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Martin C. Putna: A word on the Tom Stoppard Prize

May 18, 2012


I cannot adopt an equivocal view of the jury’s decision.

When I consider from a historian’s perspective the previous winners of the Tom Stoppard Prize, I find among them (with extremely few exceptions) figures that I respect highly – from the first winners Eva Kantůrková and Ivan Martina Jirous, to last year’s recipient Věru Linhartová. I consider many of them to be friends, examples and teachers. From this angle, it can be enjoyed.

However, when I consider from a critic’s perspective this year’s presentation of the Tom Stoppard Prize, I cannot deny some ethical doubts. The prize, which has been donated by a long-term friend of Václav Havel’s and is bestowed by an organisation whose beginnings were linked to Havel’s dissident activities, has been presented for a book whose main subject is Václav Havel and whose author has among other things been director of the Václav Havel Library – and all of this a few months after the death of Václav Havel. One cannot but ask whether it is a prize for a hopefully good book – or rather a prize for a book about a kindred famous corpse?

Two objections can be raised as a defence against such doubts.

First, I developed my method of research and interpretation long before the Havel book, and I will employ it again after it. The method remains the same: the contextualisation of literary texts

and creative individuals through the community and mentality in which the texts and individuals developed. I took Havel not as a solitary great, as Havelmania has done since his passing, but as part of the fabric of Czech spiritual history. It is this history, not “Havel himself”, that is of importance to me.

Second, in its own way the Havel book arose, similarly to the books that took the award in its first years, under the Bolshevik regime, namely illegally. I had to carefully keep it secret from those surrounding Havel, particularly from the Office of Václav Havel. Unfortunately, I had plenty of occasion to find out just how much those around Havel wished to cultivate a non-critical Havel cult, and how little they wished to see the kind of research that I was carrying out. Therefore this book arose not from my relative proximity to Václav Havel’s circle, but despite it.

However, a counter-objection can be raised against these objections: What kind of a strange prize ceremony is it in which the recipient has to defend himself in front of the public and even himself?

From the critic’s perspective it would be better to gratefully decline the prize.

From the historian’s perspective, though, I am aware I can’t do anything about it. The jury has in any case decided, and it will be recorded in the literary annals, whether I accept it or not.

Fortunately, sub specie aeternitatis, it isn’t that important anyway.

So all right then. After all, I wrote the book and must bear the consequences, whatever they may be.


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