A Life in Writing

July 6th 2016 – Researching “Weaver of Words”

I embarked on my current writing project, “Weaver of Words,” about eight months ago when I realized that I needed to spend some more time thinking about the story I was then writing. Three things came together at once: listening to an album by Joan Baez and realizing that one song was missing from the compilation; searching for and finding that song on the Internet; listening to the song and then looking up the writer and the subject.

I found two versions of the missing song, Natalya. One was the Joan Baez version I knew from the 1975 album From Every Stage, and one from a singer called Shusha. I listened to both versions and was moved to Google the subject of the song/poem – Natalya Gorbanevskaya. From the poem/song, I already knew she was a Russian poet who had been a dissident and imprisoned for her views. As a teenager, I had been influenced and moved by this song. What I learnt from searching the internet, was that Gorbanevskaya had been arrested for protesting outside the Kremlin against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. She was arrested at the time and then released because he had a new born baby. However, she continued to protest and to monitor human rights abuses against the Russian intelligentsia. Gorbanevskaya was arrested again in 1969 and sentenced to Kazan Special Psychiatric Hospital in 1970 on the grounds that only someone mentally unstable would keep protesting against the system. She was released in 1972 after international protests but periodically rearrested.

It was this imprisonment that Shusha wrote her poem about and persuaded Joan Baez to sing at an Amnesty International event in Germany. The pressure from Amnesty and other human rights organisations led to the release, and exile, of Natalya Gorbanevskaya. She was allowed to emigrate in 1995.

Upon her release, she went to live in France with her two sons and spent the rest of her life there. She continue to chronicle the human rights abuses in Russia, publish her magazine A Chronicle of Current Events, write poems, give speeches and bring up her two boys. She was given Polish citizenship in 2005 in recognition of her contribution to translating Polish literature in Russian.

Only nine of her poems were published officially in the Soviet Union during her life time; the rest were circulated privately or published abroad. She chronicled the trials of the other protesters who were arrested with her in 1968. Her account was published in English as Red Square at Noon in 1972. During my searches, I managed to find a copy of this book on a second-hand book site. The book has given me some interesting background information on how the show trials worked and how Soviet officials spoke to each other.

In August 2013, Natalya Gorbanevskaya returned to Moscow on the 45 anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The rally was dispersed and the participants, except Gorbanevskaya, were arrested. She died in Paris on 29 November 2013. There is a lot of information on the internet about the Samizdat publications and how the publications and distributions were organised. Also about how Gorbanevskaya operated as a dissident, writer and civil rights activist.

Natalya Gorbanevskaya is the model for the character Marta, in my novel Weaver of Words. Marta is herself a collage poet, very much in the style of Gorbanevskaya. She is also feisty and driven. She is a woman who puts her beliefs and principles above her own personal needs and safety. This kind of tunnel vision approach also separates herself from wider society and keeps her focused on her mission. This mission is two-fold: giving writers a public voice and, by default, giving herself a public voice and audience. She is, in a way, a relentless self-publicist. This is shown at the start of the story when she publishes her memoirs about the period 1968 to 1975.

The germ of an idea became a full-blown idea when I found the poem Samizdat  by Jared Carter (http://www.archipelago.org/vol10-12/carter.htm). When I read the poem, I was transported to the time and place. The poem brought to mind some of the things I had been told by colleagues and students when I moved to Czechoslovakia in February 1991. In that period Russian soldiers were still in the country and the influence of the Soviet Union and the Communist system was evident everywhere: from the products in the shops, the parades in the streets, the Red Star flying in public squares, the huge monuments in public spaces, the fear of reprisals, the lack of books, the lack of duplicating equipment such as typewriters and tape recorders, the extremely formal way in which people addressed each other and the way goods were displayed in shops. It was evident that there were limited choices as practically everyone had the same furniture, the same wallpaper, the same consumer goods and the same clothes. There was not a lot of choice and it was difficult to stand out as an individual. On the other side, it was easy to melt into the mass.

So, at this point I was building on personal experience and things I had been told. I want to weave as much of my own personal knowledge into the story as possible in order to make it realistic and to come alive for the reader. I did some online research and went through my photo archives to try to fill some gaps in my memory.

I have infilled quite a lot of background information about how people lived during the period from the novels of Czech writers. Ivan Klima, in particular, has informed my view of life during this period. His novel Love and Garbage was one of the first English translations I read while out in the CSSR.  The novel is about a dissident artist who decides to  become a rubbish collector in Communist Prague. He connects, and disconnects, with the other cleaners and has clashes with the management as he rejects the system. The narrator seems himself as a victim of the repressive regime and the lifestyle he has chosen. He experiences conflict about his writing and his personal relationships. He has a long standing personal conflict having both a wife and a mistress.

This conflict is discussed in detail by Eva Hoffman in her review of the novel (https://www.nytimes.com/books/98/02/22/home/klima-garbage.html). Klima himself talks about the novel on http://fresques.ina.fr/europe-des-cultures-en/fiche-media/Europe00200/interview-with-ivan-klima-regarding-love-and-garbage.html.


To be continued …


Romancing the Street Sweeper

Date: May 12, 1991, Sunday, Late Edition – Final
Byline: By Eva Hoffman;

LOVE AND GARBAGE By Ivan Klima. Translated by Ewald Osers. 224 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $20.

Ivan Klima is among those urbane, plain-spoken literary spirits whose work travels successfully across political systems, as well as across continents. In Czechoslovakia, Mr. Klima, who was officially banned after the Prague Spring of 1968, has been one of the most widely read and admired writers of the postwar generation. Among American audiences, he has gained recognition for such collections of stories as “My Merry Mornings” and “My First Loves,” in which he chronicled, with wistful bemusement, the small ironies and the darker absurdities of life in a socialist country.

In his latest book to be published here (it was written before the velvet revolution in 1989), Mr. Klima‘s canvas is large and his tone deeper. “Love and Garbage” is partly novelistic love triangle, partly brooding, personal meditation on such matters as art, death, suffering and — that very Eastern European preoccupation — the location of meaning and responsibility in an individual life. It is a flawed and sometimes disjointed work; but in the seriousness of its sensibility and the intensity of its moral questioning, it is more satisfying than many a flashier or more acrobatic performance.

The premise of “Love and Garbage” comes straight out of Mr. Klima‘s native land. At the novel’s outset, the protagonist, an unnamed writer who is out of favor with the state, decides to don a plastic orange apron and take a job as a street sweeper. This, of course, is the kind of menial job many artists and intellectuals in pre-revolutionary Czechoslovakia were forced to perform — but Mr. Klima gives his protagonist’s decision an existential as much as a political edge. The narrator perceives himself not mainly as a victim of oppression, but as someone who has reached a state of spiritual exhaustion and stalemate. He feels incapable of genuine human contact and “afraid that the silence which surrounded me would eventually invade me . . . and kill my plots.” Moreover, for a long time he’s been caught in a paralyzing conflict between two women: his wife, a serene, trustful psychologist to whom he’s deeply attached, and Daria, a vital, idealistic artist with whom he experiences moments of almost perfect closeness.

The core of the novel consists of the writer’s ranging, associative reflections on his own impasse and the contradictory pulls of the human mind and heart. While he wanders the streets of Prague with a broom and listens to the salty and eccentric stories of his teammates on the sweeping brigade, his mind moves freely between past and present. He recalls his childhood, which was scarred by war and the death of many people close to him, and thinks about his father, a mathematician now dying in a hospital, whose attachment to his work sustained him through two imprisonments. And the writer ponders the polarities of human imagination and circumstance: at one end of the spectrum, ubiquitous rubbish and the frequent reduction, in our time, of people to disposable waste; at the other, the longing for transcendence and the saving union of love.

But the subject to which he returns with most urgency is his own self-division and struggle within his two relationships. Again and again, he relives the course of his affair: the idyllic trysts with his lover followed by reproaches, rancor and hurt; the returns to intimacy with his wife, his confessions and broken promises; and his own anguishing sense of guilt, indecision and bad faith. All of this is quite familiar, up to a point; but Mr. Klima brings to this theme an unusually mature seriousness. The narrator avoids oppositions between safe domesticity and romantic passion and speaks about both women with a respectful gravity and tenderness, while he examines his own sentiments with an almost innocent frankness. And, as he ricochets between his two loves, his inner struggle is moral as much as it is psychological. What is at stake for him is not how to maximize his identity or find fulfillment, but how to give a meaningful shape to his life and — in a phrase that echoes Vaclav Havel — how “to live in truth,” without self-deception, betrayal or inflicting pain.

His ultimate decision to remain with his wife proceeds from an old-fashioned idea of truth as “troth,” or loyalty, and an understanding of freedom as, paradoxically, possible only within constraints. Throughout the novel, the narrator is haunted by the tragic example of Kafka, whose artistic integrity and transcendent vision did not save him from a fatal failure to achieve a human connection. In his own embrace of a single-minded commitment, Mr. Klima rejects the extremes of either despair or the yearning for “the bliss of paradise,” and accepts the earthly, ordinary happiness that includes the dross of ambivalence and mixed motives but also the sustaining pleasures of work, friendship and the imperfect love of one person.

The vision that works toward this reconciliation is almost classical in its balance and realism, and the modesty of Mr. Klima‘s style is itself a refusal of excess and extremism. Indeed, perhaps as an antidote to the corrupt rhetoric the narrator hears all around him, Mr. Klima seems to be conducting in this novel something of an experiment in banishing writerly hubris; the narrator’s voice is so understated and direct as to have the sound of a good friend sharing his humblest, most commonplace feelings and thoughts in the simplest, most unadorned language.

Unfortunately, the experiment doesn’t always work; sincerity sometimes slides toward banality. The novel’s fragmentary method makes for a certain stasis: after a while, the narrator’s thoughts begin to veer predictably between the same, recurring images and preoccupations; in particular, the account of his affair has elements of almost neurotic repetitiveness. Moreover, the portrait of Daria is occasionally perplexing. Her faults — she’s given to New Age superstitions, to mean attacks on the narrator’s wife and to demanding fidelity simultaneously from her lover and her husband — are presented without really altering the narrator’s attitude, thus leaving the reader baffled as to how much weight they have in his decision to leave her.

These are novelistic defects, but they do not substantially affect the import or the impact of Mr. Klima‘s work. Reading “Love and Garbage” (in a competent translation by Ewald Osers) affords the experience, rare in today’s fiction, of being in the presence of a seasoned, measured perspective, and a mind that strives honestly to arrive at a wisdom sufficient to our common condition. Whether writers who have succeeded under the ancien regime in Eastern Europe can survive the regime’s disappearance is, in many cases, uncertain. IvanKlima is surely among those who will last.




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