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Styron in Prague

In response to:

Notes from Underground from the January 9, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Paul Wilson, in his review of Ivan Klíma’s memoirs [NYR, January 9], erroneously states that William Styron was among the American writers whose visits and expressions of solidarity “buoyed” Klíma. That was true of Klíma’s encounters with Philip Roth and Arthur Miller but not Styron, whose clichés about the evils of American consumer society irritated and dismayed Klíma, especially as they combined with his ignorance of the Soviet system. Klíma wrote:

Like most American intellectuals…he [Styron] had a lot of reservations about life in America…. Americans, he claimed, will drown in material goods…will go deaf from…commercials and inane television shows. They were losing their taste, their feeling for reality…. He [Styron] thought that we Czechs, along with the entire Eastern Bloc, were different, he explained to our astonishment. For us, money was not the only goal; people were looking for meaning in their lives other than the accumulation of goods. He’d come to this realization from his stay in Russia….
It was bizarre that a writer, who everyone assumed possessed a heightened sense of perception, could be deceived by Communist propaganda and believe that platitudes concerning the construction of a Communist society could, after all the horrible experiences, offer some kind of higher meaning.

Surely these remarks do not suggest that Styron made a favorable impression on Klíma, let alone “buoyed” him. Instead, they confirmed Klíma’s impression that for many Western intellectuals it was difficult to grasp the nature of Communist systems and their impact on their citizens.

I also wonder about the reviewer’s judgment of the translation as “precise and elegant.” I am not familiar with the Czech original (I don’t read Czech) but was struck by numerous clunky and grammatically questionable English sentences and expressions. Given more space I could provide many examples.

Paul Hollander
Professor Emeritus of Sociology
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Associate, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Harvard University

Paul Wilson replies:

Professor Hollander is right to point out an aspect of Klíma’s meetings with American writers in Prague in the 1970s that, for reasons of length, I chose not to discuss. Yes, Klíma’s reaction to Styron was not the same as his response to other writers like Miller and Roth, but that was not my point. If Professor Hollander were to imagine himself living in Prague at that time, out of favor with the regime, cut off from students and colleagues, unable to publish, and was then sought out by Western academics who came to let him know that he was not forgotten, would he not have been buoyed by their presence, regardless of what he thought of their opinions?

There is another way of looking at Klíma’s response to Styron. It was not so much Styron’s critique of Western consumerism that irritated Klíma. After all, he had heard similar views many times before, during his time in America. What Klíma found bizarre was Styron’s observation that the Czechs and Russians were somehow more spiritually inclined, less materialistic than Americans. Klíma attributes this to Styron’s having been deceived by Communist propaganda, but I think Klíma was mistaken. Soviet propaganda would have encouraged Styron to notice how splendidly the people’s material needs were looked after under communism. What Styron noticed was something else, something others, too, have observed, that in the absence of a decent standard of living and freedom of expression, people will often turn inward. Klíma knew that this search for meaning was the unintended consequence of deliberate, enforced privation, and he was no doubt irritated with Styron for not understanding that.

The encounter did not end there, however. Styron later brought up the trial, in Prague, of a young woman who had just been sentenced to death after deliberately running over and killing a number of pedestrians. Styron said that after the experiences of World War II, it was important to defend the principle that the state had no right to take a life, even if that person were guilty of murder. His Czech listeners were taken aback, but clearly, Styron’s arguments made a deep impression on Klíma, who had himself narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis. “This conversation,” Klíma writes, “later influenced me when I had the protagonist of my novel Judge on Trial contemplate the death penalty.”

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