Fading Czech Velvet

Fading Czech Velvet

As I’m driven to the home of Ivan Klima, one of the Czech Republic’s most internationally respected writers, the hand of fate slips in beside me in the taxi.


As I’m driven to the home of Ivan Klima, one of the Czech Republic’s most internationally respected writers, the hand of fate slips in beside me in the taxi. Heading into the remote, hilly outskirts of Prague 4, I fumble to show the driver my scrawled address, but he tells me I needn’t bother: He used to live right next door to Klima. They were neighbors almost two decades ago.

Has he read any of Klima’s books? The driver shakes his head; he was a taxi driver then too, a relatively privileged position. Reading his notorious neighbor, one of the founders of Communist-era Czechoslovakia’s samizdat press, he could have lost his position in a flash.

Has he read any of Klima’s books since the 1989 Velvet Revolution?

“No, too busy now,” he says, in halting English, a touch embarrassed.

He shows sudden pride, though, as we turn onto a street that’s a sort of countrified suburb a half-hour’s drive outside downtown Prague. He points to the slate-gray, two-story, semi-detached house that his family once shared with the Klimas–Ivan, his wife and their daughter.

Klima smiles when I recount the story. Sitting in his study, lined with books along the walls and a foot-tall pile of manuscript pages from his latest novel on the floor–finished the day before–he recalls the family next door as decent, “law-abiding” citizens. With thin hair hanging over his head in a bowl cut and eyes bulging behind spectacles, he wears a loose sweater–the uniform of Czech intellectuals–and comes across as a mischievous, grandfatherly figure. While widely known in the West for his novels and for sharp essays (smuggled out of Czechoslovakia) on the absurdities of Communism, Klima now faces, in his own country, the backlash of revolution. Once he was one of the country’s most widely read unpublished authors; today, as the comments of my cab driver would imply, he is among the country’s least-read published authors. After an initial efflorescence in the nation’s cultural life, the downward trajectory in popular appeal of Klima and other former dissident writers has been dramatic as the literary marketplace adjusts to the vagaries of public taste.

The early nineties in this country were heady times. The president was a playwright; the unofficial cultural ambassador he appointed was Frank Zappa; Lou Reed was hosted in the presidential palace. Actors and writers were elected to Parliament. There was a powerful cultural dimension to the Velvet Revolution that made it the toast of intellectuals, bohemians and romantics around the world. French students had scrawled “Imagination Takes Power” on the walls of Paris in 1968; the Czechs, it seemed, were putting that principle into action. The country seemed to be inhabiting that rare historic space in which ideas, and the men and women who had them, animated the public sphere.

Immediately after the revolution, Klima’s books, unearthed after twenty years in the underground, were a sensation. My Merry Mornings, a 1985 collection of lighthearted stories for each day of the week, had a press run of 155,000–enormous in a country of 15 million people (that was before Czechoslovakia split in two in 1993). Love and Garbage sold 100,000 copies; My Golden Trades, 80,000.

Since then the country’s cultural climate has not been kind to Klima, or to writers of his ilk. Today he’s lucky to sell several thousand copies of just about anything–and that’s limited almost exclusively to Prague, Brno and the university town of Ostrava. “Nearly everyone was forced to read real literature after the revolution,” he tells me, “because there wasn’t much else available. There were no trash novels, no Harlequins.” Now, the Czech bestseller list looks much like the bestseller crop in any other country, topped by lifestyle, nonfiction scandals and translated editions of Ed McBain, Jackie Collins and Stephen King.

Klima explains one of the gross misperceptions of the sudden celebration, and equally sudden collapse, of formerly banned authors in the Czech literary marketplace. Like many other writers who were proscribed in the Communist era, Klima is not explicitly political in the traditional sense. “Young critics knew we were banned, but they had not seen our work,” he comments. “They thought we were writing like Solzhenitsyn. They wanted big heroes.”

With the possible exception of Milan Kundera (who has, according to the popular view here, forfeited his “Czechness” by writing in French, from Paris), none of the most well-known banned writers had imbued their writing with the slightest bit of heroic grandeur. Czech fictional narratives are characteristically episodic and highly personal. Klima’s fiction is concerned with such themes as the obsessions of love, the power of self-delusion, the unraveling of faith, the tragicomic moments as people attempt, and fail, to be bigger than they are. “The interests of the suppressed writer,” Klima says in the preface to his collection of essays, The Spirit of Prague (1998), “far from focusing exclusively on political questions, were similar to the interests of most authors anywhere in the world.”

The very human nature of Klima’s work is precisely what makes it accessible, if not always lofty. His writing does not belong on the highest rungs of literary masterworks but in the realm of the vivid storyteller, the prober into human foibles. The structures of his stories are not complex–as they are in the novels of Bohumil Hrabal, for example–nor are the characters grandiose in any way. It is his eye, however, for individuals’ means of coping with the tragedies and absurdities of political and social conditions–rendered in the background, or even in passing–that made Klima dangerous to the Communists, and today makes his writing resonate with the dramatic changes in the country over the nearly ten years since the revolution.

Klima’s latest novel translated into English, The Ultimate Intimacy (1997), reflects many of those changes, as seen through the eyes of a Protestant minister, Daniel Vedra. Forced to practice in a small, isolated town during Communism, after the revolution he returns to Prague. He suddenly finds himself famous–via televised sermons he delivers weekly, with growing numbers of congregants visiting his church–and rich, after he sells a family house obtained through restitution. We catch up with him as his newfound wealth and fame lead him into the arms of temptation, via a mysterious woman who starts showing up at his services. The novel traces Daniel’s decline as the fabric of faith and family life he carefully constructed unravels under the pressures of an extramarital affair.

In the process, Klima captures the sense of disillusionment that has followed the heady days of the Velvet Revolution. The novel is laced with the excesses and self-absorption of nouveau capitalism–increasing consumerism, drugs, sexual promiscuity, dissipation of family life and of what were once tight friendships dating from a time when all you had to trust (and not even then, sometimes) were a few close friends upon whom you could rely for support. But Klima is no puritanical moralist: Many of his books revolve around illicit or problematic sexual relations, or the ethical quandaries faced by people in particularly gray situations, whether personal or political.

The disillusionment evoked by Klima is a reflection of the mood of the country. The economy is in crisis; unemployment is rising; corruption is rampant; politicians have sunk quickly into petty maneuvering, virtually paralyzing the Social Democratic government. The ideals of the revolution are barely discernible–in either the political or literary culture. Even President Havel’s public support is dwindling, as his eloquence is used against him; he is accused–by rival politicians and by commentators in the nation’s press–of being out of touch with economic realities.

In his first novel after the revolution, Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light (1994), Klima portrays a middle-aged television producer, Pavel, who before 1989 worked for the widely despised government TV–justifying his collaboration by telling himself that by going along, someday he’ll be able to make one of his dream projects. He is lying to himself in his professional life, as he is in his love life. When the revolution hits, Pavel is lost–unable to determine what that dream project ever was or should be, and now his credibility is shattered in the newly democratic environment. It’s not a smoothly written book; it’s even clumsy at times. But the novel conveys the stories people tell themselvesto keep going in an insulting and humiliating system–a particularly vivid portrait in a country in which the ludicrous, anti-Austro-Hungarian pinpricks by “Soldier Schweik,” the post-World War I creation of Jaroslav Hasek, have taken on iconographic status. Unlike in the case of Schweik, the system oppressing Pavel actually does disappear within the context of Waiting for the Dark; the characters’ disorientation is evoked when the oppression to which they’ve devised personal, private responses is lifted.

Klima has no explaining to do himself when it comes to devising a response to absurdity and oppression. He spent three and a half years as a young boy in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt; though Klima was baptized a Catholic, his mother was Jewish. Klima’s experience in the camp would later inform his response to the brutalities of the Communism that was soon to come. “I came to realize that few things are harder to restore than lost honour, an impaired morality, and perhaps that was why I tried so hard to safeguard these things during the communist regime,” he writes in “A Rather Unconventional Childhood,” an essay in The Spirit of Prague. That collection includes autobiographical reflections and essays on life during and after Communism.

Klima was in the United States on a yearlong fellowship when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. He returned to find his work banned as part of the Soviet-led “normalization,” along with that of many other of the nation’s leading writers. He subsequently was one of the founders of what would become a thriving network of illegal, underground literature and political commentary. The range of samizdat publications was vast; during my visit he rifles through a pile of yellowed mimeographed pages, as well as professionally bound books, containing works by Havel, Kundera, Hrabal, Josef Skvorecky–an archive of the country’s then-thriving underground press.

“We got together and decided to hold readings each month to share each other’s works,” he recalls. Samizdat took advantage of a gap in the banning law, which allowed for typewritten manuscripts to be distributed among friends but not sold through official channels. Between 1973 and 1976, fifty titles were published in this informal fashion, loosely bound on typing paper. By the late seventies and early eighties, a parallel universe of underground publications had evolved, including magazines and books, and translations of American writers like Arthur Miller and Philip Roth (the most popular single title was George Orwell’s 1984, which appeared in no fewer than twenty-four different samizdat editions). Klima was repeatedly harassed by the regime and had a permanent tail on his movements and a tap on his telephone, experiences rendered, often hilariously, in one way or another in virtually all of his pre-1989 works. He survived off foreign royalties; his books have been translated into numerous languages. He used his relative good fortune as the head of the Czech PEN club to assist other writers not so lucky, administering a special fund providing support to banned writers.

Repeatedly given the opportunity to emigrate, Klima refused. He explains this decision to a former lover in “Tuesday Morning,” one of the autobiographical selections in My Merry Mornings,after she demands to know why he didn’t follow her abroad:

Because here I have several friends whom I need just as they need me. And because people here speak the same language as I do. Because I’d like to go on being a writer, and to be a writer means also to stick up for people whose fate is not a matter of indifference to me…. All this I can do here, where I grew up, where I became part of whatever is happening and can therefore understand it.

The Velvet Revolution offered redemption for those, like Klima, who labored for years in the cultural wilderness. According to the National Library, more than 13,000 books were published in the Czech Republic in 1997, nearly triple the number of titles published in 1989. But that has not translated into a literary boom: In the mid-nineties publishers of serious fiction could expect to sell upward of 5,000 copies; today, they’re happy to sell 2,000. Several of the nation’s top-quality publishing houses–which flowered in the early years after the revolution–have either folded or adapted to the market with romance novels, nonfiction, self-help books or works in translation.

Of course, such an ineluctable process is not unique to the Czech Republic. The free market does not work in mysterious ways. But here, if nothing else, the country’s steps off the literary pedestal have been particularly painful, given the high expectations of those who labored for years in the limited space of the cultural underground. The same goes for the country’s dissident folk singers, who used to be able to rouse a packed hall, and now are lucky to be playing small clubs where they compete with the beer.

“After the revolution,” Klima says, “many of my friends dreamed of starting a good publishing business. Writers, theater people–they wanted to publish all of us from the samizdat, they wanted to show Beckett, Ionesco. But the big theaters found it difficult to survive showing Beckett and Ionesco, and most publishers of good books are now very poor creatures. Dreams are dreams, and reality is reality, and reality that demands money has a quite difficult time facing the dreams.”

Today, ironically, those writers who sustained the country’s cultural lifeblood in the underground face an audience not dramatically different or expanded from the days when their works could be obtained only on the sly. “Most of this society collaborated with the regime from the first moment [in 1948],” Klima comments. “Later, samizdat did not represent them. Samizdat was for a small number of people, a few thousand at most, who opposed the regime and lived according to their own beliefs. And it’s no different now in terms of who reads the [quality] literature.”

In a remarkably prescient colloquy between Klima and Philip Roth, published in the New York Review of Books six months after the revolution, Roth cautioned Klima of the coming pressures of the marketplace, and how writers would “come to mean far less to readers here than you did when you were fighting to keep alive for them a language other than the language of the official newspapers…and books.” Klima recalls being confused by Roth’s admonition at the time. Now, he says simply, “Roth was right.”

But Klima does not seem particularly perturbed by this development; in fact, he conveys a certain fatalistic optimism. “My dream was to get my books published,” he says with a wry smile.

“I argue with those who complain about how writers are less important today. Because now, you know how to write or you don’t know how to write…. For some people, it has been difficult to accept. They are less famous, less heroic than they were before. On the other hand, you might have been famous for your bravery, but not for your mastery.”

He refers to the statement he made to Roth a decade ago, which he still holds to today: “I believe that, for the time being at least, the fall of the totalitarian system will not turn literature into an occasional subject with which to ward off boredom at parties.”

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