Dr havel after twenty ye.., p.1

Dr. Havel After Twenty Years, page 1


Dr. Havel After Twenty Years

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Dr. Havel After Twenty Years

  Dr. Havel After Twenty Years

  by Milan Kundera

  from Laughable Loves

  This translation 1999 Aaron Asher


  When Dr. Havel was leaving for a cure at a spa, his beautiful wife had tears in her eyes. She had them there out of compassion (some time ago he had been stricken with gall bladder attacks, and until that time she had never seen him sick), but she also had them there because the coming three weeks of separation aroused jealous anguish in her.

  What? Could this actressadmired, beautiful, so many years younger than hebe jealous of an aging gentleman who in recent months had not left the house without slipping into his pocket a small bottle of tablets to relieve his insidious pains?

  That, however, was the case, and no one understood her. Not even Dr. Havel, for she seemed to him invulnerably supreme, judging by her appearance. It had charmed him all the more when he had begun to know her better several years before and discovered her simplicity, her homebodiness, and her shyness; it was curious: even after they were married, the actress altogether disregarded the advantages of her youth; it was as if she was bewitched by love and by her husband's formidable reputation as a womanizer, so that he seemed to her to always be elusive and unfathomable, and even though he tried to convince her every day with infinite patience (and absolute sincerity) that he did not have and never would have anyone but her, she was still bitterly and madly jealous; only her natural refinement kept a lid on this nasty feeling, but i( continued to bubble up even more.

  Havel knew all this; at times it moved him, at times it angered him, and sometimes it wearied him, but because he loved his wife he did everything to relieve her anguish. This time again he made an attempt to help her: he greatly exaggerated his pain and the dangerous state of his health, for he knew that the fear his wife felt because of his illness was uplifting and comforting to her, whereas the fear inspired in her by his health (a fear of infidelities and pitfalls) wore her down; he often talked about Dr. Frantiska, who was going to treat him at the spa; the actress knew her, and the thought of her physical appearance, completely benign and absolutely alien to any lecherous ideas, reassured her.

  When Dr. Havel was seated in the bus, looking at the tearful eyes of the beauty standing on the sidewalk, to tell the truth he felt relieved, for her love was not only sweet but also oppressive. Once at the spa he didn't feel so well. After partaking of the mineral waters, which he had to do three times a day and which went right through his body, he had pains and felt tired. And when he met good-looking women in the colonnade, with dismay he found that he felt old and didn't desire them. The only woman whom he had been granted among the boundless number was the good Frantiska, who jabbed injections into him, took his blood pressure, prodded his stomach, and supplied him with information about what was going on at the spa and about her two children, especially her son, who, she said, looked like her.

  This was his state of mind when he received a letter from his wife. Ah, alas, this time her refinement had kept poor watch over her passionate jealousy; the letter was full of grievances and complaints; she said she did-n't want to reproach him with anything, but that she hadn't slept the whole night; she said she well knew that her love was a burden to him, and she was able to imagine how happy he was now that he was away from her and could rest a bit; yes, she understood how much she irritated him, and she also knew that she was too weak to change his life, which was always to be besieged by hordes of women; yes she knew it, she didn't protest against it, but she cried and couldn't sleep. . . .

  When Dr. Havel had read through this list of laments, he recalled the three years during which he had tried patiently but in vain to portray himself to his wife as a reformed libertine and a loving husband; he felt immense weariness and hopelessness. In anger he crumpled up the letter and threw it into the wastebasket.


  The following day he felt a little better; his gall bladder no longer hurt at all, and he felt a slight but unmistakable desire for several of the women whom he had seen walking through the colonnade in the morning. This small gain was, however, wiped out by his recognition of something far worse: these women passed him by without the least show of interest; to them he blended into the ailing parade of pale mineral-water sippers.

  "You see, it's getting better," said Dr. Frantiska, after prodding him that morning. "But stick strictly to the diet. The women patients you run into at the colonnade are fortunately rather old and sick, so they shouldn't bother you, and for you it's better that way, because above all you need to rest."

  Havel was tucking his shirt into his pants; he was standing in front of a small mirror hanging in a corner above the washbasin and bitterly examining his face. Then he said very sadly: "You're wrong. I clearly noticed that among the majority of old women there was a minority of quite pretty women strolling through the colonnade. Only they didn't spare me so much as a glance."

  "I'll believe anything you like, but not that," the woman doctor replied, and Dr. Havel, having torn his eyes away from the sad spectacle in the mirror, peered into her unquestioning, loyal eyes. He felt much gratitude toward her, even though he knew she was only expressing belief in a tradition, belief in the role she had become accustomed to seeing him play: a role of which she disapproved (but always softheartedly).

  Then someone knocked at the door. When Frantiska opened it a little, the head of a young man, nodding in greeting, could be seen. "Ah, it's you! I'd completely forgotten!" She asked the young man to come into the consulting room and explained to Havel: "This is the editor of the spa magazine; he's been looking for you for the past two days."

  The young man began to apologize at length for dis-turbing Dr. Havel at such an awkward time, and tried to take on a facetious air (unfortunately it turned out somewhat forced and unpleasantly strained). He said that Dr. Havel should not be angry with Dr. Frantiska for betraying his presence here, for the editor would have caught up with him anyway, maybe even in the bathtub with the carbonic water, and also that Dr. Havel should not be angry at his audacity, for this attribute was one of the necessities of the journalistic profession and without it, he wouldn't be able to earn his living. Then he became talkative about the illustrated magazine, which the spa put out once a month, and he explained that in every issue there was an interview with some prominent patient taking the cure. He mentioned a few names, among them a member of the government, a woman singer, and a hockey player.

  "You see," said Frantiska, "the beautiful women at the colonnade haven't shown an interest in you; on the other hand you interest journalists."

  "That's an awful step down," said Havel. He was, however, quite pleased with this interest, and he smiled at the editor, refusing his proposal with touchingly transparent insincerity: "I, my dear sir, am neither a member of the government nor a hockey player, and even less a woman singer. And although I don't want to underestimate my scientific research, it interests experl s rather than the general public."

  "But I don't want to interview you; that didn't even occur to me," replied the young man with prompt sincerity. "I want to talk with your wife. I've heard that she's going to visit you here."

  "Then you're better informed than I," said Havel rather coldly; he then approached the mirror again and looked at his face; it didn't please him. He buttoned the top button of his shirt and kept silent while the young editor became embarrassed and lost his avowed journalistic audacity; he apologized to the woman doctor, he apologized to Dr. Havel, and he was glad to be leaving.


  The editor was scatterbrained rather than stupid. He didn't think much of the spa magazine, but, being its sole editor, every month he had to do the things necessary to fill the twenty-f
our pages with the requisite photographs and words. In the summer it was tolerably easy, because the spa teemed with prominent guests, various orchestras took turns at the open-air concerts, and there was no lack of gossip items. On the other hand in the damp and cold months the colonnade was filled with countrywomen and boredom, so he couldn't let an opportunity escape him. When yesterday he had heard somewhere that the husband of a well-known actress was taking a cure here, the husband of the very one who was appearing in the new detective film that was currently and successfully distracting the gloomy spa guests, he began immediately to hunt for him.

  But now he was ashamed.

  He was always unsure of himself and for this reason slavishly dependent on the people with whom he came in contact. It was in their sight and judgment that he timidly found out what he was like and how much he was worth. Now he concluded drat the had been found wretched, stupid, and tiresome, and he took this all the more to heart because at first sight he had rather liked the man who had so judged him. And so he uneasily telephoned the woman doctor the same day to ask her who in fact the actress's husband was, and learned that he was not only a top physician but was also very famous in other ways too; had the editor really never heard of him?

  The editor confessed that he hadn't, and the woman doctor indulgently said: "Well, of course, you're still a child. And fortunately you're an ignoramus in the field in which Havel has excelled."

  When more questions to more people revealed that the field was erotic knowledge, in which Dr. Havel was said to have no competition in his native land, the edi-tor was mortified to have been called an ignoramus, and even to have confirmed this by never having heard of Havel. And because he had always longingly dreamed of someday being an expert like this man, it bothered him that he had acted like a disagreeable fool precisely in front of him, in front of his master. He remembered his own chatter, his silly jokes, his lack of tact, and he humbly had to agree that the verdict he read in the master's disapproving silence and absentminded look into the mirror was justified.

  The spa town in which this story takes place is not large and people meet one another several times a day, whether they want to or not. And so it wasn't difficult for the young editor soon to come across the man he was thinking about. It was late afternoon, and a crowd of gall bladder sufferers was slowly moving among the pillars of the colonnade. Dr. Havel was sipping the smelly water from a porcelain mug and grimacing slightly. The young editor went up to him and began confusedly to apologize. He had never suspected, he said, that the husband of the well-known actress was he, Dr. Havel, and not a different Havel; in Bohemia there were many Havels, and unfortunately the actress's husband had not been associated in the editor's mind with that famous doctor, about whom the editor had, of course, long ago heard, and not only as a top physician, butperhaps he might venture to say italso on account of the most varied rumors and anecdotes.

  There's no denying that the young mans words pleased Dr. Havel in his ill-humored state of mind, especially the remarks about the rumors, for Havel well knew that they were subject, like man himself, to the laws of aging and extinction.

  "You don't need to apologize," he said to the young man, and because he saw the editor's embarrassment, he took him gently by the arm and got him to take a stroll through the colonnade. "Anyhow, it's not worth talking about," he consoled him. At the same time, though, he himself dwelled on the apology and several times said: "So you've heard about me?" and each time laughed happily.

  "Yes," the editor eagerly assented. "But I didn't imagine you at all like this."

  "Well, how did you imagine me?" asked Dr. Havel with genuine interest, and when the editor stammered something, not knowing what to say, Havel said gloomily: "I know. Unlike real people the characters in stories, legends, and anecdotes are made of a substance not subject to the corruption of age. No, by this I don't mean to say that legends and anecdotes are immortal, certainly they too age, and with them their characters, only they grow old in such a way that their appearance does not change and deteriorate but pales slowly, becomes transparent, and eventually merges with the transparency of space. So in the end Pepe le Moko disappears as well as Havel the Collector, and also Moses and Pallas Athena and Saint Francis of Assisi. But consider-that Francis will slowly grow pale, and with him the little birds that are sitting on his shoulder, and the fawn that rubs against his leg, and the grove of olive trees that provides him with shade; consider that his whole landscape will become transparent with him, and together they will slowly turn into comforting azure, while I, my dear friend, just as I am, naked, torn out of a legend, am going to vanish against the background of an implacably garish landscape and before the eyes of derisive, living youth."

  Havel's speech puzzled and excited the young man, and they kept on walking together for a long time through the deepening dusk. When they parted Havel declared that he was tired of his diet and that tomorrow he would like to go out for a good dinner; he asked the editor if he would like to accompany him.

  Of course the young man accepted the invitation.


  "Don't tell my doctor,'' said Havel, when he had taken a seat across the table from the editor and picked up the menu, "but I have my own conception of a diet: I strictly avoid all the foods I don't enjoy" Then he asked the young man what aperitif he would have. The editor was not used to drinking aperitifs before dinner, and because nothing else occurred to him, he said: "Vodka."

  Dr. Havel looked displeased: "Vodka stinks of the Russian soul."

  "That's true," said the editor, and from that moment he was lost. He was like a student at the final high school oral examination before his committee. He didn't try to say what he thought and do what he wanted, but attempted to satisfy the examiners; he tried to divine their thoughts, their whims, their taste; he wanted to be worthy of them. Not for anything in the world would he have admitted that his meals were usually poor and rudimentary, and that he didn't have a clue about which wine went with which meat. And Dr. Havel unwittingly tormented him when he persisted in conferring with him about the choice of hors d'oeuvre, main course, wine, and cheese.

  When the editor realized that the committee had taken off many points in the gastronomy examination, he wanted more than ever to make up the loss, and now in the interval between the hors d'oeuvre and the main course, he conspicuously looked around at the women in the restaurant and by various remarks tried hard to demonstrate his interest and experience. But once again he was the loser. When he said that the red-haired woman sitting two tables away would certainly be an excellent mistress, Dr. Havel without malice asked him what made him say that. The editor replied vaguely, and when the doctor asked about his experiences with redheads, he became entangled in improbable lies and soon fell silent.

  By contrast Dr. Havel felt happy and relaxed with the editor's admiring eyes fixed on him. He ordered a bottle of red wine with the meat, and the young man, encouraged by the alcohol, made a further attempt to become worthy of the master's favor; he commented at length about a girl he had recently met and whom he had been wooing for the past several weeks, with, he said, great hope of success. His statement was not too substantial, and the unnatural smile that covered his face and was intended, with its artificial ambiguity, to state what he had left unsaid, only conveyed that he was trying to overcome his insecurity. Havel was well aware of all this and, moved by pity, asked the editor about the most diverse physical attributes of the girl, so as to detain him on this agreeable topic for as long as possible and give him a chance to talk more freely. However, even this time the young man was an incredible failure: it turned out that he wasn't able to describe with sufficient precision the general architecture of the girl's body or particular features of it, and even less the girl's mind. And so Dr. Havel himself finally talked expansively and, becoming elated by the coziness of the evening and by the wine, overwhelmed the editor with a witty monologue of his own reminiscences, anecdotes, and remarks.

  The editor sipped his
wine, listened, and at the same time experienced ambiguous emotions. On the one hand he was unhappy: he felt his own insignificance and stupidity, he felt like a questionable apprentice in front of an unquestionable master, and he was ashamed to open his mouth; but at the same time he was also happy: it flattered him that the master was sitting opposite him, having a nice, long, friendly chat with him and confiding to him the most varied, intimate, and valuable observations.

  When Havel's speech had already lasted too long, the young man yearned, after all, to open his own mouth, to make his own contribution, to join in, to prove his ability to be a partner; he spoke, therefore, once more about his girl and invited Havel to take a look at her the next day and let him know how she looked to him in the light of his experience; put differently (yes, in his whimsical frame of mind he used these words), to check her out.

  What was he thinking of ? Was it only an involuntary notion born of wine and the intense desire to say some-thing?

  However spontaneous the idea may have been, the editor was pursuing at least a threefold benefit: by means of the conspiracy involving a common and clandestine judgment (the checking out), a secret bond would be established between him and the master, they would become real pals, a thing the editor craved;

  if the master voiced his approval (and the young man expected this, for he himself was greatly taken with the girl in question), this would be approval of the young man, of his judgment and taste, so that in the master's eyes he would change from an apprentice into a journeyman, and in his own eyes he would also be more important than before; and last: the girl would then mean more to the young man than before, and the pleasure he experienced in her presence would change from fictional to real (for the young man occasionally realized that the world in which he lived was for him a labyrinth of values, whose worth he only quite dimly surmised; therefore he knew that illusory values could become real values only when they were endorsed).


  When Dr. Havel awoke the next day he felt a slight pain in his gall bladder because of yesterday's dinner; and when he looked at his watch he found that in half an hour he had to be at a hydrotherapy session and would therefore have to hurry, which of all things in life he liked to do least; and when, combing his hair, he caught sight of his face in the mirror, it didn't please him. The day was beginning badly.

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