• Email
  • Print

Judging the Czechs

In response to:

The Czech Wager from the January 22, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

I doubt whether Milan Kundera is really helping the cause of our common homeland with his article on “The Czech Wager” [NYR, January 22], by perpetuating some of the myths on which he and I were brought up.

The Czech nation was born from its literature, through its literature, and the nation is thus necessarily tied to the destiny of its literature and of its culture,” he writes. Well, yes—I don’t deny that this statement contains the sort of truth that goes with huge historical generalizations. But I am surprised and disappointed that Mr. Kundera does not ask himself how sensible it is for a people (or its articulate intellectuals, at all events) to tie their destiny to literature in the way he describes; that he does not ask himself what the results of that extraordinary faith in literature have been. “Literature” did not save Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939, it did not prevent the destruction of democracy in 1948, it did not save the Prague Spring of 1968. An army might have done that, and it did not; it did not even try. I had hoped that by 1981 the lesson of a deeply misplaced expectation has been learned—the lesson that neither literature nor philosophy nor a lively intellectual life are a substitute for the concrete defense of a nation’s sovereignty.

Nor is Mr. Kundera quite accurate in what he says about that intellectual life in his account of the “two Prague circles” and their significance.

The first, the circle of “German-speaking Jewish writers around Max Brod and Franz Kafka,” has only one important writer in it, Kafka himself, and a large number of writers whose work has not survived their era. But unless Mr. Kundera is even now carrying on the old nationalistic feud, it is not clear why, when mentioning Kafka and Brod, he does not also mention Rainer Maria Rilke, whose origins lie in that ambience every bit as much as do Kafka’s, and who was just more energetic and more successful when it came to getting out of Prague. (Kafka too managed to make his escape, but only a year before he died.) Either Mr. Kundera is talking about the culture of Prague, in which case Rilke belongs to it, or he is talking about the Czech culture of Prague, in which case Kafka emphatically does not. “I am spending my afternoons in the streets,” Kafka writes to Milena Jesenská in November 1920, two years after the founding of the First Republic, “bathing in Jew-hating. Prasivé plemeno [mangy race] is what I just heard the Jews being called. Is it not natural that one leaves the place where one is hated?” And in 1921 (I quite from Joyce Crick’s recent essay, “Kafka and the Muirs”) “‘We never got a hint that Kafka and his friends had even existed in the city,’ recalled Willa [Muir], and ‘An invisible but unyielding barrier cut off German speakers from Czech speakers.”’

As for the other circle Mr. Kundera mentions, “the so-called Prague Linguistic Circle,” was it really so important that without it “modern Western culture is unthinkable”? I am not competent to judge how much of that Circle’s structuralist research survives in linguistics; as for its ramifications in literary studies, the service its members did to Czech poetry is certainly very considerable. Yet it was an astonishing failure of that Circle that none of its members had anything to say about either Jaroslav Hasek or Kafka, the two writers Mr. Kundera singles out as Prague’s major lasting contribution to “world literature.” I don’t know with what authority he asserts that “the depth of blasphemy contained in The Good Soldier Svejk has never been assessed,” but I am puzzled to find him talking about the book’s implied attitude to history without saying a word about its actual political effects among his fellow-countrymen and mine. I am with him in his praise of the Czech modernist movement, but he must also be aware that the literary establishment of the First Czechoslovak Republic was blind to some of the most important literary achievements that were taking place under their noses. It was Edwin Muir, a Scot from the Orkneys, who discovered Kafka for world literature, and it was the Communists—Ivan Olbracht, who only knew the first part of the novel, and Julius Fucík—who produced the first substantial studies of Hasek’s book. The profound ambiguity of a literary masterpiece with devastating effects on the morale of a whole nation is not even hinted at in Mr. Kundera’s article. Literary values and political ones—even the patriotic values of an oppressed nation—make uneasy bedfellows.

Let me assure Mr. Kundera that I would not be writing this letter had I not the survival of the Czech people and literature as much at heart as he does. The debunking of myths, too, belongs to the Czech intellectual tradition. I don’t have to tell him what T.G. Masaryk’s attitude was in several closely comparable cases.

J.P. Stern

University College, London

Milan Kundera replies:

1) I was not talking about politics in my text: its original title was not “The Czech Wager” (that is the title the editors gave it) but “The Wager of Czech Literature.” The failure of Czech politics is obvious and well-known. One cannot, however, judge a nation exclusively by the success of its politics; one must also consider the values that its culture is able to create during the periods of its worst defeat.

2) Rilke left Prague when he was twenty years old, and his mature work has nothing to do with the city where he was born. In contrast, Kafka’s life and all his work belonged to the Jewish-German-Czech cultural climate of Prague. Max Brod understood this: in one critical essay, he compared The Castle with a Czech novel written in 1855 (The Grandmother by Bozena Nemcova), demonstrating the similarity of motifs, themes, images, and obsessions in the two seemingly very different works.

3) As for the anti-semitic comments that Kafka heard in the streets of Prague, similar things could be heard in any other city of Europe. It is absurd to try to draw conclusions about the consequences of this anti-Semitism for Kafka’s relation to Czech culture. Briefly, Czech was, as far as I know, the first language into which Kafka’s works were translated: The Driver (the first chapter of Amerika) in 1920, The Trial in 1923 (seven years before its French publication). The Castle was published in Czech in 1935 (twelve years before it appeared in French) and received enthusiastically by the Czech avant garde. After the war, Kafka’s works were forbidden in the Soviet bloc, but in 1963 Czech intellectuals organized an international conference, successfully “rehabilitating” Kafka and arranging for publication of his work. This was a great struggle. In 1968, the Russians occupied my country to crush the so-called counter-revolution. Their official statements declared that the first sign of the counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia had been the rehabilitation of Kafka! Their argument may seem absurd, but it is less stupid than telling: Kafka’s work had long ago come to stand for the principal values that Czech intellectuals defended against totalitarian idiocy. It had become for them the symbol of the cultural originality of Prague.

4) The international importance of structuralist thought, which was born and developed in Prague, is not a question but a fact. Why have Prague structuralists analyzed neither Kafka nor Husak? Because they are free to study whatever they like.

5) For thirty-five years, Soviet propaganda has been concerned with the “devastating effects on morale” caused by the work of Kafka. Mr. Stern talks of the “devastating effects on the morale” caused by Husek’s book. But neither Joseph K. nor Svejk are meant as examples for others to follow. Mme. Bovary is not responsible for the infidelity of women.

  • Email
  • Print