Josef Škvorecký

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Škvorecký, Josef 1924–

Škvorecký is a Czech novelist, editor, translator, and screen-writer for television and film now living in Toronto. His work, suppressed in Czechoslovakia, resonates with the cadences of jazz, a music form he uses both structurally and as a subject to symbolize antiauthoritarian attitudes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Stuart Hood

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[Josef Skvorecky is a writer who questions] some of the basic myths of authoritarian socialism as it has been evolved in Eastern Europe. Thus [he] refuses to accept the proposition that resistance movements are totally heroic, contain no time-servers and have no cowards in their ranks, or that other assumption that the Red Army behaved in all circumstances as it does in Soviet war films. To put it another way, although he writes in a realistic style, he refuses to accept the basic tenet of socialist realism, which is that the writer should provide models of heroic stature from which the reader may learn how to bear himself in the fight—la lutte finale. He refuses, in the phrase attributed to Stalin, to be an 'engineer of human souls'. On the contrary, his conclusions are ironically expressed in the title of his novel, The Cowards….

Doctrinal unsoundness in Stalinist terms is of course no guarantee of literary excellence; but Skvorecky is a novelist of real stature who writes without sentimentality and without offering simplistic solutions about adolescence, war and death.

Stuart Hood, "Czech Moments," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1970; reprinted by permission of Stuart Hood), Vol. 84, No. 2167, October 8, 1970, p. 493.∗

[The Cowards] describes an eventful eight days at the end of the Second World War in a small town in north-east Bohemia, as seen through the eyes of twenty-year-old Danny Smiřický, zoot-suited tenor-saxophonist, sentimentalist and self-styled lover of all the beautiful girls in the world….

An important piece of history is marvellously recorded here, and anyone who wants to know how it felt to be young, idealistic and innocent at the end of the war in what then was Reichsprotektorat Böhmen and Mähren, should read The Cowards. He would also learn something of the indefinable sense of impending change which at that time pervaded this part of Europe, tenuous at first, but growing stronger with the advance of the Soviet armies; and understand, too, what Marxists mean when they speak of the "bourgeoisie leaving the stage of history"….

In spite of all the suppression The Cowards became a milestone in Czech literature and Josef Škvorecký one of the country's most popular writers. Reading the novel today, one cannot help wondering what direction Czech fiction would have taken had it been allowed to develop freely in the 1950s. Although this is, first of all, a major Czech novel …, in 1948 its author was, like many young writers all over Europe, under the influence of American prose…. Besides Hemingway, there are traces of sentimental irony and detachment reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald. And the youthful drive of Mr. Škvorecký's writing, as well as the aching nostalgia which has subsequently become the hall-mark of his prose, bring him close to another author, who was also writing his first novel at about the same time and had to wait seven years to see it in print: the late Jack Kerouac. After all, they both, though worlds apart, started from the same point in literary tradition.

"Prehistoric Historian," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3581, October 16, 1970, p. 1184.

["Miss Silver's Past" is an] alternately...

(This entire section contains 626 words.)

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comic and lachrymose diatribe against literary censorship in Czechoslovakia, convolutedly disguised (to get past the censors) as a mystery novel…. [The] book satirizes the hypocrisy, fear, and jockeying for power of the Czech publishing world…. [Unfortunately] the Mata Hari-with-a-mission mystery story is too transparent, and none of the characters succeed very well either as satirical symbols or as real people. Only the frustrating, stifled atmosphere of a controlled intellectual life comes across with any vigor.

"Briefly Noted: 'Miss Silver's Past'," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LI, No. 30, September 15, 1975, p. 130.

Thomas Lask

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"Miss Silver's Past" is an unqualified delight. It is a rapid, propulsive thriller, complete with a murder, a cynical (almost contemptible) narrator and a heroine who is as intellectually agile and as physically seductive as any encountered in recent fiction. But the book's value as an entertainment is only one aspect of its virtues. For the larger world in which all the hugger mugger takes place is that of a state-run publishing house in Czechoslovakia before the Dubcek thaw. The efforts of the head of the house to anticipate the theoretical objections of the Communist functionaries, the gyrations of his minions to remain ideologically pure and the efforts of the rebels on the staff to thwart the machine are really the heart of the book.

The author … writes in a style deliberately unliterary, jazzy and racy, and one which by its very nature mocks the portentous philistinism of the bureaucrats and the stiff language used to express it. If its underlying message were not so sinister in its implications, his black comedy could qualify as one of the funniest books of the year.

Thomas Lask, "Four Novels: 'Miss Silver's Past'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 21, 1975, p. 38.

Tony Aspler

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Miss Silver's Past is a bitingly funny attack on how books come to be published in Czechoslovakia….

Karel Leden, a conniving young editor working for the state publishing house, is faced with the problem of a raunchy' first novel by a woman writer about morally disturbed girls…. The 'progressives' in his department fight for publication; the establishment resists, and Karel refuses to reveal his hand. His life is further complicated by his obsession for the beautiful and elusive Lenka Silver. Who is she and what is her past? The love story turns into a detective story when a murder is committed.

Josef Skvorecky holds a tight rein on his two narrative lines—the passage of the dirty book through endless faction-ridden committee meetings and the hot pursuit of Lenka Silver by Karel, a thoroughly unlikeable hero who manages to engage our interest and even our sympathy. How the author marries his two disparate themes is a technical triumph. His story-telling skill and sensitive control of mood and pace make this a novel of rare quality, and, in the light of its fate, courage.

Tony Aspler, "Sudden Subway," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Tony Aspler), Vol. 95, No. 2448, March 11, 1976, p. 318.∗

Russell Davies

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An enthusiasm for jazz is something very difficult to convey, and to justify, in fictional forms. The music inspires in its adherents a specific kind of hero-worship, and a simple Kameradschaft, which it is almost impossible to integrate into contexts where more complicated social and personal values are simultaneously in play….

As a preface to the two novellas in [The Bass Saxophone], the exiled Czech writer Josef Skvorecky offers a short and passionate essay under the multiply ironic title of "Red Music". Here jazz appears in its familiar historical and international role as a symbol (and a breeding-ground) of anti-authoritarian attitudes; and Skvorecky, writing from Toronto, leaves no doubt as to the revealing smoothness of the change-over from one cultural oppression to another as the Nazis pulled out and the Russians moved in….

"Emöke", the first and less assured of the stories, takes place, at a recreation centre where our narrator is taking a dismal organized vacation. He becomes swiftly attracted to Emöke, a slender Hungarian girl…. The story never quite liberates itself from the standard wistfulness of unconsummated holiday romance, and consoles itself in the end with a rather disappointingly extended sneer at the schoolmaster rival, who has scarcely been allowed to exist except as a target for righteous indignation. But in its poetic evocation of Emöke, a hurt and delicate creature with an array of spiritual cravings that do not augur well for her future stability, the story has a compensating depth of soulful concern.

It must be said that Skvorecky's lingering style, in the more dreamily associative passages, is not easy to get on with, for it goes in for clauses suspended into infinity while huge parentheses rumble by….

Things are altogether better in the title-story, where music (in "Emöke" a mere undercurrent identified jointly with eroticism and the fundamental good intentions of Skvorecky's hero) emerges as a full symbolic and ideological force. The shape of the tale is extremely simple. A teenage Czech saxophone-player, in wartime,… is drawn into deputizing with a band whose own sax-man seems to be indisposed. But it is a German band … and the young Czech has to disguise himself in order to participate. The boy's woefully mixed feelings as he embarks on the job … could easily have been the heart of the story, but in an unforeseen climax, the real saxophonist returns in mid-evening to reclaim his role: "the bass saxophone player inhaled, and then a terrible, sombre, prehistoric tone exploded over the stage…."

Our young Czech has scarcely got over the shock of hearing the instrument played in a manner he can at least associate with his dreams of far-off Chicago …, when the local German commandant unmasks him and boots him off the premises. In a moving conclusion, Skvorecky's narrator looks back on the occasion, and the confused, compromised and finally truncated opportunity for fulfilment it offered, and he is filled with a sense of his own severance, in time and place, from his past. With the help of the "Red Music" essay, it is easy to see in him the figure of Skvorecky himself, looking back from his land of exile and seeing himself trapped forever in the yearnings and impossibilities of those days…. This is a poignant reversal of the hopes of the young jazzman on the inside, looking out; and Skvorecky's particular triumph is that he has been able to focus such emotion on an object which, in my experience, invariably occasions merriment.

Russell Davies, "Dreams of Dixieland," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3977, June 23, 1978, p. 694.

Philip Windsor

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The characteristics of [contemporary Czechoslovak literature] are a bare-boned simplicity of style allied to an oblique, mysterious, allusive method of presentation—in large part, no doubt, the heritage of Kafka, who wrote in German but out of Prague. Whereas Kafka's realism was rooted in his ability to write with minute exactitude about an unreal world, and thereby to undertake a vast inner exploration, Czech writers now site their work firmly within the real, the observable, the day-to-day. Yet, in a reversal of Kafka's approach, such a mundane reality provides the setting for a wealth of associations and ideas, a long drawn-out genealogy of thought, which becomes the real substance of the work. Such writings are, in the highest sense of the word, parables.

Josef Skvorecky belongs to this great tradition. But the two novellas in The Bass Saxophone have somewhat different characteristics—if only because their style is extremely rich and complex. One wonders at first whether he owes something to the Hermann Broch of The Death of Virgil; for his infinite melodic lines certainly seem more German than Czech. But the title reveals his real debt. Jazz, the traditional form of jazz, has become a symbol to him for the revolt of free human yearnings against oppression. (p. 220)

In [a] sense, Skvorecky is writing jazz. His style is one of interminable, constantly interrupted brooding, in which the sentences reach their conclusion, in their starting-point, only after high wanderings and disturbing notes. The structure, too, is like that of jazz: in 'The Bass Saxophone', the hideous character of Horst Hermann Kühl, the local Caesar of the occupying forces, is introduced by a voice heard through a wall; and the climax, a jam-session in which a young Czech masquerades as a member of a German light orchestra, fades away very rapidly into silence and memory. But to suggest that jazz is purely a symbol of revolt, and to present these stories as if they were primarily political, would be misleading. The background of oppression is taken almost casually for granted, and the theme is not so much that of rebellion as of liberation. Skvorecky accepts that people's lives are shaped by history and fate; but he believes that liberation is found in what he calls the intimate, truthful moments—of which jazz, for him, is a form and a memento. And such moments become legend.

The story of Emöke, the first of the two novellas, is such a legend. With great force and intensity it evokes the happening and fading of an encounter on holiday…. In less skilled hands, [the story of Emöke's meeting with a young writer] could have been a sentimental cliché. As it is, it is extraordinarily tough and beautiful. The beauty of Emöke's person haunts the reader as her memory haunts the writer, even after his savage indictment, at the end, of the subhuman world in which his rival, an inane and salacious schoolmaster, has always lived. It is the contrast between the wisdom of this moment of matrimony and the tyranny created by the inanities of such as the schoolmaster which gives the legend its power.

The other novella, 'The Bass Saxophone', develops through a succession of surreal images, dominated by that of the monstrous instrument itself. Its 'terrible, sombre, prehistoric tone' also creates a moment of liberation from the surrounding history. The memories of liberation are always melancholy, because after such moments one must return to the skin one has grown to cope with the demands of the years and the world; but here the melancholy is suffused with a poetic wit, and also becomes a celebration. (p. 221)

Philip Windsor, "Jazz as Truth," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of Philip Windsor), Vol. 100, No. 2573, August 17, 1978, pp. 220-21.

Saul Maloff

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Literature, [Skvorecky] writes in a fine, reckless exposure of naked feeling, is "forever blowing a horn, singing about youth when youth is irretrievably gone, singing about your homeland" from whatever place of exile "where the heart is not…."

These are the emotions that permeate Mr. Skvorecky's luminous novellas and create their atmosphere, tonality, resonance, echoes: loss and longing, overpowering memory and that permanent moment in the irrecoverable past when everything might have changed, but did not.

"Emoke," the first, more fragile, lyrical, "romantic" of the novellas [in "The Bass Saxophone"] unfolds its memories with the utmost (seeming) simplicity. (p. 7)

"The Bass Saxophone," the second of the novellas, is sheer magic, a parable, a fable about art, about politics, about the zone where the two intersect. Almost nothing "happens"; time is frozen, a lifetime distilled into a moment magically sustained. (p. 35)

Saul Maloff, "Music and Politics," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 14, 1979, pp. 7, 35.

BENJAMIN DeMOTT

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[If] your taste is for fiction that energizes—work that freshens the world, or banishes moral sluggishness for an evening, or both—your chance is slim this season of casually coming upon the perfect read high-piled on the new-novels table at a neighborhood bookshop. As it happens, I did come upon such a work the other day: [The Bass Saxophone]…. But purest luck was responsible. ("Purest luck" means that I noticed a blurb on a dust jacket—a claim by Graham Greene that Skvorecky, of whom I'd never heard, "stands comparison with Chekhov."…) (p. 131)

Josef Skvorecky's key subject—few on earth are more enlivening—is moral-imaginative awakening….

Skvorecky has no illusions … but neither, it should be admitted, has he enormous humor. While I understand why Chekhov came to Graham Greene's mind (the combination in Skvorecky of technical deftness and an admirable character). I'd argue that if the author of Brighton Rock had known American writers better, he might have mentioned Faulkner. (Skvorecky has a Faulknerian intensity, as well as a weakness for pell-mell, nonstop, occasionally off-the-wall sentences.)…

The Bass Saxophone is an exceptionally haunting and restorative volume of fiction, a book in which literally nothing enters except the fully imagined, hence the fully exciting. (p. 132)

Benjamin DeMott, "Heller's Gold and a Silver Sax," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 243, No. 3, March, 1979, pp. 129-32.∗

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