Jan Novák: the man who lived Miloš Forman

Jan Novák, photo: David Vaughan

When Jan Novák describes himself as Miloš Forman’s autobiographer, he is not entirely joking. He really did co-write the most famous Czech-American film director’s memoirs, and Forman himself has spoken of the book as “my life as lived by Jan Novák”. But Jan Novák is a great deal more than a biographer.

Jan Novák,  photo: David Vaughan
He is best known for his hugely successful and award-winning novel “So Far So Good”. Crossing the borders of documentary and fiction, the book tells the story of two brothers’ dramatic escape from communist Czechoslovakia in 1953, the year when Novák was born. His novels and stories have also taken us below the surface of the Czech community in Chicago and into some of the less savoury corners of corporate America. David Vaughan met Jan Novák in a Prague café to talk about his writing and his life on both sides of the Atlantic.

We are in a café in a vaulted room in one of the old gates built into the fortifications of the city. Why did you choose this place for us to meet?

“Because I live around the corner from here.”

So this is one of your local haunts…

“It’s convenient, but I don’t really hang out here too much, because they have fairly strange hours. It is actually a former gate in the direction of Písek, which I thought lies on the other side – because we’re on the north side of the Castle – but somehow it’s called the Písecká brána [Písek Gate], although Písek’s on the other side of Prague. So I like that paradox as well.”

One of the many mysteries of Prague…


And on that subject, maybe we should go straight into a reading, because you’ve written a book with a very unusual title – which you’ll tell us in a minute – which looks at many different aspects of Prague.

‘Commies,  Crooks,  Gypsies,  Spooks and Poets’
“The book is called ‘Commies, Crooks, Gypsies, Spooks and Poets’ and it’s my adventure in the border zone of genre, because it combines elements of essays, autobiography and travelogue, centring on Prague and basically describing our experiences as a family in 1992-93, when I brought my American kids here and we lived here as communism was dying out.”

So let’s hear you read a short extract from the book.

“The subtitle of the book is ‘Thirteen Books of Prague in the Year of Great Lice Epidemic’, and this excerpt is from the ‘Guidebook of Prague’. It breaks down into small chapters, which is something I do generally because I like to keep the purpose of each chapter or each piece of my text clear. So the book starts with a little chapter called ‘Logic of Beauty’:”

What makes a city? A river. And what makes a river? An old stone bridge. And what makes a bridge? Some hills to admire it from. And what makes the hills? A castle of ancient kings.

“…and then there’s the ‘Applied Logic of Beauty’ and there are all these legends of Prague. And finally the whole book ends with a short chapter called ‘Index’:”

Prague was the place where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed music; Albert Einstein taught physics; Franz Kafka adjudicated insurance claims; Reiner Maria Rilke wore the dresses of his dead sister; Jaroslav Hašek stole dogs and Jaroslav Seifert stole kisses.

In those two little “chapters”, you are embracing the many layers of history in Prague. You were sixteen when you and your parents emigrated just after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Was it a shock going to America, where there isn’t the same sense of being surrounded by a history that goes back many centuries in the way there is in Prague?

August 1968 in Prague
“We left one year after the invasion in 1969 and we spent a year in Austria, in a refugee camp, so there was a buffer. The time in the refugee camp was completely ahistorical, so in a way I was coming from a rather ahistorical, radical situation into a place that was just starting to wake up to history. America has changed tremendously in the forty years that I’ve known it. When I came to Chicago there was hardly any decent theatre and stuff. Eventually, twenty years later, I would be going to Steppenwolf Theatre, where John Malkovich was just starting to get his acting jobs and there was a tremendous outburst – David Mamet too – of creativity.”

A lot of teenagers, who left Czechoslovakia after the 1968 invasion, became Americans – turning their backs, in many ways, on Czechoslovakia. You clearly didn’t, because your first published book was actually written in Czech, albeit in a very particular type of Czech. You wrote this book in the 1970s, at a time when, presumably, you didn’t think it would be read in Czechoslovakia.

“The book is called ‘Striptease Chicago’ and I wrote it to make money. There was a contest at the University of Chicago, where I went to school, which paid $1,000 to the winning short story. I’d been writing poetry till then. I wrote it in Czech and translated it into English. I got a letter from Josef Škvorecký, who had started his publishing house, Sixty-Eight Publishers, in Toronto, saying that someone had sent him my story, and he liked what he read. He asked me if I had more stories like that – that he’d like to publish a book of stories of mine. So I sat down and wrote four more stories, which I kind of interconnected – so it has the feel of a novel. And he published it.”

It’s interesting to be writing as a Czech – and in Czech – about a context that isn’t Czech.

“It was still pretty much a Czech context – it was the Czech émigrés, the way they spoke. The language was infested with English words. And so the dialogues in the book are written in the way I heard people talking around me. But it’s basically about Czechs. I’ve gone through a transformation as a writer. I started out writing in Czech about Czechs for Czechs, and then I migrated all the way to a book, ‘The Grand Life’, which wasn’t translated into Czech, where I write in English about Americans for Americans. And since then I’ve been back-tracing, because now I’m here and lately I’ve been writing in Czech for Czechs about Czechs.”

I’d like to ask you about “The Grand Life”, because it shows again your fascination with language. It looks, with a great deal of irony, at the language of the computer generation, of the computer world, and its jargon.

“I worked for ten years for Illinois Bell as a supervisor in computer operations and the book, ‘The Grand Life’ is straight from that experience, and it is inspired by the nonsensical language around computers.”

You wrote that book in the 1980s. Since then society has gone a great deal further – and at high speed – in the direction of that kind of language becoming mainstream. It is gradually spreading into all aspects of life, isn’t it?

“That’s true. People now talk about rebooting their memories and exactly the language I use in the book is seeping into everyday discourse.”

Are you frightened by that?

“The speed is somewhat frightening to somebody who’s getting older, but I think it’s just a normal course of events.”

A writer who has also shown a considerable interest in what language does to us and in nonsensical “newspeak” is Václav Havel, writing in a very different context of totalitarian Czechoslovakia. You adapted his play, ‘The Garden Party’ to an American context. It became ‘The Office Party’. You took it to modern corporate America. How easy was it, given that you’re no longer talking about a situation where the state has total control over information and language? Whatever you have in corporate America, you don’t quite have that, do you?

“Well, I think it’s kind of nearing to it, because of the efficiency of big brother America, as opposed to the inefficiency of the big brother here when the totalitarian pressure was much larger. There’s now probably as much fear among people working in offices as there might have been back then when the state just wasn’t that efficient at getting information. I saw that the Marxist frame of reference of the ‘Garden Party’ translation that I had seen was dated, but I thought that the rest of the themes of the play made it a marvellous comedy.

“It’s a play in the tradition of the theatre of the absurd, where Havel himself says that the main character is the phrase. The characters are all office people, fighting these wars over information and sucking up to their bosses and trying to hold onto their jobs within a company where it’s not clear what it produces and what it’s good for. It’s basically about these relationships of people frightened by language and frightened by language’s power. Information is power; everyone tries to obtain as much information as possible, hoard it for themselves, not give it on, and the relationships are defined by language and these informational power games. And it’s very funny.”

And I’d like to ask you about your cooperation with another of the Czech living legends, Miloš Forman. You’re the co-author of his autobiography, if I can put it that way.

“I am his autobiographer!”

Is that how he puts it?

“No, it’s how I put it. He says: ‘It’s my life as lived by Jan Novák, which is a bon mot, which paradoxically sums up what it is like to write this kind of book with someone who is fairly reticent about talking about his life, as Forman is. I had to get all the facts about particular incidents in his life, but he wasn’t used to talking about it in emotional terms – like his childhood and stuff – so I wrote it almost as a novel. Miloš eventually went over it and corrected whatever he corrected – very little – and it became a version of his life.”

When his film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” came out [1975], it was a huge phenomenon in cinematography worldwide, but what most people in America probably don’t know is the personal context of Miloš Forman’s life – first of all the Second World War and then his experience of exile. In the book, are you trying to put his career as a filmmaker into the context of his life?

“I was trying to describe his life from within, somehow. He first tried to be a theatre director and didn’t make it. He failed a talent exam when he was applying – which blows my mind because he is lavishly talented! So he could have drifted off into the world of the theatre and been consumed by it. So there are all these forks. At one point he had a nervous breakdown in a way, couldn’t get out of bed for three months after his first American film failed, and there was a possibility still of going back to Czechoslovakia, which would have made a whole different life. So there are all these crossroads where he made certain decisions, which determined how his life is. So I was trying to show the flow of life, where you make decisions as you go along and I wasn’t standing back and looking at the totality of his life and seeing how different pieces fit together, because I know they were assembled haphazardly.”

‘Loves of a Blond’
Do you have a favourite Miloš Forman film?

“Yes, I do: ‘Loves of a Blond’ [1965]. It’s perfect, I think. When I look at it these days, it looks like a documentary with a great story, great amusing scenes; there’s not a syllable out of place in the way that people talk. It just sounds completely like the world I grew up in. And it’s got a really wonderful story of a girl working in a shoe factory in a town where the gender combination is fourteen-to-one in favour of women. The army tries to correct it by placing a platoon of soldiers there, but they wind up being reservists. There is a dance and this girl gets picked up by a piano player. He kind of uses her and disappears and she believes that he’s in love with her and goes looking for him in Prague, and winds up in his parents’ apartment. So it’s a very touching story of a girl looking for love and being used by the world because she’s too naïve and acquiring a basic knowledge of how to navigate these existential straits.”

Miloš Forman seems to have a soft spot for naivety, for people who naively go out and do their own thing. Do you share that naïve look on life? I have the feeling that you probably do.

“What I keep finding in his work is this theme of an outsider looking in with his nose pressed to the glass, into a world that really doesn’t accept him, somehow making a stand against it, or within it, whether it’s McMurphy in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ or the blond. Often there’s a scene where somebody else is talking about one of the characters in their presence with a third person, discussing their life in front of them in fairly disparaging terms. Miloš lost both of his parents to the Germans and from the age of eight he was handed over from relative to relative and survived basically on the kindness of strangers. So he probably heard his own situation discussed by people in fairly derogatory terms. That’s one of the situations that keep coming back, and I think that’s not my story psychologically. I have different issues.”

Your best known novel is “So Far, So Good” [2004]. It tells a highly controversial story of a group of men, who at the height of the Stalinist regime here in Czechoslovakia literally shot their way to freedom – the Mašín brothers, together with Milan Paumer and a group that had decided to take up arms against the regime. To this day their story is highly controversial. What made you choose to tell that story?

“It’s an incredibly gripping adventure story of larger-than-life actions, such as I would be really excited to tell other people about. I’m always looking for signs of something arousing such excitement in me, because I know then I’m going to write my best stuff about it.”

Opinions about the Mašín brothers are polarized, especially in this country. There are those who see them as heroes, who were among the very few who were willing to take up arms against the new, hardline communist order, and others see them as opportunists, who were willing to shoot innocent bystanders on their way to fighting their way out of Czechoslovakia. I suspect that you sympathize rather more with those who see them as heroes.

“In the book I try to present their story in a neutral way, leaving it up to the reader as much as possible. But in my mind I’m very clear on the fact that they were totally justified in what they were doing. I think the highest value in human life is freedom, and a lot of the people who are against them here don’t known all the facts of the situation and also have some sort of guilt about collaborating with the regime in some way. Basically, they fought the communists, who were, by then, executing totally innocent people, were keeping people inside the country, running roughshod over the country and who had declared class struggle until death, which they thought they would win. The Mašín brothers were fighting the regime by the same means as their father had employed in fighting the Germans, which meant basically that anybody wearing a uniform and strapping on a gun to protect this murderous regime is fair game. And they didn’t kill any innocent bystanders. All the people they killed were armed on behalf of this regime.”

I have the feeling from what you are saying that you see this as a particularly sore point in recent Czech history and in the Czech psyche today – that this sort of heroism isn’t acceptable, or isn’t considered by many people to be acceptable, because there are so few cases where people have behaved in such a way in the last fifty or sixty years.

“Yes, Czechs have a real problem with heroes, I agree completely with what you’ve said, because survival here was often predicated on dissimilation – pretending one thing and doing another thing in order to survive. Everybody is kind of implicated in this way of reacting. Everything is done by indirect means. So two heroes, who meet things head-on and wrestle them head-on are not appreciated.”

It’s paradoxical in a sense that you’ve gone from Czechoslovakia – now the Czech Republic – to America, where it’s the exact opposite. Everything is seen as far more clear-cut. But that is probably the privilege of big nations, big countries, isn’t it?

“Yes, and maybe I have been infected with it.”

One of the problems with telling true stories through fiction is that, while the historian is gathering as many facts as possible and trying to process them, if as a writer of fiction you run out of facts, nobody is going to complain if you invent a little bit to fill in the gaps. But the reader will be reading it as if it were a true story and won’t necessarily recognize where the research ends and the imagination begins.

“Obviously, there are two alternatives. You can write purely historical accounts, taking in all the facts that remain, which will give you a very small view on what happened, or you can try to re-imagine it as it happened at the time, something passing through consciousness that’s recording it. There is no true version.”

You’re currently living in the Czech Republic again. Do you think you’re here to stay?

“I am happy here. I don’t know if I’ll stay here because I live here while there’s a tenant in my townhouse in Chicago, who’s paying my mortgage. I’m living here with my daughter and my wife. My son is in Chicago, and I kind of miss America at times, but life here is good at the moment. I’ve a bunch of projects that I’m working on, so at the moment I’m happy here. But I don’t know if I’ll stay. I’m still paying taxes in America and I’m here with only one foot basically.”

Do you feel a bit of schizophrenia between Jan Novák, the Czech and John Novak the American?

“Yes, definitely, and I think a lot of the émigrés wind up in this schizophrenic position. But it’s schizophrenic and enriching at the same time.”

And are you writing something at the moment?

“I’m shooting a documentary about army hockey under communism. It’s a kind of documentary comedy. The best teams in sports here were army teams. What kind of soldiers were these guys who were hockey players? What kind of officers were their coaches? What would they have done in case of war?”

Will that be completed at some time in the next few months?

“Yes, it’s supposed to be completed by March, but I suppose we’ll extend it by a couple of months – maybe by next summer.”