Josef Škvorecký Škvorecký, Josef (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Thomas Lask

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Philip Windsor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Saul Maloff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.∗