Ludvík Kundera: Of Tea and Dada
10. December 2007 18:01
And the poets? What do the poets perform For the weeping world? (Jaroslav Seifert, 'Raindrops')
Kunstat nestles in a fold of undulating countryside that marks theeastern edge of the Bohemian-Moravian Uplands. Overlooking its broadmain street, stands the old house where Ludvik Kundera has lived forover a quarter of a century. Entering the house soon draws the visitorinto a world of tea-infusions and dada, two life-long Kundera passionsrecently marked by published volumes on the subjects. Conversation tooin all likelihood turns eventually to Frantisek Halas, whom Kunderafirst met in Kunstat and who lies buried in the nearby cemetery. But,equally, Kundera's readiness to talk of past associations with HansArp, Alfred Kubin, Bertolt Brecht, Peter Huchel and others tells of anearly desire for involvement on the wider front of european culturaldevelopment in the twentieth century. In his youth, Kundera's ownstudies were perforce terminated with the closing of Czech universitiesfollowing the German Occupation. Born in the spring of 1920 in Brno, hewas in his third semester. But an interest in literature and thetheatre was already aroused and his first verse appeared in Mladdkultura before the war. He had also embarked upon what was to be alife-long affaire de coeur with the art of translation - his firstventure, a schoolboy attempt to produce a Czech version of poems fromHeine's Buch der Lieder. Both Czech and German were spoken in the home(his father was Czech, his mother half-Austrian, half-Hungarian) andthe house was well stocked with books. The beginnings of linguistic andcultural interaction were in place.
The following year after the assassination of Heydrich, Kunderawas sent to a forced-labour camp in Berlin-Spandau, but diphtheria lefthim so seriously ill that he was allowed to return in 1944 to Brno.During and after convalescence, he still continued translating from theGerman, pursuing his quest for linguistic/cultural affinities in theliterature of the current oppressors in tandem with his own writingthrough the war, despite ever-tighter censorship, of Resistancepoetry.1 For Kundera and indeed the Czech people at the time, Halas,together with Seifert and Holan in the van of intellectual resistance,proved a hugely significant inspiration. Halas would remain friend andmentor to the young writer up to his own premature death in 1949. Forhis part, Kundera has acknowledged that friendship and the importanceof Halas in twentieth-century Czech literature ever since - fromdefending that writer's name against Stalinist denigration in the earlyFifties to editing Halas' works in five volumes (1968-1988), as well asin his own numerous writings, including the first ever biography inCzech (Frantisek Halas (1999)).
In June 1946, before Eastern Europeans began to encounter travelrestrictions to the West, Kundera went to Paris. He was seekingpossible new books for a Czech publishing house. The French capital, solong a magnet for the artistic avant-garde, was once more beckoningwith revived vibrancy. Kundera was in his mid-twenties. Besides a visitto the studio of Francis Picabia, a chance meeting in a cafe with HansArp led to an association lasting two decades to the latter's death.Already by the start of 1944 Kundera had become interested in Arp - andhence in Dada as well as Surrealism, a strong tendency in Prague beforethe war. Better known as painter, graphic artist and sculptor, Arp wasalso a poet, and how the bilingual Alsatian approached languageparticularly intrigued the Moravian. If Halas proved a rich seam ofCzech myth and history (the past seen as a moral ideal and bond withthe future), generating a national context for Kundera's own writing,Arp was arguably the first living writer/artist Kundera met to providean international dimension. Arp would remain his favourite poet.2 Whatespecially attracted Kundera was the sense of lyric humour that Arpinstilled in his verse as well as a penchant for striking imagery andword associations that disregarded grammatical connections andbordered on the absurd - immediately exemplified in Weifit du schwarztdu (1930), a copy of which Karel Teige, a leading Czech avant-gardetheoretician of the 1920s and '30s, lent Kundera. Arp's intentions fora poetry that was 'without sense', whereby the alogical becomes thenormal, leading to a new consciousness of life, clearly struck a chordwith Kundera. The Dada tradition of revolt, first generated for Kunderain those final dark years of Nazi occupation, would resonate furtherduring the communist regime in his sustained interest in the poetry ofArp, Schwitters, Huelsenbeck, Ball and others with its aesthetic andpolitical orientation.
The immediate post-war years held much promise. Kundera'sinterest in Dadaism and Surrealism led him to become a founding memberof the neo-surrealist group Ra (1945-49), linking up with the artistsBohdan Lacina, Josef Istler, Vaclav Tikal and Vaclav Zykmund, thewriter Zdenek Lorenc and the photographers Vilem Reichmann and MilosKorecek. On the literary front, his 1947 Czech version of theExpressionist Alfred Kubin's Die andere Seite was amongst the first ofseveral translations then beginning to appear in different languages ofthat 'fantastic novel' (seen by critics as a forerunner to Kafka'stales) which enjoyed a remarkable revival following its originalpublication in 1908. He undertook the editing of the monthly artists'review Blok and co-edited the culture section of the daily Rovnost andby 1948 had three volumes of verse and two prose collections of his ownpublished.
But Kundera and fellow Czechs were also facing the realizationthat a further readjustment in their thinking was inevitable as thecommunist thrust gathered momentum in the post-war era. Debate on thedirection literature should take vis-a-vis socialist methods andcreative freedom had already been pursued in 1946 at the Congress ofCzech Writers. After February, 1948 the issue was effectively resolved.Kundera's own party membership and occasional writing of conventionalverse (eg. 'Treptow Park') was never sufficient to make the authoritiesoverlook his Dada/Surrealist predilections so clearly distant from thedemands of social realism. Their interference 'from above' ensured thathis contact with Arp in these years remained intermittent, with somecorrespondence disappearing altogether. Nevertheless he did edit Hostdo domu, the monthly journal of the Brno Branch of the Czech WritersUnion, in the mid-Fifties and the temporary thaw in cultural-politicalrelations following the death of Stalin enabled Kundera to benefit froma two-month visit in 1954 to East Germany, not least - in terms of hisown future theatre activities - from the immediate impact of attendinga number of rehearsals by Brecht's Berlin Ensemble of The CaucasianChalk Circle. His meeting with Brecht in East-Berlin and theirsubsequent association for the next two years to Brecht's death provedof great and extended significance. Armed with the German dramatist'swritten authorization, Kundera started translating Brecht's plays inthe late-Fifties.3 His versions - some in collaboration with RudolfVapenik - of, for example, Baal, Coriolanus, The Good Person ofSezuan,The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage,Galileo, Arturo Ui, would all be used for Czech stagings of Brecht'splays. Indeed the staging of Evzen Sokolovsky's production of Arturo Ui(the choice of play with its theme of fascism and war is here relevant)at the State Theatre, Brno in 1959 achieved a breakthrough in thereception of Brecht in Czechoslovakia.
Through that cultural thaw and his interest in Germanliterature, Kundera got to know many East German writers in thoseyears, not least Peter Huchel, now accepted as a truly authentic poeticvoice in twentieth-century German letters. But as editor of theprestigious journal Sinn und Form (to which Kundera contributed),Huchel himself had experienced difficulties with thr authorities in theFifties for not sufficiently toeing the party line. Indeed, ii theearly Sixties, he was forced to resign from the editorship andforbidden t< publish. Kundera's poetic rapport with Huchel hadalready resulted in the publication of his Czech versions of the firsttwo collections of the latter'; verse.4 His own first major play TotalCock-Crow (Totdlni kuropeni) (1961)5 an 'Occupation' play based on lifein a wartime labour-camp (therefore redolent of his own experiences)was dedicated to Huchel. It was Kundera's visit and week-long stay in1963 at Huchel's 'exile' retreat in Wilhelmshorst, with the Stasi carparked outside, that accentuated the solidarity involved, inducingHuchel to write warmly of the Czech as "the only friend in difficultyears".6 This conscious act of friendship in turn brought Kundera tothe uncomfortable attentions of the cultural functionaries in Prague.Moreover, his monograph of Huchel, commissioned by the Academy of Artsin East Berlin to mark Huchel's 60th birthday and already welladvanced, was abruptly dropped. Yet Kundera's action at the time wasnot a solitary act of defiance. The current struggle by Czechs to getthe anxiety-ridden, largely surrealist tales of Prague-born Kafkapublished in Czech had become a rallying cry for intellectuals in theirdemand for more freedom of expression.
The Prague Spring merely delayed the hard-line response.Kundera, in common with other Czech writers and artists, enjoyed thebrief surge of creative freedom.7 He was able, already in 1966, toundertake trips to Austria, West Germany, Italy and Yugoslavia; wasco-founder of the group Q (1967-70); and spent the years 1968-70 asdramaturg at Brno, working in the theatre with the head of drama MilosHynst - little enough time for the nature of the job, which Kunderalikened to a building with four floors, where he felt stuck between theground and the first! But the suppression following Dubcek'sshort-lived political experiment brought Kundera's expulsion from theParty in 1970 and barring from publishing. The Seventies and earlyEighties proved hard times for him professionally (he chose to stayrather than go into exile like his cousin Milan) and for his family. In1976 they left Brno for the Moravian countryside and Kunstat. Kunderahad no wish to shut himself away in a house of sadness as described inlines by his friend and fellow-poet Jan Skacel. But the joys of thoseyears were few. A mood of withdrawal yet also defiant resolve onKundera's part underlies such poems as 7 hope' and 7 have decided' withtheir irony and reflection and use of the first-person singular.
That Brecht's plays ceased to be performed in the Seventies inCzech theatres was due to the cultural functionaries' unwillingness for the translations of Kundera and Vapenfk to be used. Officialattempts were even made - in the event, unavailingly - to persuadeBrecht's daughter to withdraw her father's original authorization. Itwas then too, when Kundera was effectively persona non grata in his ownland, that his East-German writer-friends displayed their solidaritytowards him. Franz Fiihmann made possible the publication in 1978 inLeipzig of Kundera's selection of the Czech poet Vitezslav Nezval'swork (to mark the twentieth anniversary of the latter's death).Similarly, Fiihmann was the inspiration in 1974 behind Kundera'seditorship of the two-volumed Die Sonnenuhr (The Sundial). The mostcomprehensive anthology of Czech lyric poetry over eleven centuries inGerman translation to-date, it was eventually published 1986-87, againby the Reclam Verlag. A new up-dated edition appeared in 1993.
Furthermore in the Seventies, Kundera drew on the experiencegained during the Nazi Occupation of the tradition of writing andproducing clandestinely in times of oppression, in a series of zamisdatpublications. A dozen of these small-run bibliophile editions (eachlittle volume comprising half graphic art, half verse from varioushands) appeared before visits from the secret police. Occasional piecesof his were printed too under the name of friends who were able topublish and prepared to 'lend' their name. But essentially his ownplays and verse, which Huchel, a decade earlier, had encouraged Kunderato spend more time on, as against translating activities, had to stayin the bottom-drawer. Indeed it was to the internal exile oftranslating that Kundera retreated for his basic spiritual - andfinancial -survival. The tradition of translating has of course been amarked feature of Czech literary life - the classic attempt of asmaller nation to gain access to a wider cultural world in its desireto reach out for communion of mind and spirit, a means of dialogue. Forhistorical reasons, the German language long provided for Czechs theway into that larger arena in the first instance. Hence the irony ofKundera's conscious decision to continue translating from the Germanduring the war, rather than refuse to use that language. Hence, afterthe war, the establishing of the (for Kundera) understandable andpolitically feasible link with East Germany.
Few would have foretold the so rapid crumbling of communism twodecades after the Russian invasion. Even in 1987/88 Kundera was writing-with good-natured, yet almost romanticized wishfulness - a shortsequence of poems on Memories of places I have never been (a situationrectified in part at least by travel in subsequent years!). In theevent, the Velvet Revolution brought his name - quite literally -before the eyes of a wider public, when international TV newsprogrammes flashed on screen scenes of Czech citizens retrieving casefiles which the state secret police were trying evei then to incineratein those heady, confused days at the end of 1989. One sucl case file -charred at the edges, but the name of the targeted person stil legible- was held before the camera. It was that of Ludvik Kundera. Publurecognition came too in the shape of literary prizes and civic awards.Ar edition of his works in seventeen volumes started appearing from1994 undei the imprint of Atlantis, Brno. Alongside his own collecteddramatic texts fo) stage, radio and TV, his verse and prose, criticalpieces on artistic and literary movements, on individual artists andwriters, foreign and Czech, past and present, proliferate. Even so,translations spanning the various genres ovei centuries form the bulkof his output. And although concentrating on German writers from Arp,Boll, Celan, Morgenstern, Weiss, Huchel to Brecht, Trakl, Rilke, Heine,Grabbe, he has also toiled fruitfully in other linguistic fields,including translating the French Apollinaire, Desnos, Eluard, Char.Further, Kundera has displayed the reverse of the coin by helpingthrough his own translations into German to bring to the attention ofthose readers the poetry of such Czech writers as Biebl, Halas, Hrubin,Nezval.
Kundera's own writings - verse, prose and dramatic pieces -reflect a concern with history. Understandably, the trauma of GermanOccupation ('Audible fall 1938'), the Second World War (Berlin; TotalCock-Crow} and hopes for peace under the Russians ('Treptow Park'} wererecorded -sometimes with straightforward realism, sometimessurrealistically, occasionally conventionally. Reaction to thecultural-political difficulties of the Seventies in particular wasoften, though not exclusively, accorded sharper, ironic treatment (7hope'}. It was a time when the absence of tangible signs of hope madeKundera pause to reflect on the problematic nature of the creativeartistic process itself ('Loss of the keys'). However, optimism for abrighter future also gains poetic expression following 1989. Yet he isinterested in more than just contemporary history. Past history too haslessons to teach, if we are receptive. A major dramatic project ofKundera's, begun in the early Sixties and completed only in 1983, is aplay based on one of the so-called consoling writings of theseventeenth-century Moravian educational reformer and bishop Comenius,who wrote his work (it appeared in 1631) in the period when he hadfound shelter from religious persecution. Kundera's updated version(Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart} similarlymirrors a Pilgrim's Progress, where the young man, beset by varioustemptations along the way, must seek an understanding of life throughobservation and experience. In fact, Kundera views history in thewidest sense, returning in time to use Slavonic myth as a means ofsignposting eternal truths ('Hruden'}. Inexorably linked to myth inthis context as a source of reflecting - if not revealing - life'smysteries are nature and the seasons, not least winter ('Wintersolstice'). But, essentially, Kundera examines the whole field of humanrelationships to pinpoint human understanding and sympathy throughsmall gestures, happenings in a minor key ('A girl of'very bad repute',' In memoriam', 'Three juicy pears', 'Shoes, o you shoes!'). Such smallthings in life - the memory of them even -constitute Kundera's constantpoetic search for familiar signs that would form the bulwark ofstability in a hostile world. (By the same token, his readyidentification with Kunstat and Moravia (Uplands) marks his holdingonto a familiar topographical reality as against his expressions ofgood-humoured romanticized longing for places equally physically realyet for Kundera then still unattainable ('Labrador', 'Memory ofLisbon', 'Memory of New York')). It is a search that remains ongoing -to fix marker buoys in the sea of life ('Between Continents'), whichinvolves continual shifts of spatial and temporal perspectives, andeverything conceived, perceived through the eyes of a writer with theartist's concern with angle, line and shape as well as colour.