Posts Tagged ‘writers in exile’

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)

Andrzej Franaszek: Miłosz, A Biography

October 7, 2020

I’ve been familiar with Czesław Miłosz’ autobiographical and literary writing for many years, but haven’t really got to grips with his poetry yet; my interest stems from his being from the part of Poland where my father and his forebears originate, and the interplay between the notions (and nations) of Poland and Lithuania in past centuries. The more I read, the more complicated it all seems. I found myself reading about him now as I grow older myself and look back on my life and consider how much I have been affected by my fifty percent Polishness.

This is a very detailed and well-written biography that anchors the poet’s life very firmly in his poetry. There are excellent, copious notes and a full bibliography; it’s also very nicely produced and once again reminded me of how much higher US production values for books are than our own. I like books that are physically good to handle and pleasurable to read.

Miłosz is one of the true greats of recent Polish literature and culture, and clearly deserved the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. We read of his life as a student, and of intellectual life generally, in the poorest region of the second Polish Republic, as well as the incredibly complex interrelationships of races, nations and peoples in that borderland region, the troubled history of which has been so well recorded by Timothy Snyder.

The second republic was not terribly stable and what with being sandwiched between Russia and Germany and learning to become an independent country again, was increasingly chaotic as the 1930s progressed, particularly in the borderlands. Eventually it became a political quagmire as well as a military dictatorship, torn between a narrow nationalistic vision and a broader one which wanted to encompass at least some of the ideals and the peoples of the nation’s great past. The anti-semitism of the right-wing government was appalling.

Miłosz travelled widely, spending considerable time in Paris with his uncle, womanising and sorting out his attitudes to politics and religion, specifically Catholicism, which had and still has a leaden hold on the country. Having survived the insanity of Nazi occupation during the Second World War, he then faced the tragic dilemma of many Polish intellectuals after the war, seeking change and progress and yet faced with the inevitable Sovietisation of Poland. How to slow this down, how to distance oneself from the old rejects of the second republic, now emigres, but the ones who had aided and abetted the calamity of the war, and still hankered after the past?

Having initially thrown his lot in with the new order, Miłosz reached a point where he had to break with it and went into exile, first in France and subsequently living, working and teaching in the US for the second half of his life, tarnished for many Poles with the brush of collaboration with the Stalinists…

His was an incredibly full and complex life, a very reflective one which he mirrored in his poetry, which I am now hoping to begin to come to grips with, as it does exist in decent translations on which the man himself collaborated.

I rarely read biographies; I find them hard going unless it’s a person whose life really interests me, and in the end this one was worth it for all the insights into person, places and the intellectual difficulties of those times.

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…

Witold Gombrowicz: Ferdydurke

April 3, 2015

41L3hsuxUbL._AA160_ (1)So, I’ve finally read another of the oldest unread books in my library, which has been languishing there for about 35 years. I think I’ll stop reading Gombrowicz now. This novel articulates in fictional form many of the ideas that he wrote about at length in his diaries; it seems on so many levels to be allegorical, about the difficulties of the new Poland in coming to terms with its new self and its past.

Superficially it’s a story of transformation: an adult of thirty regresses into a schoolboy of half that age, who then undergoes a number of increasingly bizarre, often hallucinatory adventures. I found myself wondering about transformations in the literature of th 1920s and 1930s: there’s Gregor Samsa in Kafka‘s Metamorphosis, the transformations I mentioned in The Street of Crocodiles, and now here.

Our schoolboy adult in class is forced, by idiotic teachers in the most asinine ways possible, to admit to liking the traditional classics; the idea is that the past perpetuates itself and its values in spite of subsequent generations who want to escape it. I could see how Gombrowicz’ contemporaries were challenged and shocked by his onslaught on the old ways, beliefs and traditions. His allegory presents a new Polish Republic that is not a nation rejuvenated, so much as a nation infantilised by a semi-moronic insistence on past glories. He is also desperately searching for the key to how one can escape the bonds of one’s past, either as an individual or as a nation.

There is an almost coherent narrative strand to Ferdydurke, with the newly-infantilised schoolboy standing for the new Polish nation, though interrupted by Shandean authorial interventions where the author seeks to direct our thinking himself… There are farcical scenes about duelling, about a daughter who invites two different men, a teacher and a fellow-pupil, to her room for an assignation… on the same night, and a bizarre episode in an aristocratic household where the author’s friend wants to ‘fraternise’ with a servant: the consequences are farcical. Gombrowicz is setting up the ridiculousness of the bourgeoisie, and using anarchy as his secret weapon. And what, exactly, were the relations between social classes in interwar Poland supposed to be? The aristocracy was legally abolished in 1919.

Ultimately it’s a book of its time, I think, and will be increasingly hard to approach for subsequent generations. As I worked my way towards the denouement, I found myself thinking of James Joyce‘s realisation, at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that he must leave his native land and go into exile, and seeing the parallel working itself out in Gombrowicz’ mind: there was no place for him in the new Poland, and he left forever, a couple of weeks before Hitler and Stalin snuffed out its brief existence.

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