I did not exactly come well informed. To Prague, I mean, and about it. Until recently, if truth must out, I had never heard of the founding father of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk. Still, when I spotted it yesterday on the cover of the Prager Zeitung, a German weekly published in the Czech capital I am currently visiting, the name looked awfully familiar. I had just come across it in a novel. A satire on 1930s Hollywood, of all places. Yes, Masaryk’s name is being tossed about in Budd Schulberg’s aforementioned What Makes Sammy Run? (1941), whose narrator, East Coast journalist Al Manheim, goes West after having been recruited for the movies:
I got a good job, the best I ever had [. . .]. After Masaryk died, it struck me that the story of his life ought to be a natural for pictures. His ties with American democracy gave it special significance for us, and with Mussolini shooting off his big guns in Ethiopia and Hitler his big mouth in Germany, an anti-fascist picture seemed like a good idea.
Now, despite his enthusiasm, shared by an understanding and intelligent producer, the picture never materializes. He had been warned by an ambitious, opportunist colleague, the eponymous Sammy, that “anti-fascist stuff ha[d]n’t got a prayer. It’s lousy for the English market. A producer who just got back told me that at lunch the other day. England doesn’t want to get Hitler and Mussolini sore.
Today, 14 September 2007, marks the 70th anniversary of his death in 1937. And once again, the former president of former Czechoslovakia is being fondly recalled, his name dropped left and right after years during which it was being dropped altogether from public discourse.
Would there be a market for a Masaryk picture today? As if to insist on it, the old statesman popped up unexpectedly yesterday at a museum devoted to natural history, where I got to take his picture. His politician son, Jan Masaryk, got a bit closer to moving images when he became a voice-over artist of sorts, narrating a film inspired by the Schweik stories of Prague-born humorist Jaroslav Hašek. Jan Masaryk, too, celebrates an anniversary today: he was born on 14 September in 1886.
Somehow, these encounters and reencounters convinced me that it is pretty much impossible to read anything entirely irrelevant. No matter how much we insist on the boundaries of time and space, no matter how strong the walls behind which we seek to escape the present or shelves the past, there are bound to be reverberations to be sensed by all but the most insensitive ear, echoes waiting to be traced to their origins, to be recalled to life in our minds . . .