Posts Tagged ‘Heinrich Boll’

Philip Roth interviews Milan Kundera – 34 years later, it’s still timely.

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Milan-KunderaStephan Müller‘s website for Czech writer Milan Kundera has a truly excellent interview with the author, conducted about the time his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was published in English in 1980. The interviewer is American author Philip Roth (I interviewed him here). The interview carries its years well – in fact, it’s not only timely, but prophetic.  At the time, Roth was the general editor of a superb series of Penguin Books, “Writers from the Other Europe,” which included Heinrich Böll, Bruno Schultz, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and others. He had read a manuscript of the English translation; the interview in Czech and French was translated by Kundera’s wife Vera.

Two excerpts:

Roth: Do you think the destruction of the world is coming soon?.

Kundera: That depends on what you mean by the word “soon.”

Roth: Tomorrow or the day after.

Kundera: The feeling that the world is rushing to ruin is an ancient one.

Roth: So then we have nothing to worry about.

Kundera: On the contrary. If a fear has been present in the human mind for ages, there must be something to it.

kundera Roth: In any event, it seems to me that this concern is the background against which all the stories in your latest book take place, even those that are of a decidedly humorous nature.

Kundera: If someone had told me as a boy: One day you will see your nation vanish from the world, I would have considered it nonsense, something I couldn’t possibly imagine. A man knows he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life. But after the Russian invasion of 1968, every Czech was confronted with the thought that his nation could be quietly erased from Europe, just as over the past five decades 40 million Ukrainians have been quietly vanishing from the world without the world paying any heed. Or Lithuanians. Do you know that in the 17th century, Lithuania was a powerful European nation? Today the Russians keep Lithuanians on their reservation like a half-extinct tribe; they are sealed off from the visitors to prevent knowledge about their existence from reaching the outside. I don’t know what the future holds for my nation. It is certain that the Russians will do everything they can to dissolve it gradually into their own civilization. Nobody knows whether they will succeed. But the possibility is here. And the sudden realization that such a possibility exists is enough to change one’s whole sense of life. Nowadays I even see Europe as fragile, mortal.



Kundera’s smart interlocutor.

Roth: What you now call the laughter of angels is a new term for the “lyrical attitude to life” of your previous novels. In one of your books you characterize the era of Stalinist terror as the reign of the hangman and the poet.

Kundera: Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise–the age old drama of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. André Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.

Roth: In your book, the great French poet Éluard soars over paradise and gulag, singing. Is this bit of history which you mention in the book authentic?

Kundera: After the war, Paul Éluard abandoned surrealism and became the greatest exponent of what I might call the “poesy of totalitarianism.” He sang for brotherhood, peace, justice, better tomorrows, he sang for comradeship and against isolation, for joy and against gloom, for innocence and against cynicism. When in 1950 the rulers of paradise sentenced Éluard’s Prague friend, the surrealist Zalvis Kalandra, to death by hanging, Éluard suppressed his personal feelings of friendship for the sake of supra-personal ideals, and publicly declared his approval of his comrade’s execution. The hangman killed while the poet sang.


He sang for brotherhood.

And not just the poet. The whole period of Stalinist terror was a period of collective lyrical delirium. This has by now been completely forgotten but it is the crux of the matter. People like to say: Revolution is beautiful, it is only the terror arising from it which is evil. But this is not true. The evil is already present in the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarianism poesy which leads to the gulag, by way of paradise is as difficult as ever. Nowadays, people all over the world unequivocally reject the idea of gulags, yet they are still willing to let themselves be hypnotized by totalitarian poesy and to march to new gulags to the tune of the same lyrical song piped by Éluard when he soared over Prague like the great archangel of the lyre, while the smoke of Kalandra’s body rose to the sky from the crematory chimney.

Read the whole thing here. It’s well worth it. 

Václav Havel, the dissident writer: “metaphysics more dangerous than a direct message”

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Havel: "warm, intense, a concentration of nervous energy"

Václav Havel is dead.  All the talk about the man as activist, leader, the Czech Republic’s first democratically elected president, tends to overlook the playwright and writer, renowned in the Cold War for his 145 published prison letters to his wife, Letters to Olga.

So I turned to the only Havel book in my library, Living in Truth, a collection of 22 essays by and about him, published on the occasion of the award of the Erasmus Prize in 1986.

In “Prague – A Poem not Disappearing,” Timothy Garton Ash recalls that, during the 1980s, he was  “determined to visit Václav Havel.”  This is what he found:

“Havel is a short, stocky man with curly blond hair; his moustache and lower face remind me of a friendly walrus.  … He is warm, intense, a concentration of nervous energy. …

He talks about the nervous strain of writing under these conditions, when at any moment the police might walk in and confiscate a year’s work. How he has crept out into the woods at night and buried parts of his typescript in the hole of a tree.  How as a manuscript piles up he writes faster and faster: the fear of a house search concentrates the mind wonderfully. Far more effective than any publisher’s deadline. Just yesterday he was writing about this nervous tension. Then his wife came in and said ‘The police are outside again. I’m afraid they aren’t our usual ones.’ …

Determined to visit

This is nothing compared with the conditions under which he wrote in prison. There he was not allowed to write at all, except for one letter a week to his wife – maximum four sides, and only about ‘personal matters’, as the prison regulations specify. This was his only opportunity to express himself as a writer, over a period of almost four years.  If any part of a letter was unacceptable, the whole letter would be confiscated. The commandant of the prison camp at Hermanice took a sadistic delight in enforcing this instructions. … His particular delight was censoring the writer’s letters. Havel started writing a ‘cycle’ of letters about his philosophical views. He mentioned the ‘order of being’. ‘The only order you can write about’, declared the commandant, ‘is the prison order’. Then he decided Havel should not write about philosophy at all.  ‘Only about yourself.’  So Havel designed another cycle of letters on the subject of his moods: sixteen of them, two to each letter, one good, one bad. And he numbered them.  After eight, the commandant called him in: ‘Stop numbering your moods!’  ‘No foreign words!’ he ordered one week. ‘No underlining!’ the next.  ‘No exclamation marks!!'”

"an end to the finite"

A chapter earlier, Nobel writer Heinrich Böll, in “A Courtesy Towards God,” quotes Czech politician Jiří Dienstbier that “Václav Havel was a particular target for persecution.’ His overall manner of courtesy, of having been ‘well brought up’, gave the impression that he was ‘soft and easily broken’.  It was seductive.  ‘Those around him reacted all the more excitedly to Havel’s unyieldingness, to this “inaccessible systematist”, who even tidied up his prison cell in so precise and presentable a fashion that it could have served as the model for the graduates of an officers’ training school.'”  Then Böll adds:

“Havel nevertheless managed, in spite of the censorship, to smuggle out a scale of his moods … he devotes himself at great length to the ‘dejectedness of Sunday’, to what he calls this ‘problem of civilization bearing the name Sunday’. These moods, in particular those on Sundays, are to him ‘the typical cracks through which nothingness finds its way to man, this modern face of the Devil’.  He does not shrink from calling it by name.  …

‘The global wonder of existence’, that peace of mind which ‘Christians call mercy’, was also allowed through. One would have had to be a censor in order to review these letters.  Is not so much metaphysics more dangerous than many a direct message?  The following resulted from a particularly beautiful moment in the prison yard: ‘The more beautiful the moment, the more distinct is the growth of the eerie question:  What else? What more? What now? What next? What am I to do, and what will I achieve? I would describe this as the feeling of having arrived at a kind of end to the finite.'”