Message in a Bottle
Roger Scruton’s Notes from Underground is a loving portrait of the beauty and desolation of Communist-era Prague
Having known Roger Scruton for quite some time, I knew I was in for something extraordinary when he first sent me the manuscript of his Notes from Underground (Beaufort Books, £20.99). After all, what else could one expect from the author of 30 books, two of them novels, the editor for years of the Salisbury Review, a composer of two operas, a lawyer with enough moral integrity not to practise the trade, and someone whose interests range from politics through sex through urbanism to oenology and beyond?
Yet when I finally finished the book I was not just astounded by its literary achievement, but also deeply moved and, what is more, profoundly disturbed, in the best sense of the word, because it brought back so vividly a part of the recent history of my own country and in doing so, of my own life as well.
Though it is a slender tome of less than 250 pages, Notes from Underground manages to occupy a disproportionately larger mental space, being not just one book but several at the same time. At one level it is a document of a time and a place written not by an innocent abroad but by an educated visitor, based loosely on Scruton’s personal experience as one of the professors of the underground university in Communist Czechoslovakia in the Eighties. Naturally, writing anything but a travel book about another country, and in particular writing a novel from a native insider’s point of view takes a special kind of gumption. We are all literary chauvinists. Whenever I read a novel, a thriller or even an article involving my country by a foreign writer, I take a perverse pleasure in every factual error, misspelling and misunderstanding of the realities. In Notes from Underground I found none. One can only bow to the author’s academic thoroughness and discipline.
At another level, Notes from Underground is a travelogue, a loving portrait of the beauty and the desolation of Prague and its streets during the days of late Communism, and of the Czech borderlands from which the Sudeten Germans had been expelled at the end of the Second World War. Although Prague is my native city, Scruton’s book helped me remember and rediscover a face of it that is irretrievably lost, which makes one wonder about the value of progress.
Notes from Underground is also a story drawing on the rich tradition of existentialist literature, epitomised not only by the allusion to Dostoevsky’s “first existentialist novel” in its title but also by other writers, including the quintessential Prague author Franz Kafka. It could be argued that all great works of Czech literature of the 20th century are in fact Kafkaesque stories. Although many people abroad think of Kafka as a dark visionary, for many people of Prague he is more like a down-to-earth realist.
In a speech at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, in April 1990 Václav Havel, while claiming Kafka as his great model, had this to say on the subject: “I’m not an expert on Kafka, and I’m not eager to read the secondary literature on him. I can’t even say that I’ve read everything Kafka has written. I do, however, have a rather special reason for my indifference to Kafka studies: I sometimes feel I’m the only one who really understands Kafka . . . I don’t need to read and re-read everything Kafka has written because I already know what’s there.” This is the sense of familiarity someone of my age and background has when reading Kafka, and it is the same feeling that came to me when I read Scruton’s remarkable book.
Of course, its author being who he is, Notes from Underground is also a philosophical contemplation of truth, identity, love and meaning. In exposing the spiritual drama of the “solidarity of the shattered” that bound together so many disparate individuals during the Communist days, though they were always only a tiny minority, he touches upon a subject of such sensitivity that we rarely speak about it. I don’t mean the various entanglements of some dissidents in the shady network of the secret police, although they too play a part in the novel, but rather the psychological paradox that occasionally makes one remember with nostalgia, even with longing, the days we did our utmost to see disappear into the dustbin of history. One cannot truly wish for them to come back, but it is perhaps admissible to remember that there were rewards to living the life of a second-class citizen in a world of cruelty, cynicism, and neglect — rewards in the form of the strength of human relationships and loyalties, and in the heightened awareness of beauty, love and truth.
There are books which give the reader a voyeur’s pleasure of entering unknown places and other people’s minds, the literary equivalent of going to an art exhibition, and there are books which come back to haunt you. Notes from Underground is of the latter kind. It is like a piece of floating debris, perhaps a bottle, from a long-since sunken ship, and there is a message inside the bottle, which starkly illuminates the past and in doing so sheds light on the present too.