- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

By Josef Skvorecky
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, 352 pages

Josef Skvorecky may be less well known in the United States than fellow Czech Milan Kundera, a contemporary who benefited from a sexy film version of one of his novels, but he is celebrated in Canada, where he emigrated in 1969, and in his native country, which awarded him its top prize for literature in 1999.
Mr. Skvorecky was not always so well liked in Czechoslovakia. His first novel, "The Cowards," about the last days of World War II, upset the communists in 1958, preventing him from publishing again until 1963, when the government relaxed restrictions on the press a five-year plan terminated with extreme prejudice by the Soviets in 1968. He and his wife, Zdena, went on to establish Sixty-Eight Publishers in Toronto, which printed works by Czech and Slovak dissenters and exiles. Mr. Skvorecky continued to write as well; his 17 novels include "Dvorak in Love," "The Bass Saxophone" and "The Engineer of Human Souls," an oeuvre honored with the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1980 and a Nobel nomination in 1982.
The 78-year-old author's latest book, "When Eve Was Naked," is a collection of stories and fables written, for the most part, during the turbulent 10 years between 1958 and 1968, along with several recent pieces satirizing his teaching experiences at the University of Toronto's Erindale College.
Noting in his brief introduction that friends and readers have encouraged him to write his memoirs despite his protestations that everything worth telling already can be found in his books Mr. Skvorecky assembled the tales as a kind of retrospective of his life. That is to say, the stories follow a chronology that mirrors his own, from his boyhood during the Nazi occupation, through his years as young man in Prague living for jazz and romance, and on to his second life in a foreign country speaking another language.
"When Eve Was Naked" is more literary potpourri than autobiography, however. The 24 pieces range from insouciant anecdotes to extended meditations on love and death and vary widely in style and tone, in part because Mr. Skvorecky wrote them over the course of a half century, in part because a half-dozen translators had a hand in transcribing the author's Czech to English. Readers unfamiliar with Mr. Skvorecky, who writes historical and detective novels as well as "serious" fiction (his quotes) will wonder who and what this writer is all about.
That said, the stories are wonderful, some haunting and melancholic, others beguiling and mordant the only exception being the book's finale, "A Magic Mountain and a Willowy Wench," which Mr. Skvorecky wrote in English as awkward as its title. The comic yarns are colored by that peculiarly Czech sensibility which delights in human foible (think of director Milos Foreman's early film, "Firemen's Ball"). Mr. Skvorecky's characters rush from their bathrooms lathered with shaving cream to wrestle with relatives hiding among the sunflowers; they get their arms caught inside vending machines while stealing cigarettes; they have their refrigerators raided by organized gangs of raccoons, alley cats and squirrels.
Likewise, the more elegiac reminiscences are flavored by Czech fatalism, a worldview shaped by decades of war, oppression and genocide. In "Fragments about Rebecca," for example, a camp survivor tracks down a family friend who supposedly has held her jewelry in trust, but who now denies knowledge of its whereabouts. Like her relatives, Rebecca's gems have disappeared, and she is left adrift, literally the brief portrait ends with her and the narrator, Danny Smiricky (Mr. Skvorecky's fictional alter ego), floating in a boat on a fog-shrouded lake, when they spot something in the water.
"I stopped the boat with the oars and looked over the side," writes Mr. Skvorecky. "It was just beneath the surface, a sleek grey fish, belly up. I looked more closely. The fish appeared to have two tails, one on each end. A freak of nature. Repulsion, verging on horror, passed through me. I leaned over and tried to pick it up. I felt it twitch, then it turned over and slowly, helplessly, weakly, it propelled itself down into the depths with one of its tails. A sick monstrosity. Soon it floated back to the surface once more, and as it did so turned belly up again.
"Now I could see what it was. There were two catfish, almost the same size, and one had evidently tried to swallow the other in a fight and had choked on it. The smaller one's tail was sticking out of the larger one's mouth, still waving back and forth, weakly, but of its own accord. Both of them were dying."
Mr. Skvorecky, who has translated Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner, knows how to turn macabre images into thematic statements, but his stories are more sardonic than gothic. Three of the most ambitious in the collection, "Spectator on a February Night," "Laws of the Jungle" and "Filthy, Cruel World" all appearing in English for the first time have a Raymond Carver quality to them, with their alienated, narcissistic narrators obsessing about their personal lives in the midst of mortal social upheaval. Remarkably, Mr. Skvorecky wrote these stories in the late Forties and Fifties, well before this style of prose became de rigueur for fictionists in the West.
As comedic counterpoint, Mr. Skvorecky includes a couple of tales that simultaneously spoof the communist state and tug at the heart no easy trick. "The End of Bull Macha" follows the protagonist in a futile search to recapture his youth, or more accurately, to ward off adulthood. A 29-year-old dandy who lives for bebop and swing (the author is a devout jazz buff), Bull is losing his friends to marriage and careers, while the government cracks down on pernicious influences like the jitterbug.
The story, something of a homage to Ernest Hemingway, captures Papa's tough-guy sentimentality, although its dated slang hepcat, zoot suiter, jittermoll is more appropriate to New York in the 1920s than Prague in the 1950s, a consequence of Eastern European backwardness or misguided translation.
The delightfully titled "Pink Champagne," on the other hand, perfectly evokes its period, the mid-Sixties, with its motley Rat Pack wannabes talking like Frank Sinatra dressed up in a polyester suit. The gang attempts to swipe a rain slicker to present to Liza, a married woman who doesn't let that happenstance cramp her good time. The heist goes all wrong, so the boys try to steal a light switch from a lecture hall at the university such items being much coveted in a consumer-challenged country but that robbery, too, ends up haywire… . The story is a rollick that captures the nihilism of life in an authoritarian state.
Of course, the communists have no monopoly on nonsense, as Mr. Skvorecky makes plain in the final section of the book, a series of short takes based on his experiences at Erindale College. In "According to Poe," a writing professor requests that his students try their hand at love stories, but a typing error on the assignment sheet produces a slush pile of pornography.
In "Jezebel from Forest Hills," a cute coed coaxes her professor to mentor her in a year-long independent project, her goal of writing a play "about the complicated evolution of emotional relationships" expediently evolving into a novella, then into a series of poetic monologues, and eventually into an epigram (a plagiarized one, at that) for which she receives a grade of A-plus for the professor conflates the doe-eyed girl with a woman from his past who suffered through the Holocaust.
The moral of these stories? The free world offers up its own set of absurdities, and the past isn't easily escaped. The best one can do, Mr. Skvorecky seems to say, is to write it all down and hope the prose resonates. As his narrator puts in his title story, "Really, what else can be done?"

Rex Roberts is a freelance writer, editor and designer in New York City.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide