Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024
Josef Škvorecký 1924-
(Born Josef Vaclav Škvorecký) Czechoslovakian-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, screenwriter, critic, translator, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Škvorecký's career through 1998. For more information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 15, 39, and 69.
Škvorecký has spent his life and literary career caught between two cultures. He began writing about his fascination with American culture under the censorship of the Czechoslovakian government. After immigrating to Canada and finally freeing himself from oppressive Czech censors, Škvorecký began exploring his Czechoslovakian heritage in light of the freedom he enjoyed in his new country. Using such elements as nostalgia, irony, and sentimentality, Škvorecký's work explored themes of displacement, the misrepresentation of history, and the relationship between art and reality. Recognized for his vivacious, melodic narrative style and his extensive use of colloquial dialogue, Škvorecký frequently examined the harshness of life under authoritarian regimes and the fanaticism he associates with political dogma. Writing in several genres—including the novel, the detective story, and the essay—Škvorecký questioned notions of ideology and emphasized literature's significance to the development of cultural history and liberal thought.
Škvorecký was born in 1924 in Nachod, in western Czechoslovakia. Although he was raised in Eastern Europe, he spent much of his childhood interested in American culture. Škvorecký wrote his first novel, Zbabělci (1958; The Cowards) when he was twenty-four, during the period when the Communists were beginning to take over his country. While writing the novel, Škvorecký studied English and received a doctorate in 1951 after completing his dissertation on Thomas Paine. When The Cowards was eventually published, the novel's subject matter caused a firestorm of criticism against the author and the book was banned. The government subsequently stopped Škvorecký from publishing his work, so he began translating the works of several American writers. Škvorecký left Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring of 1968, a period of social and political upheaval that ended abruptly after the Soviet military occupied the country. He immigrated to Canada and returned to writing novels without the threat of censorship. Škvorecký taught American literature at the University of Toronto and assisted his wife, writer Zdena Salivarova, in managing 68 Publishers, a publication house devoted to the work of Czech writers in exile.
Škvorecký's early writings were often based on his own experiences. The Cowards portrays the life of Danny Smiricky, a young boy obsessed with jazz and girls. While the novel was not particularly political, its focus on Western music and culture caused government officials to ban it. When the work was finally published in Czechoslovakia, the state-sanctioned reviewers panned it. The novel was unique in Czechoslovakian literature for its use of slang and spoken Czech in dialogue. Tankový prapor (1971; The Republic of Whores) also features protagonist Danny Smiricky, who has begun fulfilling his compulsory service in the army. Škvorecký adopted a third-person narrative style in this novel to express the loss of identity common with army life. The work's humorous treatment of army traditions effectively satirizes many of the vulgarities associated with life in the service. Mirákl: politická detektivka (1972; The Miracle Game) was the first novel Škvorecký wrote after leaving Czechoslovakia. Danny Smiricky is the protagonist again, only now he is a grown man and coping with life under Communism. Smiricky is not a faithful Party member, nor does he openly oppose the government. Instead he learns to benignly go along with whatever the state expects of him. After the Prague Spring of 1968, Smiricky finds that he must leave his country or face death. With Scherzo capriccioso (1983; Dvorak in Love), Škvorecký began using historical research as the basis for his novels. The work creates a fictional narrative centered around the historical facts concerning the life of musician Anton Dvorak. The main character's interest in American jazz and his perception of the American dream is the primary focus of the text. The story is told from the perspective of those who knew Dvorak and reveals little about the subject's inner life. Nevěsta z Texasu (1992; The Bride of Texas) is set during the American Civil War and follows the role played by a group of Czech soldiers serving under the Union's General William Tecumseh Sherman. In a parallel storyline, Lida, a young Czech immigrant, recovers from an ill-fated love affair in her home country by marrying a Texas plantation owner's son. When the conclusion of the war appears to signal an end to her husband's wealth, Lida leaves him for a Union soldier. Both stories are interrupted by the interjections of a female narrator who explains the historical context of the characters' experience.
Škvorecký's first novel met with critical derision in Czechoslovakia due to pressure from the government censors. However, the novel was later widely acclaimed after its English-language publication. Critics have often discussed the role of Škvorecký's relationship with America and Czechoslovakia in his novels and the ways his writing changed upon his departure from Czechoslovakia. Reviewers have also commented on Škvorecký's aversion to telling stories in a linear progression. In his review of The Republic of Whores Ross Feld asserted that, “Few writers are as happily and securely episodic; this little book herks and jerks along in segments like the lumbering progress made by the Russian-made tanks.” Several critics have noted the importance of music in Škvorecký's fiction and the lyrical nature of his prose. In her essay on Dvorak in Love, Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz stated that “what this work accomplishes is the rendering of musical experience by words and the finding of a linguistic expression for musical culture.” Several reviewers have complimented the quantity and quality of Škvorecký's research in his later novels, and his ability to bring to life a fictional narrative around historical events. Edward J. Czerwinski praised Škvorecký's The Bride of Texas, stating, “[t]hat the author has succeeded in painting a remarkably realistic picture of the events surrounding the American Civil War is a tribute to Škvorecký the scholar and prose stylist; that he has created a novel which surpasses the narrative skills of any writer living today is a measure of his artistry.”
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Zbabělci [The Cowards] (novel) 1958
Legenda Emöke [Emöke] (novella) 1963; published in The Bass Saxophone: Two Novellas, 1977
Sedmiramenný svícen (short stories) 1964
Revue pro banjos (screenplay) 1965
Ze života lepŠí společnosti: paravanprózy s text-appealů (short stories) 1965
Smutek poručíka Borůvky: detektivni pohádka [The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka] (short stories) 1966
Bassaxofon [The Bass Saxophone] (novella) 1967; published in The Bass Saxophone: Two Novellas, 1977
L'Escadron blindé: Chronique de la période des cultes [French edition] (novel) 1969; republished in Czech as Tankový prapor: Fragment z doby kultù, 1971
Farářuv konec (novella) 1969
Lvíče [Miss Silver's Past] (novel) 1969
The Birth and Death of the Czech New Wave (essays) 1970
Tankový prapor [The Republic of Whores] (novel) 1971
Mirákl: politická detektivka [The Miracle Game: A Political Whodunnit] (novel) 1972
Hříchy pro pătera Knoxe: detektivní divertimento [Sins for Father Knox] (short stories) 1973
Konec poručíka Boruvky: detektivni žalozpěv [The End of Lieutenant Boruvka] (novel) 1975
Prima sezóna [The Swell Season: A Text on the Most Important Things in Life] (novel) 1975
Příběh inženýra lidských duŠí 2 vols. [The Engineer of Human Souls: An Entertainment of the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love, and Death] (novel) 1977
Návrat poručíka Borůvky [The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka] (short stories) 1981
Scherzo capriccioso [Dvorak in Love: A Light-Hearted Dream] (novel) 1983
Nevěsta z Texasu [The Bride of Texas] (novel) 1992
Headed for the Blues: A Memoir with Ten Stories (memoirs and short stories) 1998
Two Murders in My Double Life (novel) 2001
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SOURCE: “The Girl and the Legend: Josef Škvorecký ‘Emöke’ (1980),” in The Achievement of Josef Škvorecký edited by Sam Solecki, University of Toronto Press, 1987, pp. 104–11.
[In the following essay, Brink discusses the title character and the unusual structure of Škvorecký's “Emöke.”]
The eighty-odd pages of ‘Emöke’ (published originally in Czech in 1963 under the more significant title Legenda Emöke) is an evocation of a week's sojourn, years ago, by the narrator, in some obscure Culture Centre in an anonymous Czech town.
… thirty years old, still single … a guy who didn't believe in anything any more or take anything very seriously, who knew what the world was all about, life, politics, fame and happiness and everything, who was alone, not from incapacity but of necessity, quite successful, with a good salary and reasonable health, for whom life held no surprises and with nothing left to learn that I didn't already know, at an age when the first minor physical problems begin to herald the passing of time, at an age when people get married at the last moment so as still to be able to have children and watch them grow up only to find out equally fast exactly what life's all about. …1
Among all the loyal Czech Party members there was one outsider, a girl, Emöke,
… pretty and still young, with a child, Hungarian and hence a fairly novel being, relatively unfamiliar, but then again old enough at twenty-eight, but with a child which I supposed would mean an entirely different lifestyle, and a foreigner, Hungarian, not too intelligent, slightly warped by that parapsychological madness, out to proselytize, but heaven knows how holy, the ideal object for a vacation adventure, nothing more than that, and yet with that terrible look of a little animal of the woods, with that immense self-destructive defense mechanism against the world, in a fog of mystical superstition.
Almost inevitably, the narrator fell in love with her, only to find that, after an early marriage to a sadistic brute and her wartime experiences, she refused all further involvement with men, devoting herself instead to the pursuit of a purely spiritual life. In spite of her diffidence, a significant bond of sympathy came into being between her and the narrator; but at the critical moment his roommate, a sordid and cynical middle-aged teacher, intervened to ‘warn’ her against the narrator's dishonourable intentions. She turned against the younger man, and on the return train journey he took his revenge by using a seemingly innocuous guessing game (in which a group of people identify a person or object that has to be guessed, through a process of elimination, by an outsider) to expose the teacher's obtuseness and helplessness. Since then, the narrator has lapsed into the trivialities of everyday existence.
And in time, very quickly, I was permeated with an indifference toward the legend, the indifference that allows us to live in a world where creatures of our own blood are dying every day of tuberculosis and cancer, in prisons and concentration camps, in distant tropics and on the cruel and insane battlefields of an Old World drunk on blood, in the lunacy of disappointed love, under the burden of ludicrously negligible worries, that indifference that is our mother, our salvation, our ruin.
What transforms a charming romantic recollection into a masterpiece of modern world literature is Škvorecký's astounding manipulation of structure, including notably his exploration of syntactic patterns and possibilities. ‘Emöke’ is told as a triptych, with the evocation of the girl turned legend in the centre, preceded and followed by a brief, italicized, lyrical prologue and epilogue. Both of these are concerned with the ‘life’ of a story: with the fact that, after something has happened, it gradually dies with the deaths of those involved until apparently nothing remains. But in the prologue some redemption is found in the suggestion that places and buildings may retain memories after people have died, ‘for a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years, perhaps forever’ (33); in the epilogue the image of the building is superseded by something even more vague; ‘But perhaps somewhere at least an impression is left, at least a trace of the tear, the beauty, the loveliness of the person, the legend, Emöke. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder’ (114). This seems to indicate that the ‘canonization’ of the event can be achieved through what has happened between prologue and epilogue, ie, the narration, the narrative act, in itself. This act is a response to, and a comment on, the ‘indifference’ of the final paragraph: it turns the flat statement into its own opposite, creating a fascinating paradox.
The model of the broad structure outlined here (prologue/narrative/epilogue) is repeated in the syntax of many of the key sentences in the narrative itself, where it takes the form of initial statement/interpolation/completion of statement. The most obvious implication of this system of narrative would be that Emöke herself functions as an interpolation in the life of the narrator: before her there had been a monotonous and self-contained existence, involving also the engagement with Irene and the affair with Margit; after Emöke comes the resumption of ‘indifference,’ including presumably marriage with Irene and a renewed affair. At the same time Emöke, as an interpolation, stands on an altogether different level of experience, offering at least a view on the possibility of the Other, of Something Else. (This is why it comes as such a particularly shattering discovery that Emöke should accuse him of being ‘just the same as all the rest.’)
The function of the system of interpolations offered by the text is also indicated by the rules of the guessing game as explained by the narrator to the teacher: ‘Start out with something very general, the best is to localize the subject, and then get more and more specific until you determine, shall I say, the exact coordinates’ (108). This directly involves the complicated relationship between Emöke the girl and Emöke the legend. But it proceeds from her to the level of the narrator himself: through an exploration of Emöke one is led to a discovery of the narrator. One becomes the subject, the other the object, connected by the subtle and intricate predicate of all that happens between them. (The guessing game, which leads toward ‘identification'—and to the teacher's lack of identity—becomes a metaphor for the novel's complex pilgrimage toward a definition of identity.)
The semantic and syntactic patterns of the narrative are all set in motion by the opening sentences.
The room's ceiling slanted downward. It was a garret, the window high off the floor—you couldn't see out unless you pushed the table over to the wall and climbed up on it. And the very first night there (it was a hot night, August, the susurrus of ash and linden under the window like the distant rush of diluvial seas, the window open to let in the night's sounds and fragrances of grass and grass-hoppers and crickets and cicadas and linden blossoms and cigarettes and from the nearby town the music of a Gypsy band playing Glenn Miller's old ‘In the Mood,’ but in an undulating Gypsy rhythm, and then ‘Dinah,’ and then ‘St. Louis Blues,’ but they were Gypsies—two fiddles, a bass, a dulcimer—and the beat wasn't boogie but rather the weaving pulse of the Gypsy, the leader embellishing on the blue tones in a swaying Gypsy rhythm), the schoolteacher began to talk about women.
The gradual lengthening of the sentences is significant: starting with the blunt statement about the sloping ceiling, enclosing the room in its suffocating, cramping way; and proceeding to the reference to the window, which is almost unattainable; and then to the sudden invasion of the room by the sounds and smells and the immeasurable space of the night. Between the phrase ‘And the very first night there’ and its completion (‘the schoolteacher began to talk about women’) lies a whole world of emotional, sensual, and spatial experience, insinuating itself into that confined area.
It is no accident that this first ‘opening up’ of the periphery of the factual statement to an immensity of space should be concerned with music: Škvorecký's fiction is conceived and born in music. Every significant new transition or movement is heralded and accompanied by music and/or dance. And the sentence quoted above does not simply offer a prose ‘echo’ of blues rhythms, but becomes, in fact, a manifestation of that music that intrudes into the narrator's space and enlarges and compounds it. The ‘normal’ syntagmatic, linear progress of the sentence is interrupted and dammed by the intrusion of a new signified world, a paradigmatic or associative expansion of the moment.
In this lies an early key, not only to the idyllic and paradisiac dimension embodied in Emöke, but also to the tragically inconclusive nature of the narrator's experience of her: in a stylistic interpolation like the one cited (which prefigures the interpolation of Emöke in the syntax of the narrator's life) the new information does not merely form an isolated pocket within the motion of the sentence; it also represents an intrusion from outside (the night into the room). And in his brief experience of Emöke much of the narrator's agony will derive from the fact that he can never be with her in her ‘pure’ or ‘absolute’ state but that the outside world continues to intrude and threaten their possible togetherness.
An examination of key sentences and passages in the novel containing striking interpolations and parentheses brings to light a broad spectrum of ‘worlds’ drawn into the inscape of the narrator and Emöke. (This in itself demonstrates Emöke's warning about the difficulty of liberating oneself from the flesh in order to become spiritual: ‘I pity you. Why? Because you may have to live many lives before you become perfect’ (44). Those ‘many lives’ are represented, to an important degree, by the intrusions presented by the series of interpolations. But one should bear in mind that it is a two-way process: in one sense the ‘legend’ is constantly threatened by intrusions from an impure world; but in another the texture of that inner world is immeasurably enriched by the ‘amount and diversity of material’ joined to it.)
Perhaps the most obvious sort of ‘world’ represented by the interpolations in the text is the social—not, however, the social tout court, but the social in a broader spatial or temporal context (sociopolitical, sociocultural, socioreligious, sociohistorical). When, for example, the teacher is described, it is in terms of his social condition, followed by an interpolation that adds historical perspective: ‘Before the revolution a day-laborer on the estate of the lords of Schwarzenberg, in his blood the congenital defiance of forefathers who had sweated over soil they never owned, he had been driven here afterward by that very defiance, that hunger for land; now he had his land, and he sweated over it like all his sinewy and unshaven forefathers had done except that now the soil was his.’ (Once again more is at stake than the information conveyed: this information is of another order than that in the rest of the long sentence; it is based on conjecture and fantasy, it is legendarized reality rather than fact.)
Variations on this model recur throughout the text. The significant excursion to Mariatal (‘Vale of Mary,’ in itself a name of peculiar significance for the ‘legend’ of Emöke) gives rise to a new extended interpolation conjuring up the rustic, mythical past of the place; and within this interpolation yet another is contained: ‘She was silent and just said Yes (she was Hungarian, she spoke a strange combination of Slovak and Hungarian and some Gypsy or Carpathian dialect) or No’ (40). This is a crucial construction, since it offers, in a nutshell, the entire precarious balance of Emöke's existence, and the narrator's, on the knife-edge between Yes and No, acceptance and rejection, unison and solitude; and, through the interpolation, a sociolinguistic experience is used to demonstrate the paradoxical centrifugal-cum-centripetal structure of the narrative.
Soon afterward, when the narrator inquires whether she would consider remarrying, another striking sentence marks the new stations of development. ‘No, said Emöke'—then follows a parenthesis of seven lines, recalling her father and her youth, before the sentence is concluded: ‘I'll never marry again’ (42). This interpolation finds a motivation in her past for her present refusal; and in the intricate web of the narrative this motivational function influences other interpolations in other sentences; in addition, it insinuates a similar motivational function into the part played by Emöke as an interpolation in the life of the narrator.
Hardly any dialogue takes place, hardly a character is presented without this additional social dimension appended to the unique or the personal. In technical terms the unfolding metaphor of the legend of Emöke is constantly enriched, paradigmatically, through metonymic experience. In narrative terms it means that this bleak Cultural Centre somewhere in the heart of Czechoslovakia is not an isolated locality: upon it intrudes, within it lies embedded, the whole of contemporary Europe, the ‘Old World'—and even, through music, America; and within one brief week in which we witness the tentative development of a relationship between one strange young woman and one worldly-wise young man, the whole history of man becomes relevant.
This results from the fact that almost every interpolation embodies some form of return, either to a personal or a collective history: to World War II, which had proved decisive to most of the characters, to memories of a more pastoral and also more burdensome past before the Revolution, all the way back to the primitive and the Paleolithic (‘I began to talk about the Mesozoic Age and the Cenozoic Age and about Darwin, about the world's evolving, the blind and inevitable course of nature’ )—a return ‘back to the animal that once was.’ Even the ‘sourish liquid of village dances’ is traced back, in the imagination, to ‘the earth which purifies the liquid and transforms it back into the crystal flow of the spring of the valley’ (which is a precise metaphor for the narrator's attempt to distill the purity of the legend of Emöke from his memories, through the narrative act ).
A major reason for this preoccupation is that the meeting of this man and this woman represents a ‘new beginning’ for both, and for the world, grasping back to ‘the primal cave couple’ in an effort to strip themselves of ‘the psychoneurotic dross of conventional sentimentality that has been sloughed off on the relationship of the human pair by centuries of war and thievery and perverse mysticism and male servitude and male dominance (Frauendienst ist Gottesdienst)’ (84). It is, essentially, a groping, beyond the reality of the woman Emöke, to the absolutely pure legend of Emöke (while, simultaneously, the opposite is also taking place in the effort to distill the real woman from the conglomerate legend!).
In this process time becomes of as much importance as space: just as the rest of the world is involved in what happens in this remote Cultural Centre, time present, past, and future are focused on this still point of the turning world.
And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.(2)
In the one decisive moment on the dance floor when the narrator loses Emöke for good, he grasps the ‘whole truth'—the whole legend—of this particular girl Emöke, expressing it in this musical, lyrical, ecstatic way: ‘First time, first time, baby, last time, only time too. Short time, short time, baby, first and last time too’ (81). This is the moment the narrative as a whole sets out to recapture. The novel as such may be seen as the narrator's effort to reach beyond the customary syntax of his prose life to the still centre of that innermost interpolation, that mythical first time, last time, only time too. The rest is silence; the rest is indifference.
The elementary logic of the archetypical syntactic model lies in the fact that the sentence strives for completion. This striving becomes even more urgent when the normal progression is interrupted by an interpolation. This touches the essential codes of ‘Emöke.’ Emöke has persuaded herself that she has been liberated from the physical. ‘You're still a physical person, you're still imperfect,’ she warns the narrator at a very early stage of their acquaintance (41). For her, ‘significance’ lies in striving to be mystically united with God: ‘It is all aimed toward God, she said. Toward becoming one with Him. That is the significance, the meaning of all life’ (43). The narrator interprets it as ‘that tragically desperate poetry of a desperate dream that is to come to pass only in the hereafter of the utopian world of future wisdom’ (46).
But the narrator experiences a totally different urge, directed not toward God or the future but toward the present, the presence of ‘Emöke, that story, that legend, that poem, the past, the future’ (73), convinced that the physical cannot be discounted or excluded (he is haunted by her delicate, small ‘dancer's breasts,’ by ‘the womanly secret between the girlish thighs’): ‘Longing needn't be exclusively and solely physical. It can be an expression of love, a yearning for oneness. Longing is at the very source of existence, insofar as people are born of love’ (71). (There is an exquisite touch of psychological and poetic truth in the fact that, in the crucial dance scene, Emöke is untouched by the narrator and set free into pure spirituality by her diametrical opposite, the physical, lustful beast, the schoolmaster. This experience liberates her from the ‘legendary’ to the ‘real’: ‘and this was she, not a legend, but the real Emöke’ (62–3).
In other words, the inherent urge for completion in the archetypal sentence pattern is echoed, semantically, by the narrator's urge to be unified with Emöke—an urge interrupted and thwarted by all manner of obstacles. And the final obstacle is time itself. Looking after Emöke's disappearing train, he thinks of ‘the voice of a woman who is being transformed into the image of time lost’ (91). Small wonder that this new recherche du temps perdu should also involve a resurrected and revitalized Proustian syntax! It is this search (exemplified by the structure of separate sentences as well as by that of the novel as a whole) that predestines the recurrent cyclic patterns in the narrative: epilogue linking up with prologue; the constant returns to the conversation with the teacher in the dark room; the incessant excursions into social or historical space only to return to the present, the here and now of the narrative.
At the same time these patterns—sentences starting with factual, mundane, or sordid statements, then reaching out to the distant, the enchanting, the legendary, or the imaginary, only to return, by a commodus vicus, to the reality of the initial statement—suggest Emöke's own vacillations of mind and emotion. After all, her very spirituality appears suspect (at least to the narrator, who may, of course, have his own reasons for trying to ‘contain’ her by explaining her!): it often appears to be no more than a defence mechanism to ward off a reality she cannot otherwise cope with, ‘as if she were afraid I wanted to rob her of something, of the certainty she possessed and without which she couldn't survive … ; it was the expression of an ensnared little woodland animal, begging you with its eyes not to torture it and let it go, to release it from your power’ (51).
The enigma remains sealed. This spiritual woman, yearning for a utopian hereafter, becomes the embodiment of the small ‘animal,’ the primitive being: in her most quintessential experience, dancing herself into oblivion, singing with total abandon, she is united with primordial shepherds in a primitive world. The woman is this Emöke, this mysterious Hungarian girl spending a week in the Cultural Centre, with her personal tragedy; the legend is Emöke, who gathers into herself all of womanhood, from distant past to remote future. The two are mutually exclusive. Only in one context can they be united, and that is in the narrative, itself the desperate act of a desperate man, created in an effort to deny indifference, pain, sordidness, and suffering, and to affirm the one moment in his life in which the universe became visible in a grain of sand.
Page numbers in parentheses refer to Josef Škvorecký, ‘Emöke,’ in The Bass Saxophone: Two Novellas, trans. Kác̆a Polác̆ková-Henley (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1980).
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (London: Faber, 1947), 9
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SOURCE: “A World Symphony in a Scherzo: Dvorak in Love (1986),” in The Achievement of Josef Škvorecký, edited by Sam Solecki, University of Toronto Press, 1987, pp. 158–64.
[In the following essay, Goetz-Stankiewicz discusses Škvorecký's melding of the historical and the fictional in Dvorak in Love.]
Imagine a panel discussion on Josef Škvorecký's novel Dvorak in Love. Meet the panelists: a historian, a musical theorist, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a literary critic of Jungian archetypal persuasion, and a literary theorist. As you listen to an imaginary discussion between them you hear entirely different opinions: the historian is impressed by the ‘thorough research’ that has gone into the novel. The musical theorist counters this with the remark that research is inconsequential in a work of art, that the novel is valuable because it ‘synthesizes two of the dominant musical cultures of our time—the classical European tradition … and the jazzy American tradition.’ ‘Sure, the book is about a composer,’ snarls the anthropologist, as the discussion gets more heated, ‘but its real feat is that it touches on language, cultural barriers, and social alienation.’ At this point the hitherto silent sociologist raises his voice: ‘What do you mean by cultural barriers? This is a meaningless cliché. The novel deals with Dvor̆ák's encounter with the New World and at the same time with the American Dream.’ ‘Dream as such is right,’ mutters the archetypal critic, ‘but your comment about “the American Dream” is superficial. The novel's dream theme is multi-levelled and reveals an ever-changing kaleidoscope of dreams.’ ‘I still believe the background research is important,’ remarks the unshaken historian. ‘If you tackle something like a biography, you must make sure that you've got the facts right.’ ‘Dwelling on facts hinders the discovery of the subtext,’ says the literary theorist. ‘Dvorak in Love lowers a probe into the past and allows the reader to share this probe in an “act of collaboration” as analysed by Roland Barthes.’
Just as the members of the audience (the panel is held in public) realize that this is obviously an extremely complex and demanding book if it elicits such radically different and obviously well-founded reactions from specialists of various persuasions, a student in the sixth row leaps to his feet. He is in high spirits because he has just successfully defended his dissertation on the ‘arrangement of ontological space’ in Moby Dick. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please don't forget that Dvorak in Love is, above all, a pleasure to read! You see, at last I'll be able to read for pleasure again. This is a rare feat in our profession. The novel is funny and sad, it's real and fictional, it's learned and yet has preserved the wondrous gaze of a child. It throbs with music like …’
But it is time to silence our imaginary panel, only to admit that it is not imaginary at all. It reflects, for the most part verbatim, what was written in, say, a dozen reviews that appeared in 1986 when Dvorak in Love was published in English.1 Critics, scholarly or not, were trying to cope—each in his own way—with the fact that the novel is a treasure house of literary, historical, psychological, musical material, held together by the author's artistic vision, wide learning, and knowing humour.
Scherzo capriccioso, the novel's original Czech title, is perfect for this formidable text, woven from familiar as well as freshly discovered historical material and the teeming imagination of a writer who is endowed not only with a deep ironic sense of what a human being—outstanding or average—is all about, but also with an uncanny musical sense. This is why the tentative label ‘historical novel,’ which some reviewers have used, sits on this text as poorly as the label that its theme brings readily to mind, ‘musical biography.’ Dvorak in Love is neither, both, and much more.
As with nearly all of Škvorecký's works, this ‘light-hearted dream,’ as he calls it in the subtitle, contains the germs of several other novels. Just a single example shows how far this work goes beyond a cliché novel about nineteenth-century composers (Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Wagner, even Brahms) in and out of love: embedded in the very centre of Škvorecký's tale—the thirteenth of twenty-six chapters—is a chapter called ‘Exodus,’ in which a prosperous farmer of Spillville, Iowa, tells the story of his emigration from a Bohemian village and his journey to the new world. He made the voyage with his wife and half a dozen children, the first of whom was born ‘before they abolished serfdom’2 in 1848. Two others died on the gruelling, three-month sea voyage, during which a seventh was born. Once landed in New Orleans, the brave new American settler was dismayed to discover that blacks were tough competition for working wages. Hoping to make thirty-five cents a day, he found that the shipowners' unwillingness to hire him was caused by the blacks working a twelve-hour day for twenty cents. Later he made another discovery: their masters got the twenty cents. ‘What I didn't know at the time was they really was slaves’ (176). Dvor̆ák, who hears this tale while spending a summer in that same village of Spillville two generations later, in 1893, has been shown a thread from the rich historical tapestry of nineteenth-century America, which is unravelled before his eyes. And the reader suddenly realizes that he has been taken to Spillville—an important place in the action of the novel—not on Dvor̆ák's relatively comfortable and safe journey, but by another way, tortured, hazardous, and darkened by fear.
As in Škvorecký's previous novel, The Engineer of Human Souls, there is no linear storytelling in Dvorak in Love, no streamlined development of character. There is no reflection by the biographer on the composer's psychology. There is also no sketching in of suitable selected facts to illuminate the creation of individual works by the composer, with a couple of notable exceptions—the two pieces of music whose origin is related to Dvor̆ák's psychological experiences, the Cello Concerto in B minor and an aria ‘To the Moon’ from his opera Rusalka. The inspiration for the latter is seen in a comic light (drifting along the midwestern Turkey River for a little night fishing, Dvor̆ák became the innocent witness to heiress Rosemary Vanderbilt's unclad moonlight dip in a secret cove); the former is shrouded in a delicate but sustained theme of sadness (the loss of Dvor̆ák's first love, Josephine, whose sister, Annie, became the resolute wife, common-sensical companion, and energetic pianist who saw him through life).
In fact, this book about Dvor̆ák does not say much directly about its main character at all. The other figures talk about him, and their thoughts, hopes, and cares move around him, coming from all directions. This aura that Dvor̆ák radiates to others and that elicits a large spectrum of moods—from ironic amusement to impatience and irritation, from worried care to impassioned admiration, awe, and love—is the only way through which we are allowed to approach the central character of the novel. But we never get too close to ‘the master,’ as he was called by many, or ‘Borax’ (125) as he was nicknamed with an appropriateness that stems from envy (the nickname was invented by New York's pedantic musical personality James G. Huneker). Though all the facts are there—from Dvor̆ák's position as teacher to the C̆ermák sisters, starting in 1865 to his unwillingness to come to New York a third time in 1895—the reader is always kept at arm's length from the composer's psyche. As Škvorecký said, with typical modesty, during an interview: ‘It would have been preposterous for me to have tried to imagine what went on in his head … I decided to do him through the mediums of time and milieux, so that,’ he hopes, ‘a kind of composite picture emerges.’3
Those who wish to read a pre-packaged romantic tale about the man whose melodious music moves their spirits might find this book disappointing. Like life itself, Dvorak in Love tells its tale with interruptions. It coils playfully around the mind that strives to impose order on the material too early on in the novel; it teases the reader with echoes of half-remembered events picked up many pages later by another character in whose mind the same events are seen in a different context and hence are given a different meaning. We must submit to this novel and let it guide us until, at a given moment, the motley scenes suddenly reveal the essential pattern beneath.
Dvorak in Love accomplishes, above all, two literary feats. The first one is the way in which the author has breathed life into historical facts, or, as he puts it himself, ‘used poetic licence where historical reality does not rule out historical possibility.’4 Most of the events described or referred to did actually occur. Škvorecký even said, in an interview, that he played with the idea of footnoting events and dates.5 He wisely decided against it, but such an experiment would have revealed the historical precision that underlies the seemingly wilful tale.
This happy union of fiction and reality can best be illuminated by a brief look at one or two of the ‘historical’ characters that fill the novel's pages. There is, for instance, Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, the charming, tough-minded lady impresario who used—and largely lost—her devoted husband's flourishing wholesale grocery business to found the National Conservatory of Music in New York, and who was responsible for bringing Dvor̆ák to the new world. In this capacity Mrs. Thurber is, of course, mentioned in practically all books about Dvor̆ák. But there are other aspects of Mrs. Thurber's activity that bring the figure to life here in a quite unique way. For example, Škvorecký describes how she, a gutsy innovator on all levels, was the first to run her brave new, but ill-fated opera company as a cooperative venture by selling ‘shares to the stagehands’ (71). He also points out that she offered free tuition in her new conservatory in New York with the prerequisite that, after graduation, students should give back one-fifth of their professional earnings to benefit the school. Since most of them earned their living from quite unmusical enterprises, the noble plan turned out to have been utopian. However, far from being treated as a cliché figure of an early liberated woman, Jeannette Thurber, before ‘spreading her net for Antonin Dvor̆ák’ (70), is also seen as comically, indeed farcically, presiding over the fiasco her opera company experiences in Toronto. Not only clergymen organize a boycott against her staging that ‘godless piece of American decadence’ (73) Don Giovanni in their virtuous city, but also—worse—the orchestra's flautist has his front teeth knocked out in a fight with the tuba player just before the performance, and the leading baritone, a man of considerable proportions, gets stuck in the trapdoor that was to carry him off to eternal damnation. It is a moot point where the author's touches of fictionalizing occur in these by-and-large real occurrences. The luminous colours of ‘historical possibility’ enliven the original historical events.
Or there is Adele Margulies, the attractive young music teacher originally from Vienna, sent back to Europe by Mrs. Thurber in order to convince Dvor̆ák to come to New York. On the piano and during her diplomatic mission, resourceful Adele can manage practically any situation. Her only moment of embarrassment occurs when she has to face the waiter serving breakfast on a hotel terrace in Prague. She knows he has seen handsome Will Marion Cook, the black virtuoso violinist travelling with her, sneaking from her room at the inappropriate hour of 7 a.m. Fiction? Reality? What does it matter? Again, the ‘historical possibilities’ are all there. Or, as Nabokov says: ‘I parted the fabric of fancy, I tasted reality.’ Other real figures pop in and out of the novel: there is the composer Harry T. Burleigh, for whom the second movement of Dvor̆ák's New World Symphony was his ‘ticket to immortality’ (97); there are Joseph Joachim and Steele MacKaye, whose Buffalo Bill Ensemble Dvor̆ák went to see in Madison Square Gardens; there is Sigmund Freud, who logically concludes that the pattern of repetition in Dvor̆ák's music is the sign of ‘some subconscious obsession’ (308); and there is the Master himself, listening intently to Will Marion Cook's violin and ‘grappling with the mystery encoded in Will's diminished thirds’ (19) and those new sounds—from where?—‘grated onto the polka sounds’ (20).
This brings me to the second feat the novel accomplishes: it merges in an entirely new way literary and musical creation. Someday it will join in the annals of literary history those eminent novels of the twentieth century that have been called ‘musical,’ albeit for different reasons; for what this work accomplishes is the rendering of musical experience by words and the finding of a linguistic expression for musical culture. The author's lifelong love for music pulsates through the pages of Dvorak in Love, informs its most memorable scenes, and lingers most succinctly in the reader's memory. Having listened intently to Harry T. Burleigh singing a Negro spiritual, Dvor̆ák suddenly grasps the pencil sharpened for him by his daughter Otylia, writes in bold letters ‘Corno inglese’ over the seventh bar of the New World Symphony's Largo movement, and calls out: ‘The English horn, Burleigh … I knew those flutes didn't belong there … it needs a feeling of distance to contrast with that forlorn timbre—just like you, Burleigh’ (98). Or else we learn from an inebriated conversation in a restaurant—but by now we are in the twentieth century—that Dvor̆ák had woven twelve bars of a tuba part into that same symphony because an enthusiastic tuba player wanted to participate in bringing the work to the public. A tall tale told after the sixth beer by a Dvor̆ák fan? Well—as another character who listens to all this muses—the tuba player is not likely to invent such a story from the past just when the news of Dvor̆ák's death has reached the world.
Perhaps the best example of the way music—the rhythmic sound of related cultures—permeates the novel is a passage about the bells of Prague:
It was two o'clock: from the tower of the royal castle on the hill came a deep, resonant chime, the reverberation of a huge mass of bell-metal; then, from somewhere across the river to the south, rang out two strokes a fifth lower, and while these were still echoing in the air the same melody, but in a different key, sounded from the spire of the Church of the Knights of Malta, while from the north, bells in a third key interposed themselves between the first two. She felt as though she were inside a gigantic celesta on which an inebriated Johann Sebastian Bach was improvising a cacophonous counterpoint. More and more bells now entered the fugue in cruel, clashing couplets, a gigantic polyrhythm beating the air above a city submerged in sleep.
This is perhaps as close as literature (not merely lyrical words) can come to music. Colours and sounds, as Rimbaud said, answer each other. The passage can also serve as an illustration of the superb quality of Paul Wilson's finely tuned translation.
Dvorak in Love, Škvorecký tells us, is his first attempt at writing historical and biographical fiction. It is also a text that reveals from a new angle his quality as a contemporary writer. If Dvor̆ák, by integrating jazz into his compositions, turned music in a new direction, Škvorecký, by writing about him in his inimitable artistic idiom, has perhaps moved musical biography as well in the intimate and intricate history of human creativeness in a new direction. Through the medium of Dvor̆ák's music (The Slavonic Dances—‘typically Czech?’ The New World Symphony—‘typically American?’) the author explores the unfathomable mysteries of artistic inspiration. Through the figure of a little black boy who, his ear flattened against a frozen window, ecstatically listens to Rafael Joseffi playing the pianoforte to assembled guests inside, Škvorecký explores the socially troubled yet amazingly creative scene of American jazz born of anguished Negro spirituals and an intuitive sense of rhythm. Through the medium of many personal letters, stories, and conversations he explores with the sensitivity of a seismograph,6 the intricate patterns of cultural differences and proximities. A ‘light-hearted dream’? Perhaps. But within it is the whole spectrum of voices of an Old and New World symphony.
Phrases from the following reviews are quoted: Jonathan Keates, London Observer, 5 October 1986; Vera Blackwell, World Literature, 59: 4, Fall 1985; William French, Toronto Globe and Mail, 25 October 1986; Ken Adachi, Toronto Star, 8 November 1986; George Galt, Books in Canada, November 1986; Thomas Shapcott, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 February 1987; Rhoda Koenig, New York Magazine, 9 February 1987.
Josef Škvorecký, Dvorak in Love, trans. Paul Wilson (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1986), 169. All subsequent references are included in the body of the essay.
James Adams, ‘Škvorecký Feels Canadian,’ Edmonton Journal, 15 November 1986
Dvorak in Love, Author's Acknowledgements
Adams, ‘Škvorecký Feels Canadian’
An expression used by Helena Kosková in her book on modern Czech prose, Hledání ztracené generace, (Toronto: Sixty-Eight Publishers, 1987) 143
This essay is an expanded version of the review article ‘A Literary Scherzo,’ which appeared in Canadian Forum 67, no. 771 August-September 1987.
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SOURCE: “Preface to the French Edition of Mirákl (The Miracle Game) (1978),” in The Achievement of Josef Škvorecký, edited by Sam Solecki, University of Toronto Press, 1987, pp. 25–35.
[In the following essay, Kundera discusses the spring of 1968 in Prague and the antirevolutionary spirit of Škvorecký's novels.]
When I arrived to spend a few days in the West in September 1968—my eyes still seeing Russian tanks parked on Prague's streets—an otherwise quite likeable young man asked me with unconcealed hostility: ‘So what is it you Czechs want exactly? Are you already weary of socialism? Would you have preferred our consumer society?’
Today the Western Left almost unanimously approves of the Prague Spring. But I'm not sure misunderstanding has been clarified entirely.
Western intellectuals, with their proverbial self-centredness, often take an interest in events not in order to know them but so as to incorporate them into their own theoretical speculations, as if they were adding another pebble to their personal mosaic. In that way Alexander Dubc̆ek may in some circumstances merge with Allende or Trotsky, in others with Lumumba or Che Guevara. The Prague Spring has been accepted, labelled—but remains unknown.
I want to stress above all else this obvious fact: the Prague Spring was not a sudden revolutionary explosion ending the dark years of Stalinism. Its way had been paved by a long and intense process of liberalization developing throughout the 1960s. It's possible it all began even earlier, perhaps as early as 1956 or even 1948—from the birth of the Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia, out of the critical spirit that deconstructed the regime's dogma little by little, pitting Marx against Marxism, common sense against ideological intoxication, humanist sophism against inhuman sophistry, and that, by dint of laughing at the system, brought the system to be ashamed of itself: a critical spirit supported by a crushing majority of the people, slowly and irremediably making power aware of its guilt, less and less able to believe in itself or in its legitimacy.
In Prague we used to say cynically that the ideal political regime was a decomposing dictatorship, where the machine of oppression functions more and more imperfectly, but by its mere existence maintains the nation's spirit in maximum creative tension. That's what the 1960s were, a decomposing dictatorship.1 When I look back, I can see us permanently dissatisfied and in protest, but at the same time full of optimism. We were sure that the nation's cultural traditions (its scepticism, its sense of reality, its deeply rooted incredulity) were stronger than the Eastern political system imported from abroad, and that they would in the end overcome it. We were the optimists of scepticism: we believed in its subversive force and eventual victory.
In the summer of 1967, after the explosive Writers' Congress, the State bosses reckoned that the decomposition of the dictatorship had gone too far and tried to impose a hard-line policy. But they could not succeed. The process of decomposition had already reached a guilt-ridden central committee: it rejected the proposed hardening of the line and decided to be chaired by an unknown newcomer, Dubc̆ek. What's called the Prague Spring had begun. The critical spirit that up to then had only corroded, now exploded: Czechoslovakia rejected the style of living imported from Russia, censorship vanished, the frontiers opened, and all social organizations (trade unions and other associations) intended to transmit meekly the Party's will to the people, became independent and turned into the unexpected instruments of an unexpected democracy. Thus was born (without any guiding plan) a truly unprecedented system—an economy one hundred per cent nationalized; an agriculture run through co-operatives; a relatively egalitarian, classless society without rich or poor and without the idiocies of mercantilism, but possessing also freedom of expression, a pluralism of attitudes, and a very dynamic cultural life that powered all this movement. (This exceptional influence of culture—of literature, theatre, and the periodical press—gives the decade as a whole its own special, and irresistibly attractive, character.) I do not know how viable the system was or what prospects it had; but I do know that in the brief moment of its existence it was a joy to be alive.
Since the Western Left of today defines its goal as socialism in freedom, it is logical that the Prague Spring should henceforth figure in its political discourse. I note more and more often, for example, comparisons between the Prague Spring and the events of May 1968 in Paris, as if the two had been similar or moving in the same direction.
However, the truth is not so simple. I won't speak of the almost too obvious difference in scope between the two (in Prague we had eight months of an entirely original political system, and its destruction in August was a tragic turn in our nation's history), nor will I descend into ‘politological’ speculations, which bore me and, worse still, are repugnant to me, for I spent twenty years of my life in a country whose official doctrine was able to reduce any and every human problem to only a mere reflection of politics. (This doctrinaire passion for reducing man is the evil that anyone who comes for ‘over there’ has learned to hate the most.) All I want to do is to put my finger on a few reasons (without masking their hypothetical nature) that show that despite the common nonconformism and the common desire for change, there was a substantial difference in the climate of the two springs.
May 1968 was a revolt of youth. The initiative in the Prague Spring lay in the hands of adults who based their action on historical experience and disillusionment. Of course youth played an important role in the Prague Spring, but it was not a predominant role. To claim the opposite is to subscribe to a myth fabricated a posteriori in order to annex the Prague Spring to the epidemic of student revolts around the world.
May in Paris was an explosion of revolutionary lyricism. The Prague Spring was the explosion of post-revolutionary scepticism. That's why the Parisian students looked towards Prague with mistrust (or rather, with indifference), and the man in Prague could only smile at Parisian illusions that (rightly or wrongly) he thought discredited, comic, or dangerous. (There is a paradox worth meditating upon: the only successful—if ephemeral—implementation of socialism in freedom was not achieved in revolutionary enthusiasm but in sceptical lucidity.)
Paris in May was radical. What had paved the way over many years for the Prague Spring was a popular revolt of the moderate. Just as Ivana the Terrible, in Škvorecký's The Miracle Game replaces ‘bad quotations from Marx with less bad ones,’ so everyone in 1968 sought to blunt, soften, and lighten the weight of the existing political system. The term thaw, sometimes used to refer to this process, is very significant: it was a matter of making the ice melt, of softening what was hard. If I speak of moderation, it's not in any precise political sense, but in the sense of a deeply rooted human reflex. There was a national allergy to radicalism as such, and of whatever kind, for it was connected in most Czechs' subconscious minds to their worst memories.
Paris in May 1968 challenged what is called European culture and its traditional values. The Prague Spring was a passionate defence of the European cultural tradition in the widest and most broad-minded sense—as much a defence of Christianity as of modern art, both equally denied by the authorities. We all struggled for our right to this tradition, threatened by the anti-Western messianism of Russian totalitarianism.
May in Paris was a revolt of the Left. As for the Prague Spring, the traditional concepts of Right and Left are not able to account for it. (The Left/Right division still has a very real meaning in the life of Western people. On the stage of world politics, however, it no longer has much significance. Is totalitarianism left-wing or right-wing? Progressive or reactionary? These questions are meaningless. Russian totalitarianism is above all else a different culture—and therefore also a different political culture—in which the European distinction between those of the Left and those of the Right loses all sense. Was Khrushchev more Left or more Right than Stalin? The Czech citizen is confronted in 1978 neither by left-wing terror nor by right-wing terror but by a new totalitarian culture that is foreign to him. If some of us think of ourselves as more right-wing or more left-wing, it is only in the context of the West's problems that we can conceive the distinction, and not at all with reference to the problems of our country, which are already of a different order.)
All this created a spiritual atmosphere rather different from the one familiar to opponents west of the Elbe, and Josef Škvorecký represents this atmosphere better than anyone else.
Škvorecký entered literature with The Cowards, an exceptionally mature novel written just after the war, when he was a mere boy of twenty-four. The book stayed in a bottom drawer for many years and was not published until 1958, following the brief thaw of 1956. It unleashed an immediate and violent ideological campaign against the author. In the press and in many meetings, Škvorecký had the very worst epithets flung at him (the most famous was ‘mangy kitten’), and his book was banned from sale. He had to wait until the sixties and another thaw to be republished in an edition of one hundred thousand copies and to become not only the first big best seller of the postwar literary generation in Czechoslovakia but also the very symbol of a free and anti-official literature.
But why in fact was there a scandal? The Cowards does not denounce Stalinism or the Gulag and does not fit what the West calls dissident writing. It tells a very simple story of a young schoolboy who plays in an amateur jazz band and tries his not always lucky hand with classmates of the opposite sex. The story is set in the last days of the war, and the young hero watches the spectacle of liberation in all its derisory unworthiness. It's exactly that aspect that was so unseemly: a non-ideological discourse dealing with sacred subjects (at a time when the Liberation was enshrined in the gilded showcases of all European museums) without the seriousness and respectfulness that is obligatory.
I have dwelt at some length on Škvorecký's first book because the author is already fully present in it, some twenty-five years before The Miracle Game was written in Canada: in both we find his special way of viewing history from underneath. It's a naïvely plebeian view. The humour is coarse, in the tradition of Jaroslav Has̆ek. There's an extraordinary gift for anecdote, and a mistrust of ideology and the myths of history. Little inclination for the preciousness of modernist prose, a simplicity verging on the provocative, in spite of a very refined literary culture. And finally—if I may say so—an anti-revolutionary spirit.
I hasten to gloss this term: Škvorecký is not a reactionary, and he would no doubt not have wished for the return of nationalized factories to their owners or for the dissolution of farm co-operatives. If I mention an anti-revolutionary spirit in connection with him, it is to say that his work represents a critique of the spirit of revolution, with its myths, its eschatology, and its all-or-nothing attitude. This critique does not touch on any concrete revolutionary demands or policies, but concerns the revolutionary attitude in general as one of the basic attitudes that man can adopt towards the world.
The Western reader can only be surprised. What can one expect from a Czech writer who emigrated after the 1968 invasion except that he should write a defence of the Prague Spring? But no, he hasn't done that in The Miracle Game. It's precisely because Škvorecký is a child of his country, faithful to the spirit whence issued the Prague Spring, that he writes with unwavering irony. What strikes the eye first is his critique (through anecdote more than through argument) of all those revolutionary illusions and gesticulations that tended as time went by to take the stage of the Prague Spring.
In its originating milieu, Škvorecký's view of the Prague Spring has already provoked violent polemics. In the Bohemia of the 1970s, his novel is not just banned (as are all the writer's other works), but it is also criticized by many who hold the regime in contempt, for whom—understandably enough—ironic distance is not possible when they look at themselves in the tragic and difficult circumstances in which they live. Each of us is free to enter into a polemic with this novel, but on one condition: without forgetting that Škvorecký's book is the fruit of a rich experience, in the best realist tradition.
All that is to be read here carries the stamp of truth and contains many accurate renderings of real people and events; this applies also to the main plot—a ‘miracle’ set up by the police, who manage thereby to convict a priest of fraud and to invent a pretext for a violent anti-religious campaign; only the real name of the village, C̆ihos̆t', has been changed to Písec̆nice. Ivana the Terrible, the headmistress who picked out the least bad quotations from Marx, is a real héröine de modération: I knew dozens of her sort. She struggles patiently, silently, against one kind of radicalism, only to fall prey in the end to an opposite kind. (Incidentally, I doubt whether any Communist writer has ever managed to create a more moving Communist than Škvorecký—a convinced non-Communist—gives us here.) The poet Vrchcoláb, the playwright Hejl, the chessmaster Bukavec are portraits of real, known, living persons. I don't know whether that's also the case for the Russian writer Arashidov, but whether or not he has a model in reality he seems more real to me than reality itself. And if you suspect Škvorecký of exaggeration, I can assure you that reality exaggerated much more than Škvorecký. Though all these portraits are marvelously malicious, the novel's hero, Smir̆ický (a kind of stylized self-portrait of the author), who calmly writes an official speech for Lenin's birthday without believing a single word of what he sets down, by no means represents the Truth nor does he constitute a ‘positive’ hero, even if he is presented in a sympathetic light. Škvorecký spares him little of the tide of irony that inundates the entire novel. This book is until further notice the only work to give an overview of the whole implausible story of the Prague Spring, while at the same time being impregnated with that sceptical resistance—in its most authentic form—that is the best card in the Czech hand.
The fire that Jan Palach lit with his own body in January 1969 to protest against the fate that had befallen his land—his desperate act, it seems to me, is as foreign to Czech history as the ghostly sight of Russian tanks—that fire brought a period of history to a close. Is what I said earlier on the spirit of the Prague Spring even very true? Can one still speak today of a revolt of the moderates? The Russian invasion was too terrible by far. Even the authorities, moreover, are not what they used to be in Bohemia. They are no longer fanatical (as in the 1950s) or guilt-ridden (as in the 1960s) but openly cynical. Can plebeian cynicism fight authority more cynical than itself? The time has come when the cynic Škvorecký no longer has a place in his own land.
Despite official ideology, there was an extraordinary flowering of Czech culture in these years. The films of Milos̆ Forman, Jir̆í Menzel, and Vĕra Chytilová, the theatrical productions of Otakar Krejc̆a and of the brilliant Alfred Radok, the plays of Václav Havel, the novels of Josef Škvorecký and Bohumil Hrabal, the poetry of Jan Skácel, and the philosophical works of Jan Patŏcka and Karel Kosík all date from the 1960s. European culture has known in our century few better or more dynamic decades than the Czech sixties, and their importance is the yardstick by which the tragedy of 21 August 1968, which killed them brutally, must be measured.
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SOURCE: “Telling the Truth: The Novels of Josef Škvorecký,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 101, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 107–15.
[In the following essay, Galligan provides an overview of Škvorecký's work and discusses how censorship affected some of his novels.]
I have tried, I really have tried, to read and admire the novels that you are supposed to have read and admired in the last twenty years or so, but with a few stray exceptions I can't quite make it. Saul Bellow seemed downhill all the way after Augie March, which hadn't struck me as that high a hill in the first place; about fifty pages into Mr. Sammler's Planet I gagged, permanently as it turns out. I hung in there a good deal of the way with John Updike, but I finally had to admit that his prose style, his eroticism, and his religiosity were all too fancy for me. I tried and failed on a lot of other much admired novelists, too; they might as well remain nameless on the grounds that taking pot-shots at writers, even at lousy writers, is a graceless business. Furthermore I distrust all negative judgments, especially my own; they are too often a function of ignorance or blindness. Still I am stuck with my own responses, even if they make me feel like the brat in the fairy tale when I look at Emperor Bellow or King Updike and can't help exclaiming that he doesn't have any clothes on.
I am stuck with my enthusiastic responses, too, even if they keep drawing blank looks from my friends. That trouble started a few years ago when by happy accident I stumbled into slightly early retirement and decided to devote a little gentlemanly leisure to reading around in some novelists I hadn't heard so much about. I immediately found a number of them who I thought were distinctly superior to the celebrated ones. There went my gentlemanly leisure; I had to hustle to catch up with the work that some gifted, energetic novelists had been quietly doing all these years. Having done my catching up, at least some of it, I have not had the grace to keep quiet about it. I have gone about writing articles and buttonholing friends, telling busy people what they don't want to hear—that they ought to read a dozen or so books by Robertson Davies and another dozen by Mary Lee Settle. At least they have heard of Robertson Davies in the last couple of years, though he is a Canadian, for God's sake. Mary Lee Settle, I am pained to report, is Mary Lee Who? to the librarians, book-store clerks, and English professors I have been talking to. That's ridiculous.
But here I go again, and things are getting worse. This time it's a Czech who has chosen to be a Canadian and who has an unpronounceable name, Josef Škvorecký. (“Shkvoretski” is not the sort of sound that will come trippingly off a monolingual American's tongue.) Mr. Škvorecký has nearly a dozen novels in print in English, plus some more that have not been translated, and they are not at all likely to go away. The best of them achieve a powerful, remarkably distinctive kind of comedy; the lesser ones at least have the decency to offer entertainment of a sort worth thinking about.
Any number of European writers have been greatly influenced by American novels and have delighted in American movies and in jazz, but Škvorecký, who was born and raised in Nachod, a small town on the northeastern border of Bohemia, the westernmost part of Czechoslovakia, cut his literary teeth reading American novels and mystery stories, spent five or six years in his childhood seeing a movie every day and two on Sunday, and tried hard for a number of years to make a jazz saxophonist of himself. That practically makes him one of us. Or if that is laying it on too thick, it does mean that he can demonstrate the potent implications of certain American ideas and attitudes when they are translated, so to speak, into Czech.
Take the matter of realism in the novel. Anyone who comes of age reading American writers of the twenties and thirties will simply know that a novel ought to deal with the lives that people actually live in our time and that it do so without any trace of condescension in the language they actually use. That's the polar opposite of Socialist realism, which deals in suitably elevated language with the lives people ought to or maybe someday will live in a flawless, Soviet-loving state. Škvorecký wrote his first novel, The Cowards, in 1948–49 when the Communists were just taking over in Czechoslovakia. He has said that he was making a conscious effort to produce a piece of “magic realism”; the term came from the Czech poet Josef Hora, but the concept came from Hawthorne. He was trying to re-create events in his past life so that they would return to him, in Hawthorne's phrase, “etherealized by distance.” Specifically he wrote about the last week of the war, May 4th to May 11th, 1945, as he and his friends experienced it in Nachod, and called it The Cowards because he and they were too sane and too decent to be anything like the heroes of conventional war-time melodramas; chasing girls and playing jazz were their speed, not fighting wars. He used three epigraphs: one was from Romain Rolland on how the artist creates his work out of the substance of his times; another was from Mezz Mezzrow on how jazz was a revolution simmering in Chicago in the twenties; and the third was Hemingway's deceptively simple statement that “a writer's job is to tell the truth.” Nothing like that was going to get published in 1949. Even a decade later, with Stalin safely dead for six years, the decision to publish The Cowards cost a number of editors their jobs at the state publishing house and got Škvorecký fired from the staff of the periodical World Literature. Truth-telling of the sort that Hemingway and the great jazz musicians had in mind was, is, and always will be intolerable to ideologues everywhere, no matter what particular prescription for perfection they are peddling.
Readers full of ordinary imperfections are a different matter. In a very few years and despite the foot-dragging of authorities, The Cowards sold over 100,000 copies. It's hard to be sure why it was so popular—the reviews are no help because all the reviewers were under instruction to trash it—but its freedom from the formulas of officially approved fiction and its celebration of ordinary people living in a very ordinary town must have been appealing. Škvorecký reports with pleasure that in the years following its publication a surprising number of Czech babies were named after its hero-narrator, Danny Smiricky. Apparently the most startling aspect of The Cowards was its free use of slang in the dialogue and its use of spoken Czech, rather than literary Czech, in the narrative. An American reader needs to be told about that; in Jeanne Nemcova's translation it's just another skillfully informal piece of writing of the sort we have long since grown comfortable with. This suggests that the American tradition of a heavy vernacular influence on prose style—what might be labeled our inheritance from Mark Twain—is more important, more meaningful than contemporary academic criticism has been prepared to admit. Writers who are running with Twain, Crane, Mencken, Lardner, Hemingway, Faulkner, Chandler, Miller, Mailer, Welty, et al. can be guilty of various kinds of bad manners and faulty reasoning but they will never make reliable assistants to the managers of any of the popular brands of unfreedom.
Škvorecký (in an essay he wrote for Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series and reprinted in Talkin' Moscow Blues) divides the credit for his discovery of the power of the vernacular between Ernest Hemingway and a shopgirl who called herself Maggie. In tribute to her he wrote a novel called The End of the Nylon Age that he foolishly submitted for publication in 1956. “It was quickly seized,” he says, “by the censors and banned before publication as ‘pornography,’ due to my use of the word ‘bosom’ to describe a woman's (certainly not bare) breasts. When I suggested to the lady censor that I could replace it by ‘tits,’ as that was what working people called it, she threw me out of the office.” It is sort of nice to know that in 1991 his taste for the vernacular is still offending prudes with ideological allegiances. The woman who reviewed The Miracle Game for the New York Times Book Review (February 10, 1991), and who seems anxious to maintain her credentials as a Correct Thinker, took huge offense because one of the characters, Dr. Gellen, “is described at one point as a woman chaser in vulgar anatomical language that is enough to put you off him for life.” She puts the blame on the translator, Paul Wilson, but it is a safe bet that it should go to Škvorecký, whose English is, after all, good enough to permit him to have taught American literature at the University of Toronto for twenty years. Anyway, it's not the four-letter word beginning with c that describes the randy doctor's chasing, it's the five-letter one beginning with p, the one that is used as an affectionate name for cats. The same reviewer also took umbrage because the narrator-hero describes a girl, who sports a heavy and impressively widespread suntan, as “brown as a nigger”—though she could scarcely expect a young Czech male in need of a hyperbole in the middle of the 1950s to describe the girl as “brown as an Afro-American.”
There is a lot more to The Miracle Game than a few vernacular expressions that might offend the delicate. It is the first novel that Škvorecký wrote after he left Czechoslovakia in 1969, though an English translation wasn't published until 1990; I would describe it as both an explanation of why he had to leave and a demonstration of what freedom can do for a novelist who has been thirsting for it.
As explanation it is completely convincing. Danny Smiricky (Škvorecký's alter ego) has tried diligently to accommodate himself to life in a communist state. Absolutely incapable of believing the nonsense the party peddles, he has worked at not believing in anything, and he is too devout a coward to indulge in even the slyest forms of opposition. He prides himself on the acuteness of his sense of fear, judging it the most important gift a man can have who wants to survive in a state like this. So, if they want him to go teach social science at a girls' school in a small town after completing his military service, he goes and teaches, even though he knows nothing about social science and the ministry has neglected to supply him with a course description and a textbook. If later he can't publish the sorts of things he wants to write, he learns how to turn out innocuous musical comedies. When the so-called Prague Spring comes along he doesn't join the chorus of writers singing the praises of liberalization, nor does he join in the hopeless demonstrations when the Soviet tanks come rumbling into Wenceslas Square. Yet he cannot suppress his sense of the ridiculous and he cannot stop himself from liking the people he likes. That means he cannot last much longer in Czechoslovakia. He must go into exile or he will die, certainly figuratively, quite possibly literally as well. People who are having trouble understanding why the communist governments of Eastern Europe collapsed as swiftly and as completely as they did as soon as their Russian props were pulled from under them could get all the enlightenment they need from The Miracle Game.
But it would be a shame to read such an energetically artful novel as though it were a textbook. To put it in terms of technique, it is a novel that jumps back and forth in time covering a period of about fifteen years in the life of Danny Smiricky; more unusually, it also switches back and forth, sometimes even within a single sentence, among three narrative modes: an idyllic mode for dealing with personal, especially sexual relationships, a satiric mode for dealing with societal matters, and an adaptation of a mystery-story mode for dealing with matters of religion. To put it in terms of theme, it celebrates human foolishness and decency, it damns ideology, and it puzzles over religion as being both a con game and a deeply satisfying affirmation of mystery. If that sounds complicated, it is; yet the novel as a whole is entirely unpretentious. It never gives an inch to that urge to impress that makes so many so-called postmodern novels a distinct pain to read. Škvorecký so carefully dramatizes a wide streak of dopiness in Danny—and by inevitable extension, in himself—that solemn, gullible people are misled into thinking that the complexities are all accidental and complain that he slips into telling funny stories when he ought to be sticking to serious social criticism.
One thing leads to another, one mode slides into another all through The Miracle Game. Traditional but still funny farce about the older girls in the school trying to seduce Danny, when he cannot possibly give in to seduction because he has a painful venereal infection, slides into the scene where a statue of St. Joseph seems to have made a gesture of benediction during the priest's sermon; and that in turn becomes the center of a mystery story that will not yield a definite solution, though the priest was most definitely murdered by the secret police because he would not recant his faith. The account of the efforts of the warm-hearted woman who is the principal of the school to get all of her girls graduated, even the ones from politically suspect families, produces another scene of classic farce when the examiners from the Ministry of Education are stuffed with food, wine, and tranquilizers so that they will forget all about the examination; but that fades into the moment that comes years later, during the Prague Spring, when the same woman, having been falsely denounced as a tool of the party in the now-liberal newspapers, locks the door to her office and hangs herself with a piece of clothesline. Or, to reverse the emphasis, a nightmarish scene at the Writer's Union in 1968 exposing the terrible intellectual contortions some writers put themselves through in order to stay in favor with the party is periodically interrupted with low comedy scenes of a hack trying to get up his courage to sign a petition that practically everybody else in the union has already signed. Nothing stays simple. Nothing stays funny. But nothing stays unfunny, either. One thing qualifies another, always. It's quite a game.
The history of our miserable century is full of stories of artists and writers being driven into exile by political stupidity and viciousness, but I am not sure any responded to that painful fate more exuberantly than Škvorecký did. To judge by what has subsequently been translated into English, he was a highly accomplished novelist while he was still living in Czechoslovakia coping with the demands of a sleazy system of state censorship. The Cowards is a powerful and influential first novel. The Bass Saxophone is one of those rarities that novelists dream about as they pile rough draft on top of rough draft, a beautifully condensed, evocative novella that poured out in three “ecstatic” days. The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka earned a large audience for the way it combined something of English stories of deduction with something of European romans policiers to form an oblique kind of social criticism. And Miss Silver's Past, the last novel he wrote in Czechoslovakia, is a half-farce, half-mystery that is wholly worth rereading. Nonetheless The Miracle Game is notches better than any of them, and it launched Škvorecký into a period of astonishing productivity.
In 1983 an interviewer for Canadian Fiction Magazine asked him if he felt at home in Canada. “I feel very much at home in Canada. I don't even like to travel to Europe as Canadians do, because I have become so attached to this country, to the atmosphere it has. Because—this is probably hard to explain—in my life, since I was fourteen, I have never experienced this atmosphere of liberal freedom. I have always lived under some kind of dictatorship where you had to turn around if you had to say something aloud. If you wrote anything, you had to think twice before you formulated a sentence, because you knew this would be tough for the censors. The secret police were always after you, and you were taken in for interrogation because of some stupid thing. So I value the atmosphere of liberal freedoms that most people here don't realize they have, because for them it's like the air.”
In 1973 he completed a linked collection of detective stories, Sins for Father Knox, and another in 1975, The End of Lieutenant Boruvka. He also completed in 1975 six stories about Danny Smiricky that come together to form something like a novel, The Swell Season; two years later came The Engineer of Human Souls, a long, intricate novel that deals with all of the stages of Danny Smiricky's voyage from his small town in Czechoslovakia to a niche on the faculty of “Edenvale College” in Toronto. That was followed in 1981 by The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka, a fond kidding of the Czech community in Toronto in the guise of a mystery story. In 1983 he turned toward history rather than autobiography with Dvorak in Love, a fiction grounded in fact that centers on Anton Dvorak's involvement with America and American music in the 1890s. Talkin' Moscow Blues, a collection of interviews and articles, most of which he did in English after coming to Toronto, was published in 1988. He has told interviewers that he is at work on another historical novel, this one dealing with a group of Czechs fighting in the American Civil War under General Sherman. Through all of those years he also taught American literature in the University of Toronto and helped his wife run 68 Publishers, a house devoted to the works Czech writers could not publish in their homeland. The publishing house has now gone happily out of business, but Škvorecký has no plans for leaving Canada, where the air has been so very good for him.
The Miracle Game can be seen as Škvorecký's first response to release from the constraints of state censorship. He can now give free rein to his gift for classic farce; his criticism of the party becomes bleaker and harsher; and for the first time he can acknowledge the pull of Czech Catholicism on his mind and imagination. The Swell Season, then, can be seen as his first full response to the experience of being free. Political and ideological concerns nearly disappear from the world of the novel and it becomes what the subtitle proclaims it to be, “A text on the most important things in life.” The most important things in Danny Smiricky's young life are, of course, playing jazz and chasing girls, especially chasing girls; but a lot of critics would join the interviewer for Canadian Fiction Magazine in wondering if The Swell Season can really be an important book for Škvorecký—it's so cheerful, so celebratory, so free of either pride or guilt. It is. It's important to Škvorecký because it is faithful to the truth of his experience: “This is about a young boy who is after the girls. He cannot get any, but he never gives up, and he's happy and unhappy. And from time to time from the background comes this danger because I couldn't ignore it: the war. But this is how we lived.” It's a book that ought to be important to American readers, too, because it does not fit any of our preconceptions about novels of adolescence and might, therefore, force or charm us into taking a second look at our notions about both novels and adolescence. It is not a coming-of-age novel, replete with rites of initiation; nor is it a novel about threatened and/or triumphant innocence. Nor is it a more or less steamy account of sexual exploits and gifts, for the hero never catches any of the girls he chases. It is simply a bemused, amused, undisturbed account of boys and girls chasing and being chased around the mulberry bush. Boys expect to chase and girls to be chased. Sooner or later the chase will end and they will all get on with the business of being adults; meanwhile they enjoy being who they are and doing what they do. A vision of adolescent sexuality so free of puritanism of either the old-fashioned religious variety or the up-to-date social scientific sort is refreshing; a novel that embodies that vision in an aesthetically sound way is indeed important.
Throughout the Danny Smiricky series, as in all sane comedy, self-pity is the occasion for laughter rather than tears. In The Swell Season Danny tries to feel sorry for himself because God won't keep the various bargains Danny has struck with Him and because practically everybody in town is gleefully keeping track of the number of girls he has failed to talk into his arms—twenty-two, twenty-three if you allow for the fact that “one” of them was a pair of identical twins playing tricks on him. But he is finally too fond of all of the people he is sharing his season with to feel sorry for himself. In The Engineer of Human Souls, the last novel in the series, Škvorecký has to deal with the comic artist's most painful truth, that many of the people he has loved have suffered pitiful fates while he himself has passed from one piece of good luck to another. He has to grieve for them and rejoice for himself, but God help him if he doesn't keep those two emotions totally separated. Any smugness or any guilt will be grounds for excommunication from the muses.
He succeeds. And his necessary summing up from his safe haven in Toronto justifies not only its title but also its subtitle and even its six epigraphs. The title makes mocking reference to the definition of a writer attributed to Stalin: “as an engineer constructs a machine, so must a writer construct the mind of the New Man.” The old-fashioned subtitle promises, with its author's tongue only half in cheek, “An Entertainment on the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love and Death.” Of the six epigraphs I will quote only my own favorite: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit. General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess”—William Blake. In short, The Engineer of Human Souls is a remarkably accomplished piece of work.
So, too, is Dvorak in Love: A Light-Hearted Dream, though many of its American reviewers failed to notice that it is. Perhaps they are victims of the pervasive owlishness of academe and think that a book which is light-hearted and dreamy cannot be subtle and complex as well. Perhaps they don't think that Dvorak, known here as “The Master,” was much of a musician because his work is more melodious than forbidding. Or maybe they think it is a simple matter for a novelist to re-create in nontechnical language—in ways that a layman can understand—the processes by which a composer reaches the crucial sections of symphonies and concertos. One hopes they know enough about the history of American music to appreciate the extent of Škvorecký's knowledge of the careers of the black musicians Dvorak knew and worked with in New York, Harry T. Burleigh, Sissieretta Jones, and, especially Will Marion Cook (who was a major influence on one generation of New York jazz pianists, Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, and Willie “The Lion” Smith, and through them on the next generation, Fats Waller, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington). But maybe they take his historical knowledge for granted and think it is a simple matter to write a novel mostly about real people that will not do violence to what we know about them yet will render them as vividly, as freshly as characters in novels bearing the customary disclaimer about any resemblance to people living or dead being accidental. I don't know. The whole business of critical receptions and reputations baffles me.
I think that Dvorak in Love is a lovely book, silly as it may sound to say so. I do wish, though, that Škvorecký had learned something from one of his minor characters, Zdenka Drbohlavova. Americans couldn't say Zdenka properly—it came out as Stinky—and couldn't pronounce Drbohlavova at all. So she changed her name to Denise Derby. Škvorecký didn't have to go that far—Joe Score would have done nicely. That would have made it a lot easier to tout people onto his novels, which certainly look like winners to me.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5969
SOURCE: “The Immigrant as Writer: Cultural Resistance and Conformity in Josef Škvorecký's The Engineer of Human Souls and Raymond Federman's Take It or Leave It,” in Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 92–104.
[In the following essay, Karpinski analyzes the influence that immigrant status has on Škvorecký's The Engineer of Human Souls and Raymond Federman's Take It or Leave It.]
The experience of immigration is usually a story of survival: the economic, political, cultural, or simply the personal survival of the individual who has been—by choice, accident, or necessity—thrown into a new existential context. Raymond Federman and Joseph Škvorecký are survivors in a double sense, as individuals and writers. Respectively Jewish-French and Czech by origin, both came to North America from the Holocaust-haunted or Communist-oppressed Europe and have become academics and teachers here. Indeed, immigration and writing are closely related, for they are different forms of negotiating and articulating one's freedom and presence in the world. Not surprisingly, Federman's Take It or Leave It (1976) and Škvorecký's The Engineer of Human Souls (1977) belong to what might be thought of as a genre: the immigrant novel, with its long-established tradition in both American and Canadian literature.1 Moreover, they represent that particular sub-genre of the immigrant novel which has the immigrant writer as a hero. In considering the two novels, I would like to juxtapose their authors' strategies in the construction of the immigrant subject position in Canada and the United States; namely, Škvorecký's insistence on preserving his “otherness” and Federman's emphasis on re-inventing himself as a new man. In both writers, a degree of resistance and conformity in relation to the social and cultural contexts they inhabit has largely been determined by their attitudes to the past.2 Despite all the differences, it seems possible, in conjunction with postmodernist discourse, to find some common denominators in Škvorecký's and Federman's versions of immigration. After all, postmodernism has been the most recent “theoretical” experience of what immigration has always meant in “real life”: a sense of the subject's displacement and discontinuity.
The immigrant subject occupies the mental territory which is the meeting place of two worlds—the past and the present; it resembles what Brian McHale calls “the heterotopian space of postmodernist writing” or simply the “zone” (45). The zone can easily accommodate several ontologically and/or temporally incompatible “realities,” including the autobiographical space of memory, the projected space of the fictional universe, the physical space of the book/page, and the intertextual space of writing. Federman's and Škvorecký's narratives are set up in the biographic mode; that is, apart from their self-reflexive concerns with the practice of writing and the function of literature, they are basically immigrant life-stories. Both, however, rely heavily on irony so as to foreground the distance between the subject who writes and the experiencing subject, a foregrounding best expressed by Federman's distinction between “the me now and the he then.”3 Respectively asking questions about the subject in/of writing and the relationship between literature and life, Federman and Škvorecký are forced at the same time to question their double identity as immigrants.
In Federman's book, dislocation functions as the master-trope of the text, both structurally and thematically. He removes pagination, engages in aleatory games, inserts concrete poems into the text, plays with typography, digresses in the manner of Tristan Shandy, and indulges in intertextual borrowing. Moreover, he dismantles the author function by means of the distinction between the teller and the told, which is part of his fictional project to escape “the psychology of the self,” or rather to reveal that there is no unitary self. The principle of self-erasure is further enhanced by the fact that the narrative cancels itself as it goes along: Take It or Leave It opens by promising the story of the Big Crossing, but it never materializes into a real journey, despite its proudly displayed “temporary itinerary” at the beginning. To expose the fictionalizing processes, with all their “distortions, exaggerations, deformations, [and] errors” at work, is ultimately to show that “a biography is something one invents afterwards.” The autobiographical investment in Federman's writing can also be seen as a literal way of legitimizing the metaphor of the subject as a text: as is revealed elsewhere, “intertextualization” is the case of “Federman's imagination plagiarizing itself,” of creating “voices within voices” that “pla(y)giarize one's life” (Benamou and Caramello, 161). Federman's “America” is thus a zone par excellence, the interiorized liminal space engendered by memory and imagination, the space where the subject reinvents himself. McHale interprets this strategy as “reimagining America as an interior frontier” (50), and indeed, for immigrants, America remains a kind of social-psychological frontier, since they must constantly face new situations. Federman exploits the parallels between the situation of writing and immigration as the condition of radical displacement; both involve temporal/spatial relocation, the work of memory, and the split self.
Similarly, the self-reflexive, intertextual space of Škvorecký's novel is presented as the zone which can accommodate a “flow of thoughts, the flow of our inner time … impossible to rearrange into a lucid fabula” (288). The book appears as a mosaic of texts—mottoes, quotations, letters, students' essays, poems, songs, and so on. He admitted in an interview that “[he] belong[s] to those writers who base their writings on personal experience. I had never any trouble finding my subject matter. I just described episodes of my life” (Hancock, 67). What is more, Škvorecký's oeuvre seems best suited to illustrate the idea of displacement as almost the prerequisite of being a writer. He is what might be called a “diasporic” individual, polarized between two cultures, apparently feeling completely at home in no place. As Sam Solecki has observed, the anglo-American cultural tradition constitutes “the tacit sub-text” of Škvorecký's novels written in Czechoslovakia, much the same as Czech culture is “the sub-text of translations” (1989: 80). Škvorecký's case vividly demonstrates that floating between two worlds may provide the immigrant subject with a privileged position from which to interpret and organize contemporary experience. In its deliberate blurring of generic boundaries, his novel offers a mixture of autobiography, fiction, history, political treatise and critical commentary. It creates its own perspective of ironic interrogation at the intersection of several competing discourses, thus ridiculing any claim to the “totality” of truth. This is precisely the perspective of dislocation, achieved from the vantage point of exile. In a way, then, to be an immigrant is to inhabit a truly postmodern space, for the immigrant “refuses to reduce the order of discourse to a single meaning, a single code or cultural model” (Boelhower, 173).
The sense of radical dislocation is inextricably bound up with the perception of doubleness and, as Linda Hutcheon reminds us, “doubleness—of identity, of culture, of loyalties, often of language—is the basis of the experience of immigration in general, for anyone, anywhere” (48). The space of immigrant experience is usually mapped out by such polarities as old world/new world, presence/absence, integration/resistance, continuity/discontinuity, ethnic/non-ethnic, centre/periphery, etc.4 In Škvorecký's fiction, immigration as living in suspense between two lives translates into the binaries of East/West; Czecho-slovakia/Canada; Czech/English; emigration/exile. Unlike Federman, who is genuinely bilingual, Škvorecký writes in his native Czech. He still inhabits his own language and only “borrows” English, where, as he says in an interview with Sam Solecki, “[he's] just a visitor who arrived late” (Hutcheon and Richmond, 31). Interestingly, for Federman writing itself inevitably becomes a condition of exile, partly because he writes in English. Only occasionally he tumbles “back into the safe womb of [his] native tongue.” His linguistic energy and fascination with language make him travel across diverse registers, from the jargon of academia to the slang of the barracks. Federman's protagonist describes himself as “straddling two languages, two continents and two lives, two cultures also—spread-eagled over the Atlantic.” His attempt to record what happens to the subject in writing parallels the process of the immigrant becoming “the doubletype … the schizotype,” the split person referred to as MOINOUS, a “singularly plural” pronoun.
On the metafictional plane, the theme of doubleness is mirrored by the author/protagonist relationship in both novels: both Federman and Škvorecký are rather ironic in their treatment of their protagonists whom they present as incorrigible male chauvinists. Federman's “Frenchy” considers it natural that he is living off Marilyn, just as Škvorecký's Danny has no misgivings about trying to seduce his student Irene Svensson. Clearly, one should not confuse the author's person with his persona, even though the books have obvious autobiographical underpinnings. However, the autobiographical-ironic discourse is so unstable that it is difficult to pinpoint the author's exact position vis-à-vis his fictional counterpart. Collapsing any distinctions between the two has led some critics to accuse Škvorecký of reactionary politics and sexism. Nevertheless, when I read in an interview that Škvorecký defends Danny as the character who “has never done anything bad, really. Well, maybe he harmed some girl …” (Hancock, 90), I find it hard to reconcile my feelings as a critic and a woman.5
Little wonder that for Škvorecký and Federman, who themselves had at some point arrived in the New World as immigrants, their protagonists' “possession” of the new land is coded sexually. Danny, an aging university professor, is an expert in romantic adultery, a connoisseur of women, a seducer of his own student who is nota bene a walking replica of F. Scott Fitzgerald's rich heroines. Exploring the sexual metaphor as indicative of the male protagonist's attitude to the adopted country, one could go as far as to define Škvorecký's attitude to Canada as that of an unimpressed or ironic lover. By contrast, in staging his young protagonist's confrontation with the US, Federman draws on the topos of initiation, telling the story of his “discovery of (American) space & (American) bigness & (American) despair & (American) speed & (American) beauty & (American) heat & (American) grandeur and—” His America appears as a woman, “big and fat and beautiful like a cow,” upon whom the arriving immigrant casts an alternately abusive and admiring gaze, greeting her with “Here I come you old bitch!” Perhaps the “suffering … loneliness … depression … homesickness … despair [and] starvation” of the early years of the protagonist's immigration can also account for the accumulation of masturbatory images in his story, as yet another expression of frustrated desires.
The appropriateness of the “conjugal” metaphor is surprisingly confirmed by the distribution of disjunctive/conjunctive attitudes revealed in both texts. In the context of Škvorecký's and Federman's immigrant novels, a disjunctive attitude can be seen as equivalent to “resistance” to a dominant culture—not, however, in the sense of ignorance and willful rejection, but rather as a complex interplay of familiarity and apartness. The motivating force behind this kind of resistance is the immigrant subject's fear of sacrificing his own cultural distinctiveness. By contrast, a conjunctive attitude is closer to assimilation with its attraction to and absorption of the cultural scripts of dominant society; if a dominant culture is felt to be a threat, it can be challenged from within, on its own terms. In Federman's case, the “immigrant” attitude is more conjunctive, while Škvorecký's self-definition as an “exile” is decidedly disjunctive. This is, roughly speaking, the most general difference between Federman's and Škvorecký's versions of immigrant experience. To illuminate that difference, it is useful to recall Robert F. Harney's convenient distinction between the concept of “immigrant” and “ethnic”—the word immigrant “conjures up the thresholds of acculturation” while ethnic “implies a permanent quality of otherness” (68).6 One of the consequences of Škvorecký's positive valorization of ethnicity is his description of the condition of immigration as “exile.” As a result, he “remains tied to the old country and concerned with the fate of that country” more than he is “interested [in domestic Canadian or American politics]” (Hutcheon and Richmond, 27). In a sense, then, Margaret Atwood's definition of an exile as “a person who is ‘here’ but would rather be somewhere else” is echoed in Škvorecký's novel by the distinction between “exile” and “immigrant” made by Veronica: “I can't go back home. Emigrant girls can” (187).
Federman's book parodically appropriates the traditional elements of the American dream/myth: The Great Journey, the initiation and discovery topoi, the rags-to-riches cliché, and the myth of male comradeship. He relates to the myth and accepts America's challenge, hence the bravado of the novel's title (AMERICA … “it's just a matter of TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT”). America is for those who have “guts,” for frontier supermen. Offering a mirage of success (which is only “an illusion, a joke … a fake”), America is in fact a place created by people's imagination, by “all the lousy foreigners who come to America their heads full of shit full of dreams!” The novel tells (or sets out to tell) about the time when the protagonist, “quite unexperienced in our American way of life” yet, dreams about the Big Crossing. He wants to make his journey across America in the grand pioneer style (“to go west as the pioneers had done”). Consequently, he extols what is regarded as typically American characteristics: determination to succeed and belief in the new beginning. Well aware that he has been affected by the stereotypes associated with America, he treats such attractions ironically: “Cowboys Indians perhaps gangsters in Chicago and rattlesnakes in the desert. Play crap in Las Vegas. See movie stars in Hollywood. Swim in the Pacific …” These are the celluloid dreams that stand in sharp contrast to both his early experience in America and his dramatic past in Europe.
For Škvorecký's Danny, too, the American Dream was part of his youth, as his escapist practice of playing jazz and speaking English in the Nazi-occupied and Communist-ruled Kostelec might indicate. He idolizes jazz and English as symbols of independence and nonconformity. From the relative perspective of his past, Canada, the “country of cities with no past,” seems to be young and innocent (8), a wilderness land “where, if I drive carefully, I won't even get a ticket” (32). In Veronica's view, Canada “is too good to be true … Perhaps it's an imperfect Utopia” (444). Not only does he patronize Canadian youth for its ignorance, but he also regards Canadians as politically naive. At the same time, from the perspective of exile, he is fascinated by “that absurd distance between Kostelec and the Svenssons' [covered] in one brief lifetime” (222). A parallel, amazing distance has been travelled by the Czech nation, which can be symbolized by Malina's changing from the brown uniform into the new National Security Corps uniform (217). Pondering life's ironies, he nevertheless seems to derive from immigration some sense of accomplishment, of a life lived twice. He benevolently mocks his own identification with the émigré community: “I am happy … I feel the total absence of threatening respectability, the close humanity of our ridiculous nostalgia, our searching, erring desires, our equality” (255). Yet, in spite of the fact that the Czech émigré community in Toronto and the university campus with its student life provide two contemporary Canadian perspectives from which Danny recoils into his Czech past, The Engineer of Human Souls remains “European fiction”; “Škvorecký is a degree removed from both Canadian societies he portrays and outside the literary tradition … in Canada. Instead … [he] begins to romantically shade Canadian life with mythic undertones” (Rasporich, 144). Not accidentally, he himself stresses that the book is about “the past thirty years in the life of Czechoslovakia, which is framed by the Nazi occupation and the year 1968” (Hancock, 78).
For Škvorecký and Federman, immigration is a state of stigmatized “otherness” and an ironic condition par excellence. It forces upon their immigrant subjects the inevitable distancing, cultivation of doubleness, heightened self-consciousness, and sense of being “colonized.” Their protagonists are torn between conformity and resistance, the conflicting desires to belong and to be one's own, to become indistinguishable from the background and to preserve one's “otherness.” To use Linda Hutcheon's phrase, “irony is one way of coming to terms with this kind of duplicity, for it is the trope that incarnates doubleness” (49). But are all immigrants more likely to be ironical? Since for Škvorecký and Federman doubleness is inherent in the state of being an immigrant, of inhabiting the “liminal spaces in between,” the immigrant can easily adopt irony in order to draw attention to his problematic personal and social identity. Moreover, he is more apt to use irony because it is “a mode potentially capable of addressing [dominant and dominating] cultures from within, while simultaneously signalling a position of difference and even opposition” (Hutcheon, 14).
Federman's irony is often turned against the power of racial and ethnic stereotypes. He identifies with the blacks (not only because of jazz, but also because of the common experience of pariahhood), exercising a poor man's fantasies of success incarnated by a “fake-white black who fucks all the rich white broads in a Southern town.” Later on he parodically enacts the same motif (literalizing class exploitation in sexual terms) in the scene involving a nymphomaniac WASP (“I had just fucked [or been fucked by …] what's best, what's most respected in America today”). He attacks ethnic and racial prejudice, especially present in the language, of which he himself has been a victim. One of the most effective uses of irony in the book is the scene in which the protagonist has a dream which pointedly summarizes the American “paradise for immigrants.” Federman compiles a list of abusive ethnic epithets that uncovers the layers of prejudice accumulated in the language. He then literalizes the metaphor of verbal abuse into real violence, turning his “poor little French Jew of Polish origin” into “the sum the total of these epithets, the sole point of encounter the junction the melting pot of this verbal onslaught.” One cannot fail to notice the ironic revaluation of the “melting pot” cliché. This dream is said to be a revelation and a turning point for the protagonist who realizes “that America is made of linguistic bigotry and unless one knows the meaning of these humiliating eponyms one is really lost in America.”
Federman deliberately exploits his position of marginality, both on the metafictional level (playing with and dismantling the centres of “authority” in the story) and on the thematic level (confronting the reality of the American dream). As part of his “decentring” and “debunking” project, he also ridicules all kinds of patriotic pretence (the letter from the State Department) and political sham (making fun of trendy Marxists, “well entrenched in [their] intellectual security,” still “shoving on us [their] Aesthetic Crap about Art and Literature” while having no idea about “real Life! and Work! and Misery!”). In mock tirades, he plays on the ironic contrast between “the bum, the anonymous thief, the great traveler, the bad lot, the outlaw, the adventurer, the pioneer” and the privileged, implying that the only democratic place is to be found in writing.
Actually, both Federman and Škvorecký see politics as corruption and manipulation, an outlook which may be the result of their past experience as victims and survivors. Škvorecký accuses the West of political ignorance, juxtaposing his experience with Western innocence. But while he does not take the social and political problems in the West too seriously, he is aware of Canada's colonial past, as when he rhapsodizes over “[the] tíme Manitou stumbled here, held out his arm to break his fall and the palm of his hand made that vast watery plain, and the five fingers of his hand made those five long lakes with the lovely names: Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco …” (483). This note stands in contrast to his ironic treatment of Canadians' attitude toward the problem of the native people. There is an episode in which a millionaire's son drives his Czech girlfriend in his Jaguar to a reservation in order to convince her that there are also complex social and political problems in his country.
Škvorecký's writing is more representative of “the literature of exile”; it focuses “less on situational ironies of the contrast of two cultures and more on the nostalgic yearning for the one left behind” (Hutcheon, 55). He does not ironize his roots, but he ironizes Canada; however, his irony ultimately loses ground as he seems to subscribe to the set of cultural clichés about Canada as a land without history. He also practises self-irony and ironic exclusion, mocking the pretensions of the émigrés and their ethnic “maladjustment,” one example of which is the reference he makes to the girl at the ticket counter who “was clearly accustomed to hearing [English] spoken in a wide variety of ways” (388). He realizes the implications of the question of what audience he writes for—Canadian or Czech or Czech-Canadian? Ironically, he admits in an interview that “parts of Engineer … are probably incomprehensible for readers in Czechoslovakia because they are written in a Czech heavily influenced by North American English” (Hutcheon and Richmond, 30). His book abounds in hilarious situational comedy marked by gargantuan effects and by “gallows humour,” especially in the scenes from World War II.
Škvorecký's attitude to Danny reveals an ironic portrait of a Czech immigrant (which can be seen as his ironic self-portrait), much the same as Federman's “Frenchy” represents the ironic confrontation with the American Dream. There are, however, ironies about the book, in addition to those in the book: Škvorecký says elsewhere about Canada that “this country does not forbid you anything, not even remaining a Czech novelist who gets Canadian literary prizes” (Hutcheon and Richmond, 32). It is interesting to ask why Škvorecký's book has found so much favour from the Canadian critics, despite its occasional arrogance about and condescension towards things Canadian. One possible answer is provided by Stephen Henighan: “1984 may be seen as the high-water mark of the right-wing fad in Canada: the year the middle-classes voted for Brian Mulroney and the literary establishment accorded its highest award to The Engineer of Human Souls” (259). After all, Danny's Canada is seen from the privileged perspective of the university professor.
Škvorecký's attitude to writing seems to be marked by some disturbing contradictions or inconsistencies: not withstanding his universalism,7 he is concerned with the immediate possibility and functions (including political) of art. Consequently, he despises Western formalist approaches to art: “I despaired for those legions of students who are taught American Literature by someone from Harvard who, lecturing on the function of color in The Scarlet Letter, deals only with the function of color in The Scarlet Letter” (64). His view of literature also takes into account history and politics. There is clearly a humanistic message underlying the novel, the message explicitly stated in Danny's (obviously self-referential) reply to Irene's questioning: “The thesis [of his novel] is Homo sum. Humani nihil a me alienum puto” (291). Besides, Škvorecký seems to endorse Evelyn Waugh's observation that “an artist must be a reactionary. He has to stand against the tenor of the age and not go flopping along; he must offer some little opposition” (292); in fact, he repeats the same words in an interview in which he openly subscribes to “certain traditional values” (Hancock, 96). He uses Western literature—Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Fitzgerald, Conrad and Lovecraft, to mention just his chapter headings—as a reference to probe into his experience under the Nazis and the Communists, a probing which again confirms the presence in him of the inherent conviction of the universality of both human nature and its representation in literature. Literature for him is a “usable” source of knowledge that allows him not only to relate to the past but also to feel his “humanity”: “I feel like one link in a chain of repetitions, spanning generations, economic systems, faiths and stupidities” (343). After all, he believes that “people are essentially the same everywhere” (Hutcheon and Richmond, 30).
For Federman writing is literally and metaphorically one of the strategies of survival. In the Sternean tradition of identifying discourse with the evasion of death, writing becomes “the only way to keep going.” Federman ostensibly avoids the subject of death, but the thought of death constitutes a hidden pocket of his fiction. Consequently, there are things silenced over, such as his experience of the Holocaust which he refuses to talk about: writing about the past is “a process whereby the reality of an event and the fact of relating that event degenerates into self-mocking falsification.” There is a void, a black hole at the core of his fiction (“We'll skip all that … No need to whine about it”) only graphically expressed as the Star of David with a paragraph blocked like a tomb underneath. There is the untold story of “systematic extermination”—the past sequestered in the room of memory; “falling asunder into a mishmash of twisted images.” It remains unspoken; he can only find some typographic symbols for its expression. The most economical among them happens to be a parenthesis—a pictorial equivalent of his pulling himself out of the hole/vagina/grave, in a repeated enactment of his birth/rebirth/resurrection as a writing subject and the subject of writing.
As earlier noted, one of the functions of Federman's fiction is to “reinvent yourself.” It seems, therefore, not too far-fetched to see him as temperamentally akin to the ideology of a self-made man who “[makes himself] with imagination and will power.” Such a view also explains why he deplores “getting sentimental … over such old memories” and prefers instead to talk about “the near past” rather than “the remote past.” He embraces the American Dream partly because of its emphasis on the future: “The future and not the past! hell with the past! I'm fed up with the past, fed up with his past, my past, our past!”
The project of the immigrant novel is also essentially an epistemological exercise in the working of memory; hence the dominance in the immigrant discourse of the rhetorical tropes of memory (Boelhower, 174). Memory, often associated with music, determines the shape of both stories, as if influenced by jazz improvisation. Federman's form resembles “a long uninterrupted tenor saxophone solo,” which corresponds with his definition of life as “made up of verbal collages: repetitions with slight variations.” In fact, if both novels were to be compared to jazz improvisations, Federman's would be like be-bop, Škvorecký's more like swing. For Škvorecký, “associations [are] the essence of everything. Associations in time, in appearance, in theory, in the heart, omnipotent and omnipresent” (107). In his story, memory gradually takes over the present, transporting the narrator into the past: “For me Kostelec was a phenomenon of time, not of place, and the time machine had not yet been invented. There is only the one we carry about in our heads, and I didn't have to go to Kostelec to use it” (337).
Thus in both novels the whimsical text's progression is subordinated to the politics of remembering, which in Federman seems to rely on a free play of memory inseparable from imagination, while in Škvorecký it becomes a logical game of associations. The way both authors use memory as the organizing principle of their writing further highlights certain characteristic differences between them. Federman thinks like a poet: his writing is energized by “the chance of a figure of speech”; associative series of images organize themselves around the theme of writing and conquering America (e.g. a blank page, a platform, a room, love-making, etc.). The story/journey/life are all governed by the rule of “an indefinite addition”—both life and writing are based on the same simple principle of “a meaningless accumulation from left to right at random but also top to bottoms.” By contrast, Škvorecký is more like a critic operating with intertextual parallels that guarantee the universality of “the figure of thought.” While Federman's writing celebrates anarchist laughter that defies death or any fixities (symptomatic here would be his politics of pla(y)giarism which undermines the concept of the fixed source of language), Škvorecký seems to be possessed by a more conservative respect for the sources (characteristic here would be Danny's professorial insistence on bibliographic references). It might even seem that Škvorecký endorses Jan's pronouncement that most literature lies between the extremes of the reductively doctrinaire and the aesthetically avant-garde (391). Also in Jan's letter, he speaks of the novel's “ancient and unacquirable talent of mimesis. … That secret ability, inaccessible to the reason, to awaken in the reader the joy of recognition” (392).
In trying to evaluate their attitude to the past, one cannot ignore certain situation-specific differences between Federman and Škvorecký. The impulse behind Federman's fictional project is to avoid a confrontation with his own past, as opposed to Škvorecký's deliberate revitalization of the past. The former, who arrived in his adopted country as a young man, has become an American writer who (self-)parodically plays with the elements of the American myth: “[his novel] sounds something like a QUEST of some sort, doesn't it? In search of The American Dream, very Horatio Algerian. Lies, lies, I assure you! Actually, the three/four novels form one endless ESCAPE—a flight, detour digression evasion dodge. From what? This and that; yes the past, present, future; most of all: from language, writing.” Škvorecký, who left Czechoslovakia as a man in his forties, has remained a Czech writer living in Canada. However, despite his self-definition as an exile, he appears, on a closer look, to speak from the position of Western-educated liberalism, revealing a strong “Euroamerican centrism.”8
If it did not appear too facile, Federman's and Škvorecký's texts might indeed be seen as reflecting some underlying differences between the patterns of immigrant experience in the US and Canada. Margaret Atwood believes that:
the price America demands is a leap into the melting pot … [the hero of the American immigrant novel] must attempt … to efface all traces of his ethnic origins in order to become a real “American,” to take on a new identity. … A typical Canadian plot has certain important differences. … Canada does not demand a leap into the melting pot; if [the immigrant] does wipe his ethnic origin, there is no new “Canadian” identity ready for him to step into: he is confronted only by a nebulosity, a blank; no ready-made ideology is provided for him.
Moreover, as she wrote in the early 1970s, “until recently, reading Canadian literature has been for [her] and for anyone else who did it a personal interest, since it was not taught, required or even mentioned … in the public sphere” (13). When Škvorecký arrived in 1969, Canadian culture may well have appeared very young to him. Perhaps that accounts for his apparent lack of respect for Canada as “a cultural community”: he may have simply encountered a cultural void. He might be like those immigrants of whom Atwood says “emotionally remain tourists … [and] make no real contact with the country” (150). By contrast, in the US the place “is already well-defined, so well-defined in fact that it may threaten to overwhelm the individual” (Atwood, 17).
To conclude, Škvorecký's and Federman's heroes are both survivor-figures embodying two different versions of immigrant experience. Škvorecký's “survivor” defines himself in terms of his “otherness.” He articulates the positions of ethnicity and universalism, each representing a virtual flight from the immediate reality of his adopted country. His discourse oscillates between the memory-generated stories of his Czech past and the realm of apparent constants in human experience, extrapolated from (mostly American) literature. It might almost seem that individual experience is worth recording insofar as it verifies the applicability of universal patterns. The plot of Škvorecký's novel does not illuminate the actual process of confrontation through which the immigrant enters the New World; his “Canada” dwindles into the mythic land of beauty, innocence and youth. It is taken for granted as a secure, comfortable and predictable background. Nevertheless, the experience of exile does get written into Škvorecký's fiction, mostly as a reflection of the “immigrant state of mind,” with its characteristic doubleness. In contrast, Federman's “survivor” lets his “otherness” be confronted by “Americanness.” Much more so than Škvorecký, who is just a sojourner, a guest, a “tourist,” Federman lets himself “be written” by America. Perhaps the difference between the authors' respective experience of North America might be accounted for by Škvorecký's coming to the “undefined” Canadian culture, as opposed to Federman's contact with a too-well-defined American culture. Consequently, the former leaps into universals, while the latter challenges American national stereotypes.
It is not my present intention to provide an exhaustive generic context for Škvorecký's and Federman's novels. Suffice it to say that the twentieth-century tradition of the immigrant novel extends back to the 1920s and 1930s, when Laura G. Salverson's The Viking Heart (1923) or Frederick Grove's A Search for Myself (1927) were published in Canada, and Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934) or James T. Farrell's trilogy in the United States. For more history of this genre in Canada and the US, I recommend Hallvard Dahlie's study Varieties of Exile: The Canadian Experience (1986) and Marcus Klein's Foreigners: The Making of American Literature, 1900–1940 (1981).
Federman, born in 1928, came to the US in 1947 as a virtually unformed, young man, while Škvorecký, who was born in 1924, arrived in Canada in 1968 as a writer of considerable reputation.
All subsequent quotations from Federman's Take It or Leave It of necessity appear without parenthetical page reference, as the original text omits pagination. All references for quotations from The Engineer of Human Souls are given in parentheses.
I would like to point out that such traditional dichotomies are no longer tenable when confronted with the variables of race, gender and class. Perhaps the specific patterns of acculturation versus ethnic identity that are discussed here should be qualified as a “white, male, middle-class” dilemma.
In yet another interview, Škvorecký discusses Dorothy Richardson in the following manner: “[the stream of consciousness] was introduced by a British writer who was not a great writer. Her name escapes me at the moment but she was the mistress of H. G. Wells” (Nickson, 13).
Linda Hutcheon and Marion Richmond dismiss the word “ethnic” entirely because it “always has to do with the social positioning of the ‘other,’ and is thus never free of relations of power and value” (2).
Cf. his remarks in an interview that “every honest piece of fiction in a certain sense is universal, because the basic human situations and feelings are no different from two thousand years ago, and no different from America to South Korea,” and thus “good literature that captures [essences] is universally understandable” (Hancock, 88–89).
Sam Solecki also acknowledges this double-bind in Škvorecký's cultural affiliation and calls him “a Czech presence in Anglo-American culture” (1990: 27).
Atwood, Margaret, Survival: The Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Toronto: Anansi, 1972).
Benamou, Michael, and Charles Caramello, eds., Performance in Postmodern Culture (Sun Prairie, Wisconsin: Baumgartner Publ., 1977).
Boelhower, William, “Italo-Canadian Poetry and Ethnic Semiosis in the Postmodern Context,” Canadian Literature 119 (1988), 171–78.
Federman, Raymond, Take It or Leave It: An Exaggerated Second-Hand Tale to Be Read Aloud Either Standing or Sitting (New York: Fiction Collective, 1976).
Federman, Raymond, “Federman: Voices within Voices,” in Benamou and Caramello, 159–98.
Hancock, Goeff, “An Interview With Josef Škvorecký,” Canadian Fiction Magazine 45 (1982/83), 63–96.
Harney, Robert F., “‘So Great a Heritage as Ours.’ Immigration and the Survival of the Canadian Polity,” Dedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 117, 4 (Fall 1988), 51–97.
Hutcheon, Linda, Splitting Images: Contemporary Canadian Ironies (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1991).
Hutcheon, Linda, and Marion Richmond, eds., Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1990).
McHale, Brian, Postmodernist Fiction (London: Methuen, 1987).
Nickson, Keith, “Exile's Novel Anticipated,” The Toronto Clarion (Oct. 9, 1981): 13.
Rasporich, Beverly, “Josef Škvorecký: An Ethnic Writer in Canada,” Canadian Ethnic Studies XIX, 1 (1987), 141–44.
Škvorecký, Josef, The Engineer of Human Souls (London: Picador, 1986) (first published in Czech, 1977).
Solecki, Sam, “‘Where Is My Home?’ Some Notes on Reading Josef Škvorecký in ‘America,’” Canadian Literature 120 (Spring 1989), 67–81.
Solecki, Sam, Prague Blues: The Fiction of Joseph Škvorecký (Toronto: ECW Press, 1990).
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SOURCE: “Comical Conscripts,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 13, 1994, p. 20.
[In the following review, Flintoff traces the comedy present in Škvorecký's The Republic of Whores.]
Danny Smiricky, a conscript in the Czech army, is a secret satirist. In quiet moments, he takes out his notebook and develops his treatise on officers' bullying techniques. Headings include: “Soviet bellowing—our model”; “Bellowing as an instrument of world peace”; and “Hints on how to be decorated for exemplary bellowing.”
Josef Škvorecký has enlisted Danny, a favourite old character, for his own military satire The Republic of Whores, an acknowledged homage to The Good Soldier Svejk (it even features comic drawings). For the first time, in this book, he banishes Danny to the third person singular, thus neatly evoking the loss of individuality which the army enforces. The narrative is not so compulsive as Hasek's; as the subtitle concedes, these set-pieces are “fragments.” But the slowness is deliberate, suggesting the frustration of the conscripts waiting to “return to life.”
When the novel was first published in Czech, in 1971 (in Canada), the communist state was ripe for satire, and bitter-tasting humour can always be extracted from conscript life. Škvorecký, the once-banned Nobel-candidate, makes great comic capital out of the plentiful absurdities on offer. He gleefully exposes the dud currencies of state-approved art in a whole chapter on a soldiers' poetry competition, and during the battalion's theatricals (“My word! Marinka! Look at you, Marinka, you're as fresh as a tank after a general overhaul!”). Similar artistic priorities account for the celebrity of the famous actress Danny sees when on leave—an actress well known for playing “a sexy young bricklayer or lathe-operator.”
Vocational curiosities occur in the army too. One of the reluctant officers, a cook in civilian life, had hoped to be a cook in the army as well. But, explains Škvorecký, “his positive vetting report was excellent, so he was destined for greater things. Thus … he was compelled to eat the disgusting fare served up by a recruit who … had been an accountant with a tailoring co-operative.” Another lieutenant, fresh out of school and “ablaze with as yet undimmed enthusiasm,” creates embarrassment as he tries to share his enthusiasm with the hardened conscripts.
The unruly soldiers expose as a sham the vaunted heroism of the working class—even the regulars, seeing little sense in army service, malinger as much as they can. A sizeable portion of the narrative unfolds in the guardhouse, itself a testament to the soldiers' lack of discipline. And in the novel's grand finale, the entire battalion surrenders to drunkenness, singing politically dangerous songs with disastrous results.
But hard-boiled cynicism is not confined to the army, according to Škvorecký. The whole of Czechoslovakia is the same—nobody really cares about anything—hence the insistent reference to whoredom, in the (translator's) title and in the text. Emblematic of this is Danny's loveless sex life. He has sex with the lonely wife of an officer, while wishing he could do the same with a married friend in Prague (a woman Danny previously tried to rape, the author breezily reveals: “It had got him a two-week stay in the eye department of the army hospital”). And yet, Škvorecký plainly wants us to like Danny, throwing in references to his philosophy doctorate, saxophone-playing, and the yoga-like state of calm he achieves by polishing his boots.
The Republic of Whores wobbles between compassion for a handful of individuals and overwhelming bitter resentment. Out of the latter arise cruel jokes—at the expense of fat people, soldiers with glasses, and the tiny Major whose bellowing gives the conscripts so much bother. One lackey of the system comes to a bad end in the battalion's septic tank; another's half-hearted suicide ends with him “plunging with a great racket into the toilet,” and a grand state ceremony is mimicked in the soldiers' team game of lighting farts with matches: “The resulting explosion and blast of flame as they passed wind was remarkably like the cannonades on Victory Day.” It is easy to see why Škvorecký was banned; how he keeps laughing is harder to fathom.
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SOURCE: A review of The Bride of Texas, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 4, Autumn, 1996, p. 988.
[In the following review, Czerwinski lauds Škvorecký for his scholarship and narrative skills in The Bride of Texas.]
All the ingredients of an epic are found in Josef Škvorecký's latest novel The Bride of Texas, originally issued in Czech as Nevesta z Texasu by the author's own highly acclaimed Sixty-Eight Publishers Corporation, located in Toronto: the American Civil War provides a colorful and tragic background for the escapades of a group of Czech émigrés, fleeing the oppression of the Habsburg Empire. Their Schweikian heroics are contrasted with the real-life saga of American soldiers. Rarely can the reader detect the line separating actual events from fictive invention. The Czech soldiers who fought on the Union side in the Wisconsin Battalion under General William Tecumseh Sherman prove their courage and demonstrate their foibles just as convincingly as do the regular Union recruits.
Fortunately, Škvorecký did not attempt to give credit for winning the Civil War to the Czech fighters, who numbered, according to the author's own count, a mere three hundred combatants. But it is a tribute to Škvorecký's great talent that these few men are sketched with such a compassion and love that they seem to belong to the blood-soaked soil they have patriotically pledged to rid of slavery. In their pursuit of freedom and a better life in their newly adopted country, they stumble into the chaos of an American war of emancipation. Unable to comprehend the magnitude of the task before them, they obediently follow orders and strive to stay alive. Their lives are played against the background of a tragic war in which loved ones are pitted against one another. Sometimes they feel like bystanders in a family feud. Ultimately, however, they take part in battle and die, encountering their fate in a country that promised them freedom and opportunity.
Škvorecký employs various literary devices to keep his two parallel stories running smoothly. Lida, the bride of Texas, is a strong-willed heroine, much like Scarlet O'Hara. Recovering from an ill-starred love affair in her native country, she chooses an alliance with a plantation owner's son and thereafter continues “gambling on the wrong card.” Her brother Cyril falls in love with a high-spirited slave woman and, like his sister, suffers defeat in his search for his loved one. The two stories are interrupted by a female writer's four intermezzos. Under the pseudonym of Laura A. Lee, Lorraine Tracy seems a composite of all the American female writers of the nineteenth century. In fact, Škvorecký allows her to present literary arguments that perhaps are his own. These intermezzos seem a bit staged and artificial, especially the final lines of each chapter, which are reminiscent of the cliff-hangers that Dickens and American writers of the last century employed in stories written for publication in monthly periodicals. There is little doubt that Škvorecký was aware of the device and employed it to evoke humor and create the illusion of nineteenth-century America.
That the author has succeeded in painting a remarkably realistic picture of the events surrounding the American Civil War is a tribute to Škvorecký the scholar and prose stylist; that he has created a novel which surpasses the narrative skills of any writer living today is a measure of his artistry. One hopes that the final words of his novel—“Deo gratias”—were meant to encompass not only The Bride of Texas but Škvorecký's eagerly awaited future works as well.
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SOURCE: “Dying for Happiness,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 4, 1996, p. 25.
[In the following review, Miller describes the appeal of Škvorecký's The Bride of Texas.]
War, as William Tecumseh Sherman once famously observed, is hell. And just as the predicament of the damned has inspired generations of poets, so the literary appeal of war endures, with the tender, melancholy First World War novels of Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker currently battling for window-space against rather blunter reminiscences. Our appetite for such books may seem ghoulish, but perhaps it stems from a perverse nostalgia. One does not have to be a disciple of Jean Baudrillard to have noticed how advanced military technology and glib media saturation have made recent conflicts appear—at least to the comfortable civilian observer—distant, undramatic and without moral significance. Perhaps war is not the unique crucible of human folly and virtue that it used to be.
Josef Škvorecký's new novel [The Bride of Texas] gives us war as it used to be. While researching his book Dvorák in Love, he came across issues of a Czech-American periodical from the nineteenth century, some of which contained accounts of Czechs fighting under Sherman in the Civil War. These accounts, together with many other historical sources and a little invention, have been woven into the tale of around a dozen Czechs marching with the Twenty-Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers through Georgia and the Carolinas to their final, decisive battle at Bentonville. The novel is cumbersome, anecdotal, unstructured; it is also a masterpiece of empathy and insight.
The Czechs' reasons for migrating to America are not unfamiliar—amnesty, cupidity, exile—but what distinguishes them from the more familiar Western European immigrants of the time is their experience under the oppressive and corrupt Habsburg monarchy. They are thus in love with the ideals of America from the outset, and naturally incline towards the abolitionist cause. In a revealing, if rather teleological, flashback, one character is described, while still in Moravia, as having “suffered a terrible Austrian form of death. The death of the pursuit of happiness.” Some will dispute that the privations endured by white Europeans, even where these extended to actual serfdom (only abolished by the Emperor after the rebellion of 1848), could justify the sort of identification that Škvorecký suggests here with the slaves of the South. But the Czech immigrants' passion for freedom animates the entire book, and buttresses Škvorecký's view of the war as a moral crusade untainted by cloudier issues of Realpolitik.
The chaotic and elemental circumstances of the war create a collage of memories. The Czechs' private remembrances interrupt present events and form the basis for superbly vivid set-pieces in which the soldiers sit drinking and gossiping around various camp-fires. War is not only deployed as a structural device which splits lovers apart and destroys lives, but is also characterized as a prodigious gamble which may sometimes restore the status quo ante. Thus, Sergeant Kapsa is briefly united first with the man who robbed him soon after his arrival in New York, then with the tragic love of his life, now remarried and living in Chicago. But, at the end of the book, poor Cyril Toupelik is still searching for his ex-slave lover, Dinah, sold just before the outbreak of war at the jealous insistence of his manipulative sister, Lida, who was engaged to Dinah's then owner, M. de Ribordeaux. Lida, the bride of the title, experiences her own painful restitution at the battle of Bentonville, when she comes across the corpse of her first love, Vitek, from whom she was cruelly separated years before.
The landscape before which these narratives unfold is portentous and surreal. The stock scenography of the American Civil War—muddy palisades, ruined classical mansions, burning forests—is enlivened by a succession of bizarre details. Bugs impaled on thorn bushes are interpreted as an ill omen. Glowing embers of burnt cotton rain down on the Congaree River. Soldiers leave conquered towns carrying absurdist flea-market plunder. But the novel's many-layered plot and exotically fragmented setting are not meant as magic-realist prestidigitation; rather, they convey to the reader a powerful sense of presence, of the confusion and fear experienced by the protagonists and victims of the war.
A more measured viewpoint is that of Lorraine Tracy, a successful romantic novelist living in Cincinnati, who delivers four first-person “intermezzos” in which something of a political and strategic context for the soldiers' experience is sketched in. Her urbane and erudite personality contrasts with the bluff, gruff Czechs; a streak of embryonic feminism in her life and books signals the next big emancipatory struggle to come. She articulates many of the political problems faced by the Union, not least the inconvenience of Constitutional liberties when exercised by its Northern discontents. But, through her, a sense of the generals' essential decency is expressed which reflects and justifies the soldiers' passionate devotion to Sherman in the field. Her character also incarnates some of the artistic difficulties facing Škvorecký; in her drawer sits an inchoate attempt at a grand Civil War novel entitled “Carolina Bride,” which remains obstinately unfinished.
The Bride of Texas is fundamentally a comic novel, although many sad things happen in it. As such, it adroitly side-steps many possible criticisms—of the marginal and idealized black characters, Škvorecký's lack of interest in his soldiers' opponents (no doubt a number of Czechs fought for the Confederacy, too), and his naive admiration for the American Dream. But it is a moving story, both epic and immediate, cautionary and inspirational, whose clear relevance to the renascent Czech Republic is only a part of its importance and appeal.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3772
SOURCE: “Variations on American Themes: The Bride of Texas,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 149–56.
[In the following essay, Banerjee analyzes how Škvorecký's immigrant history has affected his presentation of the American experience in The Bride of Texas.]
First loves don't just fade away. They usually outlive the significance of the initial object of desire by turning desire into an end in itself. Nostalgia, that passion of memory, proves most powerful when it attaches to an experience of adolescence, as in the case of Josef Škvorecký's infatuation with America. He was sixteen, just like Danny Smiricky in The Cowards (1958), playing tenor saxophone in a jazz band camouflaged as a regular dance orchestra. In Kostelec/Náchod and everywhere else in Nazi-occupied Bohemia, jazz had been outlawed as a racially tainted, debased form of music. But for Danny and his friends, it is the sweet and reckless voice of American freedom, so loose and intimately casual, at hand and still alluring with an endless erotic prospect. Adolescent love in its desperate intensity often mimics some arcane flirtation with death. But Danny's jazz playing was star-crossed by history, which makes the danger real.
The Danny Smiricky persona, entangling a boy's sexual desire with jazz and the fantastic adventure of American freedom, accompanies Škvorecký's literary career from his brilliant debut in The Cowards through other fictions, notably The Miracle Game (1972) and The Swell Season (1975). It reappears one last time in the ambitious, partly retrospective The Engineer of Human Souls (1977), where the narrator is a middle-aged Czech novelist in exile, making his living as a professor of American literature at the University of Toronto.
Danny's fictional existence hangs on the device of the first-person narrative, originally cast in the form of a diary that records a voice caught in the quick of adolescent subjectivity. I remember my first reading of The Cowards shortly after the Czech text had been published in Prague and the stunning effect of Danny's voice on me. His speech felt intensely alive and unrehearsed, and yet I knew that no living Czech could have spoken like that, surely not in Náchod in the last days of the war. It had a throwaway, sexy precision of phrasing, as in jazz, improvising a distinctly American illusion of beauty.
“You spend your life saying the same things over and over again in different ways,” says Škvorecký, borrowing the words of his friend Milos Forman for the epigraph to The Swell Season. This admission applies to the spell America has cast on Škvorecký's fictional world. The magic stuff of Danny's inexperience turns into an object of nostalgia for the aging novelist in exile, whose imagination mixes memory with desire as it cuts back and forth between accumulating patinas of time—America never losing its intrinsic significance for Škvorecký. His passionate engagement with American culture has survived the test of sustained exposure to its realities and grown stronger with years of studying and teaching it. What emerges is a mythopoetic conception of an America identified with the unfinished agenda of human freedom, a value conceived as a quasi-spiritual need to express the potential of the individual self somewhere beyond the given here and now.
As a regular contributor to the Czech section of the Voice of America, Škvorecký reviewed the American cultural scene with scholarly competence and a sharp eye for provocative issues. In October 1989 he went on the air with a gloss on the old Negro spiritual “Oh Freedom!,” a song that originated in 1863, apparently in response to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. With the urgency of pent-up hope, just a month short of the magic moment when the velvet curtain would open on a new Prague, Škvorecký reflected on the various interpretations of the concept of freedom. He pointed out that in the Hegelian formula, prevailing in Marxist thought, freedom is defined as a necessity understood in the grasp of human consciousness. The sublime paradoxicality of identifying the oppressive experience of nonfreedom with its opposite offers the possibility of a mind at play, delighting in its capacity to negate a body mired in the contingencies of material existence. Such mystical cunning once bedeviled the radical Belinsky into a brief reconciliation with the reality of Nicholaevite Russia, a lapse of common sense for which he would apologize. In more heroic terms the paradox of freedom hexed out of a perceived necessity provides the spine for the contemplative regimen that brought an emperor, Marcus Aurelius, to the same school bench with the slave, Epictetus, in the age of a declining empire. Škvorecký, broadcasting to the Czechs over a collapsed Berlin Wall, rejects the Hegelian definition of freedom as minimalistic, holding instead to the American notion that all human beings, not just those who can think philosophically, aspire to live freely. He concludes that freedom is the only human necessity.
In 1969, after a disastrous turn in Czech history, Škvorecký traveled across the United States. This would be his last American trip as a Czech citizen. When he returned, he was a writer in exile, an immigrant ready to settle down in North America, leaving behind, among other things, an interrupted series of newspaper feuilletons. This imaginative reporting on America in the throes of the Vietnam War would wait until 1980 to see publication as a book he called a “tall tale” about America. In Czech the title Velká povídka o Americe figures as an original coinage, a deliberately literal translation from English, suggesting something with the magnitude of myth which may, however, be nothing more than a tall tale or a barefaced lie.
In these feuilletons, as he crosses the continent with his wife in an old Pontiac, the Czech novelist and reader of Mark Twain picks up on all the larger-than-life manifestations of American popular culture playing itself out in a year of bared souls and bodies. Škvorecký responds with visceral sympathy, from the occupation of Willard Straight Hall by the black radicals of Cornell, through Mormon land, to the battle for People's Park in Berkeley. At the same time, his distinctly Czech humor, a reflex of his people's stubborn determination not to be taken in, cannot resist the easy targets of American consumerism in the age of excess when moral rhetoric and material wastefulness run equally high. But unlike so many European observers, he is rarely judgmental. Of course, the cruel violence of American life in the shadow of Vietnam does not escape him. Yet he refuses to adjudicate the loud quarrel within the conscience of the young counterculture: between those who spell America with a k and those who hope to rouse its better angels by carrying flowers into the angry streets. Because he looks at the American scene through a lens filtered through the indelible image of Russian tanks in Prague, he cannot share the young Americans' desperate disillusionment with their country, which he calls “The great child of history.” Rather his celebratory impulse finds release in delighting at the prodigious inventiveness of American verbal humor. The serious implications of what he is witnessing, that thrashing of moral imperatives inside the crucible of constitutional rights suddenly grown derisory, would have to wait for much later to be duly considered by him.
Specifically, the problematics of American freedom form the ideational core of The Bride of Texas. Written between 1984 and 1991, it represents seven years of creative labor backed by extensive research. It is the story of Czech immigrants in America experiencing the complex process of acculturation through the ordeal of the Civil War. The action unfolds exclusively on American soil, with selective incidents from the old country relegated to flashbacks or occasional storytelling.
The historical axis of the novel runs through the return leg of Sherman's March to the Sea, moving north from the conquered Savannah through the Carolinas to Bentonville, where the Northern army countered Johnston's attack but, refusing to engage in a major battle, pushed farther north to join Grant against Lee in Virginia. We are on the Union side with the Czech contingent of the Twenty-Sixth Wisconsin Regiment for seven weeks of a strenuous campaign. Škvorecký's eloquent description of the smell of the burning turpentine woods in North Carolina reminds the reader of the human cost and the excruciatingly delayed promise of final victory.
The Bride of Texas consists of five long chapters of war action anchored in third-person narrative, alternating with four intermezzos narrated by a woman. In the “male” chapters the blood and bravado of the seemingly endless combat is relieved by an equally continuous flow of storytelling around campfires, where comic invention gives chase to the pathos of war. The capillaries of myriad plot lines, tangling retrospect with prospect in a narrative manner that commingles fact with fable, deliver the personal histories of a dozen or so Czech and Moravian newcomers into the epic stream of the war.
The first-person narrative may be Škvorecký's natural element, but his uncanny ability to create the illusion of overheard speech triumphs in all forms of skaz. He explains in his postscript that he had no way of knowing how his Czech soldiers actually spoke. In the nineteenth century the distinction between spoken and written Czech was a rigid linguistic convention. People wrote down conversations not as they heard them, but as they thought they should have been spoken. Thus in the absence of reliable models Škvorecký is free to improvise a lived-in, individual Czech or Moravian idiom for each of his characters, an illusion of a real speech breathing through the flow of verbal situations.
The process of acculturation to America is one that involves both loss and gain. In linguistic terms this can amount to such hybrid idioms as the contemporary American-Czech-speak Škvorecký has recorded with his comic pitch, thus provoking ire among his fellow émigrés. In this novel the young men who confabulate by campfires sometimes have to plumb their memories for the missing Czech word or substitute an Americanism when nothing else fits. The effect is more poignant than comic, reminding us that the stories are now merging with the mythical land in which countless newcomers are dying.
Among all the storytellers, the virtuoso voice belongs to Jan Amos Shake, the only one of the Czech Union soldiers who is not based on a documented historical figure. The man's real family name remains in doubt, but in Chicago Marenka Kakus calls him Mr. Schweik, in an anachronistic giveaway that decodes the personage as the paradoxical composite of the historical ambivalence of the Czech national character. Like Comenius, the seventeenth-century philosopher whose baptismal names he bears, Shake has heard the call of a religious vocation and then left his native country to escape persecution. He admits to being a half-baked, defrocked priest who absconded from the seminary because of a love affair with the beautiful daughter of a Prague rabbi. But since he is also a master of the comic lie and a bona fide rogue, we cannot swear to anything he says about his past. On one point he stands quite firm. He may have entered the battle for the freedom of black slaves wearing a metal chest plate under his uniform, but he is not a deserter nor a subversive. Like Škvorecký, this experimental American has a personal investment in large ideas as well as strong convictions about the issues at stake in this war.
In spite of the massive research for the novel, which took him from the private archives of the Czechs in Chicago to those of the U.S. Military History Institute near Gettysburg, Škvorecký denies that he is writing history. He insists on being a fiction writer poaching on the preserves charted out by professional historians. Thus he takes liberties with his sources. He has gathered all his Czech Union soldiers into the Twenty-Sixth Wisconsin Regiment, whereas in reality they were scattered among several units. But he vouches for the authenticity of several details that may strike the reader as fantastic. As in the novel, Breta, a black Union soldier, did speak some Czech, and some Chicago Czech immigrants did indeed petition the Austrian Consulate for the restoration of their Austrian passports out of fear of being drafted. Škvorecký makes effective use of this last incident as part of a satire on the Czech national characteristic to cop out of history, the flip side of its abiding skepticism about governments. This trait comes alive in a vignette showing how the good new citizens, who volunteered in droves to parade in red zouave pants under the banner of the Lincoln Slavonic Rifles, are instantly deflated by the first bugle call. The few Czechs who stand their ground fight under the command of the Hungarian Slovak, Geza Michaloczi, equipped through the bounty of the Bohemian Jew, Pan Ohrenzug.
Škvorecký's approach to history proceeds from the same mind-set as Tolstoy's, who used family memoirs and the reminiscences of ordinary people to correct the optical illusions of leaders and historians viewing war through binoculars. Yet he too understands military strategy and excels at reconstructing the topography, not just the sounds and smells of a battlefield. So he places an observer close to Sherman's command. He is Sergeant Kapsa, a professional soldier who had deserted from the Austrian army when a love affair took a tragic turn.
Škvorecký's American novel is thus rooted in a gesture of piety. His great uncle had fought for the Union, but his name is missing from the archives, obliterated by translation, from Škvorecký to Earwigan or perhaps by distortion to Square. But unlike Tolstoy, who resurrected his parents as central characters in War and Peace, Škvorecký leaves his elusive uncle to a postscript. Instead Škvorecký resurrects and emphasizes a forgotten Czech-American writer by using his fictions as a source for the romance at the heart of The Bride of Texas. Josef Bunata (1846–1934), editor and journalist, recorded the Czech experience in both journalism and fiction, while supplementing his meager income by rolling cigars. A free thinker and utopian socialist, he eventually converted to the values of American democracy during the New Deal. Škvorecký's postscript reveals a lively sympathy for this confrere, whose idealistic effort went to nought when his audience melted away in the proverbial American pot. By recalling a lowbrow storyteller like Bunata, Škvorecký once more shows his fondness for popular genres.
The conflicting claims of high and low literature are also a personal dilemma for the woman who tells her own story in the first person within this larger story of the men at war. She is Lorraine Tracy, a fiery New England abolitionist married to a professor who holds out Thackerey as the norm of novelistic respectability. Driven under cover, Lorraine writes her successful novels using the pseudonym of Laura Lee. They are romances based on the timeworn formula of love's triumph: a race to the altar by an intrepid heroine through a Victorian obstacle course. Lorraine, a disciple of Margaret Fuller, reveals her incipient feminism by making her heroines always more clever than the inevitably handsome men whom they are pursuing. This is Lorraine's literary signature.
Although Škvorecký is anything but politically correct, he has given some thought to the questions raised by feminist criticism. In reviewing Leslie Fiedler's What Was Literature? for the Voice of America, he used gender as a key to reconsider Poe's paradoxical division of literature into the popular strain, whose authors are destined to oblivion even as their works continue to be read, and the elite strain, which warrants immortal renown to the authors while dooming their works to the dust of library shelves. Škvorecký points out that in Poe's time, best-sellers were typically written by women. But he does not follow through with the feminist argument about the need to overthrow a literary canon that elevates the creativity of white males while marginalizing the achievements of women. Like Fiedler, Škvorecký chases a different hare in rejecting the narrow criteria of elitist criticism. He argues that the appeal of such eternal best-sellers stems from their tapping emotionally charged myths, whether the authors are men like Twain and Has̆ek or women like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Mitchell or just anonymous male/female voices like those who first sang the spiritual “Oh, Freedom!” It is nevertheless significant that Škvorecký has left it to a woman, born and bred in the bone of New England, to articulate the intellectual content of the mythopoetic vision of American freedom that he has made his own.
Lorraine's life adventure begins in Liberty, Rhode Island, with an incident that her fictional formula keeps reversing. She is courted by a handsome young officer named Ambrose Burnside and almost succumbs to the persuasion of his inarticulate love, only to change her mind in extremis, by fleeing from the altar where he patiently awaits her vows. The humiliated suitor goes on to become a Union general while she herself marries a professor, moves to Ohio to keep house, brings up her children, and writes novels. In a twist that lends a Czech tonality to the voice of this American bluestocking, Lorraine has a distinctly maternal foible for all the men in her life. As a respectable matron and mistress of a cultivated Midwestern parlor, she welcomes her rejected suitor back into her life, assuming the role of Burnside's confidante and staunch defender.
It is interesting that Škvorecký placed Burnside, the spurned lover destined to become a failed general, at the core of a novel about a fateful war born in the shame of an American conscience enslaved by the doublespeak of its constitutionally enshrined freedoms. Burnside's name is immortalized because of his remarkable facial hair, while history has stressed how he compiled a record of ignominy as the commander of the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg and during the Mud March. Nevertheless, he was a brave soldier. He began well at Bull Run, which made Lincoln select him as a replacement for McClellan. But his bad judgment was proverbial, leading him to commit a political faux pas in the arrest of Clement Vallandigham, the Copperhead Democrat who ran for governor of Ohio in 1863 on a virulently antiwar platform.
Škvorecký presents the Vallandigham affair, which embarrassed Lincoln and became the most notorious civil liberties case of the war, from the partisan perspective of Lorraine, who sees her friend Burnside, now military commander of Ohio, as a hero and Vallandigham as a demagogue manipulating free speech for personal ambition. In this episode both sides of the Civil War claim to fight under the banner of freedom, with the rebels claiming exclusive ownership of the Jeffersonian ideal. Consequently, Lorraine faces the problem of the legal limits of dissent, for she sees Vallandigham as appealing to constitutional principles on behalf of a cause that denies the benefits of such principles to others. This problem, of course, accompanies American democracy from its inception. Tellingly, Škvorecký weighs in on Lorraine's side in his postscript. He offers the key to this episode by defining it in terms of the classical agon that pitted Antigone, the defender of unwritten moral laws, against Creon, who adhered to the letter of the law in an act of spiritual treason. Burnside, like Antigone, has acted in the name of his reverence for the dead. And Lincoln eloquently recognizes the weight of this motive when he commutes Vallandigham's death sentence into banishment.
Lorraine's single literary flop in a lucrative publishing career is her serious novel based on the life of her black maid, Jasmine. Her Carolina Bride mixes abolitionist outrage with romance by leading her black heroine on the underground trail of freedom, from the tribulations of plantation life to the promised land in the North. There she finds happiness by marrying her good-for-nothing but handsome lover, the former house slave Hasdrubal.
There are two brides from Texas in Škvorecký's plot. Both step out of short stories by Bunata where love's heartbreak is healed by reunion. However, Škvorecký devises his own endings. Lida Toupelikova, the daughter of a landless Moravian family that emigrates to Texas, has lost love and innocence in the old country but recoups by twice marrying money in America. The first throw of the dice nets her the young master of de Ribordeaux plantation, who ends as a drunk and a suicide. Next, switching to the winning side of the war, she weds a Union officer, heir to a rising California family. Lida's success story, which takes advantage of the opportunities her adopted land offers for second chances, underlines the materialistic strain in the American pursuit of happiness. Her brother, Cyril, who falls in love with the beautiful house slave Dinah, who is Ribordeaux's mistress, exemplifies the more idealistic aspects of the quest. The two couples with their interlocking fortunes are the stuff the American dream is made of, a rough fabric woven in the woof and web of greed and renewable innocence.
The novel's final scene brings the two narrative streams of the novel together by staging an encounter between Lorraine and some of the Czech soldiers who have survived the war. It is set in a Chicago restaurant run by Jasmine and Hasdrubal, where the Czech veterans are holding their commemorative dinner. The famous writer, for her part, is celebrating her private reunion with Jasmine, whom she has finally located after a long and complicated search. Lorraine socializes with the Czech immigrants and their ladies, some of whom are her devoted readers. As evidenced by their attire and the tenor of the exchanges, these Czechs have done well for themselves in Chicago and on the farm. Sergeant Kapsa, now a family man happily married to the widow of a fallen comrade, achieves a moment of supreme satisfaction when General Sherman, cracking into a smile of recognition, extends his hand and greets him by his Czech name, Kapsa, not the Germanized Tasche, under which he served in Austria.
Cyril Toupelik, a veteran grown rich from his invention of a press that extracts oil out of cotton seed, is in the room with the other celebrants. But his happiness is yet incomplete, as he is still looking for Dinah, who disappeared somewhere down the river from the now-ruined de Ribordeaux plantation where they had secret trysts and where he swore to marry her one day. It is a measure of Škvorecký's success as a storyteller that he engages his reader's emotions in Cyril's project to recover his bartered bride. Still, as the novel ends, that unfulfilled happy ending seems to be at hand, beyond the text's confines, already a prospect on the ever-changing human map of America.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3590
SOURCE: “American Themes in The Bride of Texas,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 141–48.
[In the following essay, Kosek asserts that Škvorecký's The Bride of Texas is a merging of American and Czechoslovakian themes.]
Josef Škvorecký's canon is characterized by a spiritual bond with American culture which, since his youth, has played a major part in his professional and artistic development. His personal fate granted him an experience of the greatest importance for a writer, namely life on two continents and complete familiarity with two cultures. The basic feature of his novels is precisely his ability to let various perspectives confront one another, thus creating the entertaining, realistic surface of his work. From The Cowards to The Bride of Texas, this surface has become increasingly transparent, thus revealing more and more of the depths below. Each single realistic episode has become part of a multileveled mosaic that expresses the complexities of reality and perceives life like a Schopenhauerian tragedy where individual details have the character of farces. This is certainly evident in Škvorecký's recent novel, The Bride of Texas, which is more historical and more dominated by Americans than any of his other fiction. Yet Bride is, in the end, a natural continuation of some abiding features of Škvorecký's artistic development.
One of Škvorecký's first completed and published stories, “The Babylonian Event” (1946), is about the meeting of a Czech girl with a soldier from the United States Army. The possibility of their mutual verbal contact is restricted to a few words in English and German. Their communication reminds us of some episodes from The Bride of Texas. The short story is interesting because it reveals Škvorecký's inherently perfect ear for spoken language. Important parts of the story are the dialogue passages in which language is revealed as a source of misunderstanding rather than communication. In fact, the characters' communications are mostly nonverbal. Unlike the reader, neither the girl nor the soldier has the faintest idea about the world of the other, and their imaginings are resolutely dismantled as entirely wrong. Also Škvorecký ironically undermines the stereotyped biases about Americans, for the soldier is an intellectual interested in cultural artifacts, while the girl tries to move their encounter in a direction that—according to all stereotypes—should please her partner:
The stairs were steep. They walked behind each other. The American watched the girl's legs. Europe is full of beautiful things, he thought. Beautiful ones and destroyed ones. He looked at the girl's slim calves. Such legs, the steeple of a cathedral, a secession café, the face of a cat, a flying sea gull with its little legs pressing to its body under the arch of a medieval bridge, a hunter's bloodhound concentrated on the black point of its nose, running along the track of a wounded fox. Europe. And fair hair that glistens with the gold of valueless human curls. He remembered his wife's hair.
And within him suddenly the images of these two different female fates merged, the fates of all those people whom he had met during the last two years, in England, in France, in occupied Germany, the fates of all those people in this terrible unique world, fates welded together by this silent terrible country. It seemed to him that he was still hearing the noise of moving tanks, and the weight of the battle almost smothered his throat when they arrived on the gallery of the tower that was surrounded by the blood-red Western sky, enflamed, as it were, by the endless conflagration of the war.
In Škvorecký's first novel, The Cowards, with its often-noted spiritual and artistic affinity to such famous American works as Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, dialogue is again an important tool for the examination of problematic communication. Škvorecký's distinctly autobiographical novel reflects the author's abiding love for jazz and attraction to American culture. In fact, while writing The Cowards, Škvorecký was studying English, completing his doctorate in 1951 with a dissertation on Thomas Paine.
Sam Solecki convincingly argues that the strong orientation of The Cowards toward America was one of the reasons the political powers reacted so strongly against the book as well as its author:
In the debate which has its roots in the nineteenth century and continues today in Škvorecký's and Kundera's essays over whether Czechoslovakia is an East or a West European country and whether it should look East or West for its cultural models, The Cowards turns emphatically West. Danny's predisposition or bias is indicated when he is shown often perceiving and judging in words and images drawn from American literature and movies. These references and allusions, together with the occasionally Hemingwayesque style and the numerous titles of jazz numbers, are among the constitutive elements of Škvorecký's style and in themselves embody and express both Danny's and Škvorecký's essential attitudes and values.1
Already in The Cowards there occurs an obvious confrontation of both levels. In the mind of the Czech reader the programmed and provocative nonheroic stance of Danny Smiricky, the novel's first-person narrator, is bound to clash with the ideologically supported myths about the rebellion against the Nazis and the liberation by the Russian Army. As Milan Kundera succinctly states, Škvorecký at the time committed a deadly sin when he wrote from an apolitical perspective about taboo political themes. The counterpoint of this comic perspective is the history of the Second World War and the author's protest against a time that dehumanizes the individual by changing him into a symbol.
Central to the protest is Danny's devotion to jazz, which anticipates the music's central importance in the novella The Bass Saxophone, about which Graham Greene wrote: “To my mind Josef Škvorecký is one of the finest living writers. His two short novels The Bass Saxophone and The Legend of Emöke I put in the same rank as James Joyce's The Dead and the very best of James's shorter novels.”2 For the narrator of The Bass Saxophone, jazz also provides the opportunity to escape the oppressing realities of the Second World War, reflecting Škvorecký's fear of pomposity through the novella's lyrical declaration of love for jazz specifically when confronted by a reality that could have emerged from a Hieronymus Bosch picture. Obviously, it is not by accident that the Czech theme of The Cowards is presented in a Hemingwayesque style while the tribute to jazz is written in a Central European, expressionist and existentialist tone:
but there is a memento—an intimate, truthful moment God knows where, God knows when, and because of it I shall always be on the move with Lothar Kinze's orchestra, a sad musician on the mournful routes of Europe's periphery, surrounded by storm clouds; and the somber bass saxophone player, the adrian rollini, will time and again remind me of dream, truth, incomprehensibility: the memento of the bass saxophone.3
One can therefore claim that even before his departure from Czechoslovakia in 1968, American culture was a predominant part of Škvorecký's spiritual world and was integrated into his professional world as a writer. During the 1950s and 1960s, especially when he was not allowed to publish, Škvorecký spent much time translating and writing about American literature. Indeed, between 1959 and 1969 his numerous academic publications included translations and studies of Ray Bradbury, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and William Styron. In the sixties he edited Lewis's selected writings as well as Hemingway's collected works. Igor Hájek draws attention to this valuable aspect of Škvorecký's career: “It was here that Škvorecký earned a repute when in his multiple role of editor, critic, essayist and translator he almost singlehandedly rehabilitated modern American literature, until then represented mostly by Howard Fast.”4 Škvorecký himself has stated that during his stay in Czechoslovakia he was occupied mostly with American literature. In contrast, after moving to Canada, he turned to Czech literature; for instance, his first work published there is a history of the Czech film during the sixties.5 At the same time, in his regular programs for the Voice of America, he closely followed and continued to introduce contemporary American literature to the Czech reader.
In Canada, during the seventies, beginning with The Miracle Game, Škvorecký began to develop a personal style that characterizes all his later novels. Škvorecký himself characterized it in his Samozerbuvh as the separation of various thematic topics into small episodes, which he then merged into one whole. This resulted in an almost surrealistic composition. In The Miracle Game and The Engineer of Human Souls this form expresses, through the eyes of the narrator, the chaos of the modern world. In Dvorak in Love the composer's stay in North America and the secret of his genius are illuminated through the viewpoint of the various narrators, who, though close to Dvorak, often contradict each other. The author deliberately stresses the fact that each testimony is fragmentary and partial: the fleeting light of truth can be perceived only at the points where the varied perspectives intersect—especially those tied to Dvorak's music. This more fragmented form, however, still relies heavily on the interplay among the author's direct voice, dialogue, and narration marking his earlier works. And, again, his language is a vehicle for expressing the difficulties of communication between people from various linguistic areas.
The author thus places an extraordinarily demanding task not only on the reader but on the translator. He and Bohumil Hrabal belong to those contemporary Czech prose writers who are considered by many as untranslatable. Yet Škvorecký has found in Paul Wilson a translator who performs this difficult task admirably, even if some levels of speech naturally remain inaccessible to the English-speaking reader. This was probably the reason why some Canadian critics considered The Engineer of Human Souls excessively long.
From this novel onward, the confrontation of various narrative perspectives also becomes a confrontation between the Czech or Central European perspective and that of the United States or Canada. The author is obviously aware of the demands that such a method makes on the reader. Therefore he seeks particular points of contact with the reader's associative abilities: in The Engineer of Human Souls he dedicates each chapter to an American author (Conrad being the exception) whose works thus form a context for the North American reader and act as counterweight to the Czech perspective of Professor Smiricky in his discussions with his students. In Dvorak in Love Škvorecký achieves a variety of comic effects by presenting American reality as seen through Czech eyes and vice versa. And in The Bride of Texas Škvorecký counts on the American readers' knowledge of history. He counterpoints the tragic events of the American Civil War against the kaleidoscope of minute, often comical details and always entertaining individualized anecdotal episodes.
As Škvorecký portrays Czech immigrants participating in the Civil War, he also confronts Czech history by having characters repeatedly reminisce and tell tales that scoop certain events from the flow of time: life in Austria-Hungary, the beginnings of Bach's absolutism, the hard life of Czech cottagers. The narrator even leads the reader to the current century and the creation of the Czechoslovak Republic. To make the fragmented structure even more complex, the war, with its historical and political turning points, is described from two perspectives: from below by the Czech volunteers, particularly and most expressively those of platoon commander Kapsa and Jan Amos Schweik (in America Shake), and from above by the generals after platoon commander Kapsa joins the staff of General Sherman. The view from above is also sustained in four individual chapters, the Writer's Intermezzos. This writer, a close friend of General Ambrose Burnside, closely follows and comments upon events occurring in the background of military and political life.
The novel is also challenging because Škvorecký portrays the simultaneous awareness of immigrants whose past in Europe is shared in the new reality of America by only a handful of their fellow Czechs. For Cyril, Sergeant Kapsa, Ursula, Shake, and others, the past emerges gradually through evocations, the memories of the old world that they have carried into their new lives. For instance, their memories of the little hearts and doves of Moravian folklore are suddenly Americanized when connected with the image of a bison—an association symbolizing the mixture of cultural influences on the immigrants. Such influences invariably lend color and humor to the narrative.
These passages, however, almost inevitably have their tragic counterpoint. Among the best parts of the book is the fourth chapter where scenes about the founding of the Lincoln Slavonic Rifles are interspersed with realistic scenes describing the battle at Bentonville. This is also why the only completely fictional character among the volunteers is called Jan Amos Schweik/Shake. The war is frequently commented on by gossip at the campfire, and Schweik is a good story teller. Like The Good Soldier S̆vejk, The Bride of Texas is a novel where the tragic details of war have the character of a farce. But here the similarity ends: S̆vejk is a novel about the absurdity of war; The Bride of Texas tries artistically to come to terms with an important chapter in American history.
Obviously, it is the author's conscious or unconscious aim to represent American themes in a form inspired by Czech and Central European literature that seeks to capture a flash of the truth about life at a point where two opposite poles intersect. For instance, the associations of the name Jan Amos Schweik/Shake bear witness to this, for it is a composite of two well-known very different Czech cultural figures. Jan Amos Komenský, better known as Comenius, is probably the most famous Czech exile of all time, whose contribution to world culture is familiar to all generations of Czech readers. On the other hand, Has̆ek's S̆vejk—despite various popular misleading interpretations—remains an enigmatic figure: the reader knows nothing about his past or his psyche. His stories do not tell anything about him personally but explore the encounter of an individual with war. In contrast the reader learns more about Škvorecký's creation, Jan Amos Schweik/Shake: specifically, that he left the seminary where he was studying to become a priest, and that the experience of the horrors of war has shaken his belief in God. Moreover, Škvorecký gradually undercuts Schweik's image as merely a folksy storyteller, since his stories, together with those of the other Czech volunteers, give the war a human dimension. The English translation of the name Schweik into Shake—again comprehensible to international readership—suggests the shook up, surrealistic kaleidoscope of narrative structure that Škvorecký uses to express reality as an incomprehensible multilevel mixture of opposite viewpoints.
Besides being a novel about the absurdity of war, The Bride of Texas is also a love story. The novel, in fact, begins during the last year of the Civil War with the wedding of a Moravian-American girl, Lida Toupelikova, to an American officer, Baxter Warren II. Škvorecký has borrowed the core of Lida's experiences from a story by the Czech correspondent Josef Bunata, as she becomes in America “wife Linda, formerly de Ribordeaux, born Toupelik from Lhota, Moravia, Austria, Europe.”
In Škvorecký's hands Linda's story raises the question of whether Škvorecký—again consciously or unconsciously—may have used it in order to draw attention to another perspective. Gone with the Wind has sometimes been considered a novel about American history; actually it is a soap opera love story which, with its celebration of the Confederate cause, is the very antipode of Škvorecký's perception. By borrowing part of his plot (the love story) from Bunata's undeniably kitschy model and integrating it into an organic whole, Škvorecký creates remarkable subtexts in The Bride of Texas. For example, Linda's happy destiny finds its counterpoint in the fate of Dinah—a slave girl and mistress of Mr. de Ribordeaux—who disappears without a trace in the chaos of the war. For Linda, Cyril, and the majority of Czech immigrants, America is the land of freedom, where the present secretly harbors the possibility of a promising future. Dinah's fate, on the other hand, is inescapably tragic. Its poetic subtext harkens back to Škvorecký's earlier novella Emöke. The Bride's postscript, a list of the secondary literature he used in the novel, bears witness that Škvorecký studied a great number of sources. The majority of the characters are based on historical models, which possibly explains why the reader sometimes has the impression that less devotion to these models would have resulted in a better fiction. Whenever he reports on historical facts, his style tends to get disproportionately wordy and overloaded. Luckily there are only a few of these instances (a notable one occurs when the daughter and later the granddaughter read to Kapsa accounts of the battles in which he had taken part). In contrast, whenever his power of imagination has free play, Škvorecký's genius for spontaneous storytelling allows him to bring alive the world of America in the last century. The reader, then, admires Škvorecký's ability to breathe life into a situation through minute detail, scraps of dialogue, sharp climactic sketches, and comically exaggerated caricatures.
Škvorecký sees “modern man's turning away from abstraction, from purely verbal solutions, from pretended absolute knowledge and terms, towards concrete facts.”6 Thus he leaves it up to the reader to search for the deeper sense of these facts. As in Dvorak in Love, the events of The Bride of Texas are merely fragments of a deeper, more general theme. Dvorak was a lyrical tribute to genius and to the beauty of an art that penetrates beyond the narrow borders of states. It celebrates how Czech culture belongs to the Western world. The Bride of Texas is a tribute to freedom and democracy, a tribute to America: to all those unknown little people who were driven from their homeland by evil economic or political forces; to those who had enough strength to begin again in the New World where they found a better future. In the process it is a tribute to the openness of America with its mixture of various cultural, national, and linguistic traditions.
Consequently, the war of the South against the North is, to Škvorecký, a struggle for the process of democracy. The defeat of the Union would have been, according to him, a defeat of the nineteenth century, for it probably would also have been decisive in the development of Europe. One of the novel's characters puts it this way:
If the war had turned out differently, the old country wouldn't be the American republic it had turned out to be—a dream that had never crossed his mind on that slow sail across the Atlantic, with the wily Fircut, to where a war awaited him and then a long life. Would the expeditionary forces of some Northern States of America have fought in the war that happened much later in Europe? If they had, would the Confederate States of America have sent proud descendants of the victors of '65 to bolster the other side, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy? Even in the new century, officers battling on the side of the imperial armies would have been accompanied by black servants. If his general had lost.7
The author himself adds in his postscript to the Czeck edition of the novel:
Despite the fact that it was an army of civilians and therefore around the campfires there blossomed self-depreciating and often more than crude black humor, despite the fact that American ex-servicemen, in contrast with European veterans, did not boast with serious expressions about heroic deeds but rather with an insidious smile about their cowardice, I cannot but give them my sincere admiration. Of course I like America but I do not think I exaggerate.8
Škvorecký's profound familiarity with Czech as well as American literature, with culture as well as history has been enriched since 1968 by his experience of life on two continents and has been the inspirational source and the spiritual background of his writings. His talent for capturing a slice of reality with small, realistic details and for entertaining the reader with successions of comic episodes, reveals his aversion toward abstractions and ideological generalizations. Škvorecký counts on his audience's associative abilities, life experiences, and knowledge of history to help them find the key for understanding this complex novel's subtexts. It is not surprising, then, that after the novels inspired by his own experience, he has now turned to themes relating to values that have always been a part of his spiritual world—paying tribute to freedom and to the American democracy which provides it with living space. It is also logical that Škvorecký does this by means of characters who are not romantically heroic. The Bride of Texas is the result of the symbiosis of American and Central European literary traditions in Škvorecký's work.
Sam Solecki, Prague Blues: The Fiction of Josef Škvorecký (Toronto: ECW Press, 1990), 45.
Graham Greene, “Greeting to the Laureate,” World Literature Today, Autumn 1980, 524.
Josef Škvorecký, The Bass Saxophone (Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1994), 209.
Igor Hájek, “Editor, Translator, Critic,” World Literature Today, Autumn 1980, 574.
Josef Škvorecký, All the Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema, trans. Michael Schonberg (Toronto: Perter Martin, 1971).
Josef Škvorecký, The Bride of Texas, trans. Kaca Polackova Henley (New York: Knopf, 1996), 243.
The Bride of Texas, 283–84.
Neves̆ta z Tezasu (Toronto: Sixty-Eight Publishers, 1992), 616.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4878
SOURCE: “An Interview with Josef Škvorecký,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 82–91.
[In the following interview, Škvorecký discusses his writing, the importance of language and dialogue in his work, and the difficulty in translating his novels.]
[Solecki:] The Bride of Texas, appeared in Czech two years ago and in English last year. Could you tell us something about it?
[Škvorecký:] It's a historical novel, set during the American Civil War, and deals with a group of Czech soldiers serving in General Sherman's army in the campaign in Georgia and the Carolinas until the final victory at the Battle of Bentonville. As far as I know, and I did a great deal of research for the novel, this story about Czech-American soldiers has never been told. With the exception of one individual, all of the characters are real.
Why did you make an exception for the one?
Well, I needed someone who could bind the various stories and episodes together. Many of the stories, by the way, are based on narratives written by the soldiers themselves which I found in old Czech-American almanacs published throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.
As with several of your earlier novels, The Bride of Texas has a subtitle, “A Romantic Story from Reality.” Dvorak in Love had “A Light-Hearted Dream.”
In this case, the “romantic story” that runs through the novel came from a nineteenth-century romantic story, a Czech story published in the United States and written by a writer who is now completely forgotten. It involves the very beautiful daughter of a poor family in Moravia who becomes involved with the son of a prosperous local farmer. As you can guess, the father is opposed to his son's involvement with the girl, but the boy persists and eventually he and the girl try to elope to America, but they are caught. In the end the father decides that the best way to break up the romance is to have the girl and her family emigrate to America. He pays the bill for the entire family, and so the young girl, Lida—which she changes to Linda in the United States—ends up in America.
Unfortunately, when she arrives in America she is already pregnant. Anyway, she has the baby and decides that having tried love, she will now try to find a rich husband. She becomes involved with the son of a rich plantation owner who, like the Moravian farmer before him, is predictably opposed to his son's involvement with a poor, though beautiful, immigrant. They elope to Savannah, Georgia, and that's where they come into direct contact with the Civil War as General William Tecumseh Sherman's army overruns the city.
She's no fool, and she realizes that a Northern victory signals the end of her fiancé's wealth, so she immediately leaves him and catches a young officer in Sherman's army.
So far it sounds like a modern romance novel with a very resilient and capable heroine.
It is, or at least one aspect of the novel is. The other involves the soldiers I mentioned who are all folksy characters who spend a lot of time telling stories. They're not much different from the soldiers in Has̆ek's The Good Soldier S̆vejk or in my own novel The Republic of Whores. It's probably the one thing soldiers in all armies and at all times have in common: they spend a lot of time telling stories.
The central character here is Sergeant Kapsa, a real figure whose story I found in my research. He was a real soldier, a professional, who joined the army before the Civil War started. He was in the Thirteenth Battalion with five other Czechs, and the commander was Sherman, then just a colonel. The archives don't explain why there were six Czechs in this particular unit, but my theory is that they were all probably deserters from the Austrian army, which at that period conscripted soldiers for a seven-year term. And this meant that you had to say goodbye to whatever life you had when you entered the army. If you had a girlfriend, she probably wouldn't wait until you got out.
I have a hunch that the deserters who made it to America probably found out that it was easier to join the American army than to do anything else because after so many years of soldiering, they didn't know anything else. And since they were professional soldiers or at least had some experience in the military, some of them made very capable drill sergeants.
Did the documents indicate whether Sergeant Kapsa was a deserter?
No. But in my story he accidentally kills his commandant in a fight over the commandant's wife, with whom Kapsa has been having a love affair. If he'd stayed, he would have been tried for murder, so he ran. It's a romantic story like many of the stories I ran across in the Czech writing of the period. These stories are not “great” writing, but they are often very moving.
What I try to do in the novel is to tell the story of the war, of Sherman's March, through the eyes of these soldiers who also were a part of great historical events even though their story hasn't been told yet.
The bulk of the novel is composed of five chapters between which are sections that I call the writer's intermezzos, and these are narrated by a successful woman writer who has had an interesting life. For example, she disrupts her wedding by leaving the groom, the future General Burnside, at the altar and running away. Incidentally, this part of the story is true; Burnside's fiancée did run away from the altar. The rest is fiction. She changed her mind because she received a letter from a publisher who wanted to publish her first novel. Given a choice between marriage to a soldier and a career as a writer, she opted for freedom.
This section at least sounds like a contemporary feminist novel.
She ends up as a very successful writer, a best-selling author of novels “for young women” that are similar to the Harlequin Romances. At the same time she dreams of writing a serious novel, and she begins one at the start of the war when she herself becomes indirectly involved by hiring an escaped slave. She decides to write the story of the black woman who, after the war, unfortunately, ends up as a very successful madam of a very successful brothel in Chicago. Instead of a tragic heroine, she is faced with a real-life successful entrepreneur.
What I find fascinating is how often reality is as funny as any fiction. For instance, before the war, there was a militia in Chicago, organized by the Czechs, which called itself the Lincoln Slavonic Rifles. I found the letter in which they ask for permission to use Lincoln's name. Their main concern seems to have been about what sort of uniform to wear and how to keep out anyone who was not of Slavic origin. Unfortunately, when the war broke out, few of them wanted to serve and they found various excuses for avoiding combat. So the Slavonic Rifles gradually became full of Germans—only twelve Czechs remained—and the name of the unit was changed to Lincoln's Rifles.
How does a Czech-Canadian writer find himself writing about the American Civil War? In other words, how did The Bride of Texas begin?
It began when I was doing research for Dvorak in Love, which was published in 1986, and I ran into some narratives and stories dealing with the war and with Czechs and Slovaks who had fought in it. They were often told in a very naive way, and, as you would expect, they were full of Victorian coincidences; but they showed an aspect of history that many people, including many Czechoslovaks, weren't aware of. One of them, by the way, was a novel by a woman who became a courier for Thomas Masaryk during World War One. She traveled back and forth between Prague and the United States until the latter entered the war.
One of my favorites is the story of the Czech soldier who met two slaves in North Carolina who spoke Czech. What happened was that they had been raised by a childless Czech couple who brought them up speaking Czech. They are probably the first two blacks in history to speak Czech.
Is this a true story?
Oh yes, yes. And in the archives and almanacs and Czech publications of the period you find other similar ones.
This is one thing that Dvorak in Love and The Bride of Texas have in common. They're both grounded in a great deal of research in historical documents. In fact, in the Czech edition each comes with a lengthy bibliography and an authorial note explaining the extent to which the novel is historical and factual. I can't think of many other novels that make as explicit a claim for their historicity. Each also has many period photographs of the people and places referred to in the novel. It's as if you don't want the reader to forget that these novels have a slightly different cognitive status from novels in general. The photos and the bibliographies also create the impression that these books have an indeterminate generic status somewhere between fiction and history; they take the claims of history seriously without necessarily giving historical discourse primacy over the fictional one.
Well, you know I designed the books that way—with photographs and etchings—because I think they enhance the novel's period flavor. They also help the readers visualize the characters better—how they look, how they dress and so on. I must admit I'm disappointed that the photos and etchings don't appear in the English translation of Dvorak in Love because they are an important part of the novel. As for the bibliographies, I know that there are several novels written about the Civil War which have them as well, as a kind of documentation for the fiction, so I'm not the first to do that.
You know, in Prague I was congratulated on the bibliography in Dvorak in Love because it contained some pieces that, though not very important, were not very well known. By the way, the bibliographies are also important because I could be accused of plagiarism.
Like D. M. Thomas in The White Hotel.
Yes. So I protected myself by listing my sources and letting my readers know what the origins of the novel were. The Bride of Texas also has a postscript that contains a brief history of the Civil War because Czech readers won't be as familiar with it as Americans.
Listening to you describe The Bride of Texas, I'm struck by the fact that even in a war novel, you have strong central female figures. And this is also true of Dvorak in Love; there at least three of the most important and most fully developed characters are women—Josephine, Adele Margulies, and Jeannette Thurber. Would it be fair to say that there's a significant turn toward strong women characters in your later fiction?
No, I don't think so. I think that if you look carefully at the early work, you will see that the adolescent and teenage girls have independence and strength, though perhaps different from what today's feminists look for in a woman character. Don't forget that Danny is almost always a victim of the women he pursues, in The Cowards, The Republic of Whores, The Swell Season, and others.
I've always loved that book of Virginia Woolf's, A Room of One's Own, where she explains about the androgynous nature of people and especially of the writer. And I must admit I find it exciting to write in a female voice, from inside a female character. Some radical feminists may disapprove and maintain that it is impossible for a man to write from within a woman's viewpoint. I think that's nonsense. Two of the greatest novels we have, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, are the result of a man writing about a woman. And as I said, I enjoy doing it, trying to speak in the voice of a Jeannette Thurber or Lorraine, the writer in the new novel.
We've talked about the fact that the photographs are missing from the English edition of Dvorak in Love, but that's not the only thing that is different between the Czech and English versions. If you read the novels side by side, you notice that the order of the chapters has been changed significantly, and the last chapter in the Czech version is now the penultimate one. My own impression is that the novel is much darker, almost tragic, in the English version than it is in the Czech.
You're right, of course. There is a difference. Even the title is different. My American publisher suggested that no one would know what Scherzo capriccioso meant, and so they came up with some alternatives, including Dvorak in Love. As for the ending, the Czech ends with Adele Margulies boarding a train and leaving Dvorak after having failed to persuade him to return once again to America and the Conservatory. In the English the novel ends with a much darker chapter dominated by death, especially the inevitable death from cancer of Sissieretta Jones, “the black Patti.”
And there's that lovely and poignant image of “the white patch of the boat” surrounded by “the black, black darkness.”
You know, I like the changed ending.
I'm not suggesting that it's better or worse, but it changes the mood of the close and makes for a slightly different novel.
Well, I'm not the first novelist to have a novel that exists in two different versions. There's Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night and James's The Aspern Papers.
And Dickens's Great Expectations and Lawrence's three versions of Lady Chatterley's Lover. As Joyce said about the allusions in Ulysses, this is something that will keep the critics and professors busy for a long time.
I just want to turn back for a moment to the research you did for the last two novels. Did this change how you write a novel? I mean with The Cowards, Miss Silver's Past, and The Swell Season you didn't really need anything beyond your memory and your imagination in order to create. But with Dvorak in Love and The Bride of Texas you did a large amount of preliminary research and then had what must have been folders of material that had to be used, adapted, and referred to if the novel was going to be accurate in a historical sense.
As you know, before Dvorak in Love, I had never written a historical novel, and so I had to develop my own techniques. The main difference between Dvorak in Love and The Engineer of Human Souls is that with the latter, when I had my outline, I could fully immerse myself in my memory and imagination; and I could write eight hours a day without having to consult any books or documents. It was all in my head, and I just kept on writing. With Dvorak in Love and The Bride of Texas on the other hand, I just couldn't do that because I can't keep all that information, all those dates and places and names, in my head. I would be writing, and then I would suddenly realize that I had forgotten something that might be important, and I had to stop writing for an hour or more while I looked it up. Only when I was doing the second draft could I write without interruptions, because I didn't need to consult the sources anymore. You know, before I attempted to write a historical novel, I hadn't appreciated how difficult and complicated a process it was.
With The Bride of Texas your novels now cover nearly a century and a half of Czech life and history. There's not much about the first three decades of this century, but otherwise your body of work is almost a fictional chronicle of the life of a people.
Well, it may sound old-fashioned to confess this, but one of the reasons I wrote The Bride of Texas is the patriotic one of offering a sort of tribute to the Czech soldiers who fought and in some cases died in the war. Their names are in the novel and they are real names, as are the names of the battles in which they fought.
I don't think there's any doubt that the last two novels represent a significant departure for you, and it's certainly one for which there's little to prepare us in the earlier fiction. But I suspect that most of your reviewers and critics—from Helena Kosková to Paul Trensky—would agree with me if I said that your novels have been permeated by history from the start. The Cowards, after all, deals with the closing days of the Second World War, The Republic of Whores shows Czechoslovakia in the closing years of Stalinism, and The Miracle Game re-creates the Prague Spring and is a political and historical roman à clef with portraits of various individuals prominent in the period, from Václav Havel to Pavel Kohout.
I'm not trying to suggest that something new doesn't enter your fiction with Dvorak in Love. I'm simply saying that there also seems to be a certain continuity as well. In fact, I also wonder whether there isn't a natural progression between the two kinds of historical novels in your body of work, both of which are ultimately rooted in realism and concerned, though in different ways, with history.
I think you're right in saying that I've always been concerned with history; being from Czechoslovakia it was hard not to be. In almost all my novels the action takes place against a historical background. The stories do have a context within which they take place and which influences the characters and their lives in some way. You could probably say the same thing about the Boruvka stories up to a point; the things Boruvka can do and cannot do are determined by the kind of society he lives in. And if you read them in the order they were written, you can see the different periods or phases of life in Czechoslovakia since the 1950s.
I once planned a series of five mystery novels with my friend, the poet Jan Zabrana, each of which was to have a different historical period for its setting. The first was going to be set during the Great Depression, another during the Second Republic (1938–39), the third during the war, the fourth after the war, and the fifth in the Stalinist era. Anyway, I never wrote the last two because I had to leave Czechoslovakia. For some time, I even contemplated writing the fourth one and sending it to Zabrana who could submit it under his own name. It was tempting and the series was very popular.
The books were published under Zabrana's name, weren't they?
Yes, I was still under a political cloud because of the scandal over The Cowards. We plotted the stories together, and then I would write the novels and Zabrana would take them to the publisher. Zabrana and I also collaborated on a children's novel called Tanya and the Two Gunmen, which is both an adventure novel and a sort of Russian language textbook. It has a Russian girl, a tourist, lost in the woods, who meets two young Czech boys and sort of teaches them to speak Russian by correcting their imperfect Russian.
I find this interesting because language or languages seem to me to have always been a central concern in your novels. In The Cowards, for example, there are at least four major languages spoken as well as a couple of dialects, and this is also true of works like The Bass Saxophone, The Miracle Game, and Dvorak in Love. And several of your critics have commented at some length on your ability to differentiate characters by how they speak. You seem to have a very good ear for dialects and dialogue. When you write dialogue, do you try it out by speaking the lines out loud?
No, no. I just write it out as I hear it in my head. But it's interesting because when I was a young man and trying to write fiction and poetry—every young man writes poetry because for that you don't need experience, just feelings—my fictional dialogues were just awful—the dialogue was wooden and just a vehicle for information. I could feel that every character spoke in the same way. And then I read Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, and I could see what could be done with dialogue. I also learned from other American writers I was reading at the time—Faulkner, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, and Mark Twain, of course, and even some of the predecessors of Mark Twain.
Why were you so interested in the American writers?
Well, I was very interested in American folklore; in fact, Lubomir Doruzka and I put together and had translated a huge anthology of American folklore. It must be one of the largest ever put together in Europe. But to return to your question about dialogue, I can't say that I have ever been aware of or self-conscious about paying attention to how people speak. And I have never studied language or linguistics. There are certain mysteries in writing, things that the writer can't explain.
I want to worry the topic just a bit longer, because it seems to me that one of the ways that you keep the novels from being monologic or monophonic, even when they are narrated by Danny Smiricky, is by your ability to let the other characters have their say in voices that are absolutely distinctive. And I would argue that this freedom increases between Miracle in Bohemia and Dvorak in Love. The former offers various narratives, discourses, and ideological stances, while in the latter each chapter is narrated by or focused on a different character. The final effect is polyphonic, in Bakhtin's sense, as the reader is surrounded by various viewpoints expressing often conflicting interpretations and systems of value. Even in The Engineer of Human Souls, though the novel is narrated for the most part by Danny, the students' views are given a full hearing and his disagreements with them are part of a novel-long dialogue about ideologies and some of the topics mentioned in the novel's subtitle.
Well, as you know, I have never been inspired by any ideologies, and I believe that there are novels that are completely devoid of ideologies—unless you agree with Marxist critics who tell you that everything is ideology or ideological, and I don't. There is a tremendous difference between the not-binding ideology of a liberal democracy and the mandatory totalitarian ideologies of political correctness. Some of the worst novels ever written were written for ideological reasons, and no one reads them now.
But as anyone who had read The Republic of Whores, Miss Silver's Past, or The Miracle Game realizes, socialist-realist novels, ideological novels, have been the source of some of your liveliest humor and satire.
I want to return to the question of language for a moment. I wonder whether your most radical gesture in language, and perhaps your riskiest, doesn't occur in those stories and novels in which you have Czechs who have emigrated speak a Czech heavily inflected with English. I almost have the feeling that the ideal reader for these—and these include The Engineer of Human Souls and Dvorak in Love—is a bilingual reader, or at least one with some awareness of both languages, someone who can get the wit, whether it originates in Czech or English, and who can appreciate the energy of these bilingual portmanteau words.
Yes, but you know English is such an international language now, that there are few Czech readers who wouldn't understand the words either from the context or just because they know some English. I suppose they will get the gist of it.
Looking at this from another point of view, these passages must be a translator's nightmare, in the same way that some of the names in your fiction are. The villain of The Republic of Whores is nicknamed “Malinkatej dabel” in the Czech; in François Kerel's French this becomes “le P'tit Mephisto,” while Paul Wilson christens him “the Pygmy Devil.”
There was the same problem with Dotty's name and the way she spoke in The Engineer of Human Souls. I once had a letter from a Czech woman who said she enjoyed that novel but didn't like the sections in which Dotty appeared because she found the way she spoke incomprehensible.
As for the problems some of these things cause for a translator, all I can say is that some aspects of a novel simply cannot be translated; something is always lost.
Is it Valéry who said that literature is what is lost in the translation?
It is unavoidable.
Since we're speaking of translations, in The Republic of Whores, as was the case with Dvorak in Love, we have a novel that is substantially different in certain parts from the Czech original. This is particularly true of a couple of rather raunchy scenes and of two chapters that have been very skillfully conflated into one. Again, textual scholars will have a field day some time in the future comparing editions.
One of the scenes that I'm referring to shows a group of soldiers forming a sort of guard of honor or gauntlet for a female military prisoner on her way to the toilet. As she passes, they “present arms” by dropping their trousers and saluting her with their erections. In the English this is changed to a “rigid salute” and a swelling in their trousers. It's not quite the same thing. What happened?
I have a very good editor, and she suggested that some repetition could be eliminated by intercutting the two chapters, and she told me that the night scene in the jail would get me attacked by all the feminists—it was simply too strong. So I changed it, toned it down. In the Czech film based on the novel they retained the scene as it is, and the film has been very popular. I don't know.
The Czech text has the subtitle: “A Fragment from the Period of the Cult.”
Yes, that was because I originally planned the book as the introduction to a long novel or a long introductory chapter to a much longer book dealing with Danny's return to civilian life, but I never wrote that. So that's why I called it a fragment, though I dropped the subtitle from the English version. That's also why it has this loose structure which some people have criticized as episodic.
But there are some threads holding the chronologically arranged episodes together. There's the focus on Danny, his last weeks in the tank corps, and the love affair with Jana, the officer's wife.
I think that what a reader needs to ask about the book is whether or not it stands on its own despite the episodic structure or form. It's not meant to have the form of a more conventional novel, and each of the stories is intended to be both self-contained and related to the others.
I wasn't sure for some time whether or not to publish the novel in English, but what finally convinced me to do so was its immense popularity in Czech.
Your wife once told me that she thought it is the most popular of all of the novels published by Sixty-Eight Publishers.
That's true, but I should add that it's popular mostly with male readers, most of whom have had similar experiences when they were conscripted into the national army; very few women like it. Still, in the Czech Republic, a nation of eleven million people, it has sold over 250,000 copies.
What are you working on now?
I am writing a script for Czech television based on Edgar Allan Poe's “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” I have been fascinated by Poe for a long time, and I can't explain why, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he is the father of the detective story.
You recently wrote an article on Poe for Svĕtová literatura in Prague.
Yes. The dramatist Helena Slavikova read the essay and asked me to write something for television. The script is a drama that focuses on Poe at a time when his wife is sick, dying, and it also develops some of the ambiguities surrounding the death of Marie Roget, especially the possibility that she may have been made pregnant—maybe even killed—by the owner of the cigar store in which she worked. There is a suggestive sentence in the coroner's report in Poe's story: “The medical testimony spoke confidently of the virtuous character of the deceased.” The script develops the possibility that—but since this is supposed to be a mystery story, I won't disclose the solution now.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 978
SOURCE: A review of Headed for the Blues: A Memoir with Ten Stories, in Observer, February, 1998, p. 15.
[In the following review, Shawcross praises Škvorecký's portrayal of Czechoslovakia's years of dictatorship in Headed for the Blues.]
Josef Škvorecký is one of the great Czech writers of the cruel post-war Communist years, His new book Headed for the Blues does not disappoint. Subtitled ‘a memoir with ten stories,’ it is in fact several. All, of course, describe aspects of the grim dogmas that descended on Czechoslovakia after the Soviet occupation of 1945, the Soviet-inspired Communist coup of 1948, and the 20 years of Stalinist and post-Stalinist dictatorship which followed until the brief sprint towards ‘socialism with a human face’ led by Alexander Dubcek in 1968, which ended with the Soviet invasion, renewed occupation and 20 more years of dictatorship even more depressing than the first, which only ended after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The first half of the book tells in impressionistic, biting, angry form his own Bohemian story and the stories of his friends as they struggled to remain true to at least themselves (some of them, anyway) and yet to survive, if not prosper, in the so-called proletarian state. The theme of the entire book is survival—the deals and the compromises it takes to stay alive, and to try to keep sanity, if not morality, alive.
In the 10 ‘Tenor Saxophonist's Stories’ he develops rather more fully some of the characters and the dilemmas that people his past and his imagination:
There are various reasons why people become ‘progressive’. Some do it out of hunger and misery. Others, out of intellectual convictions. Some do it for the sake of their careers. And some, because they shit in their pants.
Among those who do is ‘Madame Editor,’ a female version of the vicar of Bray—a prim and very conservative writer in the early Forties, who then became a Catholic apologist after the war who believed in miracles and was shocked when a drunken Communist journalist groped her and clearly ‘wanted me to do his bidding! … that's bolshevism for you.’
After the Communists took power, she was thrown off her paper and given a job in a factory where she slowly began to understand the merits of the workers' and peasants' society and set up house with the foreman, and was then seen sporting a five-point red star on her dress, and lecturing ‘comrade’ workers on how to behave.
There is Judge Bohadlo, a self-satisfied gourmand who decides to become a Communist in 1948 because ‘someone's got to stick it out, to save what can be saved.’ In private he kept on cursing Communism, but then went to public meetings where he would excoriate the capitalists. The Communists went on promoting him—until he died of a stroke. Death, writes Škvorecký, is still the best Political Inspector.
The most charming tale is ‘The Well Screened Lizette,’ a ‘snake in the grass’. Škvorecký's young hero, the saxophonist, was sacked from university because he played jazz and was therefore suspected of Western sympathies. ‘Like a bloody fool, I turned up at the screening session in colored socks.’ That was really suspicious to Fendrych, ‘the cross-eyed political inspector with buck teeth.’ He stared at them every time he asked an important question such as, ‘Are you descended from the working class, colleague?’
Lizette, on the other hand, did no work and understood nothing, except how to operate the system. She lowered her eyelids and pushed out her bosom and was constantly promoted by the desperate men to whom she promised sex (she rarely delivered) becoming a renowned ‘expert’ on Old Church Slavonic, and then philology and then Marxism—none of which she knew anything about.
She was presented as ‘a typical socialist woman of our day,’ and sent abroad to lecture on the achievements of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. After meeting a man from the Foreign Ministry, ‘she was named cultural attache in Rio de Janeiro, in place of a fellow named Hrubes who has been studying Portuguese for five years in expectation of the assignment … I expect one day she'll become the first woman President of this country. And then at last we'll have real socialism.’
In a story written in the early Fifties, before de-Stalinisation relaxed the rules a little, the saxophonist is alarmed when an old friend called Dunca, who has been in trouble with the police, who has been to the West and comes back, asks to come and stay with him. They sit up all night and Dunca tries to persuade the tenor sax to come to the West with him; he refuses. Dunca says, ‘Believe me, a piece of cake. No crawling on our bellies, no cutting of barbed wire. A big shot in the border guards is with us. It'll be like a stroll along the Moldau.’
Dunca, the tenor sax's conscience, says of the party apparatchiks: ‘All they'll ever accomplish is to eliminate hunger, maybe, and maybe they'll even play Beethoven, but you can bet they won't produce any new Beethovens. And if by some error of planning one were to appear, they'd make sure he wrote odes to the Party rather than odes to joy. Is this bunch of bastards going to save the world? At best they'll turn the world into a well fed prison. But of course, for you, a full stomach is the highest possible value.’
The tenor sax admires Dunca's courage and watches the newspaper for his expected arrest. ‘So that's the story. I play the sax, and continue living here. I don't want to get involved … Pilate, that's me.’ And most other people too—how else could they continue? Škvorecký conveys beautifully the shadowlands of life under the long dreary, frightening and destructive years of ‘dictatorship of the people,’ years which destroyed the lives of an entire generation across Europe.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
SOURCE: “Running out of Breath,” in Spectator, Vol. 280, No. 8845, February 14, 1998, 31–32.
[In the following negative review, Simmons notes his disappointment in Škvorecký's stories in Headed for the Blues.]
[Headed for the Blues] is a memoir plus ten stories written in English by the author Josef Škvorecký who now lives in Toronto. I suppose I am not unique in approaching the work of writers from eastern Europe with some humility. They have been through a mill that never ground me. The story is told in an impressionistic, unbuttoned, free-association style that is hard to follow, although partly elucidated by notes. Certain themes recur. Škvorecký's first memory is of seeing from his ‘stroller’ a dead frog on the road; he mentions pregnant women in prison whose children are buried and gnawed by moles as soon as they are born, and the mothers sent to the gallows. These pop up again on the last page, as do fizls (secret police), executioners who at one point were overworked and needed a rest. This heavy irony is much repeated, but doesn't give serious shape to the book.
So he gestures towards the horrors that make us so tender towards these survivors; but that's about it. Quite soon he assumes a racy Damon Runyon style, perhaps appropriate for a Czech saxophone player. The persona he assumes begins to sound like the Good Soldier or one of Brecht's anti-heroes; but the narrative stays inside the close, mindless world of hip musicians. Such a narrow focus might be illuminating if it came from the mind of some sort of seriously unpolitical jazz musician, but this jazz musician is the most superficial stereotype. It may be how young hip musicians felt and talked in those days, but it is like listening to old hippies in their marijuana haze, seriously boring. Worse still, it has the sound of a professional humorist, as though the author had not assumed a persona, but actually spoke this way, facetious, determinedly crazy.
… and he said to me, ‘soon as I was behind bars, first thing I got busted in the snoot! I counted off wrong’—it was just the dawn of punchers in the nose and exhausted executioners, because he'd undergone that humiliation before, during the war, although that time it was voluntary, as far as anything we ever do is voluntary. His hair started getting thin, someone familiar with old wives' tales suggested that he shave his head bald, a guaranteed cure. Benda submitted. In the hottest, most humid summer in Kostelec he went around with a hat on, a hat deliberately too big so it could be pulled down to his ears, and that year he had even to forgo the pleasures of Jericho. As for movies—Benda was a passionate consumer of the poisons of Hollywood and other provenance—he would creep inside after the lights were out and flee outside as soon as THE END appeared on the screen …
I took that example at random; but it is true to the text in general, the desperate adding of unfunny detail after detail, the desperate changes of subject.
If the memoir doesn't work, some of the stories have a rough validity. It is coarsegrained, but the story ‘A Case for Political Inspectors’ does have a satirical shape, showing how a greedy old reactionary judge, to save his skin, compromises with remarkable success, moving higher up the communist hierarchy until he dies of a heart-attack without ever being exposed. After each crisis he turns up at the author's house:
‘Somebody,’ he said in a shaky voice, ‘has to stick it out, save what can be saved. As long as he remains in inner opposition.’
There is a nice sort of precision about that. Another story has the same pattern, only it follows the career of an unscrupulous woman who gets to the top by seducing whoever is in charge while people of real talent are overlooked or imprisoned; but it is so formulaic as not to be funny:
Political evaluation, class origin, socialist zeal, merit, are one thing; generous bosom, shapely behind, green eyes are another.
Time magazine wrote: ‘Škvorecký is a master of that modern speciality, the heartbreaking belly-laugh.’ It whetted my appetite, but I was sorely disappointed. The author himself comes up with a high-sounding statement: ‘We never know all of the truth, but all of it we know we must tell.’ This book doesn't seem to be engaging in such an effort. If the starting point was to say, ‘While all these horrors were going on, I was a boy wanting to play saxophone and pull girls,’ that sounds promising; but, at liberty in Toronto, in his seventies, it reads like a tired attempt to make one more book that might sell.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 163
Feld, Ross. “Josef Škvorecký Evokes the Dawn of a False Society.” Chicago Tribune Books (21 August 1994): 1, 9.
Feld discusses the comic aspects of The Republic of Whores.
Hampl, Patricia. “What You Don't Know Can Save You.” New York Times Book Review (10 November 1996): 53.
Hampl asserts that Škvorecký's Headed for the Blues is more a historical memoir than a personal one.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “Kapsa's March.” New York Times Book Review (21 January 1996): 14.
Klinkenborg discusses the irony and contradictory voices in The Bride of Texas.
McManus, James. “The Tank Commander.” New York Times Book Review (28 August 1994): 9.
McManus praises Škvorecky's courage in criticizing the Czech military in The Republic of Whores.
Additional coverage of Škvorecký's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61–64; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 10, 34, and 63; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 232; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1 and 2.
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