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‘Am I an idiot? – Yes sir!’ – Josef Švejk

By Nicolas Soames

2 February 2009

Confession time: I don’t listen to everything that we release before publication. When we started, I not only listened to everything but I also produced everything – or virtually everything – for many years. But now, when our new titles often run for 20 hours or more, I simply can’t get through them. I sample them, of course. But for the complete experience, I am always playing catch-up.

And, at the moment, I am playing catch-up with Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, read by David Horovitch which came out early last year.


Classic comedy, I mused, may not seem as rich a seam as classic tragedy or classic romance. For every Pickwick Papers or Tristram Shandy we have two or three Tess of the d’Urbevilles or A Tale of Two Cities. Or Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. Is this because comedy is less durable than deeper, richer emotive states engendered by the great epics of love and loss? Does time take its toll more severely – except, perhaps, in drama? After all, Mrs Malaprop can be very funny, even today. And so can Shakespeare’s Mechanicals.

But on the whole, comic novels do not last so well. Within the classics – within so many Dickens! – there are delightful characters that genuinely make you smile or laugh out loud. Then there are the evergreen Bertie Woosters for when the sky is dark, or The Wind in the Willows or Three Men in a Boat or The Diary of a Nobody. And Mark Twain.

Go abroad, however, and there is the added difficult (for English speakers) of translation – another hurdle which often trips up travellers in the genre.

However, if you don’t know it, I urge you to try The Good Soldier Švejk in our world premiere audiobook recording… though those who do know it will need no persuading.

My stepfather was Czech, and even though he spent decades in England, his English was larded with a strong accent. One of our great Christmas treats was to sit by the family fireside (yes! we did!) while Harry Samek from Brno read some of his favourite passages in the glittering Parrott English translation. Švejk pawning the piano to buy schnapps for the chaplain. Švejk doing nefarious deals to acquire dogs (he is a buyer and a seller of dogs) to pass on to his lieutenant or others.

Who is Švejk? The scene is Prague at the outbreak of World War I. The Archduke has been assassinated. Men are being drafted to the front. But not Švejk. He is not quite a glass full; he is an innocent, bumbling (with his smiling, open, honest face) through one scrape after another. Or is he really so innocent?

He is accused of sedition – but did he really traduce the Emperor or the state?

He is accused of being a malingerer – but has he really got rheumatism?

And there I was, only yesterday, on the cross trainer followed by the running machine, followed by some weights, laughing, laughing out loud even. My gym mates started to give me a wide berth. I tell you, laughing on a running machine is a contradiction in terms. And, frankly, dangerous.

But David Horovitch does an absolutely sparkling job. He has Švejk off to a tee. And the myriad of other characters who pop up along the way.

I went to the morning of the recording, produced by Roy McMillan. It was such an important novel from my childhood, I wanted to hear what David would make of it. I was slightly nervous, to tell the truth, because I had my stepfather’s thick Czech accent in my ears, even after all these years.

I need not have worried. From the start it was clear that this great comic book was in perfect hands. Funny, satirical, sardonic, the recording is a genuine pleasure. This is what the audiobook experience is all about for me.

What more could I ask? A classic comedy in a perfect translation read with imagination and real, pure fun. AND, therefore, furthermore, I remain longer in the gym, getting slimmer and fitter. Can’t say the same would be true for Heart of Darkness

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