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 them. But most of them, cleverly ordered and edited, have been arranged into the form of a Central European life: an idyll of pre-war bourgeois existence, then the Nazi occupation, the Communist decades, and finally exile in the West. Skvoreckyå« readers meet again the “libidinous and jazz-loving” character of Danny Smirå«ickyå«, the author’s alter ego who has been the main character of almost all his novels and stories.
Small-town life, the tribulations of the young trying to make love and music under joyless dictatorships, the absurdity of officials: these are the themes of many of the stories here. But the strand common to most of them is humiliation. The title story tells of a shy little girl who is forced to show herself naked on a holiday beach. It is about the sensitivity of children, but it takes place during an excursion to Fascist Italy, and in the background are a group of Hitler Youth marching and singing on the sands, black prisoners from the Abyssinian war, callous officials in gaudy uniforms. The scene is set for a half-century in which tender feelings are crushed by totalitarian regimes, and ordinary people are ashamed of their own behavior.
Two groups of stories stand out and have a coherence of their own. One, entitled “The Thousand-Year Empire,” brings together stories mostly written (but mostly not published) between 1957 and 1964 in Czechoslovakia, a fairly level period between the murderous repression of the Stalinist years and the upsurge of cultural and political unrest in the later 1960s. They are about life under the Nazis in “Kostelec,” the small Bohemian town where Danny grew up, and above all they are about the Jews of Kostelec: respected citizens of the community in a town where there is already a German minority fervent about the new Reich across the border, but where Czech anti-Semitism is little more than a vulgar muttering among the uneducated. Danny’s life is saved by the dignified Dr. Strass, the family physician, and he is taught German in private lessons (patiently declining der gute alte Wein) by Mr. Katz.
Then the Nazis come. Danny’s father, to his shame and fury, is obliged to find another family doctor, and is denounced for continuing to let Mr. Katz teach his son. The Jews are dispossessed and evicted from their large houses, and Danny has a glimpse of Dr. Strass and Mr. Katz—unshaven, disheveled—through the dirty window of the café designated “for Jews.” Danny sees them for the last time, standing at the station in a long line of Jews with suitcases and bundles on the day of their deportation. Dr. Strass will be hanged at Theresienstadt; Mr. Katz and his family, Sara Abeles with her baby, the Löbl brothers, and so many other neighbors who have been part of Danny’s life will be taken to Auschwitz.
And in Kostelec, people begin to change. Mr. Husa, manager of the drapery store, is married to Frau Tilda, a bossy Sudeten German. Now he transforms himself into Herr Hüsse, shaves his head down to Teutonic bristles, and grows an Adolf moustache. Frau Tilda, joyfully obeying the Führer’s call to multiply (Gebärfreudigkeit was the frightful Nazi word, as I remember), gives birth to a son who is named Horst. Her husband swaggers about the town, but his older son, Ruda, Danny’s schoolfriend, refuses to Germanify; as punishment, he is sent into the Wehrmacht and vanishes somewhere on the Eastern Front.
The only sane member of the ménage is old Mrs. Rittenbach, the Husa/ Hüsse housekeeper. This Sudeten Mother Courage makes no secret of her contempt for the Thousand-Year Reich. In her recklessly loud voice, she observes that her boss “is no Cherman at all…just a dirty little Nazi,” while his wife Tilda is crazy enough to give a nightly kiss to the portrait of that “—what’s the guy’s name?—that Adolf Hüttler….”
All this forms the prelude to the most shattering story in this book, “The Cuckoo.” To retell it would be to violate the right of readers to take its full impact. But a few hints can be given. Sara Abeles, who has carried her fair-haired baby into the train bound for a camp, is the only member of her family to survive Auschwitz. She returns alone to Kostelec after the war, and goes at once to see the dying Mrs. Rittenbach. Meanwhile, Danny and his friends had noticed that little Horst, wheeled in his pram by Mrs. Rittenbach, is remarkably dark-eyed and does not look like his parents. There is no comfort in the ending of this story, the fable of an unspeakably terrible revenge which also destroys the avenger.
Young Jewish women who survive the Holocaust recur in these tales. Skvoreckyå« writes about their loneliness, their lasting sense of abandonment and insignificance in a Czech society which has heard their story too often to be patient with their emotional needs. In “Fragments About Rebecca,” a girl rings at the door of the Prague woman to whom her father entrusted his jewelry before being deported to the camps. It is a scene which took place hundreds of times: the beady stare of alarm, the lies (the Prague lady says that the jewels were passed to somebody else who was executed by the Nazis: “It was a tragic business”), the ugly relief as Rebecca admits that she is the only member of her family to return alive. Some of these young women seek reassurance in promiscuity; others commit suicide. Jana (in “Filthy Cruel World”) becomes Danny’s girlfriend until he dumps her, irritated by her desperate nagging for love and marriage, and unnerved by her pessimism.
Jana figures in the second connected group of stories, “The Evil Empire,” written between 1948 (the year of the Communist takeover) and 1967. The most accomplished of these, “The End of Bull Mácha,” describes the decline and fall of an aging jazz addict in the 1950s as the Party’s cultural bureaucracy cracks down on degenerate “American” music and dancing. Bull Mácha cannot quite believe that the blissful postwar age of stomping and bebop riffs, of a gang of friends who lived for this music and its “nylon age” fashion in slang and clothes, is passing away forever. Mácha, once nicknamed “Gablík” (little Clark Gable) for his devil-may-care style, now stands alone in the Prague rain, “a living fossil” with his ducktail haircut and winkle-picker shoes. When he finally discovers a jazz band blowing the old sounds, he cannot understand why the girls nervously break away from him when he begins to jitterbug. The waiter complains: “You can’t dance that kind of dance in here.” The police arrive; there is a fracas and Mácha is thrown out. “The bastards…. But they won’t make me over. They’ll never make me over.”
There follow two long, deeply gloomy, and none too readable pieces. The first of these, “Spectator on a February Night,” must be one of Skvoreckyå«’s first fictions. Written in 1948, only a few months after the democratic government was overthrown by huge Communist-led street demonstrations (with genuine working-class support, at that time), this story follows a group of middle-class students through the night of the February “revolution.” As a document, an eyewitness account put down so soon after this complicated and disputed upheaval, the piece recreates the enormous confusion of marches and counterdemonstrations, of armed police charging crowds or protecting besieged public buildings, of red flags clashing with banners bearing the face of Tomás Masaryk, founder of the “bourgeois republic.” The young narrator wants the Communists to fail, and yet is horribly thrilled by the violence, the machine guns, the glaring lights, and the thousands of surging, bellowing bodies. But the dialogue is crude, the student characters sketchy, and the narrative somehow unconvincing—as if Skvoreckyå« himself, like his protagonist, had yet to examine his own feelings about what he had just lived through.
“Laws of the Jungle” was written the following year, in 1949. Skvoreckyå« had already completed, or perhaps was still working on, his first novel, The Cowards—introducing Kostelec, Danny, and jazz—which was to make him famous in Czechoslovakia for all the right reasons: because it was funny and brilliant, and because the Stalinist leadership of the Writers’ Union hated it. “Laws of the Jungle” is a much darker work, and less successful. Danny, hopelessly in love with a married woman in Prague, is sent to teach in the provincial town of Broumov. In a mercilessly cold winter, he looks for somewhere to live: first in a monastery cell with no heating and then in the cozy house of a Mrs. Knittel, who suggests that he share the upstairs apartment with her lodger Mr. Kolrt. But Mr. Kolrt, a trembling wreck broken by the failure of his marriage and terrified of the Communist regime, refuses to have him. Bullied by Danny and his landlady, he eventually hands over the key, making it clear that he will hang himself. Danny, obsessed with his own unhappiness and with the possibility of a warm room, makes no move to stop him.
There is powerful writing here. But Danny’s self-torturing inner monologues and his relentless self-pity weigh the piece down. Enumerating occasions of misery makes for monotony, and the same literary defect afflicts the next story, “Filthy Cruel World” (1955). Here Danny is back in Prague, still brooding on his lost love. He belongs to a circle of callous, depressed young men and women who make the time pass with boozing and casual sex; he starts an affair with Jana, the Holocaust survivor, but cannot offer her the love and security she demands. These are damned souls, who hate themselves and one another for having lost hope. “Somewhere, I didn’t know where, but somewhere people have to be living better lives than we are,” he says. The bitterness and badness of everyone and everything thicken into a fog in which the characters (Jana excepted) become little more than shadows.
The last section of the book, “All’s Well That Ends Well,” is completely different. No wonder: the four pieces here were written forty years later in North America, and seven years after the collapse of the Communist regimes in Europe. Skvoreckyå«, or “Danny,” has reached an exotic landscape in his “life’s journey”: teaching creative writing at an Ontario college to charming, spoiled kids who would never let mere work interfere with their “interpersonal relationships.”
These are light, satirical sketches. Wayne Hloupee, solemnly obsessed with the riddle of his own sexuality, writes a first-person romance that fools his teacher (still unused to the lack of gender in the English language) into assuming the narrator is male, rather than a passionate lesbian. The department secretary mistypes “write a lovemaking story” instead of “a love story,” and Danny’s students nonchalantly read him epics of thrust-by-thrust pornography. While they deconstruct similes for the taste of sperm, their teacher daydreams of strict Czech schools where the discovery of a dirty book under a desk could blight a pupil’s whole future.
And anorexic Lea Steiner, the rich girl with the tragic dark eyes, returns again and again to ask if she can change her literary “independent project.” She pleads emotional problems; she has clinical depression; she is so sorry. Every time, Danny relents, and the project—never getting beyond a few words of synopsis—shrinks from a play to a novella to a verse monologue to a “Martial-type epigram.” When Lea finally disgorges her tiny epigram, it seems familiar. A few moments after she has left, he finds it in a dictionary of quotations.
Should he fail her? He has several large bourbons, and then broods over her grading sheet. Why is it so difficult to write “F” for Failed? Even on this distant, happy, ridiculous campus, the past will not leave him alone. Lea’s parents survived the Holocaust, and whenever he looks at her he remembers another thin girl who came from Auschwitz to Kostelec, a certain Hanka whose boyfriend was hanged in Prague when she was pregnant, who emigrated to Israel, whose son was killed in the Yom Kippur War…. Danny orders another drink, and gives her a grade of “AA.” Why not?
November 21, 2002