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Saved by Czech

Other men change wives. Some change cars. Some change gender. The point of a midlife crisis is to demonstrate continuity with one’s youth by doing something strikingly different. To be sure, “different” is a relative term: a man in the throes of such a crisis usually does the same as every other man—that, after all, is how you know it’s a midlife crisis. But mine was a little different. I was the right age, at the right stage (divorcing Wife #2), and experiencing the usual middle-aged uncertainties: What’s it all about? But I did it my way. I learned Czech.

Early in the 1980s I was teaching politics at Oxford. I had job security, professional responsibilities, and a nice home. Domestic bliss would have been too much to ask, but I was inured to its absence. I did, though, feel increasingly detached from my academic preoccupations. French history in those days had fallen among thieves: the so-called “cultural turn” and “post”-everything trends in social history had me reading interminable turgid screeds, promoted to academic prominence by newly founded “subdisciplines” whose acolytes were starting to colonize a little too close to home. I was bored.

On April 24, 1981, the New Statesman carried a letter from a Czech dissident, writing under the pseudonym Václav Racek, politely protesting an essay by E.P. Thompson in which the great British historian had described East and West as coresponsible for the cold war and its attendant crimes. Surely, “Racek” suggested, communism had a little more to answer for? Thompson responded with a long and patronizing dismissal, comparing the Czech dissident’s “naive” desire for liberty with his own “defense of British liberties,” but conceding that in his misinformed innocence “it is not difficult to understand why a Czech intellectual may think in this way.”

I was furious at Thompson’s arrogance and wrote in to say so. My intervention—and the sympathies it expressed—elicited an invitation to London to meet Jan Kavan, a ‘68-era exile. When we met, Kavan was hysterical. He had given an interview to Thames Television in which, carried away by enthusiasm, he had—he feared—inadvertently revealed information about the Czech underground that could get people in trouble. Would I please go and stop the film being shown?

I was flattered that Kavan should suppose an obscure Oxford don capable of wielding such influence. I knew better but pretended otherwise and headed for the studio. The editor of the program listened respectfully to me; quickly ascertained that I knew virtually nothing about Czechoslovakia, the underground opposition, or even Kavan himself; calculated that I was peculiarly without influence even by the standards of my profession…and threw me politely out the door.

The film duly ran on television the next night. To my knowledge no one suffered seriously from its revelations, but Jan Kavan’s reputation took a severe blow: many years later, when his political enemies in the post-Communist Czech Republic accused him of collaborating with the old regime, the Thames Television interview was invoked as supporting evidence.

As I returned to Oxford that evening, embarrassed by my failure to help and mortified at my own provincialism, I took what would prove, in its small way, to be a decision of consequence. I was going to learn Czech. It was one thing for Thames to ignore me: I did not mind being unimportant. But it offended me to be thought both unimportant and uninformed. For the first time in my life, I had found myself disquisitioning on a place and a problem whose language was unfamiliar to me. I realize that political scientists do this all the time, but that is why I am not a political scientist.

And so, beginning in the early 1980s, I learned a new language. I began by purchasing Teach Yourself Czech. Taking advantage of the lengthy (and increasingly welcome) absences of Wife #2, I devoted two hours a night to this book. Its method was old-fashioned and thus reassuringly familiar: page upon page of grammar, with the emphasis on the complicated conjugations and declensions of the Slavonic family of languages, interspersed with vocabulary, translations, pronunciation, important exceptions, etc. In short, just the way I had been taught German.

After advancing for a few months through this introductory text, I decided that I needed formal instruction if I were to break past the limitations of the isolated autodidact. Oxford in those days offered first-rate language teaching in dozens of familiar and exotic tongues and I duly signed on for a beginner/intermediate-level Czech class. There were only two of us as I recall; my fellow pupil was the wife of a senior Oxford historian and herself a linguist of talent. It took work and concentration to keep up with her.

By the later 1980s I had acquired a passive competence in Czech. I emphasize passive: I rarely heard the language spoken outside the audiovisual laboratory, I only visited the country a handful of times, and I was already discovering that—in early middle age—one is slow to master strange tongues. But I could read quite satisfactorily. The first book I read was Hovory s T.G. Masarykem (Conversations with Thomas Masaryk) by Karel Capek, a wonderful series of interviews and exchanges between the country’s greatest playwright and its first president. From Capek, I advanced to Havel, about whom I started to write.

Learning Czech led me to Czechoslovakia, where I traveled in 1985 and 1986 as a foot soldier in the little army of book smugglers recruited by Roger Scruton to assist lecturers and students expelled from Czech universities or forbidden to attend. I lectured in private apartments to attentive roomfuls of young people, hungry for debate and refreshingly ignorant of academic reputation and fashion. I lectured in English, of course (though older professors would have preferred German). To the extent that I had occasion to use my Czech, it was to respond to unconvincingly casual questions from plainclothes policemen who stood under lampposts outside dissidents’ apartments and asked visitors what time it was, to establish whether or not they were foreigners.

Prague in those days was a gray, sad place. Gustáv Husák’s Czechoslovakia might have been well-off by Communist standards (second only to Hungary), but it was a grim and depressed land. No one who saw communism in those years could harbor any illusion about the prospects for a dead dogma immured in a decaying society. And yet I spent my days there in a whirl of enthusiasm and excitement, returning to Oxford each time energized and pulsing with ideas.

I began teaching East European history and—with some trepidation—writing it. In particular, I became deeply interested and engaged with the informal, underground opposition there. Reading, discussing, and (eventually) meeting men like Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, János Kis, and their friends, I rediscovered political passions and scholarly and intellectual interests of an urgency unfamiliar—at least to me—since the end of the 1960s…and far more serious and consequential than anything I could recall from that decade. It is only a slight exaggeration, and perhaps not even that, to say that my immersion in East-Central Europe brought me back to life.

Back in Oxford, I frequented specialists and refugees from the region. I established programs to host outcast intellectuals from the Soviet bloc. I even began to promote the careers of younger historians and others with an interest in this obscure and absurdly understudied part of Europe—a project I would continue with vastly greater funding after decamping to New York.

Through Poland in particular, and my newfound friends there and in exile, I was able to make links with my own East European Jewish past. Above all, and to my continuing embarrassment, I discovered a rich and seductive literature of which I had been almost completely unaware until then: a shortcoming doubtless attributable to the parochial qualities of even the best British education, but my own responsibility all the same.

Learning Czech, in other words, made me a very different sort of scholar, historian, and person. Would it have made a significant difference had I taken up, say, Polish? My friends certainly thought so: to them, Czech was a small Slav language (much as Russian colleagues would later describe Polish) and I had inexplicably opted to specialize in what—for them—was the equivalent of the history of, say, Wales. I felt otherwise: that distinctly Polish (or Russian) sense of cultural grandeur was precisely what I wanted to circumnavigate, preferring the distinctively Czech qualities of doubt, cultural insecurity, and skeptical self-mockery. These were already familiar to me from Jewish sources: Kafka, above all—but Kafka is also the Czech writer par excellence.

Without my Czech obsession I would not have found myself in Prague in November 1989, watching Havel accept the presidency from a balcony in the town square. I would not have sat in the Gellert Hotel in Budapest listening to János Kis explain his plans for a post-Communist but social democratic Hungary—the best hope for the region but forlorn even then. I would not have found myself, a few years later, in the Maramures region of northern Transylvania making notes for an essay on Romania’s post-Communist traumas.

Above all, I could never have written Postwar, my history of Europe since 1945. Whatever its shortcomings, that book is rare for the determination with which I set out to integrate Europe’s two halves into a common story. In a way, Postwar echoes my own attempt to become an integrated historian of Europe rather than a disabused critic of French historical fashion. My Czech adventures did not get me a new wife (until much later and only indirectly), much less a new car. But they were the best midlife crisis I could have wished for. They cured me forever of the methodological solipsism of the postmodern academy. They made me, for better or worse, a credible public intellectual. There were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in our Western philosophy and I had—belatedly—seen some of them.

—This piece is part of a continuing series of memoirs by Tony Judt.

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