Posts Tagged ‘Josef Skvorecky’

Overrated

June 30, 2021

There are quite a few things in the world of literature that make me cross. For the life of me – and I’ve read it several times (because I had to!) – I cannot see what some people find to rave about in The Great Gatsby. It’s always struck me as being about superficial, trivial, privileged people who I couldn’t care less about and the narrator puts me off right from the start.

Equally, I fail to see why some think so highly of Lolita. I’ve had it recommended to me a number of times, by people whose opinions and tastes I rate highly. I’ve tried to read it at least three times, have never got beyond fifty pages or so. I’ve found it dull, and I’ve also found it toe-curlingly creepy, in a perverted sort of way. I shan’t be bothering again.

I shall also confess that I find Wuthering Heights grossly overrated. I read it, unravelled the complex plot at the time, and could now tell you almost nothing about the book or its characters, so deep an impression it didn’t make on me. Emily Bronte I can do without; her sister Charlotte, on the other hand, I rate very highly: the ending of Villette is an absolute master-stroke.

At least I’ve made the attempt with those books. There are writers I haven’t really bothered with – Dickens, and Hardy for instance: I had to read Hard Times in my first year at university, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles too. The former I quite enjoyed, the latter I found rather silly because of the leaden hand of fate that rested on the heroine’s shoulders throughout. Certainly, I’ve never felt called to use up any more eyeball time on those writers.

I have quite a large blind spot about British and American fiction of the last few decades: I haven’t read very much of it at all, because very little of it has recommended itself to me, and quite honestly, I don’t think I’ve missed much. My general feeling has been that writers in other countries and continents have found much more interesting stories to write. No recent English language writer has, for me, reached the heights of Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco or Amin Maalouf, for example.

I’ve enjoyed having a bit of a gripe here, and I can imagine some of my readers thinking, “Well, I never saw anything in Philip Pullman, or, what has Josef Skvorecky got to say to me?” So, what are the books or writers you consider overrated?

Karel Čapek: War With The Newts

April 28, 2021

     I came back to this well over forty years after first discovering it, and it had me realising just how much a small country – that was Czechoslovakia – has punched above its weight in literary terms in the twentieth century. As well as Čapek’s RUR which I wrote about here, there was Franz Kafka (although I know he wrote in German) and the incomparable Jaroslav Hašek in the inter-war years, and then during the communist era the country produced writers such as Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ivan Klima and the wonderful Josef Skvorecky.

War With The Newts is a curious piece, a mixture of many genres, science fiction, satire, mock documentary and a lot more besides. Initially it has a Conradian feel to it, partly because of the Java setting and the sea-captain who starts the whole thing off by discovering an intelligent race of newts who can learn, and who boost his wealth by fishing for pearls for him, in exchange for things they want. The captain is a well-developed character, who tells a humorous and rambling tale about how he has taught, trained and armed the newts as he develops trade with them; he eventually makes a deal with a rich businessman and we are on the road to disaster…

The story is interspersed with all manner of pseudo-scientific documentation, and news reports, board meetings and accounts of the greed of businessmen who ultimately end up selling the entire human race and its future in the quest for profit, in a version of capitalism that is as crazy as anything currently going on.

It becomes evident that the relationship between human businessmen and the newts is a replication of the slave trade of past centuries, as a craze develops for building new continents and land-masses to make money. Ultimately we move into similar territory to that which the author also explores in RUR: are the newts intelligent, human almost? Do they have rights? How ethical a species are we in the ways we treat them?

At this point the story does move quite definitively into satirical territory; it is evident that despite the profits to be made, humans are creating a problem for the future. Eventually there is confrontation: the ever-expanding newt population needs more shallow sea in which to live and this is directly in conflict with what humans want, so war ensues. It helps to remember that Čapek was writing at the time when Hitler was demanding more lebensraum for the German people…

Of course, as profit is to be made from selling machinery and weaponry to the newts, businessmen continue to do so, and the newts rapidly defeat human attempts at limiting and containing them, and begin systematically to demolish entire countries and continents to create their living space. And even when there are peace negotiations between the two sides, it transpires that human beings represent the newts.

In the end, sadly, Čapek’s message is one that echoes today: human beings really aren’t a very intelligent species. There is no hope where there is greed, capitalism and profits for the few. Evidence of human stupidity abounds…

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

Tibor Fischer: Under the Frog

March 13, 2020

51WPGWJEK9L._AC_UY218_ML3_    I’m not sure what made me return to this novel again – the fourth reading in thirty years – but it may have been part of my urge to clear out some books. It was Fischer’s first novel, set in post-war Hungary, in communist times. The author’s roots are Hungarian, so he’s obviously very familiar with places and history.

There was a lengthy phase in my reading, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern Europe’s attempts at socialism, when I read very widely in the literature of that region, in an attempt fully to understand the complexities, bizarreness and suffering of daily life there. Fiction set in those places and times always had a completely different premise from anything written in the West: Brechtian alienation sets in from the first page. You are in a world where freedom of movement is curtailed, there are shortages of all kinds of basic necessities, you need to be careful to whom you talk and what you say to them, and truth is in short supply…

Fischer, born and raised in England and writing in the early ‘90s, did not have to be careful, unlike those who wrote earlier and from behind the Iron Curtain. His characters living in the late 1940s and early 1950s – peak Stalinism – are therefore quite openly mocking of the system and its intentions among themselves. Other writers had to be much more cautious and coded.

It’s a black comedy based around the members of a young men’s basketball team. Nominally they have jobs but aren’t expected to actually work, so their lives centre around beating the system, chasing females, training and playing the game. The attitudes of the characters, and their antics, remind me a good deal of the persona of Danny Smiricky adopted by Josef Skvorecky in a number of his novels: it’s largely about how to be human, and have a decent life and some fun under totalitarianism…

There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the novel, and I’d forgotten just how inventive Eastern European languages are in their obscenities and profanities, and general ability to abuse. If pushed, I’d be clear it’s a boys’ book, especially in terms of how the sexual escapades are viewed and presented, but that’s not the reason I like such novels: it is the local colour, the presentation of life in such a weird and surreal universe that hooks me. Having visited Eastern Europe a number of times in that era, everything rings true.

Although it’s a very funny novel, there are many sad and poignant moments of realisation about the meaning of life and what it presents you with, as well as the choices you have to make. The lightness of the novel disappears as we reach the key year of 1956 and the Hungarian uprising against the Stalinist regime. The action is far darker and more serious, tragic at times, although Fischer still works in that edgy and black Eastern European humour that I’m quite familiar with myself. I thought I’d re-read and part with this novel, but it was far better than I remembered it, and I think it will be staying on my shelves.

Ten years’ blogging

December 10, 2019

Looking at the data that WordPress offers me, I realise that I’ve been running this blog for getting on for ten years, which feels like a bit of an achievement, and perhaps time to take stock, as well.

There are well over 900 posts, and I have about 350 followers, although no way of knowing how many of you drop by regularly or read every post. This last year, a lot more visitors seem to have been digging back into the archives and looking up specific posts. And I don’t know why certain posts are so popular – on Carol Ann Duffy’s The Wound in Time, her poem commemorating the centenary of the 1918 armistice, on John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature. Ismail Kadare and Josef Skvorecky are popular this year; Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village is a perennial favourite post. I’d really like to know more about why people visit and what they think, but you seem to be pretty reluctant to post comments, so I guess I’ll never know… But it is quite satisfying to think that people are stopping by regularly to read what I have to say.

As I blog about every book I read, the activity of blogging has affected the way I read and think about what I read, in a positive way for me. Sometimes I wonder if it also affects what I choose to read, but nothing yet has shown me that this is the case: I read what I want to read, one thing leads to another, and each year is punctuated by certain books I’ve looked forward to. This year’s have been Margaret Atwood’s The Testimonies and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth.

In the past I was also reflecting quite a lot on my experiences as a teacher, and the teaching of English, but as I’m now in my ninth year of retirement, there’s rather less of that. I’m still in touch with some of my former students, and pleased that they remember me, and often say appreciative things about the past. I’m aware that the nature of the teaching profession, and what teachers are expected to do, has changed quite radically in this country in recent years, even though the corpus of English literature hasn’t; to me, this means that a good deal of my experience is no longer relevant today. However, I’ve spent some of my time writing some study guides (on The Handmaid’s Tale, Antony & Cleopatra, and Journey’s End – if you’re interested in these you will need to visit the ZigZag website) which I’ve enjoyed doing, and which has helped to keep my brain in gear and use some of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom (?) of the years.

I’ve occasionally also written political posts, and sometimes have felt like writing more, but have not done so. I want to keep this a literature and reading blog above all else, and often think there’s too much political pontificating about without someone else adding more…

I shall keep going with this as long as I’m able to, as it currently feels like a useful discipline. There are dozens more books piled up waiting to be read, and somewhere I think I’ve accepted that I’ll never get to the end of them…

Thank you to all my readers, whoever and wherever you are. And do post a comment to let me know what you like or don’t like, what you agree or disagree with.

20-21 August 1968: Time to Remember

August 20, 2018

Today just a brief pause to remember fifty years ago, when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. Millions alive today have no idea what any of those three entities were. I can still recall my father, on his way to work at seven in the morning, putting his head round the door and telling me, ‘The Russians invaded Czechoslovakia’.

So, let us remember Josef Skvorecky and Milan Kundera, writers who had to leave their homeland in order to be published, and others like Ivan Klima andBohumil Hrabal who stayed behind. And the playwright Vaclav Havel who survived it all to become president of a free country many years later. In memory of Jan Palach, who took his life in protest. And of all the brave people who wanted to build their own version of a socialist society all those years ago.

August favourites #7: detective fiction

August 7, 2018

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I’ll come to my hero Sherlock Holmes in a few days’ time: he’s in a class of his own. And although I have a soft spot for the melancholy Czech detective Lieutenant Boruvka, created by one of my favourite writers, Josef Skvorecky, my award has to go to a writer who paid the greatest tribute possible to Holmes in his creation of the monk William of Baskerville, who puts his observational powers to work, assisted by his young novice Adso of Melk, against a background of monastical murder and the inquisition in the early fourteenth century. I’m referring to Umberto Eco’s masterpiece, The Name of the Rose, which, as well as being a marvellous detective story, is also full of history and philosophy and relgion, as well as a poignant consideration of the nature of human love. In a way, the plot centres around a curious question: did Jesus ever laugh? It’s one of my top three novels of the twentieth century.

Why do writers hate school?

February 9, 2018

I’ve been reading quite a bit about schools and education recently, and started to think about how writers treat the topic in literature, too. Although I’ve been retired from the profession for over six years now, I still keep in touch with some former colleagues, and my impression is that things have got worse, in terms of pressure, stress and workload since I left; there is less trust in teachers, and the notion of teaching as a profession, where teachers have been trained and acquired specific skills, rendering their work and opinions worthy of a certain respect, has diminished considerably.

Partly I feel as a society we are unclear what we want from schools: I’d suggest literacy, numeracy and oral communication skills to a level where people can understand the possibilities open to them, and have the opportunity to develop themselves further, when and how they wish, as a minimum… many people settle for school as a free child-minding service. I think it’s important that opportunity for education is available life-long: I’ve picked up two new languages and yoga, to name a couple of things, since leaving school.

Young children need the opportunity to play, mix with peers, and learn to be sociable. Older children need to have the opportunity to use their imagination, and to be creative; they need to be give freedom, and trusted as far as it’s possible. Such approaches foster open-mindedness and tolerance, and our entire society suffers – has suffered over recent decades – when we lose sight of these important values.

So I found myself wondering why school and education seemed to have by and large received such an appalling press in the books I recalled! Did all these writers have such awful memories of their schooldays? Charlotte Bronte‘s account of Lowood School in Jane Eyre is horrendous, and partly autobiographical, I understand. Mark Twain paints a ridiculous picture of small-town US schooling in Tom Sawyer, and the teachers in Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird don’t come off very much better.

Looking more closely, we have Dickens‘ satire of English education in Hard Times, with Mr Gradgrind as a cannon waiting to fire facts into the little girls and boys; no room for feelings, emotions, creativity there. A horse is a graminiverous quadruped, we are informed; Sissy can’t have pretty wallpaper in her bedroom with animals on it because in reality miniature animals don’t walk up and down walls… And although by the end, we see where such attitudes and practices get you, I often have the growing impression we’re headed back in that direction today…

Then there’s the truly evil account of Stephen Dedalus’ schooling in A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, James Joyce‘s thinly-disguised autobiography. There’s the vicious physical punishment with the ‘pandy-bat’ for something that was no fault of the boy’s, and there’s the horrendous hell-fire sermon which sends the adolescent into something verging on insanity, or at least a nervous breakdown.

I racked my memory for positive accounts of school and only came up with Josef Skvorecky‘s The Engineer of Human Souls, which hardly counts anyway, as we are with Canadian high school students studying literature for goodness’ sake, and anything and everything is grist to the mill in the author’s classes, although some of what we encounter there also testifies to the stultifying nature of education in earlier years…

At the moment I put it all down to the opposition between the creativity that is so embedded in the soul of a real writer and the rigidity of so much of schooling in the past. And yet, isn’t school where writers learn at least the rudiments of their craft?  I can see that a necessary drilling in the basics is necessary for survival in a relatively complex society can be – but doesn’t have to be – rather soul-destroying and dull. And this is one of the reasons why I really feel it’s time there was a proper, dispassionate consideration of what we want education to provide for our future citizens. I’m not holding my breath…

Nothing new under the sun…

November 20, 2017

When are our tastes in literature shaped and formed?

I wrote recently about the phenomenon of older men reading less fiction, and the other day found myself discussing with my daughter the fact that I was not really that interested in much of what was being written now, or indeed films that were being released now, whereas in my student days I had been an avid reader of fiction and an avid film-goer. And we got on to thinking about how early on in life our tastes seem to be shaped and formed. It was interesting to find someone of a different generation in broad agreement with me, and I pondered things further…

I first met Sherlock Holmes, in print and on the wireless, at age seven. I’ve liked detective fiction – or a certain range of it – ever since; I’ve written else where in this blog about my enjoyment of Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Ellis Peters, Josef Skvorecky and others, too, no doubt.

I also first came across science fiction in my younger years, in the junior section of Stamford Public Library when I found the Lost Planet series, by Angus MacVicar. The premise was bonkers, as I recall, visiting a planet that had an orbit somewhat resembling that of a comet so that eventually it would be unreachable from earth, but the notion that there could be life elsewhere, and reachable from earth, stuck with me. As a student I became aware of science fiction with a political and social message, read lots and ended up researching and writing both an MA dissertation and an MPhil thesis on it. And I still keep an eye on what’s being written now, though I read very little of it.

About ten or fifteen years ago, there was a major shift in my reading habits as I began to explore all kinds of travel writing, and you don’t have to look very far in this blog to see how often I’ve written about it. I though this might be an example of a new direction in my reading, until I recall the voraciousness with which I tracked down and read every single book in the Young Traveller series in the local library. Again, a simple and repetitive premise which appeals to younger readers: a family travels – using some vague and largely irrelevant excuse – to a country, meets and converses with people, experiences local customs and food, visits important tourist attractions, all suitably sanitised for a readership of children.

I’ve always read a lot of fiction from other countries, mainly European, but do cast my net more widely. And I remembered friends at boarding school who pointed me at writers like Sartre and Günter Grass, and realised that here was yet another shaping of my literary tastes. Obviously when at university studying French Literature, my outlook broadened further.

So I have found myself wondering – is there anything I’ve acquired a taste for more recently, as in, since my student days of forty years ago? If there is, when I remember, I’ll let you know. But until then, I’m struck by just how much the tastes and interests of one’s life are laid down at a pretty early stage…

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

August 7, 2017

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve just read it for the fifth time, according to my records; I was somewhat astonished to see, however, than I hadn’t picked it up since the end of the last century…

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech writer who left after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. He had been published in Czechoslovakia before then, but after his departure was only printed in the West. Many of his novels are what I’d have to call semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised autobiography: he appears in the character of Danny Smiricky along with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the town of Kostelec, and later from Prague, and writes of his teenage years under the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the liberation and strange hiatus before the Communists established their grip. His themes are jazz – he and some friends played in a jazz band before, during and after the occupation – girls, in the ways that almost every teenage boy would identify with, politics as an inevitable part of life, and the desire for freedom.

This novel, which I rate as his best, is about feelings of exile, loss and rootlessness, and I suspect that these themes draw me back to him. Skvorecky values his freedom in Canada, and finds it impossible to explain the complexities of his past to his literature students in Toronto. Episodes relating his younger years playing jazz, chasing girls, doing compulsory labour in a Messerschmitt factory alternate with those relating his life as a college lecturer on English and American literature and his relationships with his students, and others portraying his life among the Czexh exile community in Canada, with their strange attitudes and beliefs. We also catch up with various people from his youthful past via letters. So it’s a complex read in some ways, and I did find myself realising that fairly soon it will be impossible for a Western reader to understand Skvorecky’s life without detailed annotation… the novel was only written in 1984!

The novel raises quite a few interesting reflections, perhaps firstly as to whether it’s a boy’s book, if that makes sense. Certainly the teenage, girl-chasing unrequited love and sex years may give that impression: I’ve never met anyone else who’s read any Skvorecky, let alone a female reader, so if there is one out there, I’d love to hear from you.

Then there’s the question of exile, and it was reflecting more generally on this theme in a previous post that drew me back to the novel in the first place. The entire novel is pervaded by a tone of sadness, wistfulness, regret, nostalgia, a powerful sense of loss; happy to be in Canada his heart wants a home, yet he shows us how those who go back are also lost, because it’s now another country, and he also shows us how those who visit from Czechoslovakia yearn for freedom and want to leave… there is no answer to the problem. As we approach the end of the novel, some friends die, some suffer from the compromises they have to make to stay at home, others lose their identities as they wander rootless around the world.

Skvorecky is a highly political writer, although by no means didactic; his ultimate philosophy seems to be to live for now because one can never be certain what horrors the future may hold, and that freedom is indivisible, it can’t be compromised on; he is Conradian in his attitude to revolutions and what they (don’t) achieve, and it’s interesting that one of the books he writes about studying with his students is Heart of Darkness. All politics is a game, a dirty one about power and nothing else.

There is a wonderful strand of humour running through the novel, and yet the horrors of the past break through in small, very powerful ways at times. It is a marvellous book, with so many layers to it which I still don’t think I’ve unravelled even after several readings; it’s not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the region and its history. And, I found myself wondering if it’s actually the last time I’ll read it, because of the very powerful feelings it stirs in me…

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