Kundera and Havel first met in the late 1950s. Kundera, a promising young writer, was teaching at the prestigious Prague Film Academy. Havel, seven years his junior, asked him for advice, as he wanted to enter the academy. Kundera tried to help Havel, acting, in Havel’s own words, as his “agent.” Despite these efforts, the academy rejected Havel, as punishment for his “bourgeois origins”— a label used against anyone whose parents weren’t workers or peasants. Indeed, before Communism, the Havels had been among the wealthiest and most influential families in Prague.
Kundera’s and Havel’s first encounter established the pattern of their uneven relationship throughout the 1960s. Kundera was part of the cultural establishment, harvesting prizes and readers’ admiration and attracting the interest of foreign publishers. Politically, he was a maverick who was regularly criticized by dogmatic officials, and his books had to wait years for official authorization. While abandoning the Marxist idealism of his early poetry, Kundera still believed in some version of socialism. Havel, in contrast, was an ambitious outsider. He still benefited from the cultural capital of his family, which accorded him name recognition and contacts with important poets and intellectuals. But the Havels were treated as class enemies by the regime, and his professional path wasn’t easy. Havel first joined the world of theater as a stagehand. It was only with the country’s political liberalization that he gained recognition as a playwright. His politics were restrained: He was neither a die-hard anti-Communist nor a socialist (except for a brief revolt against his mother).
Several intellectuals with establishment bona fides, including Kundera, tried to help Havel on his difficult path. But given his enormous ambitions and thirst for recognition, Havel must have felt a degree of envy toward them. They had easier access to the media, to influential positions in the state cultural apparatus, and to publishers. Yet Havel achieved some success despite the obstacles he faced. His 1963 play, The Garden Party, was staged not only in Prague, but also in Germany—a considerable achievement for a young Czech author at the time. But he could hardly match the success of Kundera, whose works were widely read and translated. The Joke (1967) quickly turned into a cult text; and by 1969, three films based on his books had been made. When Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Marquez, and Julio Cortázar visited Prague in the fall of 1968, it was Kundera they sought out.
Perhaps this resentment helps explain the violence with which Havel reacted to Kundera’s essay “Czech Destiny,” published in December 1968, months after the Soviet invasion squelched the attempted democratic reforms of that year. Admittedly, Kundera was unusually lyrical, speaking of “a great mission of small nations” and claiming that the year of 1968 “moved Czechs and Slovaks to the center of world history” in such a way that the nation had “beheld its own greatness.” He celebrated the Prague Spring as a unique contribution to world politics, claiming that the Czech quest for a political system respecting both freedom and social justice was of universal importance and could provide salutary lessons for the West. He was hopeful about the pursuit of democratic reforms, even under Soviet occupation.
Havel, who never trusted Communist reformers, reacted with a sarcastic diatribe, pillorying Kundera’s “self-admiring, nostalgically patriotic delusions” and accusing him of “ridiculous provincial messianism.” He argued that the Prague reformers had merely tried to rectify their previous crimes, and that the Western model of liberal democracy was able to reconcile freedom and social justice on its own, without need of lessons from Communists. Moreover, Havel rejected any hope for the continuation of democratic reforms, calling for peaceful resistance against the occupation. Kundera responded in similarly personal terms. He accused Havel of moral exhibitionism, arguing that the radicality of his proposals might satisfy his vain need for moral leadership, but their practical consequences would be nonexistent, or harmful.
Their exchange reflected the fault line between democratic-socialist and liberal intellectuals: Kundera argued for a new model of society that would be free and fair, avoiding the vices of both Western capitalism and Eastern European authoritarianism; Havel defended Western capitalism as the only desirable model, needing fine tuning, but no major revision. These differences didn’t matter to the neo-Stalinist leaders who regained control after the 1968 revolt; the regime condemned both authors as anti-socialist and banned their work.
“Though both yearned for international literary recognition, only Kundera prevailed.”
But the psychology of the two writers’ relationship was shaped by their professional rivalry. Though both yearned for international literary recognition, only Kundera prevailed. Havel was acknowledged as a freedom fighter and political leader, but he has never entered the canon of world literature. Nonetheless, he retained his literary ambitions and his identity as a writer. After he left the office of president, Havel wrote a play titled Leaving (which was mediocre) and directed a film based on it (which was a flop).
All of this may account for Havel’s ambivalent treatment of Kundera. After his 1969 polemic, he didn’t engage in any personal attacks against Kundera, but he did nothing to discourage such attacks by his friends and admirers. The last and most vicious of these came in 2008, when the Czech weekly Respekt published an article accusing Kundera of informing the police about a Western agent when he was a student in the 1950s. The article didn’t produce any evidence apart from hearsay and a police protocol mentioning that Kundera was the source of the information.
Although there were grounds for suspicion, the case against Kundera was rather weak. Neither Kundera’s signature nor identification number appeared in the police protocol, which would have been standard procedure. Moreover, the agent was arrested in the student room of his former girlfriend. It was she who talked about his coming to Prague with her then-boyfriend and later husband, who allegedly passed this information to Kundera. However, neither the girl nor her boyfriend was punished for being in contact with the agent, which could have been expected in that period of terror. Kundera denied any involvement, and no further evidence was produced, but the affair sullied his name, harmed his and his wife’s health, and ended their visits to Czechia.
Respekt was—and still is—published by the billionaire media magnate Zdeněk Bakala, who is Havel’s friend and the main sponsor of the Václav Havel Library. As chairman of the board of Respekt, Havel was alerted to the article before publication and gave it a green light. A week later, after the damage had been done, he issued a half-hearted statement of support for Kundera: “Don’t despair, Milan, there are worse things in life than bad press.” He philosophized about the pitfalls of judging distant historical events, while urging Kundera not to be upset by the resulting media frenzy, which would inevitably damage his reputation.