Robert McCrum: bringing out Havel and Kundera

Robert McCrum, photo: David Vaughan

In his twenty years as editor-in-chief of the publishers Faber and Faber, Robert McCrum introduced some of the best Czech writers, including Václav Havel, Milan Kundera and Josef Škvorecký, to English speaking readers. This was in the days before the fall of communism and his visits to Czechoslovakia involved a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. A few days ago Robert McCrum returned to the Czech Republic, to see how the country is faring on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion. He spoke to David Vaughan.

Robert McCrum,  photo: David Vaughan
Robert McCrum is an acclaimed writer and journalist in Britain. Currently an associate editor of the Observer, he has six novels to his name, and is co-author of the international bestseller, The Story of English. He is also a lifelong campaigner for freedom of speech, and this was what drew his attention to the plight of writers in Czechoslovakia during the period of “normalisation” in the 1970s and 80s. I began our conversation by asking him to recall his first visit to this country.

“The first time I came here, I came on the train. This was in the days of the divided Europe, so going by train was quite exciting. You had the passport control, policemen with dogs…”

This was in the early 1980s?

“Yes. I arrived in the Prague railway station and met a friend who went on to have quite a big career as a correspondent from Central Europe, Misha Glenny. He was in the middle of learning Czech first hand from various girlfriends if I remember rightly!”

And what about your experience?

“I think I had a fascination with what you might call the frisson of divided Europe and coming here was to experience a society which had been under Soviet repression for several decades of varying intensities. The thing that struck me was that, although on the surface there was the apparatus of state control, when you got behind the scenes into Czech homes and bars and pubs and so on, you found there was a lot of life and a lot of vitality. I remember enjoying myself immensely.”

How did you manage to get below the surface?

“I was coming here as the representative of a magazine in England called Index on Censorship, whose job was to monitor freedom and repression around the world. So I was coming with them – I was their spokesperson – and I had various contacts here, which I had been given by the editor of Index, a man called George Theiner.”

George Theiner – originally Jiří Theiner – was from Prague as well.

“He had fled Czechoslovakia and had set up as a translator and magazine editor in London. He was very well known in London as a spokesperson for disadvantaged and exiled Czechs. He was very keen to promote the magazine back in Prague and in Czechoslovakia, as it was then. He said to me that a thing that they don’t have in Prague is fresh fruit, so when you go, bring some fresh fruit. So, before I set out on this train journey, I went to a supermarket and bought a bag of bananas. So I arrived with a bag of bananas and a copy of Index on Censorship. I think the immigration control were so distracted by the bananas that they didn’t look for the magazines.”

Which is just as well. Have you ever wondered whether your name might turn up somewhere in the secret police archives?

Milan Kundera | Photo: Elisa Cabot,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“Well, of course you have the idea that you’re being followed by shadowy figures with their collars turned up, and I would occasionally think that maybe I was on some kind of roll-call. But I never had any trouble.”

Were you also writing about the atmosphere and the situation of people whom you met here and what they told you about freedom of speech and freedom of the press?

“I was personally and professionally very interested, because then I was editor-in-chief of Faber and Faber. I was editing and publishing Milan Kundera and Josef Škvorecký. So I know quite a lot about the literary scene. I was very privileged.”

Was there a lot of interest at the time in Czech writers in Britain?

“The phrase that comes to mind is the one that Penguin used. They described it as “Voices from Eastern Europe”. That was a series edited by Philip Roth. There was a brief period in the mid-80s when translated fiction was very popular and became incredibly fashionable. Kundera and Klíma were very fashionable. Hrabal was quite fashionable and Miroslav Holub was widely read. That wouldn’t be true now, but it was then, and it was a very important moment. I think it was because those writers seemed very exotic to English readers. Kundera was re-imagining the novel, remaking the novel. It was exciting and there was the frisson of work being smuggled out from behind the Iron Curtain.

“I could add one more thing that Milan Kundera, who was a huge bestseller at the time, at the time I met him had already left Czechoslovakia and was living in Paris. He in turn was becoming so in love with French and French culture that he was beginning to write in French. So my experience of Czech literature was rather peculiar as a result of this.”

Milan Kundera is quite reclusive when it comes to journalists, so what were your impressions of him?

“I got to know him because I was his editor and I knew he was famously reclusive. There was always a charade of secrecy involved. You were given a number. If you went to his apartment, in a street which I cannot reveal, you had to press a number or another number, or you had to phone twice. But he personally was delightful, very hospitable, and he and his wife Věra became great friends. I have very happy memories of my times with them.”

Then came the fall of communism. Did your interest in Czechoslovakia fade?

Václav Havel,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“I left publishing, so I lost contact with the Czech Republic, although I did meet Havel in London. I had a very good meeting with him. I was introduced to him and he nodded. I don’t think his English was particularly good, but he seemed to grasp that I was the representative of the publisher that had published his plays and a book called Letters to Olga, which caused quite a stir.”

That book was a great success in Britain. At one time it was on everybody’s bookshelf.

“It did very well for us. So, I was introduced to Havel and we exchanged, through an interpreter, appropriate sentiments of mutual respect. And then he took me to one side and asked where he could get a good pint of English ale. So I took him off to a pub. We managed to communicate through English ale, and that was the last I saw of him.”

And there’s a good reason why you’re back in Prague.

“I’m once again representing the magazine Index on Censorship, which is still flourishing, I’m happy to say, and they, in turn, are wanting to record and commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion of Prague and Czechoslovakia by Soviet forces in the summer of 1968. You might ask, why they are doing it in November 2017. That’s partly because they’re a quarterly, so this piece I’m writing will come out in spring next year. So I’m doing a piece about the invasion fifty years on.”

And what are your impressions so far?

“My impressions are, first of all, that this country has changed almost beyond recognition. I’ve only been in Prague, so I can’t speak for the countryside, but Prague itself is not the city I remember, other than the beautiful landmarks, the Castle, the theatres, the churches and so forth. It’s transformed in spirit and atmosphere. I remember it as being very bleak in the 1980s, bleak and depressing and fearful, and the quality of life being rather thin. Now it seems much richer. The other thing one notices is that there are many more people on the street, more advertising and more cars. You have traffic all over the place, and I can’t fail to mention that I arrived at the airport, looked up and saw that I was coming into Václav Havel Airport. So there’s some kind of circle being fulfilled.”

But do you feel a legacy of what happened in 1968 – the euphoria of the Prague Spring and then the bitter disappointment of the Soviet occupation?

“One of the difficulties of talking about legacy is that I’m sure there’s a legacy in the hearts and minds of people who are over fifty. But I’ve been talking to all kinds of people under the age of forty-five and their memories of what happen in 1968 have been handed down to them by their grandparents. So it’s almost gone in historical terms. It’s one of those events which was very important and was crucial as a turning point in the history of the country, but for the people who are living here, I think I could stop people on Wenceslas Square and nine out of ten wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”

So, what are you going to write about?

August 1968,  photo: Czech Television
“I’m going to write about talking to older people, who have very good memories. Some of their memories are very vivid. One thing that is very striking is that almost everybody who is over fifty or sixty, who was a child when the invasion happened, has very vivid, almost clairvoyant, recollections of the sound of the invasion, the sound of the aeroplanes, the sound of tanks, the sound of foreign voices they couldn’t recognise. So it’s aural. It’s an audio memory.

“I’m struck when I talk to people who are over sixty, remembering extraordinary moments from their childhood, which are rather moving. So I think there’s lots to write about and just also to talk about how history has unfolded. The long arc of history has brought the country to a point where – as somebody said to me yesterday – I’m free to say what I want, I’m free to read what I want, I’m free to go where I want. That was untrue fifty years ago, so it’s a great victory.”

And are there also warnings or other messages for our time?

“I think it’s clear that the engagement with European capitalism has let to what would appear to be corruption. You now have a political situation where, coming through the democratic process are leaders who are populist, possibly authoritarian, funded by dodgy money and maybe with dodgy finances. So, clearly, Czech society is now acquiring all the things that other European countries and America have been having to grapple with for the last several years.”

And what about the Czech Republic’s place in Europe? Europe is a very complicated place, especially at the moment.

“The European story has always been complicated. It’s very subtle and there are so many cross-currents. Somewhere like here, which used to be in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there are so many conflicting forces at work. Often, it’s quite hard to read. The thing that strikes me about the Czech part of what used to be Czechoslovakia is fierce local identity, strong, quite good, proud nationalism, of a perfectly benign kind, a belief in country. I believe there’s a strong belief in the Czech Republic, I think that Czechs are proud to be Czech and I think it’s very moving to see that. As someone coming from Britain, which is also very strongly nationalistic at one level, it’s interesting to see that. Where this will lead into the future, who knows? Everything’s up for grabs.”