Posts Tagged ‘Czech literature’

Egon Hostovsky: The Arsonist

November 3, 2015

51166X5SNGL._AA160_That disappointing moment when you get to the end of a book that you’ve persevered with, that’s been just about interesting enough to keep you going, and then you think, ‘Oh, well, that was a waste of time…’

I’d found this in a second-hand shop ten years ago, and bought it as a curiosity, and because I usually find Czech literature worth the bother. This one definitely wasn’t. It was written in the mid-1930s, and is a tale set in a small village in the middle of nowhere (I seem to be reading a few of those lately), in a family that seems to hate itself. It’s from the perspective of a confused pubescent boy whose father runs the local inn, whose mother is deeply strange, it appears, locking all the rooms in the house whenever she goes out so that no-one can get into them; he has an older sister who is also deeply unhappy. Village life is disturbed by a fire which is rumoured to have been arson; someone pretends to be an arsonist and further fires occur.

The whole thing is clearly deeply Freudian in a dull and tiresome way; the introduction tells you the bleedin’ obvious, without making anything the more enjoyable. The most interesting character is allegedly the sister’s friend Dora, who was expelled from the convent school for having disreputable parents, and to whom the hero is clearly sexually attracted in some way. But nothing happens.

It’s a book of its time, and should have stayed there, I’m afraid. Other writers have written about complex and tormented family relationships working themselves out rather better and less formulaically, and the gloomy mutterings about the ‘Prussians’ over the border (one of whom is suspected to have been the arsonist!) are par for the course.


Ah well…


Josef Skvorecky: Two Murders in my Double Life

March 13, 2012

51HHJ4MY7AL._AA160_Continuing my catch-up with works I hadn’t yet read…

Skvorecky manages to combine his well-known talent for writing detective stories with his own personal life story and reflections on his life/ lives in Czechoslovakia and Canada. Whilst the mystery itself is a bit thin, the meat is in the autobiographical detail, and also the thoughtful and painful exploration of aspects of exile and his past. There clearly are ways in which one’s past never lets go. Again, though, I think the most powerful impression for me has been that of a man growing older, a man conscious of the horrific aspects of the twentieth century which he has lived through and been part of, realising that those experiences will die with him and his generation. Somehow, this doesn’t seem right.

Josef Skvorecky: Ordinary Lives

March 8, 2012

51AH0wJGizL._AA160_I’m re-reading some of the novels and stories of Josef Skvorecky, one of my favourite Central European writers, who died recently, and also tracking down some texts that I haven’t read. He was a very thoughtful and humane writer who allowed people their faults. In this novel, his last, I think, he revisits the characters and places that he fictionalised in much of his oeuvre, tracing life in Czechoslovakia through Nazi occupation, Communism and finally ‘freedom’. It’s cleverly done through two school reunions separated by thirty years and the very different political and social situations in his homeland, from which he exiled himself in 1968. Very moving, and very sad, in that he recognises mortality and the inevitability that the strange and pained lives of himself and his friends will eventually vanish into the past and be as nothing.

Already, the events, places and strangeness of those times are fading from view; read these stories and remember that people did such things to each other in the twentieth century….

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