Posts Tagged ‘Josef Skvorecky’

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…

Writers in exile

August 4, 2017

I’ve picked up one of my all-time favourite novels to re-read (for the fourth time, according to my reading log) and I’ll write about it here in due course, but it has prompted me to think about the question of exile, and more specifically about its effect on a writer.

There are two kinds of exile, it seems to me, the voluntary and the enforced. A person can choose to leave their country of birth for many different reasons, to go and settle elsewhere; having made this choice, they can eventually also choose to return to their native land if they so wish. Or, someone can be forced to leave, by war or persecution. Such an exile does not always have the prospect of returning home at some point in the future. Or their home can actually disappear, as, for example in the case of those living in the eastern areas of the Second Polish Republic, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939. Where do you actually go back to, assuming you are allowed?

I have the impression that exile is largely a twentieth century phenomenon, a feature of powerful and totalitarian states able to exert control over people’s lives in ever-increasing depth and detail; I know that this may be an oversimplification, but it will nevertheless allow me to explore the idea.

Reading James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I studied for A level, I remember being struck by how Stephen Dedalus becomes increasingly aware of the stifling nature of the church and its stranglehold over his country, most particularly over the minds and mentalities of its inhabitants: how does a free and questing mind survive, develop and flower in such a setting, where everything contrives to crush it at every turn, where things perhaps may be said, even written down, but never published or widely disseminated, where one is therefore likely to be rejected at every turn? So Joyce realised he had to leave; I don’t know whether he intended never to return, but he chose to go, and lived out the remainder of his life in continental Europe – France, Switzerland and Italy.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a cause celebre during my student days; ex-gulag inmate, his astonishing novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was actually published during a brief thaw in the Soviet Union, but subsequent works were not: the excellent Cancer Ward and The First Circle appeared only in samizdat (works self-published, ie typed in carbon copies and illegally circulated from hand to had at considerable risk) in the Soviet Union and were regarded as provocation when printed abroad. And when he researched and delved into the entire Stalinist slave labour system in the several volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, the authorities had had enough; along with the Western provocation of awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature, that was sufficient for forcing him into exile. Cut off from his Russian roots, he seemed to become evermore eccentric and extremist, playing into the hands of cold-warriors in the USA, where he eventually settled; this did his reputation no good at all, and he does now seem to be falling off the radar, although the same is probably true of a great deal of the powerful literature that managed to emerge despite the efforts of the KGB…

Another epochal event of my younger years was the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1969; I can still remember my father whispering the news to me very early one morning just as he left for work… it was unacceptable for one country in the Pact to pursue an independent line which the Soviets did not approve of, and the Czechs had to be brought back into line, which happened, and many of its writers left. Milan Kundera ended up in Paris, where he has lived and written for most of his life, and Josef Skvorecky, whose amazing The Engineer of Human Souls is the book I’m currently re-reading, fetched up in Canada, where he taught English literature in Toronto as well as writing until he died a few years ago. It’s Skvorecky who, more than anyone else, conveys to me a powerful sense of what it means to be an exile…

I can’t conclude this post without a mention of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who came from my father’s part of Poland, survived the Nazi occupation of the country, initially threw in his lot with the People’s Republic after the liberation, but eventually found its thought control too stifling and chose to leave. His exploration of the effect of totalitarianism on the way people think, The Captive Mind, is still powerful sixty years after it was written, and nearly thirty years after the end of the Soviet Union.

In terms of my initial taxonomy, Joyce left Ireland freely, Solzhenitsyn was forcibly expelled and stripped of his Soviet citizenship, and the other three writers I’ve used as examples didn’t actually have to leave – but what else could they have done? Writing for the bottom drawer was a possible activity, but writers usually write because they feel they have something worthwhile to say. How much do they lose by not being in their homeland?

to be continued…

On refugees and writers

January 30, 2017

Lots of talk about refugees and migrants everywhere at the moment has had me thinking about writers who have had to leave their countries. People flee their countries because their lives are endangered, or they move voluntarily because they hope for a better quality of life elsewhere. These reasons are very different and it would be helpful if people and politicians differentiated.

I cast my eyes over my bookshelves. I know my library is a personal collection, and therefore not representative, but the first thing that struck me was that all the writers I recognised as exiles were twentieth century ones. That says something about our times, I feel.

James Joyce didn’t need to leave Ireland, but he found his native land so restrictive and suffocating mentally and creatively that he left, for good. The closing pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man show us Stephen Dedalus coming to this decision. Similarly Witold Gombrowicz’ life in inter-war Poland was not in danger, yet he also found it restricting and oppressive, and took himself off to Argentina – luckily for him, just before the start of the Second World War. Both Hitler and Stalin set out to eliminate Polish culture and intellectual life, and made considerable progress.

The Soviet Union had rather longer to attempt to regiment cultural and literary life than the Third Reich, and most of the writers I noted in my examination of my bookshelves came from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is probably the most important one to mention, at least in the sense that he became a cause celebre in the 1970s. A political thaw allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published in the Soviet Union and it was a sell-out. But that was it; important novels such as The First Circle and Cancer Ward circulated internally as samizdat publications, and when smuggled out to the West and published openly, caused serious problems for the writer; after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a detailed history and chronicle of Stalin’s labour camps, he was branded an anti-Soviet writer and eventually forced into exile. He ended up in the US and gradually faded into obscurity, cut off from his homeland. And he was an anti-Soviet writer, which is why the US welcomed him. The Russians wouldn’t have killed him, but his life would have been endangered by a prison sentence.

The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia saw Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky eventually leave, the former for Paris, the latter for Canada. So strict was the repression under Gustav Husak that many artists ended up in menial jobs, and some in jail; again, no death sentences because the West was watching, but death sentences as writers. The same was true of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who served the communist regime for a number of years before fleeing to the West. Writers in Eastern Europe increasingly wrote ‘for the desk drawer’ – as in, wrote and put away what they wrote, knowing it would never be printed – or took the risk of reprisals by smuggling their work out to be published in the West.

What I draw from this is that the question of migrants/ refugees/ asylum seekers is a very complex one: very often it’s a quest for freedom. Clearly, some people are in danger of death if they don’t leave; many are not. A lot are seeking a better life in Europe. One thing does seem blindingly obvious to me though: if we in the West weren’t so quick to attack/ bomb/ invade/ colonise other countries, then their inhabitants might well be rather happier staying at home. Which is what quite a lot of the hoo-hah is about, isn’t it?

My love of Czech literature

September 22, 2015

I first came across Svejk (or Schweik as he was known then in the bowdlerised translation then in print; Cecil Parrott‘s full and unexpurgated version came along rather later) in the sixth form at school and laughed myself silly over his antics, and Josef Lada‘s wonderful illustrations. Humorous writing, satire even, about the horrors of the Great War, was new to me and an eye-opener – it wasn’t long before I was to come across Joseph Heller‘s masterpiece Catch-22, the only novel I know that rivals Hasek’s.

My teenage years overlapped with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and its consequences, particularly for its literature, which I came gradually to know as a student, the bitter disillusionment and wholesale repression after the Prague Spring. Some writers emigrated, Milan Kundera to settle in Paris and write in French, and Josef Skvorecky to Canada. Others wrestled with censorship at home, or wrote for the ‘bottom drawer’.

I’ve enjoyed the fizzy lightness of Kundera, and Bohumil Hrabal – who can forget Closely Observed Trains, once you have seen the film? – I’ve tried Ivan Klima but didn’t really warm to him, but my all-time favourite has to be Josef Skvorecky.

Much of his fiction seems to be semi-autobiographical, covering his younger days as a teenager and jazz fan and would-be rebel in the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, through the character of the hero of a number of novels, Danny Smiricky. Danny and his friends, parents and peers populate many adventures, tinged with a love of jazz – forbidden as degenerate music during the war, of course, the teenager’s urge to try and get into bed with as many females as possible (which may perhaps make him a bit of a boy’s writer, though certainly not in any misogynistic way). Life becomes more serious in the post-war years, especially the first three, before Stalinism completely fixes its iron grip on the country. There are risks, dangers, difficulties in playing the music, chasing the girls and trying to be free. The Cowards, and The Republic of Whores deal with the immediate postwar years but my favourite is certainly The Engineer of Human Souls (Stalin’s description of what a writer should be) which has the author in exile in Canada, lecturing to high school students on American literature whilst reflecting on their incredible immaturity and naivete compared with his peers, remembering his younger days under the Nazi occupation, and the trial and tribulations of running an emigre publishing enterprise.

Skvorecky earned my adulation when I discovered he also wrote detective fiction, irresistible to someone reared on Sherlock Holmes. Three collections of short stories feature a melancholic, sometimes depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka, who has to solve a range of crimes, but whose life is further complicated by the fact that he lives in a totalitarian regime where certain people enjoy particular privileges or are untouchable. He also has a beautiful teenage daughter whom he loves, and who he knows will leave him one day. If you’re going to create a detective in the days when they are almost two-a-penny then you need an original take and an unusual character, and Skvorecky manages masterfully.

There are plenty of reasons why Czech literature of those times has a sad, even gloomy, introspective feel to it, but even under the heaviness of Nazi occupation and subsequent Stalinist rule – a grim half century – the irrepressible Czech spirit seems to shine through, and is probably my favourite of all the national literatures that I have to read in translation.

Eastern European Literature

July 9, 2014

Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on Soviet literature, perhaps it’s opportune to look at the rest of the Soviet bloc, Eastern Europe or however one might now describe it. The countries concerned were under Soviet domination after the Second World War, although in different ways. For instance, Yugoslavia rejected Soviet tutelage and went its own way, Albania moved its allegiance from the Soviet to the Chinese camp before striking out on its own; certain countries such as Bulgaria and the DDR were seen as much more hardline in their discipline and allegiance to the USSR, and others such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary experimented with more liberal attitudes from time to time. Hungary and Czechoslovakia were invaded by Warsaw Pact troops…

Many of the issues which governed the lives of writers in all those countries were the same as those which obtained in the USSR. Prior censorship was the rule; there were non-subjects and non-persons. I think the most glaring example of this was the murder of thousands of Polish officers by the KGB at Stalin’s orders in 1940; the Nazis discovered the crime and Soviet guilt was rapidly and clearly established, but the Soviets blamed the Nazis and so that was the official line…  Similarly, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis was a taboo subject for all sorts of reasons. And don’t even mention the ‘ethnic cleansing’ (the term hadn’t been invented yet) that went on all over Eastern Europe after the end of the war…

So, onto literature: the DDR was pretty repressive, as far as I remember; Stefan Heym and Christa Wolf pushed at the boundaries and wrote some interesting novels; I know nothing about what was written in Bulgaria during the period; a Romanian teaching colleague introduced me to the bizarre novels of Agota Kristov (available in French, but I’m not sure about English) and Ismail Kadare left Albania and went into exile in Paris and published many interesting novels, coded, allegorical, covering the weird political goings-on in his native land. Broken April, and The Pyramid are a couple I would recommend very highly. I haven’t really explored Hungarian or Polish literature from those times, largely because not an awful lot got translated (I rant about this in various other posts!).  Polish writers’ memoirs and essays have fared rather better; Gustaw Herling and Czeslaw Milosz both wrote openly from exile.

It’s the literature and writers of Czechoslovakia that I have particularly enjoyed. I have found them the most lively, varied and outspoken. I think Josef Skvorecky is probably my favourite. After the events of 1968 he went into exile in Canada, where he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career as well as being able to write openly about the wartime and postwar events in his homeland, exploring minds and attitudes, how people made compromises with various regimes in order to survive or not. I’d strongly recommend The Engineer of Human Souls (this was Stalin’s description of his ideal writer) as well as his excellent series of detective stories involving his depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka. Milan Kundera also went into exile, to Paris, and has probably been the best-known of the Czech emigre writers.

I do find myself increasingly wondering how much of all this is going to be remembered at all; looking back at what I’ve written, I’m struck by the number of non-existent countries I’ve mentioned; the weirdness of the events and daily life in all those places is now history – it’s a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent end of all those regimes. Because we are apparently ‘free’ to do and say what we will, it requires an enormous effort of the imagination to begin to understand those times, and most readers younger than me will now need notes and a glossary to be able fully to appreciate some of the writers I’ve mentioned. And they should try: it’s important those times are not forgotten…

Agatha Christie: Miss Marple Short Stories

March 17, 2014

Recently we have been watching some of the Joan Hickson Miss Marple TV series, and I felt moved to read the Miss Marple Short Stories, and these prompted me to some more thinking about the detective story genre.

The short story genre works very well for the Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact, as I consider two of the longer stories to be rather flawed by their lengthy excursions to the United States, I think that the short stories are far superior. Raymond Chandler writes both novels and short stories equally well, though I prefer the more leisurely character and plot development in the novels. But for Miss Marple, I feel that the short story does not work at all well.

There is a lengthy series of stories where the same group of (varied) characters sit in a room; each of them recounts a mystery in which they were involved or came into contact with, and the others try to unravel it: it’s inevitably Miss Marple who comes up with the answer, at the end, and all the others are astonished by her powers of deduction…

There are then some (not very many) stories where there is a crime to solve; again, Miss Marple comes up with the solution very easily: no detective work, no visiting the scene of the crime, no investigation or consideration of clues is involved. She merely uses information imparted by others.

I find all this highly unsatisfactory. Clearly she has considerable powers of analysis: she thinks a lot, as does Sherlock Holmes,  but without the crime scenes, the interviews, the clues, the confrontations, the puzzling, there is nothing there. Solutions are not prepared for, led up to, clued…at all. It seems to me that we lose a great deal from the fact that Miss Marple is an isolated individual – there is no Watson to be puzzled, astounded, to recount the unfolding of the mystery. And yet, an assistant is not vital; Josef Skvorecky‘s depressed and gloomy Lieutenant Boruvka is very much a lone wolf, yet his mysteries intrigue, and involve the reader in the search for a solution.

So, eventually, it will be on to the long stories. which I am told are much better; there is, apparently, much more local colour and investigation, and these are the ones that have been filmed and which I have enjoyed watching. But I have realised that success in the genre is even more complicated, and harder to achieve than I originally thought.

Slawomir Mrozek: The Elephant

February 15, 2014

9780141193045After my recent complaint about short stories, I’ve just read this slim volume of forty-two of them… as Walt Whitman once said (I paraphrase) I see no virtue in being consistent. The stories were all very short, and I really enjoyed them, laughing aloud quite frequently. Why did they work, for me? Each plays with a single idea, taken to absurd extremes, purely to mock something; there is no plot, no character, merely an idea to play with.

Although these stories are described as satirical, and I suppose they are, the absurdist angle struck me more forcefully. Mrozek wrote during the times of the Polish People’s Republic, and he mocks the bureaucracy of the times, the leaders and their pretensions, and the cravenness of their followers, the strange behaviours people often adopted in order to live and stay out of trouble. It was a strange world, one that has begun to pass into history, its absurdities now only in the memories of the older generations. I cannot forget the weirdness of once going into what was called a supermarket, and finding every shelf stacked with pasta, pasta of every kind and shape, but almost no other food of any kind on offer. Or of setting off with a cousin to visit another city and being asked by some one to look out for paint, and to buy some if any were available.

Mrozek’s stories are frivolous, light-hearted, very different from the moodier writings of Czech authors such as Kundera or Skvorecky, or the much more detailed satires of Russians such as Voinovich (The Adventures of Ivan Chonkin) or Zinoviev (The Yawning Heights). It’s as if the regime was so ridiculous that it could not be taken seriously, and in many ways this was true. Poland by and large had a more ‘liberal’ communist regime than any other Eastern European country during that period, and opposition made itself much more noticeable, perhaps because of the strength of the Catholic Church.

I have always found Eastern European literature from this period fascinating. Oppression seems to have stimulated creativity: writers strove to find ways to make their points in covert ways to elude censorship, and often succeeded. Their concerns seemed to have a vitality and an urgency which I found missing in western writers (sweeping statement, I know), but there was the impression that the regimes knew writers were important, could challenge, needed close supervision, that the written word had Power, whereas in the west writers could safely be allowed to write whatever they liked – a safety valve – because no-one really took them seriously and they would never pose a real threat to the system…

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