Books: Darling, you were wonderful...

... and so he was - until this feast of schmaltz. Carole Angier wonders what went wrong; The Ultimate Intimacy by Ivan Klma (translated by A G Brain) Granta, pounds 12.99
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Ivan Klma is an extremist, or I am one about him. I think all his previous books except one are sheer genius; but the one, Judge on Trial, was frankly bad. Unlike the rest it was long, heavy, and wore seriousness on its sleeve; unlike them, it was translated by the husband-and-wife team of A G Brain. When I saw the size, title and translator of The Ultimate Intimacy, I feared the worst. And that, alas, is what it turned out to be.

Daniel Vedra is a Protestant pastor who lost his ideal first wife 18 years ago and has fretted about his capacity for intimacy ever since. He is remarried to a good woman; and since the Velvet Revolution he has been able to practise his religion in freedom. One cold morning a strange woman walks into his church. They begin an affair, which reveals the cracks in his faith and destroys it, nearly destroying him and his marriage with it.

This should have been riveting, a perfect vehicle for subtle Klmaesque reflection. Why isn't it? Because Daniel is a pompous and pious bore, who constantly monitors his own goodness and thinks that intimacy is telling the complete truth about yourself. Because he's perfectly suited to his even duller wife Hana, and you can't believe that warm, lively Bra would fall in love with him. Because you can't care that he's losing all his certainties; you just wish he'd get on with it.

Because his faith itself isn't interesting. His reflections are all equally banal. What has happened to the delicate profundities of My Golden Trades? Here we get "People who think about money tend to forget about the soul" (the narrator); or "I wish...that your heart should find love and your dreams peace" (Daniel). What happened to Klma's black humour? There is one joke in 386 pages. What happened to his trust-the-reader subtlety? It's gone, with his concision.

The Ultimate Intimacy is preachy, prolix and flat. The narrator tells us what to think; so do Daniel and Bra, and they tell us how wonderful they are. Bra spoons up sticky gobbets of praise to him; Daniel's paeans are shorter, but even more nauseating. It's like reading a bunch of Hallmark cards.

There's an idea here, about the seductiveness of praise. It would have been darkly, tenderly drawn out in another book by Klma; but here it is trampled to death. That is the fate of all the book's ideas. They are Big Ideas - death, love, religion - but for that reason they need the shy, ironic Klma, not this galumphing one. Can it be just the Brains? Some of it is, certainly: embarrassing attempts to convey the street slang of Petr, whom Daniel tries to save, or the American of his emigre sister Rt. But translation can only damage; it cannot transform.

The other Big Idea is freedom. My Golden Trades, Klma's last masterpiece (I think), was still set in the time of tyranny. When he came to London, someone asked him the inevitable question. What would he write about, now that Czechoslovakia was free? The same things he had always written about, he said - love, life and death. He did not write about political oppression, so its disappearance would make no difference.

It makes a difference to Daniel, though. He realises that his faith was upheld by an inhuman society, since it made the division between good and evil seem clear. When it disappears his clarity goes with it, and then his faith as well. "He had survived the time of oppression but not the time of freedom," the narrator says. I fear this may be as true of Klma's art as of Daniel's religion. That may indeed be the one unstated, other-Klma meaning of this novel.