Little Peter in War and Peace
The appearance of The Cowards in English is the latest episode in the life of what must be one of Europe’s longest-suffering manuscripts. Josef Skvorecký originally wrote this book in Czechoslovakia in 1948-9, when he was only twenty-four. It did not get published. Ten years later he submitted the manuscript of another novel, End of the Nylon Age, which was rejected by the Novotny literary bureaucracy. Irritated, Skvorecký dug out The Cowards again—an enormous bundle of some 800 pages—carved a large novel out of it, and tried that on the authorities.
This time they passed it, an act so astonishing that one suspects malice in view of what followed. The publication of The Cowards by the Writer’s Union led to a disastrous backlash: there were firings in the publishing house, ragings in the official press, and a general purge that extended eventually throughout the arts. In one of those idiotic arguments that occur whenever politicians and writers collide, Skvorecký was left insisting to his critics that even if the hero of the novel had shared in minute detail the experiences of the author in real life, yet the hero could not be taken as “Skvorecký speaking.”
How happy, in retrospect, was Skvorecký to be playing games with the censors in 1958! That was a time of early dawn and green shoots compared to what is going on now. Five years after The Cowards appeared, in 1963, a second edition was published with a cheeky and impenitent Introduction by the author. Today, however, Skvorecký lives and teaches in Canada. Too many dawns without subsequent days, he may reflect, have been the curse of Czech literature. It looked good in 1948; it looked good in 1958; in 1968 it looked very good indeed. Each time, the dawn cooled directly into dusk. Ivan Klimá has said that “Czech culture is the element of continuity in our society.” How much cultural disruption can that society endure without permanent damage?
The Cowards dates from almost a week ago of false dawns. A small town near the German border faces up to imminent liberation in May, 1945. The narrator, a boy with a saxophone, observes his town with the accuracy of Sherwood Anderson; soon he will be leaving for Prague, for a new world, for big city girls. Danny belongs to a jazz band, a group of young men and their girls who watch the town bigwigs preparing for a safe little “revolution” against the Germans once they can be sure there will be no resistance.
The jazzmen (“Bob Crosby-style Dixieland”) take in all this with the disabused yet sentimental interest in the activities of the uninitiated which Mezz Mezzrow would have expected of them. They scorn the official heroics, but wonder queasily how they are going to stand the test themselves. Jazz, however, remains for them the only “real” thing.
Skvorecký has written about this in other stories, but never re-created this state of mind so well. Jazz meant something very …