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The Cunning Little Vixen by Rudolf Tesnohlidek, translated by Tatiana Firkusny, Maritza Morgan and Robert T. Jones, afterword by Jones; illustrations by Maurice Sendak (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $19.95; 187 pp.)

January 26, 1986|Charles Champlin

Even amid the endemic and fashionable gloom-unto-suicide of turn of the century Czechoslovakia, the melancholy of Rudolf Tesnohlidek was something special.

His father was an animal skinner, and in a brief biographical afterword to "The Cunning Little Vixen," Robert T. Jones, one of the translators, says that Tesnohlidek as a boy would run screaming from the moans of the dying beasts. That might have given anyone a dark vision of existence. Later, Tesnohlidek stood paralyzed with shock and unable to help while a teen-age friend was drowning before his eyes, and he carried the guilt ever after.

He fell in love with a beautiful, tubercular woman, and they had only just been married when he shot her fatally as they tussled over a tiny pistol she wore around her neck like a pendant. He was tried for her murder, but acquitted. But it was another trauma to darken his state of mind.

Tesnohlidek took refuge in writing, publishing pseudonymous verses that Jones describes as "resoundingly gloomy." Then again, it was a time when, as Jones says, "Morbidity was the fashion, pessimism virtually a religion."

Astonishingly, despite all this, Tesnohlidek found a job on a newspaper that prided itself on "happy reading," and he acquired a reputation as a humorist. And whatever his private glooms, he established a permanent place in Czech literary history with a widely popular and still-read book, first published in 1920--a ribald, comic, sly and quite affecting parable called "The Cunning Little Vixen," which later also served as the basis for the 1924 opera by Leos Janacek.

Why the book has never before been translated into English and published here is one of those mysteries of the trade. But better late than never, especially since this handsome edition is illustrated by the lovely watercolor production designs Maurice Sendak executed for the New York City Opera's April, 1981, production of Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen."

Tesnohlidek's novella was a newspaper assignment, published in installments to accompany a large packet of sketches by a Czech landscape painter, Stanislav Lolek, who had been inspired by stories a forester told him in the 1880s about an unusually clever fox. Tesnohlidek's editor apparently hated the sketches and gave the assignment mostly as a dare, which turned out to evoke the author's finest hour.

In Tesnohlidek's tale, his central human figure is an amiable and buffoonish forester, given to card-playing and overdrinking at the village tavern with his pals, the local priest and the bachelor schoolmaster. After one very long night out, he catches and brings home a young lady fox to placate his furious wife.

The vixen is briefly a docile house pet until, tormented by the forester's grandson, she bites back, is punished, flees. So begins an intermittent warfare between the forester and the vixen, a battle of wits (in which the forester is decisively outclassed) that explodes in some wonderfully slapstick comic scenes.

In the opera, the forester at last shoots the vixen. But Tesnohlidek, pessimistic or not, was for once not prepared to see things quite so darkly. The vixen is at last happily married and a mother. There seems a clear inference that she will not live forever--the matter of a natural death versus a violent death being left moot. But Tesnohlidek's message is that life goes on, and that continuity down the generations is the law of nature.

As in Orwell's "Animal Farm" and, perhaps even more aptly, Walt Kelly's "Pogo," the vixen and the other wildlife have human speech and very sharp perceptions of humankind. It is a kind of two-way anthropomorphism; the forester chats, or communicates, with the wildlife. (In Sendak's delicious sketches for the opera, small, bemused human faces peer out of the animal costumes, as if to underscore the linkage of man and beast.

Tesnohlidek's evocations of nature are poetic in their expression and universal in their appeal.

Some of the sly references in his text, to the politics of 1920 Czechoslovakia, pass by a contemporary reader. No matter, his chidings of church and school, his handling of the sexual contemplations and yearnings of his menfolk, his observations on family life and male foolishness, all transcend their time and place.

The translation by Jones, Tatiana Firkusny and Maritza Morgan has an eloquent and natural simplicity, despite the difficulties (which Jones mentions) of working from the Brno dialect.

"The Cunning Little Vixen" was indeed Tesnohlidek's ticket to literary immortality. But, despite the quick and enduring success of the book, he was not yet done with melancholy. In 1928, he was still writing humorous verses for the Saturday edition. One Thursday, on his regular deadline, he wrote a funny farewell to the world, and shot himself. When his third wife, Olga, heard the news, she committed suicide too.

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