The Back Story: Part 3 – Robert Czerny

Source: Kevin Burns

Back Story is a series about some of the regular contributors to igNation. It’s a set of short interviews with writers, their influences, how they go about writing, and what they hope their work for igNation will accomplish. The interviews address their approach to writing in general rather than an exploration of any particular piece they may have authored for the blog.

Each of the participants in the Back Story series was interviewed by Kevin Burns by telephone. He asked each participant the same set of questions, plus a few more based on things that surfaced during their conversation. What follows is an edited version of a much longer conversation.

Because the igNation format has a limited word-count, each of the interviews in this series will include an additional audio component: “To hear more about [whatever the topic might be]: Click here.”

Today, it’s the Ottawa based author and consultant, Robert Czerny. His articles appear regularly in igNation, in the form of observations and reflections on the spirituality of daily life, in addition to some music and poetry. On a recent snowy winter morning, Kevin Burns trudged through the snow to Czerny’s warm and welcoming Czerny home to record the interview that is excerpted here.

Author’s respectful note: Among other things, Robert Czerny is a scholar of philosophy. This means that when responding to one question he offers four or five related possibilities, plus a reflection about their meaning and their linkage. Given the limited space for these articles, there are two brief summaries of the landscape of the answer, followed by a selected kernel of content. (!)

Robert Czerny

KB: Let’s start with a question I’m asking everyone in this series. Can you tell me about the first time you ever saw a work of yours in print? What is that experience like, seeing something you have written actually in print?

SUMMARY NOTE: After providing details – including quotations (from memory) of poetry written when he was thirteen and articles written as a 19-year old student at Loyola College, RC gave other more recent examples of encountering his name in print, including this:

He was walking home from college one evening in November, in the rain, and there in the wet gutter was a copy of the student newspaper which that day had featured an article about him. There was a large footprint across his name in the headline. “A glorious affirmation. But at least they spelled the name correctly.” And then said this:

RC:  The published work in my past that I identify with most strongly is that of Paul Ricoeur, the very important French philosopher, who asked me to translate a book of his into English. It was published by Toronto University Press (The Rule of Metaphor, 1977) and I was very proud of that.

I have a very nice copy of the French original, from Ricoeur, which he sent me and dedicated to his “fine translator and good friend.” One of Ricoeur’s sentences has something to do with translators being the heroes on the frontiers of inter-cultural understanding, and I do believe that this really is the case.

KB: Translating and writing are central to you work. Tell me about how you understand those very different roles.

RC:  There’s a family side to this story. My parents were in their 30s when they arrived here in Canada. There were all kinds of language struggles. My mother had taken some English lessons and my father had almost none. The experience of being in a multilingual household (mostly Czech and German with some English, in addition to some Hungarian, Polish, and French – but only when certain people showed up – made you sensitive to language as an issue.

Anton Chekhov. Source:

It made it clear that there are also many different emotions that surface with different words. ‘Comfortable’ in English is not the same as ‘gemütlich’ in German. And you certainly ‘smell’ different things in different languages.

Growing up searching for the right word and the right way to talk or write something meant that I often tell people that my mother-tongue is “Broken English” because I was only 7-months old when my parents arrived here and it became such an issue for them to learn English as quickly as they could. This is why Scrabble became a family pastime because it helped my parents to learn more English.

KB: Can you tell who the writers are who have influenced you most?

Summary Note: RB began the list with authors of animal stories (Jack London etc.) before moving on to two other American authors: the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In between, in his teen years there was Dostoyevsky, but he says that he later regretted being influence by that work because of its pessimistic outlook. The the skies brightened when…

In recent years my great passion has been Anton Chekhov – his stories. I’ve gone through them twice and I’m now on my third reading of them. I really believe that Chekhov’s is the quintessential secular humanist reading of what it means to be a truly good human being. To me, you know, it’s if you want: read the gospels, but if you don’t want to read the gospels then read Chekhov.

[To hear Robert Czerny make a direct link between the work of Chekhov and the words of Pope Francis, click HERE.

KB: What’s your bedside reading these days?

RC: It’s a combination of manias and assignments, including some stuff that my brother, Michael [also a contributor to igNation] has sent me, asking for ideas and suggestions for a homily. There’s also books and essays on humour for a discussion group that I’m part of. This year’s topic is humour and I have three more session to plan for it.


Then there’s some stuff that relates to ethics which is also work related. It’s this kind of reading that also leads me to various odd-ball things, like At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by the British author Sarah Bakewell.

[To hear RC’s explanation of Bakewell’s fascinating book, and the inspiration he takes from philosophy. click here.

Kevin Burns is an Ottawa-based writer and editor. His most recent book is Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit (Franciscan Media, 2016) and distributed in Canada by Novalis.

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