At War with Stupidity

Some writers, and many great ones, remain in their books. They may devastate your feelings and change your ideas, but they stay in the pages. Others, for no reason that I can define, move forward and enter your life. Primo Levi, and perhaps Tolstoy, are figures who have to be loved as a lost father or a brother killed in war may be loved. Josef Skvoreckyå«, in contrast, settles in the imagination as an irresistible friend. Reading him, I often catch myself feeling impatient to sit down with him again (though we have never met) in the corner of a bar and listen to him laughing, telling stories, and making sense out of the callous disorder around us.

He is not the best of the late-twentieth-century Czech writers. He doesn’t have the sheer talent of Kundera or Hrabal, the surreal elegance of Klíma or the dark imagination of Vaculík, and he can veer off occasionally into rambling monotony or facetiousness. But Skvoreckyå« possesses, in larger measure than any of the others, that special Czech humanism which sees the nakedness of the emperor. This has been a culture of rational, practical people who have repeatedly been invited to hurl themselves into the furnace of millennial ideologies. The response of most Czech artists has been stubborn: a set of statements in film and literature that the doings of insignificant people—their kindnesses and hypocrisies, their saxophones, mistresses, and account books—matter more than Proletarian Interna-tionalism or the Fate-Struggle against Judeo-Bolshevism.

Skvoreckyå« has spent his life at war with stupidity on at least three fronts. He has been a jazz musician, a writer of fiction, and—after his first novel, The Cowards, was condemned for reactionary frivolity by the Communist authorities—a writer for Czech feature films in their most brilliant period before the Soviet-led invasion of 1968. That disaster caught Skvoreckyå« abroad; he decided not to return and became a professor of literature at a Canadian university. From there, he established and ran the main Czech publishing house in exile until the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989.

He is a prolific writer. When Eve Was Naked is his eighteenth book of fiction, and his talent for farce and satire has brought him the reputation of a humorist. But there is much more to Skvoreckyå« than comedy. The voice of his writing is usually sunny and joyful, the high spirits of Mozart or of Sidney Bechet. The matter of his stories, however, can be very dark indeed.

His new book seems at first sight disjointed, a collection of short stories and sketches written throughout his career, from 1949 to the present. There is a slight feeling of leftovers, as if a writer who felt that his work was nearly complete (Skvoreckyå« is in his seventies) were tidying out drawers and cupboards. All these tales have been published before, in a score of reviews in three or four countries, but never brought together in book form. A few are too slight to justify republishing …

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