Czech Matters in Gustaw Herling-Grudziński’s Journal

Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (1919-2000), eminent Polish novelist and essayist, author of a testimony about Soviet labor camps called A World Apart (1951), and a long-time contributor to the magazine Culture published in Paris, belonged to those 20th-century Polish writers who were very much interested in the fate of the nations conquered and enslaved by the Soviet Union. In his diary called Dziennik pisany nocą (“The journal written at night”, 1971–2000) he also devoted much space to Czech (and Czechoslovak) matters.

He was particularly interested in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, which led to the ultimate collapse—both in the West, and in the East of the continent—of the myth of the Soviet Union as a socialist state. The involuntary gravedigger of this myth was Alexander Dubček, while Milan Kundera was the writer who most vividly described the funeral of this myth. And this is why Herling wrote about them most extensively in his Journal, devoting much more attention to them than, for example, to the signatories of the Charter 77.

The theme of the invasion appeared on the first pages of the book, in the opening fragment called “From the old diaries.” The author quoted the opinion of the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas, who told him in November 1969 in Belgrade that Czechoslovak leaders could have avoided the Soviet invasion, if they had found the courage to “thoroughly clean up the top echelons of the party, the government and the military of pro-Soviet elements, as the Yugoslavs had done in 1948; and then, in the critical moment of the conflict, they could have announced a general mobilization.”

Herling repeatedly comes back to the conversation between Dubček and the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz-Tito on August 9, 1968; when asked by Tito when the Czechs intended to announce a general mobilization, Herling claimed that “Dubček’s face expressed such astonishment and indignation that Tito flew back to Belgrade earlier than planned, saying to the members of the Yugoslav delegation: `There is nothing left to do for us here.’”

Herling also repeatedly cited Dubček’s declaration made during the last meeting of negotiators from Moscow and Prague in Čierna nad Tisou: “In any case, comrade Brezhnev, we are not going to shoot at Red Army soldiers.” It is quite likely, commented Herling, that this sparked a “click” in Brezhnev’s mind: “We may come in.”

Herling’s skeptical attitude towards the leader of the Prague Spring should not surprise us. “I never liked Dubček, I saw him as a cross between good-natured cunning and cowardice.” Even so, he closely followed his career. When in August 1983 Jiří Pelikán revealed in an Italian TV station that after Yuri Andropov had been elected Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, Dubček send him his congratulations and best wishes (and Andropov acknowledged them), Herling confessed that he had listened to Pelikán’s words “with sadness rather than annoyance.”

Five years later he noted “a great stir caused by Dubček’s long interview for Unity, the organ of the Italian Communist Party, his first public statement after almost 20 years of enforced silence and virtual house arrest.”

Only in the 1990s, after reading Dubček’s memoirs called Hope will die last, Herling slightly softened his evaluation of this politician: “He was a nice, honest, truthful and sincere man (for a “top rank” politician, of course). Dubček belonged to a numerically sparse category of communists who had not been poisoned by the taste of power (as described in Ladislav Mňačko’s novel), who respected the principles of ordinary human decency and who took their socialism very seriously, rather than voraciously treating it as a source of various perks. They were in a minority, but they did exist.”

Herling’s attitude to Milan Kundera could not be more different. For the first time Kundera’s name appears in the Journal in August 1980. “Several important European dailies and weeklies” published “a very interesting conversation” between Michel Foucault and Kundera, at that time already living in France and deprived of Czechoslovak citizenship. Herling quoted a fragment of this interview devoted to the Prague Spring, interpreted by Kundera as a social movement whose greatness “lies not in politics (which was incompetent and in the end lost everything), but in culture.”

Soon after that Herling read most of Kundera’s books in translations into Western languages. He especially valued The Joke; he appreciatively noted how the author “bravely defends the importance of the novel and its chances for further flourishing.” With time, however, he started having second thoughts about the work of the Czech writer. Just a few months later, in October 1980, after reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he refrained to comment. Just as he did years later, having read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In 1983 he distanced himself from Kundera’s view that perceiving Kafka’s novels as religious parables was wrong, and from his suggestion to “narrow down Kafka’s visions to a social and human premonition of totalitarianism.” And finally, in February 1987—at the height of Kundera’s international career—he launched a frontal attack.

It was triggered by Kundera’s attitude to Russia. After reading the essay called “The introduction to variations,” where the Czech writer expressed his aversion to Dostoyevsky (and, implicitly, to the Russians), Herling wrote: “Kundera’s accusatory tone smacks of a travesty of common sense. […] You may like Dostoyevsky or not. […] But to look at Dostoyevsky through Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague or vice versa?”

In the same entry in his Journal, Herling distanced himself from the idea of Central Europe popularized by Kundera: “I am also somewhat distrustful of the nostalgic banner of Central Europe suddenly spread by Kundera, for I sense here a method for ignoring the Russians in the name of ‘our ties with the West’. For the nations conquered and enslaved by the Soviet Union it would be a heavy, if not mortal sin of myopia.”

From then on, as it seems, Herling ceased to believe in the artistic and intellectual value of Kundera’s late works. He simply mocked his next three books. This is how he wrote about Immortality: “As the author of the excellent Joke entertains a taste for eroticism bordering on ‘immodesty’, Immortality becomes an obscenely long and obscenely bor- ing session of literary masturbation, to use the Latin word abhorred by Polish language purists. […] After the brilliant Joke [Kundera] did not succeed […] in overcoming a quite serious problem, namely what was his further writing to be about.”

As for Jacques and his Master, Kundera’s variation about Jacques the Fatalist, it was “his three-act tribute to Diderot, horrible, pathetic, straight out of boulevard theatre”. And this is what he wrote about Slowness: “La lenteur is Kundera’s first novel written in French, a horrible novel, clumsy, incredibly trivial, a dustbin of themes or episodes glued together by a trivial narrative and a large dose of dirty talk (tasteless and graceless); Kundera regards, and apparently always regarded, dirty talk as a necessary ingredient from the point of view of the ‘publishing ticket office’. […] The novel contains fragments which would never have come from under Kundera’s Czech pen. And he is probably proud of them, taking French salons by storm.”

But the most scathing criticism came in 1990, when Herling wrote: “The French quarterly Gulliver unearthed the Kundera-Havel duel from the turn of 1969 and supplemented the dossier with a fragment of Havel’s Disturbing the Peace, also containing an argument with Kundera. It is very much worth reading, not as particularly revelatory, but simply instructive, for ‘the people’s democracies’ used to be rife with intellectuals of Kundera’s ilk, while righteous and reasonable people like Havel were harder to find. […] In the 1950s Kundera belonged to the darlings of the regime: squabbles did sometimes occur, but the rulers generally valued the young writer, promoted, prized and awarded him. In the editorial introduction Gulliver compares his situation in Prague to the situation of Yevgeny Yevtushenko in Moscow. Although Havel participated in official Czech liter- ary life of the period, in Disturbing the Peace he recalls the malaise he always felt whenever he got himself caught up by the organizational machine of the Writer’s Union.”

It was only short before his death that Herling devoted to Kundera two brief entries kept in a slightly more favorable tone. On the other hand, his statements about Václav Havel were invariably approving. The first mention comes from September 1975 (“Yesterday I was shown a letter by the Czech playwright Václav Havel to [Gustáv] Husák”). We have to wait until 1990s for the next ones, but they regarded the presidency and never the writings of Havel. The author of The Power of the Powerless is “a great president, whom we can only envy the Czechs,” reads a typical assessment from March 1995.

Herling idealized the Czech setting of accounts with communism; he claimed, for example, that “after the downfall of the regime an immediate process of lustration and decommunization was necessary (only the Czechs did that in the entire bloc of ‘the People’s democracies’).” In May 1995, on re turning from his only visit in Prague, Herling wrote: “But I will never change my positive assessment of the Czech style of transition from communism to democracy—with a constitution, a law about the deposed regime, a wise president, a weak Left Front (a Czech counterpart of Polish post-communists), without the hypocrisy of alternance democratique. At the meeting with readers in the Polish Institute, after my speech kept in this vein, a Czech listener supposedly leaned towards his Polish neighbor and whispered: ‘What a dreamer!’ ”

Herling had long wanted to go to Bohemia, not only because of his fascination with the writings of Franz Kafka, but also under the impact of Magic Prague by Angelo Maria Ripellino, a close personal friend of his. In June 1976 he put down in his Journal a fully realistic description of his visit in Prague on the anniversary of Kafka’s death: he took part in a ceremony at the US embassy, he attended a lecture by “a former professor of the Prague University” who “published some of his works on Kafka under the penname Gregor Samsik.” An inspiration for this witty literary hoax was a brief note in Le Monde on the unveiling of a commemorative plaque to Kafka on the wall of the Schönborn Palace, the seat of the US Embassy in Prague.

In addition to these politicians and writers the Journal mentions such figures as Jaroslav Seifert, Bohumil Hrabal, Josef Škvorecký, Ivan Klíma, Otomar Krejča and the actors from Divadlo za Branou, Ota Filip, Arnošt Lustig, Eduard Goldstücker, František Kriegel, Josef Smrkovský, Jiří Pelikán, Antonín Liehm, Ivan Sviták, Zdeněk Mlynář, Karel Kosík, Jan Palach, Petruška Šustrová, Helena Stachová (the translator of a selection from The Journal into Czech), Pavel Tigrid, Jiří Lederer, Marketa Fialková, [Viktor] Stoilov, as well as “a young Prague lawyer Peter” [Petr] Pithart, ”jellylike” [Jan] Masaryk, “double-faced” [Ludvík] Svoboda, “doddery socialist careerist” [Bohumil] Laušman, [Zdeněk] Fierlinger “aka Quislinger,” Edvard Beneš, who “capitulated in February 1948,” Ota Šik, Gen. Jan Šejna, Antonín Kapek, and two anonymous diplomats whom the Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti supposedly meant to expel from Italy for their connections with the Red Brigades.

In total, on more than 3,000 pages of The Journal several dozen important figures from Czech (and Czechoslovak) culture and politics are mentioned. It will be no exaggeration to say that among Polish writers from the second half of the 20th century, Herling was one of the closest observers of Czech matters.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.