The Bass Saxophone: Two Novellas

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

With few exceptions, Eastern European writers have met with indifference in America during the postwar decades, yet far from being merely provincial, the experience of the Eastern Europeans is now exemplary, for this is a time in which every writer, as Saul Bellow has said, is living on the periphery; there are no more literary capitals. No writer better exemplifies the alert, omnivorous intelligence and the stubborn integrity characteristic of the best Eastern European artists than Josef kvorecký. He has published Czech translations of many American writers, including William Faulkner, whose stylistic influence is apparent in The Bass Saxophone, but also “marginal” figures such as Ray Bradbury and Raymond Chandler. Such choices reveal kvorecký’s taste for popular art, his disdain for authority, and his flair for discovering usable material: with writers as various as Italo Calvino and Peter Handke, he has seen the potential energy in peripheral genres.

Although he is hardly known in America, several of kvorecký’s books have been translated into English, including All the Bright Young Men and Women, his richly anecdotal “personal history” of the Czech cinema. kvorecký grew up watching films every day: his father was the director of one of two movie theaters in his hometown, Nachod. A close friend of Milo Forman, he contributed in various ways to a number of New Wave films. Before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, kvorecký had published some ten books while working as an editor and translator; he frequently dueled with Zhdanovite toadies, and his first novel, The Cowards (1958; English version published 1970), was the subject of an orchestrated critical attack. Soon after the invasion he emigrated with his wife to Canada, where he is currently Professor of English and Film at the University of Toronto. In 1980 he was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

The Bass Saxophone, kvorecký’s finest work available in English, collects two novellas published separately in Czechoslovakia: “Emoke” (1963) and “The Bass Saxophone” (1967). The novellas are prefaced by a substantial memoir, “Red Music,” which introduces Western readers to the jazz cult in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe. “Red Music” also introduces the themes which the novellas will repeat with variations, particularly in “The Bass Saxophone.” The memoir begins: “In the days when everything in life was fresh—because we were sixteen, seventeen—I used to blow tenor sax. Very poorly.” Those opening sentences establish kvorecký’s characteristic tone, at once elegiac and ironic.

Red Music was the name of the band in which kvorecký played as a teenager in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The name, he explains, had no political connotations, but was chosen in analogy to Blue Music, a band from Prague, without any awareness of the musical connotations of “blue.” This comical ignorance was typical of the jazz cult, who mistranslated the name of one band leader as “The Duke of Ellington” and tried to decipher enigmatic song titles (“Struttin’ with Some Barbecue”) by consulting a pocket Webster’s. But what they lacked in information, they made up for in passion: kvorecký saw a Swedish jazz film, Swing it, magistern!, “at least ten times.”

“Red Music” is much more, however, than a memoir of an adolescence which, despite its bitter incongruities, more or less resembled the experience of youths in New York or Los Angeles. In kvorecký’s hands, the jazz cult in war-torn Eastern Europe becomes a potent, multilayered symbol. “Cult” is not a word casually chosen: again and again in the memoir—and in the novella, “The Bass Saxophone”—kvorecký speaks of jazz in religious terms, calling it “that international language of an innocent cult”; circulating sheet music and jazz lore in underground publications, the cult “served the sacrament that verily knows no frontiers.”

The religious language emphasizes the nature of the conflict between the jazz cult and the “authorities,” first the Nazis, then the Communists (whom kvorecký calls “the bishops of Stalinist obscurantism,” at once sustaining the religious motif and parodying the familiar abusive epithets which still issue from Tass and Pravda). This conflict, kvorecký insists, is not what it first might appear to be. It is not essentially political, nor is jazz—“no matter what LeRoi Jones says to the contrary”—essentially a form of protest. Jazz, like any true art, is an anarchic, explosive expression of “creative energy,” akin to the prodigious energies of the natural world. In any totalitarian regime, this spontaneous uncontrolled energy will be registered as a threat, and will be ruthlessly suppressed. “Red Music” and “The Bass Saxophone” document this suppression with great passion and with an unerring instinct for the mordantly suggestive detail. kvorecký paraphrases, from memory, an “unseemly Decalogue” of regulations issued in wartime Germany and translated into Czech, aimed at orchestras which included jazz in their repertoire. The regulations strictly prohibited, for example, “all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl. . . .”

However, totalitarian regimes are only the most obvious, the most blatant examples of the abuse of authority. The...

(The entire section is 2241 words.)