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Only in Amerika

The Bride of Texas

by Josef Skvorecky, translated by Káca Polácková Henley
Knopf, 437 pp., $27.00

Headed for the Blues: A Memoir

by Josef Skvorecky, translated by Káca Polácková Henley
Ecco Press, 149 pp., $23.00

1.

The bride of Texas, in Josef Skvoreckyå«’s new novel, is not from Texas at all. Born in the 1830s to a family of tenant farmers in Moravia, then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Lida Toupelikova ought by rights to marry one of the neighbors’ sons and spend the rest of her life raising children and doing drudge-work. But besides having a pretty face and striking blue eyes, she burns with ambition to climb the social ladder.

First she seduces, gets pregnant by, and comes within an ace of marrying the son of their landlord. Then, when the Toupeliks are packed off to Texas to get her out of the way, she ensnares Etienne de Ribordeaux, heir to a cotton plantation. Disinherited by his angry father and discarded by Lida, Etienne commits suicide; Lida promptly marries a vapid young army officer named Baxter Warren II, prospective head of the Warren Bank in San Francisco.

The philosophy of Lida, bride of Texas, is simple: “In this world it’s the strong ones that win out. And love? Well, go for love—but if you can’t get love, then go for anything you can get.” In the course of going for whatever she can get, the eyes of this hard, calculating young immigrant lose their cornflower innocence and acquire a chilling, reptilian glaze.

Lida Toupelikova (or Linda Towpelick, as she renames herself on the far side of the Great Waters) and her brother Cyril are among a handful of wholly fictional characters in a novel that otherwise takes its stand on the rock of history. In fact the Toupeliks are doubly fictitious: their author has lifted them—as he disarmingly admits—from a story that appeared in a Czech-language magazine in Chicago in 1898. Etienne de Ribordeaux and Baxter Warren II are also inventions. Otherwise the stage is thronged with “real” characters from a far greater drama: the latter years of the American Civil War, the restoration of the Union, the ending of slavery.

The Bride of Texas is only secondarily a romance of ambition and acquisitiveness: it is first of all a war novel, concerned with the progress of the war, battle by battle, and with the fate of some of the humbler soldiers who took part in it. Lida may give the novel its name, but its central character is a man, drawn by Skvorecký from the records of the Twenty-Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers: Jan Kapsa, like Lida an immigrant from the subject lands of the Empire.

Kapsa has served in two armies: the army of the Habsburg Empire, in which he had been used to suppress the nationalist uprisings of 1848; and now the army of the Union, where he has risen through the ranks to become a sergeant on the staff of General Sherman. Kapsa has come to America in search of freedom. He has seen imperial Austria-Hungary and imperial Russia at work, so he is familiar with one version of what freedom is not. To a Polish fugitive from tsarist rule, he remarks: “We’re fighting this war [the Civil War] to rid America of everything that’s like Russia.” Of Sherman he says: “[He] isn’t a killer. He destroys things, maybe, but he doesn’t kill. Not like the Russians.”

Another version of freedom scrutinized and rejected by Kapsa is that put forward by states’ rights secessionists. Kapsa knows what old-fashioned serfdom entails. In fighting to end slavery in America, he believes he is fighting for the freedom of his native Bohemia too. He has no doubt about who is right and who is wrong. When the war is over he can look back with satisfaction on a job well done; in comfortable old age he ruminates on the ugly shape the twentieth century might have taken had the Union lost.

Kapsa is thus no good soldier Schweik. On the contrary, he is a career soldier, a sturdy, thoughtful man who reveres his commanding general. Sherman, for his part, emerges as a modern-style strategist, wary of pitched battles, indifferent to glory.

There is, however, a version of Schweik in the novel, whom Skvorecký has injected into it in order to leaven the tale of the worthy but otherwise rather plodding Czech-American riflemen whose fortunes he has chosen to follow. Jan Amos Shake is a “gnome with the clever, guileless eyes of a con man,” than whom there is “hardly a greater coward in all of Sherman’s army.” Broadly funny things keep happening to Shake: a Confederate standard-bearer trips over him as he cowers on the battlefield and impales himself on a bayonet; he falls out of a tree and knocks a Confederate major off his horse.

Whereas Lida has fled the Old World to escape a life of hardship, Kapsa leaves behind him a romantic intrigue involving the wife of an officer, an intrigue that culminates in the death of the betrayed husband, followed by the flight of Kapsa, innocent of his blood, bearing his mistress’s blessing and the gift of her diamond necklace. Kapsa does not give up his passion for Ursula von Hanzlitschek; through a complicated piece of plotting turning on the necklace, he is allowed to meet her one last time in Chicago, long enough to confirm that he still loves her. Further authorial machinations then supply him with enough money to woo the widow of a Czech comrade-at-arms, and enjoy the pleasures of marriage, fatherhood, and a leisurely old age on a farm in Wisconsin.

Czech settlement in the United States—principally in Texas and the Midwest—dates back to the 1820s, but the great spur to emigration from the Czech homelands was the failed uprising of 1848 and the repressions that followed. Through Kapsa and his comrades, Skvorecký is concerned to pay tribute to the first generation of Czechs in the New World, and in particular those Czechs who, though they could have avoided conscription (they were, after all, not citizens), chose to enlist and fight as Americans. An odd change of direction, perhaps, for a novelist who made his name as a satirist. Yet Skvorecký himself went into exile in Canada after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of his country. His book can be seen as a way of claiming, for Czech immigrants of a later generation, continuity with North American traditions of democracy and love of freedom.

During the early 1950s, when Skvorecký began seriously writing novels, he evolved a narrative method that worked well for him and that he has seen no reason to discard. It involves dividing the story into narrative strands and following these strands in parallel, sometimes bringing them together and interweaving them, sometimes abruptly intercutting between them. As he has grown more assured in his craft, he has multiplied the number of strands and accelerated the pace of the intercutting, until with The Bride of Texas readers may find themselves flashing back and forth, for no more than a paragraph or two at a time, between Bohemia and the Carolinas, between 1848 and 1864, between the Ribordeaux plantation and the battlefield of Bentonville.

It is a method that owes a great deal to William Faulkner. In his early years in Czechoslovakia Skvorecký was known as an Americanist, a translator of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other modern masters, knowledgeable about American literature and American jazz. There is even a Snopes smuggled in among the minor characters of The Bride of Texas as an homage to Faulkner, just as Shake/ Schweik pays homage to Skvorecký’s great comic forebear Jaroslav Hašek.

Skvorecký’s battle scenes cannot be said to be grippingly written. There is an air of dutifulness about them, as though the example of Stephen Crane were continually before him, intimidating and discouraging him. For the battles around Bentonville he manages for the first time to create a degree of suspense and an air of impending disaster. But finally his heart is not in it. For an episode of despairing Southern bravery, he falls back into Faulknerian pastiche; his treatment of the carnage is perfunctory, as though the horror repelled him yet did not fascinate him.

Similarly, the Texas in which the Toupeliks settle is a rather abstract, unrealized place. Skvorecký conveys no sense of the heat and space of the Southwest; there is no hint of a Spanish presence. In his memoir Headed for the Blues, Skvorecký has confessed to having no interest in landscape; his nineteenth-century America is much more convincing when he gets to the big city and can write about how the politics and rivalries of the Habsburg Empire play themselves out among Chicago’s immigrant communities.

The main strands of Skvorecký’s narrative concern the doings of Lida and Kapsa in their European and American manifestations, and the fortunes of Lida’s likable younger brother Cyril, who falls hopelessly in love with a slave concubine of Etienne’s only to see her sold by Lida. The other main presence in the novel is a cautious disciple of Margaret Fuller named Lorraine Henderson Tracy, who as “Laura Lee” has made a reputation as the author of novels for young girls.

The entirely fictional Lorraine breaks into the narrative in a series of four interchapters (“intermezzos”) in which she comments on the progress of the war and in particular on the efforts of Clement Laird Vallandigham, leader of the antiwar Copperhead movement, to bring about the defeat of President Lincoln in the 1864 election. Pitted against Vallandigham is Lorraine’s onetime romantic admirer, a “real” character, General Ambrose Everett Burnside, whose handsome sidewhiskers gave rise to the word “sideburns.”

Burnside, as military commander of Illinois, has the unenviable task of upholding the Constitution and Bill of Rights—which the war is after all being fought to preserve—while at the same time ensuring that Vallandigham does not get away with sedition. Svoreckyå« uses Lorraine to set out the legal and ethical issues at stake, and to chart the maneuvers of the adversaries as each tries to wrongfoot the other. (Here he draws heavily upon Shelby Foote’s history of the Civil War.)

One can see why Vallandigham’s campaign would interest Skvorecký—it raises questions about the limits of dissent in a democracy—just as one can see why he has created Lorraine—to provide a perspective on the war that stretches beyond events on the battlefield. But the issues are inadequately dramatized; in Lorraine’s intermezzos Skvorecký fails to create a fictional vehicle adequate to the weight of political history it must bear. The discussions of political issues remain arid, and the lengthy passages in which Lorraine does her desperate best to bring the material to life are best skipped.

Skvorecký has obviously read widely on the Civil War (his novel comes with a two-page list of sources as well as a four-page historical foreword). He has interesting asides on the arms used by footsoldiers, and on developments in armaments technology on the Union side. He reminds us that this was a war in which the combatants were for the most part literate and enjoyed writing home, suggesting, indeed, that in some respects the letters of ordinary soldiers are more trustworthy than the reports of journalists. It was also a war in which farmers got to argue with generals over whether battles should be fought on their land or their neighbors’.

In particular, Skvorecký takes pains to bring to the foreground the role of black Americans in the war, whether as noncombatants actively following the progress of hostilities and aiding the Union forces where they can, or, as the war progresses, as enlisted men in black regiments. Cyril Toupelik’s inamorata Dinah is also given a substantial speaking part as a storyteller à la Scheherazade (though her stories, it must be said, have their longueurs), while by the end of the war Lorraine is at work on a novel of her own, to be called The Carolina Bride, about a slave couple who escape to the north on the Underground Railroad.

2.

Josef Skvorecký came into prominence when, at the 1959 congress of the Czech Writers’ Union, his novel The Cowards (written 1948-1949, published 1958, English translation 1970) was denounced by Party spokesmen as “profoundly alien [in spirit] to our beautiful democratic and humanistic literature.” It is not clear why Skvorecký was singled out as whipping boy; but, coming from a middle-class, Catholic background, with a Ph.D. from Charles University for a thesis on Thomas Paine, he was clearly vulnerable to attack, while The Cowards—an irreverent, satirical look at Czech society during the so-called May revolution of 1945, when the German occupiers were moving out and the Soviet liberators moving in—hardly fitted the socialist-realist mold.

The effect of the banning that ensued was predictable. The Cowards circulated illegally and was widely read, while its author became a cult figure among the young.

News of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia reached Skvorecký while he was on a visit to France. The question for him was, should he return? In 1948, when the Communists first took power, he was in his twenties and had the energy, he felt, to start life all over again. Now, in his mid-forties, the resilience and optimism of youth had gone. He and his wife chose exile: a teaching job in Toronto was prolonged into residence, and eventually the Skvoreckýs became Canadian citizens.

Since leaving Czechoslovakia, Skvorecký has not been prolific as a novelist. As his Czech experience has become more remote, and as Communist Czechoslovakia—indeed, Czechoslovakia itself as political entity—has receded into the past, the material and the passions out of which the earlier novels grew have become exhausted. At the same time Skvorecký seems to have struggled to transplant himself imaginatively to a North American environment. He continues to publish his books in Czech first (until recently via the publishing house Sixty-Eight, run by his wife Zdena Salivarova and himself, an enterprise whose contribution toward keeping Czech literature alive during the 1970s and 1980s has been incalculable) and only subsequently in English translation.

The Engineer of Human Souls (Czech 1977, English translation 1985) was the last novel to rely heavily on Skvorecký’s Czech experience. Dvorák in Love (Czech 1983, English translation 1986) follows Anton Dvorák during the four years he spent as director of the National Conservatory in New York, a period that included the composition of his Symphony no. 5 (“From the New World”) of 1893. The novel is held together by Skvorecký’s love of music—not only Dvorák’s but the music of African Americans, of which Dvorák himself was, of course, a passionate advocate. (In an article in a New York newspaper Dvorák wrote: “The future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies…. These are the folk songs of America.”)1 This gentle and affectionate book may be read as Skvorecký’s first attempt to locate a Czech-American tradition in which there would be space to set loose his imagination, and thus to refashion himself positively as a Czech North American rather than negatively as a Czech exile. The Bride of Texas is the second.

Skvorecký is not a great prose artist. By comparison with his contemporary Milan Kundera, whose language is masterly in its elegance and lucidity, Skvorecký is an honest journeyman. His strengths lie elsewhere. Kundera himself has singled out Skvorecký for “his special way of viewing history from underneath,” as well as for the “anti-revolutionary spirit” of his novels, their “critique of the spirit of revolution, with its myths, its eschatology, and its all-or-nothing attitude.”2 “I can’t imagine that a spoken certainty can exist without an unspoken uncertainty behind it,” writes Skvorecký, confirming this skeptical tendency in his thought.

Nevertheless, the linguistic texture of Skvorecký’s fiction is anything but simple. Czech readers have reportedly found his post-1968 work heavy going because much of the dialogue is written in a Czech heavily influenced by American or Canadian English. The comic effects that result are by their nature difficult to translate back into English; it is to the advantage of Skvorecký’s English translators—first Paul Wilson, more recently Káca Polácková Henley—that the author has involved himself in their labors.

Headed for the Blues is a brief autobiography of Skvorecký in his political aspect or, rather, of Skvorecký’s fictional alter ego Danny Smiricky, the hero of several of his novels. The story runs from the early 1940s to the 1980s, though not as far as 1989. Weaving in and out of the story of Danny is the story of Prema, the friend of his youth with whom he transmitted radio messages to the West, and who subsequently fled abroad.

If Danny is the intellectual and self-doubter, Prema is the average Czech, partly decent, partly crooked. Prema keeps in touch with Danny by postcard as he drifts around the world (Prema’s postcards, with their naive, earthy comments on the lot of the immigrant, were already drawn on in The Engineer of Human Souls). In 1968 Prema returns home. His postcards from Czechoslovakia suggest that he has at last settled down—or, in Danny’s interpretation, been sucked back into the system, “[inoculated]… with their devastating oversimplification of reality.” But Danny need not have feared: the next postcard to arrive is from Australia.

Skvorecký calls the Czechoslovakia of late Communism a “world of exhausted investigators,…overworked fizls” (fizl is Czech slang for a security-police operative); the 1950s, in contrast, were “the time of exhausted executioners”: two phases of a regime which could never, from beginning to end, inspire loyalty in its subjects or any but the most cynically self-interested fidelity in its servants.

Although Skvorecký was involved in minor episodes of sabotage against the Nazis (episodes on which he draws in his novels), and although Headed for the Blues opens in 1948 with Danny Smiricky sending illegal messages to the West, and soon afterward composing a pamphlet containing what he calls a “rather moronic appeal to the nation,” these activities did not grow out of burning political conviction.

Skvorecký’s awakening to the real intentions of his Communist rulers came only in 1950, when to his astonishment a group of idealistic young Boy Scout leaders were sentenced to ten to twenty years in prison for—so the indictment read—furthering the interests of a foreign power (in this case the Vatican). In the aftermath, Skvorecký writes, he felt the guilt of the survivor: the only reason why he, too, was not in the dock, he suggests, was that he “didn’t believe, didn’t know, wasn’t certain, abstained from belief not out of cowardice…but because he just didn’t know.”

Headed for the Blues presents totalitarianism, and in particular the culture of spying, as a creeping malaise of the soul. In the longest anecdote in the book, Skvorecký relates how in Toronto he meets Milena, an old friend from his student days, now married to a Czech named Pavlas. Though Skvorecký and his wife take an immediate dislike to Pavlas for his sycophantic inquisitiveness, for Milena’s sake they endure him; by the time it has become clear that Pavlas is a fizl on assignment abroad, they have smoothed his way into the Toronto Czech community, on whom he has no doubt busily been reporting to his superiors.

The story reminds Skvorecký—who is never self-righteous—that as a young man he himself almost gave in to pressure from the secret police to write reports on colleagues at the school where he was teaching. Thus he is able to put his finger on what is worst about a society riddled with spying. What spies report is only of secondary importance. By its very nature institutionalized spying, and the mutual suspiciousness it engenders, corrode the openness of citizens toward each other. “Nobody…knows who is who…. You can’t trust old friends, sweethearts or maybe even husbands.”

To the Czech bourgeoisie Skvorecký gives wholly unironic praise: during its dark years under Communism, he suggests, it shed its worst qualities (smugness, philistinism, moral indifference), while these qualities passed, by the sleight-of-hand of history, to its persecutors. “How persistently they rose again… not for the love of profit, but because they were the bourgeoisie, the underpinnings of the world. Diligent, capable, creative, stubborn, opinionated, incorrigible…. The only genuine creators of successful economic systems.”

He sets down a profoundly anti-political credo that echoes in spirit not only Confucius but also his own eminent contemporary, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert: “Treason, betraying one’s homeland, or, in my case, betraying a political conviction…is always a lesser sin than betrayal of a friend.” Since his early youth, he tells us, jazz has been important to him and has inspired much of his best writing: “I’ve always believed in the indomitable defiance contained in that beautiful rhythmic music.” And he produces a tongue-in-cheek defense against the charge that the Skvoreckian universe is unnaturally overpopulated with long-limbed, good-humored, eagerly compliant girls: the girls are there, he suggests, as a symbol for “a world in which beauty is always fleeting.”

Looking back over his career, Skvorecký produces a humorously modest obituary: “After years of socialist realism…he was the first to bring to Czech prose a firsthand, deliberately subjective perception of life, an unfettered treatment of motifs that until then had remained taboo (eroticism, jazz), and a colloquial narrative with slang in the dialogue.” He believes that each human being should, in the course of a lifetime, create at least one thing that will outlast him. “I think…The Cowards will outlive me the way my father’s orthopedic shoes outlived master cobbler Zahálka of Kostelec.”

Not a bad attempt, one feels, at the treacherous task of self-evaluation. The Cowards may well outlive its author, though The Miracle Game (English translation 1990) is probably a better novel, with its great set-piece scenes (including the anguished, shouted exchanges between the citizens of Prague in 1968 and the Russian tank troops, the latter no less bewildered by their role than the people they have been sent to liberate, and an evening with a famous Russian novelist and his KGB minder in a fashionable Viennese restaurant). Yet despite Skvorecký’s admirable candor and engaging wryness, it is sad to see a writer admit, in so many words, that he reached his peak long ago.

  1. 1

    Quoted by Edwin Rothstein, in Sam Solecki, editor, The Achievement of Josef Skvorecký (University of Toronto Press, 1994), p. 155.

  2. 2

    Kundera, in Solecki, The Achievement of Josef Skvorecký, p. 29.

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