Original title: Čistý, skromný život
Genre: short stories
Magnesia Litera in the Prose kategory 2022, Czech Literary Fund Award (the 3rd prize) 2023
Stories from the sensitive hand of a sculptor.
A man in slippers opens his front door to his wife’s lover and is confronted by all he has been trying to hide from himself. A sworn bachelor prides himself on his composure while fingering the bottle of self-destruction in his pocket. A forty-year-old accountant lives in her snug little home; some would call it a cage.
Viktor Špaček can write characters so alive that we know them from our own lives. These stories are more than pen portraits, however. They aim to express people’s attitudes in certain crucial situations. The characters are mostly captured from their thoughts, as they process problems and traumas with varying degrees of success. That they rarely see beyond their nose is no impediment to continuing belief in their own truth. The solutions they opt for tend to the logical; one might even say the normal. But madness is never far away – a normal state of affairs in itself.
‘For story ideas, I look only within myself,’ says the author. ‘I rely on the changeability of my personality.’
"In his existential stories, the author artfully yet poignantly reveals everything that generations of men have consistently swept under the carpet in order to maintain their position as the dominant half of humanity. In Špaček’s sometimes slyly self-mocking texts, immature strongman antics give way under the pressure of true or even imagined love, infidelity, fatherhood, loss, unsustaining work, low self-confidence, embarrassment and unfulfilled expectations. With the sensitivity and experience of a sculptor, Špaček feels out the painful swellings in the lives of his anti-heroes, and tirelessly massages them through to their epiphanies. With the sensitivity and experience of a poet, he portrays them with precise, distinctively metaphorical language, which is both a source of the tragicomic and the grotesque. Here, characters lost in themselves and in others “bounce around like two balls connected by a rubber band”, “sticking out into empty space with all the vital energy of a pile of dust swept into a corner”, and “pulling a Pandora's box of emptiness on a rubber band”, while wondering how love could fizzle out just like that... Instead of resignation, however, their touching helplessness will for the most part provoke catharsis and liberating laughter in the empathic reader."
Magnesia Litera panel statement
"An Impeccable Life in Humility" is a collection of short stories for the most part about men who are at a difficult stage in their lives. These are periods that most of them go through without commenting on them or discussing them with those around — love, infidelity, fatherhood, loss, embarrassment and unfulfilled expectations."
Jakub Pavlovský, Radio Wave
"Špaček is particularly strong in his detailed, even perfectionist depiction of his various characters’ thought processes. Even the limited space of the short story does not restrict the author in his creation of the various atmospheres and colours of his settings.
Thematically, this is the kind of Czech fiction that stands out for its endeavour to depict the male psyche — and not the strong, heroic kind either, but the weak, listless sort. Hence it reveals thoughts and feelings that men do not as a rule share with anyone, and even the depression that they do not admit to, though they are deeply disturbed by it."
Barbora Schneiderová, Iliteratura.cz
"For over a decade now there has been a stream of Czech prose work — primarily involving existentially tinged short stories — which has lent itself to the name of Balabánesque. Although this may sound like an overused cliché, perhaps a characterization of this kind is quite fitting in the case of this short story collection. (…) Another characteristic feature of Špaček’s short stories is the economy of his language. He might well be adept at lyricism as well: he is able to avoid redundancy. The chilling hopelessness of his protagonists’ lives is expressed laconically and without pathos.
Less is more — few words, yet everything is crystal clear.
None of the protagonists of An Impeccable Life in Humility is entirely likeable — each of them could live more purposefully, better, without any self-deception. But precisely because they do not, they allow a glimpse through the chasm of the character’s consciousness into our own chasm. Awareness of this chasm is a prerequisite for finding meaning, i.e. commitment to one’s own life.
The title of this collection pretty much defines its content — the stories are clear, humble and honest. They do not raise any manifestly new topics. Their meaning is in their rediscovery of the basic questions over meaning, and how — in Jan Švankmajer’s words — to survive your own life. Although there’s not much hope left for the protagonists in Špaček’s stories, the sense you get from reading them is not one of hopelessness. Viktor Špaček’s texts are meaningful."
Kryštof Špidla, Host
"In the context of contemporary prose work, An Impeccable Life in Humility shows that domestic prose in the short story genre, i.e. narrower in range than the epic style, can offer a vivid, colourful situational report on the ordeals suffered by the modern-day soul.
Unlike other, more extensive prose works by contemporary authors, he does not try to give the impression that he can do therapy; but he does make accurate diagnoses."
Jan M. Heller, Tvar
"But paradoxically, reading his sad book fills us with optimism, since we ourselves are not yet as miserable as his short-story protagonists
These are tasteful, delicate, perhaps even touching stories about ourselves — how we appear to others and what we are really like to ourselves. And in order to please us, the author wrote them in such a way that we feel just slightly less odd than his literary protagonists. Pleasant reading."
Josef Prokeš, Tvar
"The author examines the reverse side of relationships, frailties of the spirit and ageing with surgical precision. Finely honed fragments from everyday battles reveal a human core where pain and fear reside. (…)
In a brief text, Špaček manages to capture the weight of the moment and to dive into existential depths, while in two longer stories he outlines the tale of a relationship and the associated breakdown of a personality. The book can also be understood as a piece on the crisis of masculinity: here men are weaklings who are not even able to meet the demands they place on themselves, while living next to more capable partners."
Karel Kouba, A2
"Špaček's short stories are precise, sensitive probes into wounded. self-centred souls that are unwilling to look beyond their own lives."
Petr A. Bílek, Respekt
"This second collection of short stories by artist and writer Viktor Špaček deals with problems of love, self-esteem, the double-edged nature of success and the fear of loneliness or personal loss with a precision that brings the reader to his knees.
Stories that might appear banal turn out to be original narratives thanks to their precisely staged details.
You can easily slip into Špaček’s protagonists’ shoes, but they will stay in your head for a long time. Whether you keep your fingers crossed for them or get angry at them, they will force you to ask questions: How would we handle a similar life situation ourselves? What is our personal “truth”? And to what extent are we capable of changing our own life story?
Reading you can’t just put to one side."
Eva Mašková, Kultura 21