Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

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Letters to Olga

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.