Posts Tagged ‘The Engineer of Human Souls’

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…

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On old favourites

March 11, 2017

I’m sure everyone has these. I have more books than I care to think about (sometimes) and I’ll certainly never now have the time to get around to (re)-reading them all. But among them are some books I have loved for many years and which I treasure with a great fondness. Childhood favourites are The Wind in the Willows – my copy is certainly the first book in my library and I can still recall buying it with a Christmas book token when I was seven or eight years old. I used to fantasise about living in Badger’s underground home, so cosy it seemed. And I discovered a brilliant audio version, yes, on the librivox website…

Then there was Winnie the Pooh, which I loved; I recently bought a new copy to be able to read to my new grandson, in a few years time. Somewhere I have a copy of the Latin translation, bought as a curiosity many years ago. And The Borrowers, which was serialised in a children’s magazine when I was very young. I bought my elder daughter the omnibus edition and we shared it as a bedtime book but never got to the end together before she became too old for bedtime stories…

I also loved Professor Branestawm’s adventures, unable to read them without collapsing into hysterical fits of laughter; I still wish I could imitate him and send the gas company an envelope filled with mashed potato instead of a cheque paying the bill.

Grown-up reading seems rather different to me: as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown out of, or beyond some of the books that moved me greatly when I was younger. I haven’t lost Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund and will revisit it every few years for as long as I’m able: it meant something else to me when I was a mere student, and now in my older age it holds very different but just as significant messages for me. I shall also return regularly to Oscar’s adventures in The Tin Drum, to the reflectiveness of Adso in The Name of the Rose, and the magical world of Maldonado in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And – I’m still not sure why, but Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls demands to be re-read, if only for its magnificent swearing. And if I was to pick out one SF novel, it would have to be Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars: anyone who can project us a billion years into the future earns my respect. Finally, you won’t be surprised to hear, nothing will separate me from Sherlock Holmes (in this existence, at least).

Where I’m heading, I think, is towards what has made me love these books for so long, to come back to them so many times. They’re not the only ones that I re-read, by any means, but they means something different and special to me. I suppose that I must have read them at various crucial moments in my life. That’s certainly true of the Hesse and the Arthur C Clarke; I just can’t remember about the others. Some of them are brilliant novels that are on many lists of ‘the greats’, others are probably only great to me. What they share, for me, is the ways they open up life and experience, reveal the vastness of our lives and the universe.

Oscar remembers, recreates a vanished world, a place that no longer exists. Many other novels do this, too – Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for example. But the haunting picture of the lost Danzig is overlaid with the many tragedies of its inhabitants: the Jewish toyshop owner who commits suicide, the mixed communities which in the end could no longer co-exist, the Germans who had to leave.

Hesse shows us a friendship which lasts many years, a lifetime, in fact. So do many novels. But he also shows what attracts these so very different characters to each other and what sustains the bond across the years when they are on their separate journeys, and somehow manages to link these two men to the wider human condition, our needs for companionship and understanding.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to play a game with myself. I have to downsize, perhaps eventually move into some sort of sheltered accommodation, and can only take a hundred books with me: what would I choose from the thousands I currently have? All of the ones I’ve mentioned above would be on the list. It’s a bit like returning to childhood, which is where I began this post: I still have my very first bookcase, which my dad made for me when I was about seven: I gradually filled it up as I grew up. It might just hold a hundred books.

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…

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