Josef Skvorecky, RIP

I’ve always found it somewhat ironic, if that’s the word, that two of the best novels I’ve ever read about America—Dvorak in Love and The Bride of Texas—were written by a Czech expatriate author who lived in Toronto. In fact, they’re two of the best novels I’ve ever read, period. Skvorecky, who died this past week at 87, had what one might call an interesting life—he grew up in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia (experiences which formed a substantial focus for much of his fiction), got into constant trouble in Communist Czechoslovakia for his writings, and was banned repeatedly. He and his wife emigrated to Canada in 1968, and he spent the rest of his life writing excellent novels and short stories, teaching literature, and publishing other Czech expatriates through his publishing house. Lots more details can be found in the NY Times obituary, or in the Telegraph obituary. A fuller literary appreciation will undoubtedly show up in the NY Review of Books soon.

He is perhaps best known for The Engineer of Human Souls, which is a fine and visionary novel about the role of the writer in society, any society, but takes on a deep irony by contrasting the life of Danny Smiricky, who happens to be Czech exile teaching in Canada (as was Skvorecky), with life under both the Nazis and the Communists. This makes it sound like a simple political novel, which it is far from being—it’s a deeply felt, albeit meandering, novel about individualism that happens to take place in multiple locales, with more than its fair share of pathos and humor. Skvorecky used Danny throughout his literary career—the early collections of Danny Smiricky stories are wonderful too, especially the jazz stories. And it’s all good–The Bass Saxaphone stands out here.

But the two that stand out in my mind are the two that concern America. Dvorak in Love is about just that—Dvorak’s journey to America in 1892 to 1895, which produced, among other works, his best-known work, Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”). Of course, what Dvorak did in America is pretty much what he did in Bohemia all his life—he wandered around and listed to music that people played and sang—in villages, in towns, wherever he could. The novel captures that wonderfully, as Dvorak adapts negro songs and spirituals to symphonic form. But it captures more—Dvorak was in love with America, what it was becoming, and what it represented to many of his countrymen–its energy, its freedom. It’s a wonderful novel, told from multiple perspectives, and not least because Skvorecky is not blind to America’s faults, particularly its racial history, but still, like Dvorak, is enamored of what America represented to Europe and much of the rest of the world—hope.

This theme is explored in more detail in The Bride of Texas, a longer (and much more experimental) novel set in the American Civil War, which follows the exploits of a group of Czech immigrants who enlist in the Union Army. This actually happened—the Union ranks were loaded with immigrants, including Czech immigrants who served, as do the book’s characters, in the 26th Wisconsin battalion under Sherman. And while motives likely varied, there’s no question that at least some of it derived from Skvorecky’s area of concern—the feeling of gratitude to a country that offered hope. The novel itself is probably the most experimental of Skvorecky’s works, with its constant shifts of time and character—but it’s well worth the effort.

It’s easy to forget this sometimes, when the current American political circus seems to offer nothing but ignorance, mendacity and viciousness about immigration (and, lord knows, so many other things), what America used to represent to the world–hope. And to some extent it still does, although the past decade certainly hasn’t helped. But we’re all (or mostly all) descended from immigrants from somewhere, and it’s good to be reminded of why that is. Skvorecky was a wonderful writer with the ability to create a broad canvas in a number of areas—and like his Czech soldiers, I’m grateful to him for having brought me so much pleasure, and I will miss him.

Categories: Arts/Literature, ArtSunday