Reading List: Havel and Beyond
2. Joseph Brodsky’s two volumes of essays, “Less Than One” and “On Grief and Reason”; particularly “Less Than One,” “On Tyranny,” “The Child of Civilization.” Also, the transcript of his 1964 trial, as written down by Frieda Vigdorova—it appears on the web http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/7193 and, in eloquent bits and pieces, in biographies like Lev Loseff’s new work on Brodsky.
3.Nadezhda Mandelshtam, the widow of the great poet Osip Mandelshtam, who died in Stalin’s camps, wrote two volumes of memoirs— “Hope Against Hope” and “Hope Abandoned“—which describe the daily existence of the mind and body and soul under totalitarianism better than any other prose imaginable.
4. Czeslaw Milosz, who died in 2004, wrote “The Captive Mind” after leaving Poland in the early 1950s; it describes the internal processes of capitulation to the totalitarian state. Like Brodsky, Milosz considered himself first, second, and third a poet, but while Brodsky is, without question, the singular Russian poet of his generation, his translations, many done by himself, are inconsistent at best; Milosz, with help from the American poet Robert Hass, lives more easily in English verse than his great friend and fellow Nobel Laureate. There is also a fine edition of Milosz’s selected prose called “To Begin Where I Am.”
5. Who reads any longer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and “The Gulag Archipelago”? Solzhenitsyn was not the only Russian to write of the camps during the Soviet era (Varlam Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales” is one of many other examples), but he was the first insider to describe the camp system it on the epic scale. Even today, its moral force and descriptive set pieces read like Dante’s tour of hell.
6. Andrei Sakharov, who died in 1989 in the midst of a fierce political battle against the crumbling Communist Party hierarchy, wrote the story of his life as a physicist, dissident, and political prisoner in “Memoirs.” (A more slender postscript volume, “Moscow and Beyond,” takes up his last years in Moscow after retuning from internal exile with his wife, Yelena Bonner, in Gorky.) The ethereal, yet diamond hard, tone of Sakharov’s humanity and thinking is most precisely and movingly located in his 1968 essay, “Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Peace.” I especially love the conclusion to his Nobel Lecture:
Thousands of years ago, tribes of human beings suffered great privations in the struggle to survive. In this struggle it was important not only to be able to handle a club, but also to possess the ability to think reasonably, to take care of the knowledge and experience garnered by the tribe, and to develop the links that would provide cooperation with other tribes. Today the entire human race is faced with a similar test. In infinite space many civilizations are bound to exist, among them civilizations that are also wiser and more “successful” than ours. I support the cosmological hypothesis which states that the development of the universe is repeated in its basic features an infinite number of times. In accordance with this, other civilizations, including more “successful” ones, should exist an infinite number of times on the “preceding” and the “following” pages of the Book of the Universe. Yet this should not minimize our sacred endeavors in this world of ours, where, like faint glimmers of light in the dark, we have emerged for a moment from the nothingness of dark unconsciousness of material existence. We must make good the demands of reason and create a life worthy of ourselves and of the goals we only dimly perceive.
7. Yelena Bonner, who died earlier this year, was not merely Sakharov’s wife and loyalist (though she certainly was that). Her memoirs, “Alone Together” and “Mothers and Daughters,” take in as much of the Soviet experience as Mandelshtam.
8. Norman Manea, a Romanian writer who was deported as a child to a Transnistria concentration camp by the pro-Nazi authorities, became a remarkable novelist and essayist who was finally forced into exile in 1986. (He lives in New York and teaches at Bard.) His essays, “On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist,” and his autobiographical work, “The Hooligan’s Return,” are remarkable works, describing the Romanian regime and Manea’s struggles against it.
9. Danilo Kis is the most remarkable Yugoslav novelist that I know of, but the most telling prose documents of the era came from the Communist-Party-official-turned-dissident, Milovan Djilas. His books “New Class,” “Conversations With Stalin,” and “Memoir of a Revolutionary” provide the rare view from inside from a liberated voice.
10. A final recommendation (because the list could go on and on, including Gyorgy Konrad’s “Anti-Politics” and dozens of others): The most remarkable Western chronicler of the liberation movements that saw their culmination in 1989 is Timothy Garton Ash. Fluent in Polish and German, an Oxford historian with a Fleet Street metabolism, Garton Ash was writing from Eastern and Central Europe (particularly in the New York Review of Books) when nearly everyone else saw the region as static and uninteresting. His books from that period—”The Polish Revolution: Solidarity” (1984); “The Uses of Adversity: Essays on the Fate of Central Europe” (1989); “The Magic Lantern” (1990); “In Europe’s Name” (1993); and “The File” (1997)—form a picture far more vivid, and immensely more accurate, than anything in overrated volumes of revolution like “Ten Days That Shook The World.” Garton Ash was a close friend to Havel, and the portrait he paints of the great man in “The Uses of Adversity” and “The Magic Lantern” are almost as keen and thrilling as the portrait that, over time, Havel drew of himself.