Form and Content
On May 29, 1979, Czechoslovakia’s State Security police jailed ten members of the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted, known by its Czech acronym of VONS. Havel was one of those arrested. VONS had been organized to monitor the cases of persons imprisoned for expressing their beliefs or people otherwise victimized by the police and the court system. The arrest was Havel’s fourth. In January, 1977, he had been imprisoned for five months because of his membership in Charter 77, the Czechoslovak human rights movement. In October, 1977, he had been sentenced to fourteen months for “subversions,” but the term was conditionally suspended for three years. In January, 1978, he had been arrested but was released in March without official charges filed against him. A vicious campaign of harassment followed, aimed at forcing Havel either to cease his dissident activities or to emigrate. He did neither.
The VONS trial was held in October, 1979, with five of the group’s members given prison terms; Havel’s was for four and one-half years. After three years, he developed pneumonia and was hospitalized, and on February 7, 1983, the government suspended the remainder of his sentence because of his ill health. On regaining his freedom, he resumed both his Charter 77 work and his playwriting.
Between June 4, 1979, and September 4, 1982, Havel addressed 144 letters to his wife, Olga. While the original Czech edition (published first through samizdat’s private circulation in Havel’s homeland, then in Toronto in 1985) contains all of them, translator Paul Wilson chose to delete four which were not delivered and fifteen which repeat information available in other letters. Even so abridged, the text (including an introduction, notes, a glossary of names, and an index) runs to 397 pages.
Letters 1 through 17 were written during Havel’s pretrial detention in Prague’s Ruzyne prison, from June, 1979, to January, 1980. Letters 18 through 86 originated from a hard labor camp, Hermanice, in Northern Moravia, near the Polish border. There, Havel was set to making steel mesh with a spot welder, with performance quotas set twice as high as for civilian workers. Letters 87 through 128 came from the Plzen-Bory prison, where Havel was first employed in the laundry, then in a scrap metal depot. The last set of letters, 129 through 144, while also written in Plzen-Bory, were designed by their author to be read as a unit. They represent a sustained meditation on morality and metaphysics, unfolding a philosophical vision clearly inspired by Havel’s phenomenological and existential reading.
Letters to Olga
The publication of literary correspondence is a growth industry. Massive multi-volume collections, one-volume selections, and volumes which present both sides of the correspondence between two writers are appearing in ever-increasing numbers. Most of these volumes (the ongoing Cambridge edition of the letters of Joseph Conrad is a good example) are consulted primarly for biographical material and for the light they shed on the development of the writer’s work; a few, such as the letters of D. H. Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw, are absorbing performances in their own right. Whether mundane or dazzling, however, most collections of letters are miscellanies to be mined by the scholar or browsed in by the general reader; they are not books with an overarching form, intended to be read straight through.
There are exceptions to this rule. Notable examples include Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo, ili Pisma ne o liubvi (1923; Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, 1971) and Andrei Sinyavsky’s Golos iz khora (1973; A Voice from the Chorus , 1976), both of which have affinities with the book under review. Shklovsky’s book consists largely of letters which he wrote to Elsa Triolet, a young woman with whom he had fallen in love during his sojourn among the Russian émigrés in Berlin, while the text of Sinyavsky’s book was extracted from letters which he wrote to his wife from a...
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