All the Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema
Political Grouping in the Czechoslovak Reform Movement
Reform Rule in Czechoslovakia: The Dubcek Era 1968-1969
Antonin Liehm, that tireless memorialist of Czech culture in the Sixties, somewhere tells a story about a discussion in Prague between Novotny and Khrushchev. How did one keep the impudent sparrow of art in order? Novotny suggested squeezing it in one’s fist until it became meek and breathless. Khrushchev found this unsubtle. The thing to do was to hold the sparrow between finger and thumb and pull out all its feathers one after another. When the creature was quite nude and plucked, you opened your hand. And the sparrow would have no choice but to snuggle back into your palm for warmth.
This revolting tale has application for Czechs today. The feathers have been plucked and have floated off in the Siberian wind to land in places as diverse as Hamburg, Hollywood, and the porters’ lodges of suburban Prague hotels. None of the major artists is actually in jail, but none of them, if employed at all within Czechoslovakia, has been given work of any significance. About half the best men and women in literature, the theater, the films are abroad. The naked sparrow crouches in the palm, but so far, it must be said, has shown no signs of snuggling. Lists of published fiction and current films are short and full of blank spaces.
Until something begins to happen again in Czechoslovakian culture—by which I mean something of artistic value that is published rather than written for the drawer or for transmission abroad, or shown on the screen of a public movie house instead of causing official tantrums in the projection room of a film school—this remains a time for looking back and for assessment. The artists of the Sixties are entitled to be proud of what they achieved, and to enjoy some nostalgia. In All the Bright Young Men and Women, whose subtitle is “A Personal History of the Czech Cinema,” Josef Skvorecky has written a touching and very comical book about the apparently extinct dynasty of the Czech film makers. Skvorecky himself, who now lives in Canada, is a novelist whose book The Cowards caused one of the first cultural uproars in post-1948 Czechoslovakia, and who afterward became something of a one-man advice bureau to the dozens of writers and directors who subsequently made President Novotny hit the ceiling.
As well as writing novels, Skvorecky was a jazz maniac (a main theme in The Cowards) and movie addict, and when he was kicked off the publishing lists he gravitated naturally to films. He wrote scripts, contributed ideas, married an actress, and worked as an extra in films directed by his friends. A round man of evident appetites, he had a fine bit part as the Greedy Man in Nemec’s Report on the Party and the Guests. Skvorecky, with his friendships throughout the Prague cultural scene and his inclination to laugh rather than cry at all but the worst disasters, was the perfect man to write this gossipy, engaging, and shrewd book about the gestation and birth…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.