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Ivan Klima's Wonderful Mistakes


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A talk with the famous Czech writer, Ivan Klima

Kicking back in the cosy home of Ivan Klima in Prague, we both agree that there are many troubles in the world. But Mr Klima assures me “As long as there are beautiful girls, the world is fine.” Chuckling, we both sip more tea.

“Real love is the same for centuries,” insists Ivan when I assail him with the notion that contemporary relationships, with the inundation of social media channels - email, Facebook Page, WhatsApp, Instagram, etc. - are more fraught with burdens than relationships in the past. A man happily married for sixty years to Helena, a still active psychotherapist, I concede that he has earned the right to know.

Ivan Klima - Famous Czech Writer

“A train is very good for the beginning of love,” Klima quickly leaps into his natural element: weaving stories. “You are locked close together in the same compartment. There’s no escape. You can even ‘accidentally’ brush against each other. And she doesn’t even need to know what your real destination is. So you can get off when she does. And then propose a drink at the station. But when you get to the place you can quite rightly complain about how ugly it is. So you can wander into the town to find another place, which isn’t much better. And then when you reach in your wallet to check how much money you have, you find just 100 crowns. So you insist that she have a couple of glasses of wine, while you just drink tap water. If she asks, you can explain that you have to drive later. And then you can propose to take her for dinner-“

I interrupt. “Wait a minute, you just said you only have 100 crowns...”

He doesn’t miss a beat. “So you take her to a restaurant and then complain that your stomach is hurting. So you just drink water, and she takes pity, she doesn’t want to gobble up a huge meal in front of you. So she just orders soup.”

“Alright, what next?”

“After the soup, you tell her that you have to walk to your car, something fancy, say a Mercedes, of course. And walking to your car you can slip your arm around her, get one or two small kisses, and perhaps she’ll invite you home.”

Ivan Klima - Famous Czech Writer

Ivan smiles. He’s 87. He’s been in a concentration camp (Terezin from the age of 10 to 14). I relish his contemporaneous fantasy as much as he does.

And I’m not alone. Over fifty years of writing, Mr Klima has produced dozens of books that have been translated into thirty languages. He’s won - amidst many others - the Kafka Prize. Behind him sag two full bookshelves overflowing solely with books - in numerous editions - that he himself has written.

Noticing the sculpture of the author of Metamorphosis that came with the prize in his name, I ask him about Mr Kafka.

“Ah, if you read him deeply, he must influence you... a little.”

Knowing that Klima’s composed an exquisite essay on Kafka in his book The Spirit of Prague, I surmise that Ivan’s ‘little’ - at least when it comes to Kafka - is likely to be much vaster than the average person’s ‘much’.

What about writers’ workshops and the proliferation of MFAs in Creative Writing?

A deep frown appears on his face. “It kills your chances. If you are a writer, you are a discoverer. If you are trained it is the end of searching.”

Does he have a Bucket List?

“No. I have done everything I wanted to do.”

I look deeply in his eyes. He isn’t lying. When given the chance to be a celebrated exile in America in the late Sixties (he lectured at Harvard) he consciously elected to return to Communist Czechoslovakia.

Samizdat - the typed and photocopied editions of banned books - Mr Klima claims, were even more avidly read than some officially published books. Ivan explains that there were approximately 300 copies of each samizdat typed-up and each person who read it would place a small mark on the last page. After just a few months, there were often 25 marks scribbled in the back of each book.

During Communism, gatherings of writers - including ‘dangerous’ foreign authors like the American novelist Philip Roth - regularly took place in Klima’s home.

“I was already banned. Unlike almost everyone else, I had nothing to lose.”

Ivan explains that, fortunately, the Communist authorities turned a blind eye to his reception of royalties for foreign editions of his books.

“They just wanted a share of the hard currency.”

What about fame?

“It isn’t important. But it can be... useful.”


“Oh, for instance, once I was out walking in a small village with a lovely young woman I’d only just met... and an old lady staggered towards us, recognized me, and pulled out a pen and insisted that I sign her arm. Once the young lady understood that I was a celebrated writer... well, it all became easier.”

Klima’s glinting eyes whisper the rest of what ‘all’ might conceivably have entailed.

“What about the Nobel?”

“Ah, when I was young, in my twenties, I thought I might get it.” Klima goes on to say that he’s been nominated for it several times but now accepts that it’s quite unlikely. “There are very few really good writers. Perhaps one or two each generation.”

Mr Klima’s professed his deep respect for classic Czech authors like Jaroslav Hasek and Karel Capek - which contemporary Czech authors does he admire?

He thinks awhile. Then proffers up just a single name: “Hakl.”

What about Milan Kundera?

“Every time I read him, I’m impressed by how well he writes. Such precision. But he’s a bit cold.”

Returning to the question of young writers and how - avoiding formal writing programs of course - they might get their start, he is quick to answer:

“Read. Read. And read. And then start by writing short stories. They’re the most difficult.”

Why, if they’re the most difficult, should one START with them?

For this Klima doesn’t give a proper answer. I just assume, perhaps wrongly, that starting with the most difficult task of writing, everything else becomes easy. Then again, by starting with a difficult task perhaps he’s suggesting that more people would give up their (in most cases) unreasonable wishes for authorship. I’m reminded of a comedian’s quip: “These days everybody has a book inside them. But the book inside most people should STAY there!”

Klima tells me that he admires American short stories, like those of Hemingway. But maintains a penchant for much longer works, for instance Tolstoy’s War and Peace - which he read twice.

“Very few people have done that,” Klima muses. “But I should note that they were two different Czech translations. Ah translations can be funny, full of wonderful mistakes.”

I ask him about examples of such ‘wonderful mistakes’ but for the moment he can’t think of any.

We sip more tea, and talk on. Of war and peace and the tenuous threads between them. In his long career, Klima has written short stories, novels, plays, essays, biographies - but never poetry.

“Every young girl, when she’s about 15 or 16, writes poems. I knew from the beginning that I had no talent for verses, so I never tried.”

No, Ivan Klima, over nearly nine decades of gloriously vital living, loving, thinking and writing has never written poetry. But something in his tender whimsy, his praise of literature’s - and life’s - wonderful mistakes tells me he has LIVED it.
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Author: Lucien Zell

About The Author

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Lucien Zell is an American poet and photographer based in Prague.

Hailed by Alan Levy of The Prague Post as a "21st Century Troubadour," Lucien Zell was born in LA and raised in Seattle where as a teenager he started writing and performing in cafés, clubs and festivals. Upon turning 19, Zell dropped out of college and left for Europe where he drifted through many European cities.

Since 1998, he's been based in Prague, where he founded the rock band The Wavemen, and where five books (four poetry collections and one novel) have been published by independent Czech and Russian presses. As a lyricist and composer, Zell's songs have been released by Warner, Sony, and Universal Music.

Category: Arts and Cultures Viewed: 218 times
Username: PraguePoet Listing Ref: 510403244
Date of Listing: 11 April 2019, 10:53:18

Ivan Klima's Wonderful Mistakes


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