument (it helps him orient himself towards his own fate and finish creating his Story)”. If Kundera uses his own experiences as “material for the building of his work”, work that ultimately stands aesthetically apart from his life; then for Vaculík literature is not an end in and of itself, but “necessitates some socially useful tasks”, which in the past for him were focused on larger issues of Czech society, and more recently on his own immediate concerns (Kratochvil). I would agree with Kratochvil that for Vaculík life does seem to be of greater consequence than art as such. On this same scale of life and art, I would locate Procházková somewhere closer to Vaculík. As she wrote in Black Book, “having and raising a child is more important than writing three good books”(p. 77). For both Procházková and Vaculík, on some level writing fiction is a way of dealing with life, at times even a kind of self-therapy. More so than with Kundera, for example, their creative identities go beyond that of writers of fiction. Even today articles by Vaculík and Procházková appear in national daily papers, and both continue to be involved in civic causes.

The work that sets the context for the interrelationship between the art of Vaculík and Procházková is Czech Dreambook, which he was finishing at the time the two of them became better acquainted. That work began circulating in samizdat in the early 1980s, and appeared in an exile edition in 1983; it was finally published by Atlantis in Brno in 1992. Important here is the impetus that led Vaculík to begin writing what became Dreambook. His immediate motivation came from the artist and poet Jiří Kolář, to whom he then dedicated it. When Vaculík once complained to his friend Kolář about not being able to write fiction due to the oppressive circumstances of normalization, the artist replied: “If you can’t write, then write about why you can’t write! Write about what you see, hear, about what comes to mind” (Český snář, p. 420). And so he did. Writing in the form of diary entries that spanned approximately one year (they are dated 22 January 1979–2 February 1980) he depicted himself as the author of that diary, along with many other real people. Vaculík considers Dreambook a novel, albeit a very untraditional one. Czech Dreambook does not comprise the raw, unadulterated material of an authentic journal; its contents instead are consciously manipulated, stylistically adjusted, to create an artistically balanced work. In the words of the critic Anna Jonáková, Dream Book is a blend of “the fictional with the authentic, dream with reality” (Jonáková 1994, p. 245). It deals with several spheres of existence, most notably those of the life of the larger dissident community, the author’s family, his friends and acquaintances (male and female); some issues are work-related, others are personal, even intimate. Again in the words of Jonáková, “The story of the novel is synchronized with the life story, reality becomes literature before our eyes”(p. 245).

Not only did Procházková and Vaculík begin their relationship when he was working on Dreambook, but Vaculík conspicuously introduced into his book the fact of their growing acquaintance. The complex and intriguing interconnections of their lives and work definitely begin at this point, offering an opportunity for an unusual study of intertextuality. Not quite half-way through his novel, in an entry for 1 June 1979, Vaculík adds Procházková to the myriad of figures in his narrative: “[Jan Procházka’s] daughter Lenka, I don’t know how old she is, came to ask me if I would read her [novel] Pink Lady” (p. 205). A few lines later the narrator directly sets up the reader’s expectations towards the subsequent text. As he conveys Lenka’s commentary about her experience with publishers and filmmakers, he interjects parenthetically a bit of telling verbal play: “‘Když napíšu román’, řekla mi Lenka (mi-lenka)...” [When I write a novel, said to me Lenka (mistress)...] [italics mine] (mi-lenka is a play on the Czech expression for mistress.) And in the next day’s entry:

I’ve finished reading Lenka Procházková’s Pink Lady. – Hm. I bet the author longs for her life to begin moving toward a happy solution, like [her heroine ] Kytka’s life. Perhaps even to find an older man, who wouldn’t need anything explained, and there’d be peace. I wonder how old she is? (p. 208)

Over the next 150 pages there are only a few entries mentioning Procházková, all linked with the narrator’s comments on the manuscript of her novel. In them he shifts from referring to her as “Pink Lady” to “Black Procházková” (alluding to the color of her hair and her tendency to dress in somber shades). In each brief entry there is always some telling revelation of the narrator’s attraction to the young female writer as a woman, presented in an uneasy balance with his sensible realization that he should be careful. By mid-December, he attempts what he considers a reasonable solution by revealing to her what text he is writing, after telling her he feels “rather unsure of himself with such a young woman”:

I’m describing everything that happens to me or that I dream, my meetings with people and impressions of them. You’re there already too. With everything that I think about you and your writing. But there’s no need to be frightened; in some way it’s kind of a joke. I wouldn’t have told you this, but now I must, so that you can throw me out instead. This [the process of writing ] will go on another month, but during that time you probably won’t write a new book, [he ] laughed. That time she [...] had an amazed look. (p. 403)

The last entry mentioning “Black Procházková” appears five days later. It describes Procházková coming to the narrator’s house and handing him an envelope containing a short questionnaire. (We must keep in mind the external circumstances of Czech dissident life at the time, including the ever-present fear of surveillance by the security police.) The questions and answers read “something like this”:

I’m willing to accept an invitation on...several dates; I’m unwilling because: I don’t feel like it, I have other obligations, I don’t want to appear with “such a young woman”, I consider her invitation to be presumptuous; if affirmative, I prefer the Lobkovic wine restaurant, the Mecenáš...

I thought only for a moment, but carefully, and then marked the correct answers: I don’t want to appear with such a young woman; I have other obligations; she is presumptuous; 29 December at 6:30; Lobkovic wine restaurant. I gave it to her and she said: “But you’re contradicting yourself!” I shrugged my shoulders; I couldn’t help it. She left.

Of course I know what would have been better for me. But I’m a little man here. My Book demands something else! (p. 406)

Through such a statement Vaculík is openly admitting that for him “life writes literature” – and literature writes life. For him His Book is central. What effect the intermingling of life and literature in someone else’s text would have on him, of course, still lay in the unknown future.

After Procházková and Vaculík became romantic partners, she wrote two decidedly autobiographical novels. Unlike Vaculík’s, however, her narrative style is traditional. As Vaculík himself communicated to Procházková through the narrator in Dreambook: “Your obvious virtue is storytelling [příběh]” (p. 333). Besides her ability to tell a good story, Procházková also has a keen eye for almost cinematic description, as well as a sense for compelling dialogue. In her second novel, Eye Drops, the first she wrote while living with Vaculík, the plot is based on the author’s life several years before her relationship with Vaculík. The story opens dramatically with the unmarried protagonist, Pavla, giving birth to a baby. The father, Jakub, is someone whom Pavla had known only briefly before she became pregnant and who within a few years emigrates abruptly to Germany, abandoning Pavla and their child. In the last third of the novel, Pavla, whose voice directly takes over the narration, is set on revenge against Jakub. While agreeing with the critics that such melodrama is a weakness in the text, I maintain that Procházková’s story-telling power revives near the novel’s end, when Pavla regains her emotional equilibrium. More maturely conceived is her next novel, Black Book, whose story line is openly based on Procházková’s life together with Vaculík. In it the main female protagonist, again named Pavla, already has two children, the second fathered by the older married man with whom she has been involved in a long-term intimate relationship.

Some critics (Jan Lukeš and Vladimír Novotný, for example) have found Black Book “a woman’s counterpart” to Vaculík’s Dreambook. The author herself, however, rejects this hypothesis, insisting her novel is:

Not a reaction to [Vaculík’s ] book, but a reaction to life. [...] I never react to literature I react to life and events. [...] I think that Black Book would have appeared in any case, because it grew from terrible surroundings. It was my defense against the situation into which I had got myself... and it’s not a diary; it has structure, and yet it comes from emotions, out of a need for self-defense. (Interview, 10. 6. 1997)

Despite Procházková’s disclaimer, Czech Dreambook must have served at least as a subconscious model for the two novels she wrote while living with Vaculík, especially for the second. As someone who “reacts to life and events” in his writing, Vaculík had set a precedent for writing openly about friends and acquaintances, as well as about the politics of dissidence. His book employed the concept of metafiction and a self-conscious narrator. The narrator was Vaculík himself, writing a series of journal entries on the course of a year in his own life. Similarly, Black Book is an artistic response to a relatively brief span (less than two years) in the author’s life with Vaculík, an emotionally intense period in their relationship. The first-person narrator, Pavla, also a writer, deals with the complexities of her relationship with Josef, an older married man and well-known writer, after their daughter Lucka is born. The issues of an abortion (urged by Josef after Pavla again becomes pregnant), the role of the “other woman” (juxtaposed to a long-suffering older wife), an act of infidelity out of frustration with the limitations of the relationship, and the day-to-day labors of the narrator as writer, are all set against the background of the Czech dissident intellectual community and the ominous security police. Although Procházková’s Black Book is a traditional realistic novel, its blending of personal and social themes does indirectly echo elements of Vaculík’s Dreambook. However, when at the very end of Black Book the reader learns that without Pavla’s permission Josef reads the manuscript of her almost finished novel, including its account of her infidelity, and then precipitously abandons Pavla, there is an explicit reversal of the plotline of Vaculík’s text. Procházková’s protagonists move apart rather than coming together as they did in Czech Dreambook.

With Black Book, Procházková has written a novel that is intimately connected with her own life, that of her lover and children, and their immediate circle of acquaintances. It has been characterized as a roman, because of its thinly veiled allusions to real historical figures. Yet, in my opinion, Black Book is universal in appeal and aesthetic value when viewed as the confession of a woman writer trying to come to terms with her life through art. Although the emotionally intriguing plot of the novel stands out, it is Procházková’s narration of the ordinary moments, the day to day routine, that strikes one as particularly memorable. And it is primarily in the ordinary, “the domestic or private sphere” (Donovan 1987, p. 101) that we can identify the feminine quality of her writing. I suspect this is exactly what one critic had in mind when he referred to “the overall banality of the action” (Balajka 1993, p. 10). To put it explicitly, the central focus of the novel is Pavla’s juggling of her family responsibilities, her job as a cleaning woman, and her pursuit of writing, with a subtext of political surveillance; it also includes the narrator’s predominantly positive portrayal of her partner Josef in routine situations – as an attentive partner and supportive colleague, a loving father who devotes time to the two daughters – an aspect of the novel that Vaculík seems to have overlooked in his own self-centered reading of the text.

Overall, Procházková’s Black Book is primarily the author’s literary response to life, with its focus on the private, so typical of women’s writing:

[T]he paradigmatic plots based in the qualities of strength, autonomy, and aspiration seem reserved for male protagonists; the paradigmatic plots based in specifically female experience seem to confine women in domesticity and apparent passivity. (Frye 1986, p. 1)

Yet, through its blending of personal and social themes (the public sphere), Black Book does manifest to some degree an intertexual dialogue with Vaculík’s Dreambook. In contrast, Vaculík’s book How to Make a Boy may be seen as a double, strongly intertextual response. First, and foremost, Vaculík’s text is a vehemently open reaction to Procházková’s novel; Vaculík the man is incensed by it. Second, as was his earlier Czech Dreambook, How to Make a Boy is Vaculík’s direct response to life, but this time primarily to the personal realm. Also similar to Dreambook is the diary-like structure of the text. The work is divided into two parts: the first has relatively long monthly entries, equivalent to chapters, dated September 1986 to May 1987; the second part contains shorter, individually dated entries, several in each of the four chapters, running from August 1988 through March 1993, the year the book was published. Altogether How to Make a Boy covers almost five years. Its plot begins just before that of Black Book ended, viewing the situation from the opposite perspective.

Vaculík’s male narrator – even more demonstrably his alter-ego than Pavla is Procházková’s – is emotionally distraught about having recently discovered his partner’s infidelity. In Vaculík’s novel the character representing Lenka Procházková is called Xenka, from Xenie (a seemingly irreverent choice, due to its irritatingly grating sound). The narrator’s wife is Marie, as in real life. (In Black Book Josef’s wife was Marta.) Rather unusual in How to Make a Boy is the interweaving of the nameless narrator and his partner Xenka with the characters Josef and Pavla from Procházková’s book – a deliberate and provocative use of intertextuality. Xenka the partner and Pavla the heroine of the novel Xenka is writing are kept separate until the end of Part I. But Josef, first introduced in the third person as the character in Xenka’s book, soon enters the text as an alternate protagonist to the first-person narrator, making explicit Vaculík’s insistence on reading – and writing – literature as life:

Her manuscript, already finished, rewritten with copies, kept lying on the desk. [...] Let somebody else judge it, and if it’s good, I’ll just have to bear it. “Is there an infidelity in it?” I asked myself. She doesn’t want to reveal anything ahead of time. And it still didn’t dawn on me that she could really be unfaithful! I already felt humiliated that she would invent it just for the reader, since that sad hero Josef was supposed to be me.

But when Josef visited her desk – [for ] the address book, stapler, glue, scissors – and brushed against the manuscript, sometimes he lifted the corner of a sheet, to see how many pages there were. Then once in May individual pages with short lines were lying on the desk – a poem. “I’ll write you a poem,” she had said recently. Was this then about him? He had expected it to be different. This was an accusation: the complaint of a woman who had finally decided to act. I am selecting just [a piece], but I’m paraphrasing, not to infringe on her copy: right! (pp. 8– 9)

This interplay of the narrator and Josef continues to the end of the book. Much later in the text Vaculík introduces a similar doubling of Xenka and Pavla. The shift occurs when the narrator tells us that his partner is finally pregnant (after she has decided another child would help the relationship, compensating for the earlier abortion she had at her partner’s insistence): “It’s the end of May. In April Josef didn’t write and doesn’t want to write anymore. It doesn’t make sense for the present, it’s resolved: Pavla’s in her third month” (p. 144). The difference here is that once the narrator shifts from Xenka to Pavla, as his real-life partner, the name of Procházková’s heroine stands in for Xenka throughout Part II. Vaculík seems to be conveying his total identification of Xenka (or Lenka) with her fictional protagonist; that is, strictly reading literature as life. And through this identification comes a quite derogatory implication.

Whereas Procházková in Black Book largely follows the genre expectations of a realistic novel, as does the overall tone through the unified voice of its first-person narrator, Vaculík does something rather different in How to Make a Boy, where there is a distinct difference in both the narrative tone and thematic emphasis (authorial intent) between Parts I and II. The difference is already present in the playful double-entendre of the title: the origin of the child in the sexual act versus the bringing up of the child; both meanings are pursued by the narrator in a rather obsessive way. To a great extent, Part I embodies an emotional diatribe of the hurt, self-centered male ego. The narrator is preoccupied with the physicality of sex to such a degree that some of the more prudish Czech critics claim the narrative verges on pornography (Janoušek 1994, p. 4). Part I also represents a strong rejection of Procházková’s novel, or at least her portrayal of Josef, whom Vaculík’s narrator (here plainly reflecting the author’s views) reads literally as himself. In Part II the narrator focuses on his relationship with his new (unnamed) son. Although his entries unfold against the background of the disintegrating relationship between “Josef” and “Pavla”, the narrator’s observations and thoughts focus on his son. Most compelling is his preoccupation with aging and death, as well as his guilt toward the way he has treated his long-suffering wife: “I love the boy because he is I and I am passing myself on to him. I love Marie because she was my first wife and she is good” (p. 228). (Note that there is no mention of the mother of his son.) The critic Zgustová sums it up well:

The poetry of Vaculík’s book is [...] full of quiet spaces between the lines, it has pauses and quiet between the sentences and paragraphs. These pauses contain the fundmental, the unspoken, the forfeited: the emptiness that remains after lost happiness, after lost love, for his own wife, for an undivided life, not broken up into fragments and shards. (Zgustová 1993, p. 6)

What Vaculík comes to recognize about his own life through the process of writing appears to be closely related to what earlier he was unable to understand about Procházková as his partner – her continued frustration of living in a “shared relationship”. An additional motif, introduced after Xenka/Pavla announces her plans to marry a younger man, is the narrator’s new involvement with another younger woman. This, too, reminds the reader of the appearance in Dreambook of Lenka Procházková, who entered Vaculík’s life after the woman he had earlier been involved with decided to emigrate to Austria.

I never thought about it. I only distinguish between good and bad writing. Eva Tolbová, for example, produces “women’s writing” non plus ultra. I simply implant a certain corrective filter, so the narcissistic tone of the thing doesn’t bother me. [...] I am more attentive and tolerant “as the case may be”. [...] Another typically woman author: Lenka Procházková. What she writes I read mostly as information about life, sometimes surprising and hurtful, for whose perception I as a man am missing some understanding. At first this mostly offended me, but I said there’s nothing to be done about it; here one has to hope the author will be persevering, consistent, and honest in her self-expression, not “fair” or “truthful”. I had the opportunity to become acquainted up close with the tenacity towards truth of one’s own making, which in a successful case is also moral, while on the contrary it can be the opposite. The category of “women’s writing” seems to me superfluous, artificial: there exists only uniquely human writing. (Sálek 1992, p. 33)

Of course, I would challenge both Vaculík and Procházková on this subject. I also take issue with critics who dismiss Procházková simply as a writer of works that fall into the Czech tradition of the “Red library” (Červená knihovna) – popular romance novels. I would argue, instead, that Procházková’s strongly gendered texts deserve serious attention. Furthermore, we may come to understand and appreciate them better if we keep in mind an essential concept of feminist poetics. In her famous essay “Dancing through the Minefield”, Annette Kolodny suggests “[...] male readers who find themselves outside of and unfamiliar with the symbolic systems that constitute female experience in women’s writings will necessarily dismiss those systems as undecipherable, meaningless, or trivial” (Kolodny 1985, p. 148). And many women have been trained to read with a male bias.

In writing Black Book, Procházková created a domestically-centered novel about the life of a woman in a difficult personal situation, further complicated by a public issue – the menacing politics of a police state. She wrote from the perspective of a woman not only juggling multiple roles (unmarried partner, mother, cleaning woman, writer), but one who was also in a state of emotional turmoil, due to her personal and political problems. When Vaculík read Procházková’s text, he was unable to react to it as an integral literary text, through which its author attempted to capture and convey a woman’s complex inner and external worlds. Instead, as he revealed in the interview cited above, Vaculík chose to respond simply to certain “information” contained therein; his reaction was extra-textual. Pavla (read: Lenka) had been unfaithful to him. If only Vaculík had been able to read Procházková’s text with greater understanding, that is, as a text written by a woman (not necessarily just his lover), he might have gained some insight into the personal dilemma she as a writer was attempting to articulate. In fact, he might have undertaken a quite different response – a man’s perspective in a mode of real dialogic sexual poetics, not hysterical diatribe. Unfortunately, he was apparently incapable of such a literary dialogue. In fact, How to Make a Boy may be seen as a monologic retaliation to life through literature, the (re)assertion of traditional patriarchal attitudes, a “pamphlet against Pavla” (Harák 1997, p. 24). Perhaps we should not judge Vaculík too harshly, for most Czech critics respond to Procházková’s texts similarly, focusing on the personal, the extra-textual aspect of her work. This is not surprising, since the concept of feminist poetics still appears to be essentially alien to Czech culture.


Smolná kniha [literally “pitchy book”], also known as Černá kniha [Black book], is a Czech term from the middle ages referring to records of interrogations held under torture.
I would like to thank Eva Kalivodová for her perceptive comments on an earlier version of this article. I am also grateful to The College of Wooster for its support of my short research trips to Prague (May 1997, 1998, 1999) with travel grants from the Faculty Development Fund.


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Procházková, Lenka: Interview by author, 7 May 1996, Praha.

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