This week Czech Books met with the writer, feminist and environmental campaigner Eva Hauserová to talk about her novel Cvokyně - or Madwoman - before she left Prague to present it in libraries throughout the country as part of national Book Week. Madwoman tells the story of a time-travelling scientist and uses the science fiction genre to make darkly comic and sardonic comments on Czech society of the 1980s. A newly revised edition of the book was published last month and I first asked Eva to outline its plot.
“This is a story about a woman scientist, she’s about thirty years old and it happens in the 80s, in the totalitarian times. She works as a scientist, as a molecular biologist, and one time she got a new device, a new and complicated microscope and when she works with it she quite by chance shifts herself back in time and suddenly it’s eight years earlier or so, she is just married, she is in the early stage of pregnancy. And she tries to change her life. I think that every woman sometimes has thoughts like, ‘what if I hadn’t married my husband?’ and ‘what if I hadn’t two children but just one child?’ and so on. And she tries to change her life and gradually she gets to the same stage, she is not very successful in changing anything, she isn’t happy, and she is again around thirty – so she gets the same device again in her laboratory again and this time she returns much earlier and now she is a student, so she can decide not to marry the same man and so on. But again she is not really happy, and she starts to experiment with white laboratory mice as she wants to discover how it all works – but I shan’t tell the very end of the story.”
It’s a very big and broad question, a very current theme of looking back over the last twenty years – could you say something about how you think the situation has changed for young women today, because your book is very much focused on the opportunities, or lack of opportunities facing a young woman in the 80s?
“Some people are not very optimistic and say the situation is the same all the time, but I feel that there is really some development because at the beginning of the 90s you couldn’t even pronounce the word feminism, people were instantly very angry. And today everybody discusses feminist issues relatively normally and also from the European Union some feminist agenda comes to our country. So it’s not so bad I hope, but I believe that young women still have such problems as I describe in my book, like it’s not always easy to combine a career with having children, of course.
I’ll just read a short extract from the book describing Nora, the central character, encountering her ex-boyfriend.
Suddenly I recollected Robert’s terrific skin, soft as whipped cream,
and how awfully attractive and pleasant his huge body was. I always used to
nestle against him wanting to cry without knowing why. Now I thought I
would die if I couldn’t immediately touch him, or at least stroke his
hand, but I had to contain myself again.
„I really like talking by phone. If I were boring, you could simply hang up.”
The bus started its motor. I love its soothing, growling purr. It drew up at the stop and we both got in, the only two passengers.
... Then he managed to get my phone number. Exactly as he did in my first life.
I burst joyfully into the empty apartment - my husband was off in our
country house with his mother. I was thrilled that I didn’t have to
immediately cook an evening meal, that I didn’t have to do anything at
all.I took a lukewarm shower, which was lovely as the weather was very hot,
and gazed with satisfaction at my huge belly, on the middle of which the
dark line was already starting to rise. My pregnancy had started to take me
to a level of euphoric serenity, like a drug. I put a whole half pound of
chocolate on a plate, and switched on the TV.
On one of the two channels there was a report from a pub, where several bricklayers sat contentedly with their beers. The reporter asked one of them: “So you are their boss? Do you think it proper to drink beer with your men in your working hours?”
I felt it was slightly embarassing that the reporter was such a simple-minded pontificating moralist. And of course he got a fitting answer.
“What nonsense are you talking?” declared the boss vigorously in Slovak. “If we are expected to work, we have to drink first!”
“So, Nora meets Robert in this excerpt, but he’s not her ex-boyfriend but her lover, which was perfectly normal in socialist times. Everyone had spouses and lovers and nobody thought it’s something wrong, and I think this changed a lot. Today people also have lovers but they don’t consider it quite a nice thing. When I wrote it I didn’t think it was something negative, it was normal, of course she had a lover, it was normal – normal.”
So maybe one thing since 1989 has been a shift in morality?
“Definitely, I feel that my own children are much more moralist than my generation was.”
Nora, the main character of Madwoman, is an unusual female mad scientist who invents this time machine, what about the other characters in the novel?
“Some are really autobiographical, I think I can tell you that her husband is very similar to my own ex-husband. My children love this book; they say it’s the best book I ever wrote, perhaps because they see how realistic it is. And I think the most despicable figure is her mother-in-law, which is also very naturalistic. It’s fairly typical for women in this period who were very, very manipulating, very dominant in their families. So these grandmothers of course cared for their children and grandchildren, but they cared too much.”
I’ll just read another extract from the book where you touch on this artificial, or really perverted role thrust on these middle-aged women, as you describe.
On the other channel there was some kind of soap opera or a TV play about
family life, which tried to lay bare the evils of our present society
(everything is the fault of the people, comrades!)
After a couple of scenes I switched off the sound, crunched the chocolate with relish and told myself: the frowning, shrieking woman is the mother of these innocent youngsters, it’s self-evident. She’s pretentious and consumerist. The down-trodden man is her husband, slaving away, almost killing himself moonlighting, because she forces him to earn more and more money. This silent girl who does nothing but gaze romantically is innocent youth itself. At the end of the story she’ll no doubt be a single mother. Good god, middle-aged mothers always get their just deserts. They order everybody about, are horribly greedy for money, villas, cars and foreign holidays, and if the other members of the family won’t obey them, these furies would nearly kill them! These wives are really awful! Everything’s clearly their fault.
“In socialism, officially on TV, in propaganda and so on you could find these images of consumerism, and it was criticised very much, and very often it was personalised in these middle-aged women, who were very manipulative and dominant in their families and they wanted to have a lot of money, a lot of western goods and holidays in exotic countries and all these things – and it was wrong of course as they had to have some socialist ideas instead of this.”
So this book has a strong autobiographical element, as have some of your other works. Have you ever found yourself getting into trouble because of this, or some people getting rather upset or angry because of the way they’re depicted?
“Not really because fortunately my ex-husband and ex-mother-in-law didn’t read books at all. Sometimes it happened to me that some people felt offended but they interpreted in a wrong way what I wanted to say and they identified themselves with a figure, which I didn’t think of at all while writing. I don’t care what people think now.”
You have been involved, and are involved, not only in writing, as a novelist, as a journalist, but you also translate, campaign on environmental issues and make tv programmes on them. One of your more recent projects has been to start teaching writing. For the past year and a half you’ve been running creative writing workshops.
“I had this idea for the workshops when I was working for Marianne, the women’s magazine, and we had a competition of readers’ stories and there was a tremendous number of interested women and I couldn’t answer all their queries and everybody wanted some sort of opinion or critique. So I thought of organising these workshops, so that people can come and discuss their writing, and they pay something for it of course!”
You actually published a book of their work this year.
“Yes, we published a collection of stories of our pupils. I did it with Věra Nosková, who is a well-known writer and also a publisher, and she also teaches on my courses. So this is such a tiny, I think quite beautiful book. It’s a wonderful present these authors can give; they can present themselves as writers.”
And these were mainly women in your group, and were they writing stories from their own lives?
“My workshops are not only aimed at women, it’s also possible for men to come. But most men probably look at my web page and see there’s mostly women so they don’t come and I only have a few men in my groups. So in this collection of stories there are just women authors and mainly they write a kind of diaries, they write about their experience, their memoirs. There was also one woman who was over seventy so her memoirs were very interesting. But there is also fiction, stories not based on their lives, which I think needs some higher level of creativity, so I try to stimulate them to do this also.”
You’ve just mentioned your website and I’ll give the link on the Czech Books page as there is something in English and people can also see your wonderful paintings.
“My main web page is www.hauserova.cz and from this page you can go to tvůrčí psaní - creative writing - and also to přírodní zahrádky, which are my permaculture garden designs.”
If anybody goes to your website, as well as some links, unfortunately only in Czech to your creative writing and your ecogarden plans, there are also some wonderful examples of your cat paintings and I’d like to ask you about your interest in cats and your interest in painting them.
“Sometimes for relaxation I like to paint naive pictures and mainly cats, because it’s so easy to paint cats and I also love cats. But sometimes there are strange women figures, like from some fairy stories, so perhaps there’s some sort of feminism in this painting too.”
Thank you very much, Eva, for talking about your new book and some of your other ventures. And anybody who wants to find out more about your work can find information on your web page.
“Thank you too.”
Eva Hauserová’s web page: www.hauserova.cz
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