Rude Neruda’s 180th Birthday in July 2014

One of the most visited streets in Prague is Nerudova, linking Malostranské náměstí and Prague Castle. This street is named after one of the most important Czech writers of the 19th century.

Photo of Jan Neruda

Jan Neruda, photo: PD Old

Human life can have a special sense of cruel humor, especially with talented people. In other words, many artists were unable to experience the joy of seeing their works admired by others. For example, Van Gogh is one of the most demanded painters, but he sold just a few of his works during his life. Franz Kafka was probably aware of this and didn’t even try to publish his novels, thereby becoming famous several decades after his death. And one of the most important Czech writers, Jan Neruda, also suffered this fate.

Neruda was born on 9 July, 1834 in Prague where his whole life was connected with Malá Strana (Lesser Town). After changing several jobs, he became a journalist with German newspaper, Tagesbote aus Böhmen. And after several years he started writing for Národní Listy and several other papers and magazines. Neruda is said to be the first Czech columnist and was quite popular and as a pressman, was highly regarded.

The rise of Neruda’s fame

However, this sort of popularity was not the one Neruda longed for. He wanted appreciation for his poetry and prose. But those works seemed to be too somber for readers at that time. They weren’t fully appreciated until after his death. The most interesting of them is probably “Povídky malostranské” (Tales of the Lesser Quarter), published in 1877. It was translated into English by Ellis Peters in 1957. It’s a collection of tales set in the Lesser Quarter, providing a view of daily life in Prague during second half of the 19th century.

Neruda Street, photo: archives of prague.tips

Neruda Street, photo: Martin Hrbek

Among Neruda’s poetry, “Romance o Karlu IV” (Fable of Charles IV), holds a special place because it talks about Czech vineyards, which were introduced by Czech king and Roman emperor, Charles IV.

Neruda’s personal life was a series of failures, especially matters related to love. He never married his first love, Anna Holinová because he never had enough money to secure the future family. The second woman he loved was well known writer Karolína Světlá. But her husband learned about the relationship and put a quick end to it. In 1862 Neruda developed a crush on 15-year old Terezie Marie Macháčková, a daughter of a factory owner and he dared to send her a love letter as late as three years later. Unfortunately she suffered from tuberculosis and died that year. A couple of years later Neruda fell in love one more time, again with a much younger woman – but after some time Neruda decided to end up the relationship.

No wonder he was unhappy most of the time and had quite a negative attitude towards other people. Aside from his disastrous love affairs, he also harbored feelings of being undervalued in the field of literature, and he had financial problems. To get himself in better spirits, Neruda was a frequent visitor to Prague inns, pubs and even brothels. Today it is believed his strong Antisemitism also created problems. The Jewish characters in his works were depicted mostly as mean moneylenders or ruthless merchants.

Fame beyond borders

House At Two Suns, photo: archive of prague.tips

House At Two Suns, photo: Martin Hrbek

Despite his controversies, Neruda is also a respected author outside Czech borders. The Chilean poet Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, known as Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize winner, took his pseudonym after Jan Neruda. Astronaut Andrew J. Feustel loved Neruda’s poems so much that  he took a copy of Neruda’s poetry collection, “Cosmic Songs” with him on his space mission STS-125.

The people of Prague found Neruda important enough to name the street where he was born after him. Also, the house where he grew up, U Dvou Slunců (At Two Suns), is now a well known restaurant, which, considering the writer’s alcoholism, might itself be an homage to Jan Neruda as well.

Author: Martin Hrbek

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