Posts Tagged ‘Czech literature’

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls (concluded)

July 29, 2021

     I’ve yet to detect or unpick any real significance to the fact that the chapters are labelled with the names of various English and American authors, which happen to be the subject of the professor’s classes; Skvorecky certainly has an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature.

I still wonder about whether this is a boys’ book: the war, resistance, and endless attempts of young men to get women into bed with them. I’d be genuinely interested to hear if any of my women readers have read this, or any of Skvorecky’s work. In the end, as a man, I let him off the hook because I don’t find any of these elements exploitative or gratuitous: they form a genuine part of his experience of life, and we can make our judgements without denying the magnificence of the book itself.

Milan Kundera – one of Skvorecky’s exiled compatriots – describes the book as a masterpiece. I think he’s right. The story of the affair with Nadia, the girl with TB, I find genuinely moving; the letters from the simple peasant who finds his place and modest success on his terms in the workers’ and peasants’ paradise are unsettling of everyone’s prejudices, and the worker Malina’s magnificent swearing I have always admired…

I agree with Kundera because the novel presents something so difficult for us – relatively or differently privileged Westerners – to have any comprehension of. So many times I thought I understood some of my father’s experience, and often argued with him about it. Living under Nazism or communism (though it wasn’t really that) gives one a totally different perspective on so many things, and a different kind of wisdom, a distance from the inanities of the West, too; the contrast and relative “freedom” here allows us to take so many things for granted. If I were to try and describe Skvorecky’s message (as it appears to me this time around, I stress) then it’s probably about the urge to survive at all costs and live your life, because you only get the one go, and so many people don’t, and also about the futility of revolution as a way of making a better world. But, at the moment, what makes it a masterpiece for me is its portrayal of the experience of exile.

I have just looked at my ‘best’ lists; this book isn’t in there; I can’t work out which one to drop in order to include it…

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls (part 1)

July 29, 2021

     Here is a book to which I return regularly, and each time it rises in my estimation. This time, I’ve re-read it perhaps rather earlier than I might otherwise have done, but since I chose it as a read for our book group, I needed to remind myself of the detail before leading a discussion.

What I’ve realised is that it’s a very close, full and painful presentation of the life of an exile, and, as such, it has led me belatedly to a much clearer appreciation of my late father’s experiences, although they were very different from those of Josef Skvorecky. You can read my previous thoughts on the novel here, if you’re interested.

I say novel, despite the major autobiographical content, which has been disguised and fictionalised in many ways, and not just to protect people who might otherwise suffer consequences. The hero is Danny Smiricky/ a thinly veiled Skvorecky, who features in many of the author’s works. Here, he is in his forties, a professor of English Literature at a fictitious college in a Toronto suburb. The novel, however, was written in Czech, in 1984, and translated. Canada offers the exile a sense of freedom of a kind, but it’s a country with no past, and not all the Czech exile community can stand the separation; some of the characters agonise about the risks of return; some do.

He is weary of the world; his students alternate between boredom with literature and incomprehension of his take on the texts and the world in general. They plagiarise their essays. Nevertheless he is interesting enough for one of his women students to have an affair with him. Their affability, affluence and lazy freedom silently contrast Smiricky’s experiences at their age.

The novel ranges widely from Smiricky’s youth in the Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren, with naive attempts by him and his friends at resistance and sabotage, through the chaos of the gradual communist takeover and transformation of Czechoslovakia, and the necessary rewriting of history, to the gradual realisation that you cannot give a human face to Stalinism, Alexander Dubcek’s brave attempt and failure in the Prague Spring of 1968, and finally of the need to leave an oppressive homeland which offers no future. There is then the emptiness of exile, and for many, aimless wandering in search of home.

In many ways, the book is the nostalgia and heimweh of a middle-aged man who is realising that his life will never be the one he hoped for. Pitilessly Skvorecky exposes the moral complexities all his characters are faced with, either in the oppressive homeland or the supposedly free West; all are found wanting in various ways. Nothing can ever be simple. Time shifts between the professor’s literature classes, life under Nazi or communist oppression, and the Czech exile community in Canada, and the text is regularly punctuated by letters from his past friends now scattered to various different places. These letters need no commentary: they speak painfully for themselves. The picture is one of the increasing insanity of our world, through a character who has lived through so many contradictions. (to be continued)

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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