The lauded Czech novelist talks about history, biography and what really matters to him
Anyone even remotely familiar with Czech literature will know Ivan Klíma and his work.
The author of more than 40 novels, short-story collections, plays and books of essays, Klíma, born in 1931 in Prague, has been richly awarded for his work, receiving the Magnesia Litera Award and the Franz Kafka Prize, among other honors. But Klíma is more than simply a star in the Czech literary firmament; his work has been translated into some 32 languages – an unheard-of feat for a Czech writer.
At the age of 10, Klíma, who is Jewish, and his family were forcibly relocated to the Terezín ghetto, where they lived until the end of World War II. After completing studies at Charles University, he worked as an editor for Literární noviny. When the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Klíma happened to be visiting London. He returned home, leaving Prague again the next year for a six-month visiting professorship at the University of Michigan. After returning to his homeland, he was immediately forbidden from publishing, a ban that remained in place until 1989 while Klíma became a centerpiece of the underground literary scene, maintaining close ties with Václav Havel and Ludvík Vaculík, among others.
Klíma was introduced to Western readers largely through the pen of American novelist Philip Roth, who visited post-revolution Prague and became fast friends with the Czech writer. Roth conducted an interview with Klíma that became the cover story of The New York Review of Books in April, 1990. Offers of English-language publication flooded in, and Klíma’s international reputation was secured.
The fall of communism was also a boon to Klíma’s readership in his own country. In the weeks and months after the Velvet Revolution, his books My Merry Mornings and Love and Garbage sold more than 100,000 copies each, having been rushed into print.
At that time Klíma withdrew from public life to focus on his writing. Since then, he has published a book virtually every year, with the exception of the period between 2003 and 2009, which saw the publication of the first volume of his memoirs, My Crazy Century, bringing him back to the top of the best-seller list and winning him the Magnesia Litera Prize in 2010.
Nowadays, Klíma lives with his wife, Helena, a psychotherapist, near a forest on the southern edge of Prague. He recently invited The Prague Post into his large, book-lined study to discuss his life and work. Extremely approachable and seemingly unassuming, Klíma expressed himself with all the directness of a writer reaching the twilight of his life yet still filled with a child-like excitement about ongoing projects. His manner displayed all the delicate precision and heartfelt truth-telling of his books.
The Prague Post: You were in London when the Warsaw Pact invaded. Was it difficult for you to return?
Ivan Klíma: It wasn’t a difficult choice. I am persuaded that for a writer exile is a deadly decision, because you lose connection not only with your language but more importantly with your milieu. I decided to come back, and I was really never sorry that I made the decision, nor was my wife, who had parents here.
My family is an exception: My brother, father and mother were all in exile and had good professions. I had an invitation to Indiana to be a regular professor, my father was a well-known scientist in Switzerland, and my brother was at Bristol University. Yet we all came back. We were perhaps the only family in the whole country who did that.
My friends were really surprised and rather happy when I came back, because they considered it an act of solidarity, and in some ways it was important for me to fight for something. I’m sorry to use the cliché, but we had lost the battle but not the war. For me, it was important to be with my friends and continue fighting, which we did for two decades and were finally successful.
TPP: Could the challenges of the Normalization period be construed as having been good for Czech writers?
IK: I don’t feel that anyone really touched on this conflict between communists and noncommunists in literature. [Karel] Pecka describes the camps he was in for 11 years, but that’s rather an exception. [Ludvík] Vaculík in his dream book touches many times on the interrogations. I touch on it too … maybe once. I describe the home search, but it was just some details and not the main subject of most of the books written then.
I was more or less known in the West at that time, so I could survive on my foreign royalties. I worked some odd jobs, but for less than six months altogether, which means nothing. It was interesting for me and gave me some inspiration for My Golden Trades, for example, and some stories. Actually, I’m sorry I didn’t use more opportunities to do something.
It was a time of very good friendships and solidarity and many more or less secret meetings, and many activities that brought a kind of satisfaction. For me, it wasn’t such a bad time. For some of my friends who had to do some tough jobs, though, it was rather depressing. To clean windows for three or four weeks is a wonderful experience. One of my friends had to do it for 20 years. That’s a waste of time for an intellectual.
TPP: You had a very influential literary salon during this period. What was that like?
IK: It lasted two years. It was before we started samizdat. When I came back from the U.S., I was used to having parties there, so when I came back I started to invite my best friends over: Vaculík, Karol Sidon, Jan Trefulka, maybe [Milan] Kundera came once … we definitely read something of his. There were also some people working in theaters and some editors from Literární noviny.
The first evening I related my experiences in the States, and from the second meeting we combined readings of new texts with discussion and normal partying. It had a regular day each month for two years. I invited between 40 and 50 people, the maximum capacity of my old flat, not far from here, which was much smaller. Then, the StB were informed about this activity, and they began controlling the people who were visiting me, so I stopped the salon and started with samizdat, which was in some ways more useful because it wasn’t limited to 40 people but after a short time had hundreds of readers, because it circulated.
TPP: Practically speaking, how were you able to organize samizdat?
IK: Samizdat was organized by Vaculík. Most of these texts were typed by his girlfriend. It was unbelievably perfect – not a single mistake in the whole manuscript. At first, she made eight or nine copies at a time. Then we bought her an electric typewriter, so she could make 14 copies at a time, which were nearly unreadable. She stacked the papers on top of each other. It was bound and sold for the price of the paper and binding, with a little money for her. There were other places that would make copies of these. The full circulation was about 40 copies, which would be made in Brno and Bohemia. [Klíma goes to his library and takes out dozens of samizdat editions from his bookshelf] … Later, we made some copies that looked more like books. This is a collection of feuilletons written for some illegal magazine. At the beginning, we had a group of about 10 writers, and we promised that every two months we’d write one feuilleton.
If the police found these, they would be confiscated, but nothing more. They confiscated many of these samizdat editions, and to my surprise, I got most of them back. The first time was after six months, and the second time was after one year. They invited me in and discussed the books and asked me to sign something saying I agreed they would be destroyed. I said, “Never.” And to my surprise, I got about half of them back. The rest I got after ’89. One day, I got a big parcel of books from the Interior Ministry. That was interesting: If I refused to sign that I agreed with the destruction, they didn’t do it. It was such a funny regime. In the ’70s and ’80s, they had regulations, and they followed them.
TPP: What was the atmosphere for writers and intellectuals in Prague in 1989?
IK: It was very exciting. I remember I was visited by a very interesting man from England, at that time the head of Penguin. Not a businessman type but an amateur musician, and more than a man of business. He came just during the days of demonstrations on Wenceslas Square. He had the feeling he was in the middle of a dream. From quiet England, he came into such a storm. It was exciting, and we were very happy. I was active enough at that time and had speeches in theaters, which was common for people like me. Then I traveled with students outside Prague to persuade people in the regions. I was very busy, and of course, I had many interviews with Western journalists. It was an exception that people spoke English then, so they were visiting me and Havel, but he didn’t speak much English at that time.
TPP: After 1989, you withdrew from public life. Why?
IK: The only thing I really like to do is write. Everything else disturbs me. So, communism was removed, which was very important, and I was nearly 60 years old; I had no reason to enter politics. It’s a waste of time.
I can’t say I’m happy about what has happened in politics or that I’m unhappy. I’ve accepted it. I published a series of essays in 1990 called 40 Years in Us, mostly skeptical essays about how the past will influence our democracy. … It turns out I was very accurate in my predictions and analysis of the situation. But I’m not frustrated or disappointed. My accuracy proves, in my opinion, that the situation isn’t so different from the situation in the old democratic countries, because corruption in Greece or Italy is just like it is here. Perhaps it’s a bit worse here, but it has the same roots: Democracy is tired. This will present many problems in the future.
TPP: Has the role of the Czech writer changed since 1989?
IK: In 1989, the nation of readers insisted we should solve some political problems and be active on the political stage, but that’s not the role of the writer. The role of the writer is to write and not make politics. Writers are too naive and not experienced in politics, so I’m happy no one expects us to replace politicians anymore.
TPP: In your essay “Literature and Memory,” published in 1991, you wrote, “A literary work is something that defies death.” Twenty years later, do you still believe so strongly in the power of literature?
IK: I should replace the word “literature” with the word “culture.” For me, literature was the embodiment of culture, and now it’s pushed aside and replaced by TV and by many other more modern means of communication. But culture does have this role. Without culture, we will see the devastation of society, which is more or less happening now. Culture is withdrawing from the stage and being replaced by entertainment. Whether I regret that is not important; it’s a development. You can be unhappy, but that’s not important. You should accept that everything is changing and developing and doing so faster and faster.
TPP: How did you meet Philip Roth?
IK: We met in the ’70s. I liked his writing, and he enjoyed mine. He came to Prague about four times, very often. I also met him in the U.S. in the beginning of the ’90s. He visited me in February or March of 1990 and prepared a very long interview. [Klíma goes to his bookshelf and gets The New York Review of Books] … It was the cover story, so it was important information for American readers, written by a well-known writer. It secured me some publications because he mentioned my books and was very friendly. He also really helped Kundera to be well-known. … Roth still sends me all his new books.
TPP: What are you working on at the moment?
IK: I’m just finishing a book of many very short stories. Now it’s 100 pages, and it’s more or less finished. Twenty short stories all written in the past two years. What is specific about them is that they are very short, sometimes only half a page or one or two pages. I’m trying to be very strict and brief. Some are very short meditations or very quick observations of something and nothing more. It’s something new in my writing.
Another recent book, My Crazy Century, is something quite different, as it’s a memoir. Honestly, I don’t remember why I decided to write a memoir. It happened, and no one asked me to do it. I didn’t expect the great success the book brought me and my publisher. He’s really very happy, and he’s asked me to write the third volume. I tried, but it’s a problem that after the revolution I withdrew from public life nearly entirely and refused to accept any [official] function and devoted all my time to writing, with some small exceptions that didn’t swallow up too much of my time. But this is nothing interesting for readers. Some things have happened, of course, but I’d rather write essays about corruption and political developments and the people who have appeared as great fighters against communism and whom we’ve not necessarily heard about. … I’ve prepared a list of events I could mention but I prefer to write short stories.
TPP: Do you read the work of younger Czech writers?
IK: I’m not so interested in younger writers. My colleagues are in their fifties, and I mostly read their work in manuscripts. When I read something written by younger writers, I don’t find it’s on the highest level. Often it’s very well written but more or less about nothing. It lacks a great subject.
TPP: Do younger Czech writers lack a great subject without communism?
IK: Probably, yes. It’s wonderful that we have no wars and no totalitarian system, but these are things that brought great conflicts and interesting subjects for writers. But, I never touch on the most cruel situations or conflicts in my writing. I don’t like to. Even when I was writing about Terezín, the main short story is about my first loves, so it’s rather fun. Nothing you could call depressing. And I mentioned Terezín only twice in my novels and only in passing.
TPP: Is Prague an especially inspiring city for you?
IK: For me, it’s not like any other capital city. I was born here, and I know it, and I remember when I really had to decide to come back. … I remember, for me, the idea that it wouldn’t be possible to walk in some particular streets, where I walked with my first love, second love and third love – it was very depressing. There is a part of the riverbank where I walked with my first love. It was entirely the first love and entirely platonic. And I remember I thought it would be terrible not to be able to go there again. Then I came back, and I never went there. But I could, which was very important.
TPP: What keeps you going as a writer after so many years?
IK: I don’t know how to do anything else! No, I like writing. I can’t imagine living without writing, and I still have some subjects I can touch on. I have the feeling that I am still able to tell something and to contribute to some development in literature. My main effort now is to be strict and to say on one page what 40 years ago would have been the subject for a whole novel. I’m trying to tell the whole novel in three pages but to make it a piece of art, a piece of literature, not just ideas, which is very difficult.
TPP: What are you most proud of?
IK: My most successful book was Love and Garbage, and that got the highest esteem from critics in most countries, so maybe that’s my best book. Now the most successful in this country is My Crazy Century, which was a big surprise. I’ve signed contracts for Spanish translations and Chinese translations, but the most important is English, which hasn’t happened yet. I paid Paul Wilson, one of the best translators from Czech, to translate one or two chapters, which I’ll send to some English publishers.
I must say, I left my agent because she wanted me to change the memoir by putting the two volumes together and omitting the essays. In the first moment, I hesitated, but then I said “No.” So we amicably parted with many thanks because she helped me a great deal. I’ve had my work translated into 32 languages, which is a huge exception in my country. It was a friendly divorce with her, so now I’m doing it myself.
TPP: Do you have any advice for young writers trying to start their careers?
IK: “Career” is not the right word. I never dreamed of a career. I wrote because it was my obsession. I was always surprised when something was published.
I can only say writing is work; it’s a job, and you should devote most of your time to it. Be patient and know that it’s a type of work with language, so you should know perfectly how to use language, which is a great problem for many writers because they are influenced by this simplified language from pubs and TV. It’s interesting with Hrabal – probably the best writer from the previous generation – most of his stories were inspired by pubs, but they have wonderful rich language. He rewrote the language of pubs, and his language is wonderful. What else? Don’t evade any troubles in your life, in society and so on. Troubles are very important for writing.