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Weiner, Richard

(1884–1937), Czech poet, prose writer, and journalist. Weiner’s parents ran a distillery and confectionary in southern Bohemia; Richard, the oldest of five children, studied chemistry and was expected to take over the family business. At the age of 27, however, he abandoned this promising career to devote himself to writing; in 1912 he moved to Paris, where he would launch his journalistic career, and soon published two volumes of poetry.

In the summer of 1914 Weiner was sent to the Serbian front, where he saw action but then suffered a nervous breakdown and was discharged in 1915. He returned to Paris and entered one of his most productive periods, publishing three volumes of short stories: Lítice (Furies; 1916), one of the first Czech books about World War I; Netečný divák (The Apathetic Watcher; 1917); and Škleb (Grimace; 1919). These stories, many of them masterpieces, display the hallmarks of Weiner’s style: highly poetic prose, founded on complicated syntax, unexpected diction, and intricate patterns of repeated sounds; an expressionist focus on extreme psychic states rather than external events; and a fascination with the unacknowledged, unconscious, and often cruel depths of human personalities (sometimes revealed to characters by their own doubles—one of Weiner’s lifelong themes).

After these works, however, Weiner devoted himself solely to journalism for many years. As the Paris correspondent for Lidové noviny, he wrote thousands of feuilletons on Czech and French culture and politics. His collection Třásničky dějinných dnů (Fringes of Historical Days; 1919) chronicles the first year of Czechoslovak independence as well as the Paris Peace Conference, focusing on marginal but eloquent details rather than the grand historical narrative. Weiner’s journalism also touched occasionally on questions of Jewish and national identity. In the 1918 essay “Kde moje místo?” (Where Is My Place?) he called himself “a Czech writer and a Jew,” but scorned the Czech Jewish movement as artificial and counterproductive; he suggested that national allegiance is a conscious, albeit complex, choice that should be made by individuals rather than groups. His poetry and fiction, however, dealt rarely with Jewish themes, and his own sense of Jewish identity seemed to weaken over time. In a 1928 letter he wrote that he refused to be baptised, but that “otherwise I am a Christian, if not a Catholic.”

Weiner’s second period of creative activity began in 1927, coinciding with his intense involvement with the grouping of French and Czech artists known as Le Grand Jeu. Weiner published another three poetry collections, including Mezopotamie (1930), and the phantasmagoric prose works Lazebník (The Barber; 1929) and Hra doopravdy (A Game for Real; 1933), in which characters turn into puppets and exchange faces in the midst of elliptic debates about guilt and identity. Weiner’s explorations of a dreamlike unconscious were reminiscent of the surrealists; unlike them, however, he strove for precise description and rational analysis of nonrational states. At other times, his fascination with limit situations, and the ways in which we are objectified by the expectations of others, can be seen as forerunners of existentialism—a strand of his thought that influenced, among other Czech writers, Jiří Orten.

Weiner again fell silent after 1933, frustrated by the lukewarm reception of his difficult writings, and increasingly tormented by the debilitating symptoms of stomach cancer, which was misdiagnosed by doctors until shortly before his death. He died in Prague in 1937.

Suggested Reading

Jindřich Chalupecký, Expresionisté (Prague, 1992); William Harkins, “War in the Stories of Richard Weiner,” Kosmas 1.1 (1982): 61–72; Marie Langerová, Weiner (Brno, 2000); Jarmila Mourková, “První pobyt Richarda Weinera v Pařiži 1912–1914,” Literární archiv 2 (1967): 5–67, includes some of his letters home from Paris; Richard Weiner, Spisy, ed. Zina Trochová, 4 vols. (Prague, 1996–2002), a fifth and final volume is projected.