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Zeyer, Julius

(1841–1901), Czech poet, dramatist, and novelist. Julius Zeyer’s father was a wealthy lumber merchant descended from Alsatian aristocracy; his mother came from a Jewish family in Prague, although she raised her children as Catholics. Zeyer would become one of the most prolific Czech writers of his day—his collected works run to some 30 volumes, including his verse epics drawing on Czech legends (Vyšehrad; 1880)—but his embrace of Czech culture was not automatic. Like other writers from the Czech lands, he grew up speaking German; nevertheless, he published his first stories in Czech, in his early thirties. Still, he was a fierce, if ambivalent, patriot: he loved Czech culture and yearned for independence from Vienna, and yet excoriated Czechs for their provincialism and docile obedience to Habsburg rule. He felt like a literary outsider in Prague, which he called both “queen” and “whore,” and in 1887 moved to the small town of Vodňany, where he spent the next 12 years, except for his frequent trips abroad. Although Zeyer’s relations with established Czech literary life could be prickly, he was widely admired and honored, and in 1901 became the first person to be buried in Slavín, the tomb of great Czechs in the national Vyšehrad cemetery.

A true cosmopolitan, Zeyer mastered ancient and modern languages (although he never attended university) and was one of the most widely traveled writers of his time. He was a major figure of the generation associated with the journal Lumír, which sought to open Czech culture to artistic currents from the rest of the world. Although he occasionally drew on Jewish sources—notably in the play Šulamit (1888), combining biblical, Talmudic, and kabbalistic themes, and the story “El Cristo de la Luz” in Tři legendy o krucifixu (Three Legends of the Crucifix; 1892)—these were not really central to his work; uncomfortable with organized religion, Zeyer was fascinated by various spiritual (especially mystical) traditions, and this fascination was more aesthetic than theological. Some of his greatest works were set in the present, such as Dům u tonoucí hvězdy (The House at the Sign of the Drowning Star; 1896), Troje pamětí Víta Choraze (The Three Memoirs of Vít Choraz; 1899), or the novel Jan Maria Plojhar (1888), which provided Czech literary decadence with one of its archetypes, a young, tubercular Czech self-exiled in Italy. Much of Zeyer’s prolific output, however, was devoted to his favorite genre, the obnovený obraz or “restored picture.” In these works, carefully restored retellings of Eastern and Western myths, Zeyer showed his distrust of the nineteenth century’s rationalist materialism, often contrasting it with medieval chivalry and ancient mysticism.

Suggested Reading

Martin Putna, Česká katolická literatura v evropském kontextu: 1848–1918 (Prague, 1998); Robert Pynsent, Julius Zeyer: The Path to Decadence (The Hague and Paris, 1973); Julius Zeyer, Epické zpěvy, ed. Alexandr Stich and Jaroslava Janáčková (Prague, 1988).