By Harold B. Segel.
Columbia University Press. 405 pp. $75.
For Czech novelist Milan Kundera, now approaching the magic age of 80, at which eminent authors often find themselves lauded by the literary world, the last two weeks might seem a series of twists on the already tricky titles of his books.
Unbearable Lightness of Being
once noted by the longtime Parisian expatriate - widely disdained by many countrymen even though they recognize his aesthetic gifts - just grew heavier.
Life Is Elsewhere
recalled to many minds Kundera's decision to leave his homeland while fellow writer Václav Havel and others stayed and resisted communism; Kundera's own career now twitches under the magnifying glass in Prague. The author's notion of a
Book of Laughter and Forgetting
has been replaced by a book of anguish and remembering in a land still only partly recovered from a half-century of oppression.
On Oct. 13, an article in the Czech weekly Respekt reported that a document discovered by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes described Kundera as the person who, in 1950, informed on a Western intelligence agent, sending that man to imprisonment at hard labor for 14 years. As a student, Kundera did join the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, though it later expelled him for criticizing its authoritarian acts.
In France, Kundera immediately denounced the report as false, the "assassination of an author." This week, he threatened to sue Respekt for libel if it doesn't apologize. Czechs and literary observers everywhere have taken sides. Some believe the report confirms Kundera's selfishness throughout his career. Others, including the preternaturally generous Havel, doubt the document's accuracy. Many lament the way the incident has invoked the atmosphere of moral compromise that Czechs experienced under indirect Soviet rule, and that Tom Stoppard's play
Rock 'n' Roll
, currently at the Wilma, expertly dissects.
For interested parties watching from afar, the incident also reminds us of the always-present connection between literature and its political surroundings, how what we used to call "Eastern European literature" has fallen from wide attention.
Back in the 1970s and '80s, writers of so-called Eastern Europe - figures such as Czechoslovakia's Kundera, Havel and Ivan Klima, Hungary's György Konrád, and Yugoslavia's Danilo Ki - riveted American readers with their brave, ironic, sophisticated shapings of their culture's agonies and triumphs into art.
But leaving aside scheduled classroom discussions of Kafka, when was the last time you heard intellectuals and artists arguing about an "Eastern European" writer? After 1989 and the "normalization" of the former Soviet bloc, the drama of "writer vs. state" receded. The spotlight moved elsewhere, in recent years to Indian, Chinese and Spanish-language writers.
The single newly published volume that enables one to size up and resist this long, strange spiral of brilliant literature into obscurity is Harold B. Segel's
Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945
. Despite its reference-book title, it's a one-man show, the magisterial synthesis of a Columbia University professor emeritus of Slavic literatures whose 14 books display the same synoptic touch shown here. (Imagine possessing the scholarly chops needed to write this earlier one:
Turn-of-the-century Cabaret: Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Cracow, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Zurich
Here, Segel examines the literatures of 15 countries: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, East Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine.
And you thought you were well-read?
Because Segel proceeds thematically, organizing chapters under titles such as "Internal Exile and the Literature of Escape" and "The House of Cards Collapses: The Literary Fallout of the Yugoslav Crises of the 1990s," his narrative takes quirky turns, revisiting in different chapters such writers as the Albanian Ismail Kadare, or Kundera himself, as their works exemplify his themes.
That's a small price to pay, however, for the immense erudition, insight and scope Segel brings to his vast territory, pointing out, for instance, Kadare's comfortable relationship with Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha in the bad old days, or the exaggerated claims in Slovakian literature about resistance to Nazism, or - presciently - the focus in such Kundera novels as
Life Is Elsewhere
on informing and its consequences.
Over and over, Segel supports his initial claim that the "literature of Eastern Europe is a mirror of the calamities, and extraordinary changes, that have occurred throughout the region" since World War II.
If you have a taste for serious European writing, you'll find yourself constantly marking Segel's brisk accounts of scores of remarkable books and writers - many accompanied by sharp commentary and contextualization - so you can hunt them down in translation.
Beyond that, Segel's unequaled breadth in covering how Eastern European writers reacted to their 20th-century traumas, from 1939 to the post-communist breakup of nation-states into smaller states, puts the singular case of Kundera into crystal-clear perspective.
As Segel notes, "although communism is no longer a political force in Eastern Europe, its legacy continues to be actively debated, and its capacity for disrupting people's lives is manifestly evident."
Just ask Mr. Kundera.