Seeking the Spirit of Prague: Explorations of Literature and History on the UW Slavic Department's Early Fall in Prague Program
by Cheryl Stephenson
UW Early Fall in Prague students pose with a statue of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk in Kutná Hora
Preparing to leave the US in late August, the seven students participating in the Slavic Department's Early Fall in Prague program this year had much to look forward to. Our packed itinerary promised days full of music, art, amazing architecture and the study of Czech language and history. Among all of the cathedral visits, museums and excursions we had planned, there was one item in our schedule that was certainly not a typical feature of students' or tourists' visits to Prague: a private lecture and discussion with the author Ivan Klíma. In preparation, students devoted time before the trip to exploring or revisiting many of Klíma's novels, short stories and essays. Through this immersion in his writings and our engaging discussion with him, the author's ideas and stories colored our experience of Prague, giving us a more intimate knowledge of the region's history, insight into the particular challenges of writers and artists in the mid- to late twentieth century, and an expanded understanding of the relationship between literature and history.
Ivan Klíma's life experiences make him exceptionally qualified to offer these social and historical insights. Born in 1931 in the democratic Czechoslovak Republic under president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the author spent his early childhood in what would prove to be the country's last truly independent period until the Velvet Revolution. After the Nazi invasion, Klíma and his family were deported to the Jewish ghetto in the Terezín concentration camp, where they spent the entirety of the war. (In our discussion with the author, he told us that he is currently the oldest living person who was interred in Terezín from the establishment of the ghetto until its liberation.)
Students at the Terezín concentration camp cemetery with local co-ordinator Jitka Ryndova
After the war, his fortunes varied greatly with the rapid changes in the country's political and cultural climate. By working various jobs, ranging from journal editor to garbage collector, Klíma weathered the second half of the twentieth century and wrote almost constantly. After his participation in the Prague Spring, Klíma's work was banned in Czechoslovakia, but he actively pursued access to foreign publishers, both for his own works and those of his contemporaries. He published a great deal through underground samizdat networks. Since the Velvet Revolution, Klíma has continued to write, still contributing a weekly column for Lidové Noviny, the country's oldest newspaper, and regularly publishing new books. Over the last 78 years, the author has seen an almost inconceivable amount of social and political change, and he was written about nearly all of it, both in fiction and non-fiction. His importance as a witness to all of these events is significant in and of itself, but it is the way he writes about them that made his work so important to our experience in Prague.
Klíma has found success as a writer by doing what all great authors tend to do: he creates stories that are both intensely personal and somehow universal, both timeless and a perfect product of the time and space in which they are presented. In writing novels and short stories through such a tumultuous period in Prague, Klíma has successfully turned historical statistics into characters -- seemingly real people with whom his readers can relate and come to a more genuine, intimate understanding of history. He reminds the reader that what is significant about historical events is not the events themselves, but rather the effect those events have on the individuals living through them. In explaining the contrast between authors and historians, he says, “The novelist does not discuss history but the personal experience of man in history.”i He brings to light how messy and complicated life can be when historical and political forces intersect with people's lives and the everyday challenges they face. Through his characters, Klíma populates the historical narrative, presenting relatable, perfectly imperfect characters, locked into the time in which the work is set, illustrating the real history of Prague on the scale of the individual.
UW Czech lecturer Jaroslava Soldanova and her students gather with Ivan Klíma
One of the strengths of Klíma's works is his ability to use historical events without depending on them. His works remain relevant and internationally popular, not because of their subtle portrayal of historical or political themes, but because there is, at the core of each of his works, a believable human character who is simply trying to navigate through life. The intersections between these characters' lives and various political forces is all the more touching because the reader can so easily relate to other aspects of the characters' lives. In “Miriam,” a story in the collection My First Loves, the author tells a story of a young boy in love, full of the confusion and awkwardness of all early brushes with romance. This story is, in many ways, typical of Klíma's writings about his time in Terezín. The author chooses this extremely evocative setting, yet he chooses not to emphasize it. The story is about love, or at least infatuation. Throughout his works, Klíma uses history in this subtle way. He reminds the reader that even the most dramatic historical situations do not supplant everyday life. He teaches that during revolutions, foreign occupations and even during the Holocaust, everyday people fell in and out of love, cheated on their partners, argued and made up, worked and wrote and did myriad other things that are just part of being human.
For the students visiting Prague this summer, this kind of personalized presentation of history filled in many of the gaps in the version of Prague history usually shown to tourists. It sometimes seems as though the Prague tourism board wants visitors to believe that absolutely nothing happened in Prague between 1938 and 1989, that tourists should just focus on the glory of the Czech lands under Karel IV and the wonder's of Czech Art Nouveau design and not dwell on foreign occupations, camps and other inconveniences. Of course, Karel IV's impact on Prague was tremendous and Czech Art Nouveau design is absolutely breathtaking, but as students looking to form a more complete understanding of the city, we needed to learn about the more difficult times in the city's history, too. Klíma himself, in his essay “The Spirit of Prague,” described the problem of authors dwelling on Prague's glory at the turn of the twentieth century:
But to my mind it was not freedom that most influenced the shape and the spirit of Prague, it was the unfreedom, the life of servitude, the many ignominious defeats and cruel military occupations. Prague as it was at the turn of the century no longer exists, and those who might have remembered that period are no longer alive.ii
Klíma focuses on everyday life in this period of ‘unfreedom.' But in providing a version of history more compassionate than most history books and, in many ways, more thorough and honest than the whitewashed version of Prague history presented to weekend tourists, Klíma and his characters helped all of us to begin forming a real relationship with the city and its past.
Students at the foot of Karlstejn Castle
Throughout Klíma's works, he fights against sterilized, impersonal presentations of history, showing that reducing a person to a statistic or a single attribute can never lead to a positive end. In a 1997 lecture at UC Berkeley, he explained:
I personally believe that the purpose of literature is to talk to man. Man is never outside of history. The fact that in the mass media and in ideological literature this history is reduced to symbols and clichés should be grasped as a challenge to the writer, inciting him to do his utmost to overcome the cliché. A literature which decides to dodge this task abandons its most innate mission, and its creators are then surprised in vain when the place they have vacated has been seized by someone else who plays a deceptive game with the lives of human beings.iii
Regarding literature under communist regimes, much has already been said about how there could often be more truth in “fiction” than in journalism and official documents. However, we do need to recognize that even now, when we do have more accurate information about the past and the present, the kind of truth found in literature remains equally, if not more, important. There is truth that illuminates mankind, that helps us to understand each other and the world in which we live. And there is truth that dehumanizes us, reducing us, in Klíma's words, “to symbols and clichés.” In Klíma's view, the challenge of the twenty first century is to learn how to live with both.
Our meeting with the author fell towards the end of our trip, although many of us felt as though he had been with us all along. (There were certainly quite a few Prague metro rides with a full row of UW students, each reading a different Klíma novel or short story.) Not surprisingly, Klíma was modest and soft-spoken in telling us about his role in Prague's literary culture after the Soviet occupation, how he would smuggle works out of the country for foreign publication and about the samizdat networks that distributed his works. In our discussion following his lecture, he explained that, even though writing his weekly column is sometimes a chore, he still writes mainly for himself, because that is what he enjoys doing and how he expresses himself. Like so many of his characters, Klíma struggled for years for the right to do what he does best. It is encouraging that, unlike so many of his characters, he actually came through that struggle and is still enjoying himself, while continuing to spread his own kind of truth.
Cheryl Stephenson is an MA student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. She focuses on the interactions between 19th and 20th century Czech and Russian literature, history, and politics.
- Klíma, Ivan. “Living in Fiction and History.” Avenali Lecture, UC Berkeley. April 1997. http://townsendcenter.berkeley.edu/pubs/OP11_Klima.pdf.p. 5.
- Klíma, Ivan. “The Spirit of Prague.” The Spirit of Prague. Trans. Paul Wilson. London: Granta Books, 1998. p. 40.
- Klíma, Ivan. “Living in Fiction and History.” Avenali Lecture, UC Berkeley. April 1997. http://townsendcenter.berkeley.edu/pubs/OP11_Klima.pdf. p. 15