My first memory of Václav Havel is of watching the news as a kid, after the Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and seeing pictures of Havel in his living room: a prison of stuffed bookshelves. For me, Havel was the image of a literary hero, an ideal of literature as integrity.
I’ve always, in other words, been a sucker for the questions of Prague—especially Prague in the era of Soviet Communism, probably because these questions all relate to a larger problem: a writer’s responsibility and resistance to political life, the serious business of being flippant. In the setups of his farcical plays and—following his imprisonment in 1977 for involvement in a human-rights charter—through the patient linguistic analysis of his essays, Havel’s subject was always the same: how language can be made to connive in unreality. But he also believed that words could be renovated, that a politics was possible. And this hope led him, for instance, to the courage of the following statement in his 1977 trial: there were certain words, he said, “which recur continually in the indictment and which one would describe as loaded, words like subversion, lies, malice, illegal organizations, anticommunist centers, vilification, hatred and so on. However, when one looks closely at these words, one finds that there is nothing behind them.” Just as it made him read Bellow’s libertine Herzog, in prison, in these dissident terms: “A professional with ‘words’ goes mad in a situation where words have no weight. He clearly lacks what we do not, which is to say a situation in which words have so much weight that you must pay quite dearly for them.”
This was why, in the summer of 2010, I found myself proposing a Paris Review interview to Havel. I wanted to ask him my own series of Prague questions, about his love of Bohumil Hrabal’s stories, the cinema of the Czech New Wave, his intuition of farce … These questions, basically, were one big question: What was it like for a writer, as he did, to end up in the Presidential Palace?
The Interview, however, turned into a melancholy comedy of its own.
When we met, in November 2010, Havel was seventy-four, and in the middle of postproduction on his first movie: an adaptation of his last play, Leaving, which was first put on in Prague in 2008, five years after he’d left the presidency of the Czech Republic. The play tells the story of Vilem Rieger, a former chancellor of an unnamed country, who must either support the new regime of his previous deputy or be forced from his state-owned villa.
Havel was neatly dressed in a black turtleneck and a black corduroy jacket. He looked, I thought, sometimes like William H. Macy and sometimes like Asterix. He was magnificently small. His offices were around the corner from the Café Slavia and the National Theater. They were kept tropically warm: for Havel, who had already had one lung removed, lived in constant danger of respiratory problems. On the walls, there were photos of Havel with Obama, with the Prince and Princess of Wales, with the former Pope. There was a kind of rich, jazzy, sixties style to the furniture: angles and leather, black and red.
But as the conversation proceeded it became clear that my ideal dialogue would have to wait. Havel’s exhausting work on his film meant that, for the moment, he could only offer me forty minutes. Time, therefore, was the first problem. The second was language. I asked my questions in English, then Havel replied in Czech—very quickly, and very softly—and then his translator translated. Which is another way that language connives in unreality.
The film of Leaving premiered around four months later, in March of this year. Earlier that month, Havel had been hospitalized following an inflammation of the lungs. After the premiere, his personal assistant politely wrote saying that they had indefinitely cleared Havel’s schedule.
When I heard with sadness this weekend that Havel had died, I considered our transcript. It was so sketchy that it felt more like a bootleg tape. But, then again, maybe that was right. Because, famously, Havel’s Prague Revolution was also American, a revolution in love with the New York counterculture. And after all, the last thing that I’d talked about with this hero of the Velvet Revolution was his love of the Velvet Underground.
You began your most recent play, Leaving, before the Revolution of 1989. Could you describe the process of this play’s composition?
Before the 1989 Revolution, I had an idea for a character like King Lear, who loses power, and then the world starts to disintegrate. It might have been the influence of the generation of 1968—the people who had been party members, who had professional careers. And then all of a sudden after ’68 they were thrown out and started to live ordinary lives, and they pretended that they didn’t mind, but in fact they did. I was also trying to make certain references to other works. There’s a certain hint of King Lear, a certain hint of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a certain hint of Samuel Beckett. Mostly they were just references for myself.
There are also many moments when you quote from your own essays. In one essay you say that man should be at the center of politics. This phrase gets repeated, sarcastically, in your play. It’s almost as if you’re writing the play against yourself.
I think it’s important for one to take a certain distance from oneself. I’ve always tried to see the absurdity of my own dealings, my own acts—and I think that this is reflected not just in the plays but in my civic life as well. I always noticed, even in my dissident life, the comical moments.
In your work there’s a very porous boundary between the absurd and the political. In your 2007 memoir To The Castle and Back, you suddenly use the term “Ptydepe,” the nonsense language you invented in your 1965 play The Memorandum, to describe the language of European Union communiqués. And I wonder if there’s something specifically Prague about this—in showing the gap between a word and its meaning. Are there other Central European writers who influenced you?
I like Hašek, with his very original and very specific sense of humor. And Ionesco really influenced me in my youth in the late fifties, together with Beckett and Genet. But if I were to say who influenced me most, then I’d say Franz Kafka. And his works were always anchored in the Central European region. About twenty years ago, I was awarded an honorary degree at the University of Jerusalem where I gave a speech called “Franz Kafka and my Presidency.” I basically said that if Franz Kafka hadn’t written his works, then I would have had to do it for him. Which sounds a bit vain, but I think people understood what I meant.
I remember that in the fifties you also wrote one of the earliest essays on Bohumil Hrabal.
I was one of the first people, maybe the first person, to write about his work. It was published in one of those samizdat pamphlets. I was very young then, about twenty, and people noticed this particular piece. He wasn’t published then. He was working in some waste-collection point, where he was sorting rubbish. The first texts by Hrabal were absolutely breathtaking, like Jarmilka. It was a very short novel—it was rough, it was almost surreal, it was mysterious, it had a very tense note to it. Later, in the sixties, Hrabal started to be published—and his texts were smoother, more polished, cleaner, which resulted from the fact that, unfortunately, he listened to his editors.
Why did you decide to make Leaving into a film?
Originally, it wasn’t my idea to make a film. A Czech director thought of it. But then I decided I could do it myself. I’d always had so many other people interpreting my texts and putting them in movies.
Did Jan Němec and his generation of filmmakers—like Jiří Menzel, and Miloš Forman—influence you?
We were the first generation unstained by the conflict of Communism or anti-Communism: we were still young in the postwar years, in February 1948. We were friends, and even though we were all studying something different, we were close. We shared the same experience: a non-ideological experience. We were a non-ideological generation.
But how far do you think a style can be non-ideological? There’s a famous anecdote of Forman in Cannes in May 1968. He was there to show his movie The Fireman’s Ball, which had only just gotten past the Communist censors. But Godard and Truffaut, in support of the students in Paris, had stopped the whole festival. They were shouting Communist slogans, in favor of the workers. And Forman, in the end, because he loved their films so much, allowed his film to be withdrawn in solidarity. It’s such a strange illustration of the way ideology was fluid, how the experiences of Paris and Prague in 1968 were fundamentally misaligned.
I think it depends on how we define ideological. If we see it as a set of opinions that are fixed, stationary, closed, that have no room for curiosity, that are omnipresent and omniscient—in this sense, we were a non-ideological generation. As opposed to some older friends who could be called left wing, or could be called former Communists, we didn’t start with a dogmatic ideology. That’s the difference between the two generations.
There’s a moment in Disturbing the Peace where you say that every member of the audience must find a play out for themselves. You’ve always separated this writing from your political essays—but is there a way in which your theory of the audience is also a theory of a citizen in a democracy, of someone who interprets and takes part in a dialogue?
In my opinion, theater shouldn’t give advice to citizens. Theater is there to search for questions. It doesn’t give you instructions. I always fought for a more humble position in life. For the small, the mysterious: something that can’t be summed up in four words. How each citizen takes on his citizenship is very individual. And I think that theater is there to create a certain atmosphere of togetherness. I think people are there to ask themselves questions, as a community.