Havel: A Life, and more

Just in from a bike ride, unaccustomed thighs aching. A lovely morning, the green unfurling at last. I hadn’t intended to wait until (visible) spring to show up at my blog again, but that’s how it turned out, and I was thinking about that too while I pedalled, and about some reading experiences I’d like to share.

Since my daughter and I are planning a trip to the Czech Republic, I enjoyed Havel: A Life by Michael Zantovsky, a new biography of Vaclav Havel. I was alerted to it by Michael Ignatieff’s fine summary of the man and book in The Atlantic. A biography has to succeed on two levels for me: the subject must be compelling and the life well written. This one ranks high on both counts. Zantovsky was a friend and colleague; his work is affectionate and insightful but never hagiographical. The poet/playwright/philosopher turned president was as flawed as he was noble; he helmed the Velvet Revolution, but could not prevent the breakup of Czechoslovakia. He was a man of great vision who fussed about details like office curtains. Most astonishing–and inspiring–to me was Havel’s ongoing introspection, which power couldn’t shake out of him. “Being in power,” he said, in fact, “makes me permanently suspicious of myself.”DownloadedFile

Accepting an honorary doctorate at the Hebrew University, Havel spoke of his “feelings of unworthiness” and his “long and intimate affinity” with Prague writer Franz Kafka. “The hidden motor driving all my dogged efforts is precisely this innermost feeling of mine of being excluded, of belonging nowhere…metaphysical sense of guilt. The real reason I am creating something, organizing something, it would seem, is to defend my permanently questionable right to exist.” Biographer Zantovsky suggests this comes from years of surveillance under the Communist regime, as well as years in prison, but whatever the reasons specific to him, Havel, to my mind, speaks here as Every-person.

Tops in Manitoba

At the recent Manitoba Book Awards, the top prize—McNally Robinson Book of the Year—went to Joan Thomas’ The Opening Sky. I read this novel back in November and enjoyed it very much. Thomas is brilliant at images and details; they always seem perfectly revealing for the characters and situations rather than showy for their own sake. A hot day, for example, and shoulders are “felted with sunburn.” And, for another example, about a past hurt, “she’s packed it away in some storage facility for undetonated resentments.”9780771083938_0

The Opening Sky follows a contemporary Winnipeg family through some jolts — ironies, really, like a daughter’s surprise pregnancy, and Mom Liz an employee at Planned Parenthood. Every character is terribly imperfect, but all reach for or have some kind of wisdom. I’m not crazy about the story’s semi-resolution, but agreeing or disagreeing with what characters do is quite beside the point of recommending this book.

The top non-fiction prize at the Awards went to Maurice Mierau’s Detachment, which I wrote about here.

Sky reflected in a puddle

Please do read D.W. Wilson’s “Mountain Under Sea,” winner of this year’s CBC Short Story contest. Go ahead, it’s really quite short. And worth it. A father-daughter story, he watching and tending to her grief. And she to his? I felt, after reading it, that I’d been submerged in something so life-true, it was a spiritual experience. What every parent, I think, knows, but you don’t have to be a parent to know it. In an interview at the CBC contest site, Wilson says the best short-short stories “have to gesture at Hugeness of Scope, like the sky reflected in a puddle.” I think he achieves that here.

b998737c1fadb4532aff61629ed0f96a_XLSome of that profound hugeness of scope gestures also out of the small and ordinary in Joanne Epp’s new book of poetry, Eigenheim. Joanne is a friend, her book attractively produced by Turnstone Press, also publisher of my last book, but I’d say the following anyway. I read much of Eigenheim on a bus ride across the city and back, in one fell swoop in other words, perhaps not the best way to read a book of poetry, but it created this effect of life as tethered well but also floating free. The effect of a dream perhaps, that both puzzles and delights. The poems riff on home and identity (Eigenheim is German for “one’s own home”). Joanne is also an organist, and I especially liked the poems involving music.

But floating, let me end with that. In the first poem (“Names”), a character Catherine floats over pine trees, then joins “rows of stones/ and names on stones.”

She knows they are nothing: no bones,
no blood, only voices thin and shimmering
as spiderwebs. She knows how easily
they disperse, like dandelion fluff,
like feathers in the wind.
Their names are all that holds them here.

6 thoughts on “Havel: A Life, and more

  1. Thanks for the update on what’s going on in the literary world, Dora. Two things made me happy on reading your post. First, that you’re going on a trip with your daughter. That will be an amazing experience and a lot of bonding will happen, I’m sure. I’m also happy to read that Mierau got the top non fiction award. I really enjoyed his book.

  2. Bike riding—great way to plan a blog post, I’m sure. Your trip to the Czech Republic with your daughter sounds enviable. And thanks for the heads up about the CBC winning short story. It was good to talk to you at the awards’ night and I always enjoy your posts.

    • I agree, Gabe, it was good to talk — you with your plate of food probably wondering when you’d get to eat it and me waiting in line! I find your family history/stories fascinating.

  3. I’m glad to know about the Havel book. I’ve spent some time in the Czech
    Republic and found that people have a tremendous affection and respect for him still, even after the break with Slovakia. Went to a wonderful performance of an opera based on one of his plays and people were so excited about its wit and wild inventiveness.

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