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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.

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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

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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 Soviet labor camp. Both writers produced books with a unity and conscious design quite foreign to the average collection of letters.

Like A Voice from the Chorus, Václav Havel’s Letters to Olga: June, 1979-September, 1982 was written in prison. In 1979, Havel was convicted of “subversion” against the Czech government and was sentenced to four and a half years of hard labor. Havel’s trial culminated several years of increasingly intense harrassment by Czech authorities as a result of his participation in the human-rights organization Charter 77 and its offshoot, the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted (or VONS, the Czech acronym by which it was known). He served more than three years of his sentence; his early release can be attributed in part to his ill health (the authorities were fearful that he might die in prison) and in part to the fact that his imprisonment became a cause célèbre in the international literary community.

Between June 4, 1979, shortly after his arrest, and September 4, 1982, about four months before his release, Havel wrote to his wife Olga more than 150 letters, a few of which were confiscated by the censor and thus never reached her. Following his release, 125 of these letters were collected in a samizdat volume under the title Dopisy Olze (erven 1979-záí 1982). The book was first formally published in an abridged German translation, in 1984; a Czech edition followed in 1985, issued by an émigré publisher in Canada. The English translation, by Paul Wilson, deletes two letters and makes occasional cuts; it is, Wilson says, about one-sixth shorter than the Czech edition. Like many books published by Alfred A. Knopf, it is a beautifully made volume.

That Havel should have had to spend years in prison was both absurd and predictable. He was born into a wealthy and influential family. In the late 1940’s, however, when the Communists nationalized the Czech economy, his parents were stripped of their wealth, and the once-privileged youth found himself discriminated against as a class enemy. Nevertheless, while working at a chemical factory he was able to complete his secondary education at night school, later studying at the Prague Academy of the Arts. Following compulsory military service, he joined a Prague theater group, gaining experience in every aspect of dramatic production, from lighting and props to playwriting.

Havel’s first major play, Zahradní slavnost (1963; The Garden Party, 1969), and its successor, Vyrozumní (1965; The Memorandum, 1967), his most widely produced work, established his international reputation. Both of these plays center on bureaucracies, microcosms of society at large; both explore the ways in which language, instead of revealing reality, can be imposed on it as a self-contained system. While reflecting the influence of the Theater of the Absurd, Havel’s early plays lack the nihilism which characterizes that movement. In their exuberance of invention they epitomize the Czech renaissance of the 1960’s.

Only in a society as Kafkaesque as the bureaucracies of his plays could Havel have even become a dissident. As some of his later, more autobiographical plays make clear, he views his role with a mixture of irony and understatement. Of himself and his fellow human-rights activists, he has said that there was no conscious decision to become dissidents. “We just happened to. We don’t know how. And we started landing in jails—we also don’t know how. We just did some things that seemed the decent things to do.” Self-deprecation aside, Havel was in fact well aware of the risk entailed by his actions—and was aware too that, like many of his fellow artists (Milan Kundera, Joseph kvorecký, and Milo Forman, to name some of the most prominent émigrés), he could leave Czechoslovakia. A stubborn sense of responsibility, deeper than his irony and diffidence, deeper even than his instinct for self-preservation, compelled him to stay; inevitably, he found himself in prison.

During his imprisonment (he served time at three different locations), Havel suffered from a variety of physical ailments, including severe hemorrhoids that eventually required surgery. The prison authorities harassed and taunted him, hoping to break his spirit. He was allowed to write one four-page letter a week to his wife; no other writing—no diary, no playwriting—was permitted. In those circumstances, the weekly letters to Olga became extremely important to Havel. As he recalled after his release, “The letters gave me a chance to develop a new way of looking at myself and examining my attitudes to the fundamental things in life. I became more and more wrapped up in them, I depended on them to the point where almost nothing else mattered.”

Readers who come to these letters having known Havel through his plays will be surprised by what they find. Havel writes very little here about the theater or about literature in any form (though he frequently refers to philosophers); there are a handful of penetrating passages in which he discusses his work and that of other playwrights, but no extended analysis. Perhaps more surprising is the absence of the humor that animates works such as The Memorandum. It is true that, to a degree impossible to calculate, the content of Havel’s letters reflects the strict and sometimes arbitrary censorship imposed by the prison authorities. “Humor was banned,” Havel recalls, but that explanation is not entirely convincing, for it seems unlikely that much of his characteristic humor would be recognized as such by the authorities. Perhaps he believed that his preoccupations while in prison did not lend themselves to humor. Letters to Olga is a philosophical investigation conducted by a man who was stripped to essentials.

There is a tendency to think of philosophy as a specialized professional activity—whatever it is that academic philosophers do—as if the most vital philosophical questions did not grow out of perennial human needs and conflicts and desires. When Havel writes that his purpose is “to inquire after the nature of Being,” he uses language that most “civilians” (that is, nonphilosophers) would be hesitant to claim. In prison, he was beyond worrying about embarrassing himself. For his own sake, he sought “to reconsider things—originally, authentically, from the beginning.”

That ambition is the source of this book’s great appeal. As he examines his experience, asking himself what it means to be human, Havel seeks both understanding and a practical code for living; alongside his philosophizing there are many reminders of everyday life. Havel’s letters challenge the reader to undertake a similar quest for essentials.

At the same time, however, Havel’s determination to assess his experience of the world “originally, authentically, from the beginning” leads him into an inescapable bind. On the one hand, he wishes to detach himself from any dogmatic interpretation of experience; thus, while he greatly respects Christianity (indeed, his analysis of the human condition is translatable, almost point-by-point, into Christian terms), he rejects belief in it and all other religions as such. On the other hand, however, he is faced with the impossibility of a naked confrontation with experience, free of any inherited presuppositions and terminology. As a result, he adopts the distinctive language of phenomenology, especially as influenced by Martin Heidegger. Thus, instead of God, Havel speaks of “the ’absolute horizon’ of Being.” Instead of Original Sin, he speaks of humankind’s “thrownness into the world” and its consequence: “the longing to step beyond all our concrete horizons and thus to touch again the lost fullness of Being.”

Readers for whom human life is reducible to purely materialistic terms will dismiss this as mumbo-jumbo, indistinguishable from religious formulations. Yet will readers who are searching for something more be satisfied with Havel’s injunction to heed “the voice of Being”? Probably not.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 134

Booklist. LXXXIV, March 1, 1988, p. 1090.

Blair, Erica, and A. G. Brain. “Doing Without Utopias: An Interview with Václav Havel,” in The Times Literary Supplement. No. 4373 (January 23, 1987), pp. 81-83.

Day, Barbara. “Dissenting Voice,” in Drama. No. 164 (1987), pp. 30-31.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa. The Silenced Theatre: Czech Playwrights Without a Stage, 1979.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, January 15, 1988, p. 103.

Library Journal. CXIII, March 1, 1988, p. 67.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 3, 1988, p. 3.

Maclean’s. CI, May 16, 1988, p. 57.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, December 22, 1988, p. 36.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, January 22, 1988, p. 93.

Scammel, Michael. Review in The New York Times Book Review. XCII (May 8, 1988), p. 10.

Stuttaford, Genevieve. Review in Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII (January 22, 1988), p. 93.

Trensky, Paul I. Czech Drama Since World War II, 1978.

Vladislav, Jan. Václav Havel: Or, Living in Truth, 1986.

Washington Monthly. XX, October, 1988, p. 57.

World Literature Today. LIX, Autumn, 1985, p. 621.

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