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  • The Private Life
  • Robert Hamburger (bio)

The brief letter from Marilyna Sveda unsettled me. My small architectural firm specializes in restoring historic sites, so it was hardly surprising that she would turn to me for advice on how to transform the East Village town house that she had shared with her late husband, Andrej Sveda, into a memorial to his writing. But the letter from Sveda’s widow summoned memories of a poetry reading many years past, well before she’d known him, when I sat in the audience and witnessed Andrej Sveda humiliate Wade Taggart, my closest friend.

Since much of what follows concerns Andrej Sveda, here, briefly, are the basic details of his life and work. Sveda was born in Prague in 1948 and entered Charles University, one of the oldest universities in Europe, in 1966. Within a few months he had assembled The Brandos, what has been called Czechoslovakia’s first punk rock band. During Prague Spring in 1968, they played at numerous large public gatherings in support of the Dubček government and Charter 77. After Soviet Russia removed Dubček and replaced him with a puppet communist regime, Sveda was forbidden to leave his subjugated country. Nonetheless, three years later he managed to slip off to England where he was offered a teaching residency at Oxford. Over the next five years his first two books of poetry, Weather Report (1973) and White Nights (1975), were published both in his native Czech and in English translation. In his haunting poem “April,” Sveda writes of returning to Prague, “to fresh bread, wet cobbled streets, my father’s grave.” It did not occur to him, or so it appears, that he would never see his homeland again.

In 1976 he followed his countryman, Milan Kundera, to Paris, where he supported himself as the film and music critic for Liberation. Then, like so many of his fellow expatriates, Sveda was lured to America by a lucrative teaching contract. In 1981, at the age of thirty-three, he accepted an appointment in Slavic Studies at Columbia University, which allowed him to devote himself to his writing. His first American book, Double Agent, appeared two years later, in 1983. Though Sveda was already fluent in English, W. S. Merwin and Robert Haas assisted him in fine-tuning his manuscript for publication. A hybrid text comprised of both memoir and poetry, Double Agent was received with uniform praise — though a few [End Page 695] critics noted Sveda’s obvious debt to Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, carping that he had adopted a derivative persona.

Those reservations notwithstanding, Double Agent was recognized as Sveda’s appropriation of the American idiom. In an essay in Commentary, “A Pilgrim’s Progress,” Norman Podhoretz made much of Sveda’s rejection of life under communism, treating him as a contested prize in America’s Cold War campaign against the Soviet Union. This may account, in part, for the outpouring of literary awards and celebrity that followed. But for all Double Agent’s undeniable achievement, attentive readers understood that living in America was not a resolution to Sveda’s life of exile so much as it was a stimulating source of contradictions, as disturbing in its way as his degraded homeland, cowed by three decades of Soviet control.

If there is moral heroism to be found in Double Agent it is in Sveda’s recognition that returning home is an illusion, that he has become “worldly” — that his writing is no longer a single-minded discourse, that it has instead become a dialogue between coexisting selves. Read as a tightly conceived yet fragmented narrative, Double Agent reveals that Sveda no longer sees his life as linked to his native Czechoslovakia — a loss that is compensated for by his discovery of the essential condition of his double life, and with it, a new direction for his writing. That note of ambiguous triumph carries with it an undertone of isolation, some would say melancholy. But I did not understand the extent of this until years later, when I visited Sveda’s home, an event I’ll take up shortly.

In 1983, Sveda married Alicia Vestris, the stunning prima ballerina...


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pp. 695-707
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