Friday, March 30, 2012
Ever since I heard of the death of Josef Skvorecky, I've wanted to post a little personal tribute to this wonderful Czech writer. It took me nearly three months, because I was up to my neck in other writing and wading through books I had to read before participating in writers' events, but now I've run out of excuses. Rather late than never.
So here goes.
Skvorecky died on 3 January this year, at the age of nearly ninety, in his adopted country of Canada, where he'd been living for more than forty years after fleeing the Soviet invasion of his homeland in 1968. He became a professor of English at the University of Toronto and started the Czech-language publishing house, 68 Publishers, which kept Czech literature alive by publishing authors in exile or dissident writers who couldn't be published in Communist Czechoslovakia. Some of them, like Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, have become internationally famous.
Skvorecky also reached a certain level of fame and recognition, even being nominated for the Nobel Prize at one stage, but many admirers of his writing would probably agree with me that he should have been much wider known by now. Josef Skvorecky, at the same time serious and accessible, satirical and affectionate, darkly comical and richly ironic, is quite simply a superb writer. Far too many people have not yet read his 'magnum opus' (as it was praised by none other than Milan Kundera), The Engineer of Human Souls. This huge, multifaceted, tragi-farcical novel, whose title refers to Stalin's infamous definition of a writer, was first published in English in the eighties and made an indelible impression on me when I read it in the early nineties.
It is one of those rare books I remember so clearly that I can instantly recall not only when I read it, but exactly where, in which circumstances, what the weather was like, what car I was driving and even what clothes I was wearing. A book as evocative as some odours can be. Do you know what I mean?
I was living in an old slave cottage on a wine farm near Stellenbosch, South Africa, a single mother with a baby boy, and I couldn't wait to get my son to sleep at night so I could spend a few enchanted hours with Danny Smiricky, the hero of the story. Afterwards I realised that Danny was a recurring character in Skvorecky's novels, the author's fictional alter ego, but this was the first time I met him. And it really was infatuation at first sight.
'Ït is a difficult work to summarize,' as the New York Times stated in its glowing review, 'it is a deep pleasure to read.' I find it impossible to summarize it, but Skvorecky's own subtitle gives it a go: The Engineer of Human Souls: An Entertainment on the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love and Death. Add to these 'old themes' the love of jazz and literature, with each of the seven chapters named after a great dead author (Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Fitzgerald, Conrad and Lovecraft), the absurdity of the dictatorships Danny Smiricky has to deal with (first Nazi, then Soviet), the emptiness of his exile in a shallow world of capitalism... In short, what you get, is what Time Magazine called 'the heartbreaking belly laugh': 'So this is what the novel has been! So this is what the novel can still be!'
I still wanted to say something about The Miracle Game, which was written before The Engineer of Human Souls (although the English translation came later) and where we meet a younger version of Danny Smiricky, as well as some of the other novels in which we can follow further adventures of the intrepid Danny. But I find that I've written myself into a frenzy of desire to read The Engineer of Human Souls once again. As can be seen from the tattered state of the books in the picture above, I've read both of them really thoroughly when I read them the first time, but now I want to do it again. Now.
And if I've inspired myself to read Skvorecky's magnum opus again, I can only hope I've tempted some of you to read it for the first time. Go on, you won't regret it. Josef Skvorecky may be dead, but his blacker than black humour survives, his love of jazz survives, his most beloved character survives. Long live Danny Smiricky!