A Proustian moment in 1960s Czechoslovak Radio


By the mid 1960s political control over many aspects of cultural and social life in Czechoslovakia had relaxed considerably. This was the height of the “New Wave” in Czechoslovak cinema, in theatre socialist realism had long gone out of fashion and in music the swinging sixties were well under way. But it was not just through the music it was playing that Czechoslovak Radio tried to keep pace with the changes. One programme that broke the traditional mould was launched in 1966 and was called “The 33 Questions of Marcel Proust”. These were questions that the French novelist had compiled in the belief that by answering them you could better understand your inner self. In the programme, a well known personality would answer questions based on Proust’s list.

One of those invited was a gifted young writer, whose first plays had caused a stir at Prague’s Theatre on the Balustrade. He was none other than Václav Havel, and here he is, answering some of the questions, as posed by the actor, Josef Langmiller:

Josef Langmiller: “Which mistakes are you most willing to tolerate?”

Václav Havel: “Those which others don’t end up paying for.”

J.L.: “What is your favourite colour?”

V.H.: “I’m not sure. Maybe red.”

J.L.: “Your favourite flower?”

V.H.: “I don’t think we are entitled to evaluate natural objects in that way. Each flower knows why it’s the colour it is and not another colour. Each one has its own beauty and the meaning of that beauty is hidden from us.”

J.L.: “Which animals and birds?”

V.H.: “The same applies.”

J.L.: “Your favourite names?”

V.H.: “Since childhood I’ve liked the names Eliška and Václav. In the case of the second, it’s not because it’s my own name, but rather because Saint Václav [Wenceslas] has always been a favourite of mine.”

J.L.: “Your favourite prose writers?”

V.H.: “Well, there are a few… Kafka for example.”

Some food for thought there for scholars of Havel’s work, as delivered in his familiar gravelly tones. Another celebrated Czech writer who took part was the novelist Josef Škvorecký. He delivered his answers in a deadpan monotone, full of gallows humour.

Josef Langmiller.: “What would be the worst thing that could happen to you?”

Josef Škvorecký: “To be born again.”

J.L.: “What would you like to be if you were born again?”

J.Š: “I wouldn’t like to be born again.”

J.L.: “Your motto in life?”

J.Š: “Memento mori.”

J.L.: “How would you like to die?”

J.Š.: “Prenatally.”

J.L.: “Which gift of nature would you like to possess?”

J.Š: “Cynicism.”

J.L.: “What are you working on at the moment?”

J.Š.: “I’m not working.”

J.L.: “What led you to this work?”

J.Š: “Too much work.”

The series was immensely popular and ran for two years. One year after that, in August 1968, Warsaw Pact troops occupied Czechoslovakia. Václav Havel’s plays were soon banned and Josef Škvorecký fled to Canada, where he lives to this day.