The Bride of Texas:
A Romantic Tale from the Real World

by Josef Skvorecky, Kaca Polacova-Henley,
638 pages,
ISBN: 0394280601

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The Czech-American Civil War
by I. M. Owen

This big, sprawling novel of the American Civil War really shouldn't work, but for me it does, triumphantly. The narrative technique Josef Skvorecky used in his previous historical novel, Dvorak in Love, is here continued and further complicated by a larger cast of characters: he doesn't follow the advice of the King of Hearts to "begin at the beginning, and go on until you come to the end: then stop." He begins near the end, with a scene in Savannah, the terminal point of Sherman's march to the sea. Here we witness a wedding, and then hear Czech soldiers in the Union army recalling earlier incidents in the war. Then, with no warning but a switch from roman to italic type, we are in another time and place, which we gradually discover to be 1848 and the Austrian Alps. And so the narrative goes on, zigging and zagging backwards, forwards, and sideways; often a new section begins with a personal pronoun rather than a name, so that the reader must to a little work to discover the who, as well as the where and the when.

It was while he was doing research for Dvorak in Love that Skvorecky happened on some information about Czech soldiers in the Union army. He pursued the subject, and the names he found provided him with the characters for his main story. Their experiences in the war are sometimes horrifying, sometimes comic, and often grotesque. Their lives before and after the war, in Chicago and other places, are usually played for broad comedy. The leading character is Sergeant Kapsa, whose life we follow from his time as a private in the Austrian army and his blissful love affair with the wife of his brutal company commander, which ends in a disaster that compels him to desert and flee to America. Through most of the war he is attached to the staff of General Sherman. (Skvorecky asserts in his foreword that Sherman is the central character, indeed the hero, of the novel, though in fact we rarely see him off the job.) Kapsa lives to a great age, long enough to see the end of the Hapsburg empire.

Then there is the story of the Toupelik family. Lida Toupelik is the bride of the title, and the opening scene of the novel is her wedding to an American officer-her second wedding, as it turns out, but it's a long time before we find out what that's all about. Back in Moravia, Lida, the daughter of a small farmer, had fallen in love with and become pregnant by the son of a somewhat bigger farmer who didn't fancy her as a daughter-in-law. So he helped the whole family to emigrate to Texas. The experience changed Lida from a loving girl with blue eyes "like turquoise dandelions" to a ruthless woman with "serpent's eyes". But the reader is most gripped by the romance of her elder brother Cyril with Dinah, a self-educated slave with enormous charm and grace.

Interspersed through this mass of material are sections labelled intermezzos, which really constitute a separate novella-a first-person narrative told by Lorraine Henderson Tracy, who under the name of Laura A. Lee writes very popular novels with a sort of subliminal feminist message-the heroines, like Trollope's, are always more intelligent than the heroes. She admires Edgar Allan Poe, and strives to follow his injunction to keep consistency of tone-a very Skvorecky touch: these sections are of course quite different in tone from the rest of the book.

Lorraine's story is partly about three freed slaves, her beloved housekeeper Jasmine, Jasmine's lazy lover Hasdrubal, and Hasdrubal's mother Gabriel, a distinguished cook. And it's also about Ambrose Burnside, the Union general whose magnificent whiskers earned him a place in etymology, in the word "sideburns". When Lorraine was seventeen she jilted him at the altar, but when they meet again thirteen years later they settle into an easy friendship. In a postscript, Skvorecky indicates that his purpose was to rehabilitate Burnside, described in Morison and Commager's The Growth of the American Republic as "monumentally incompetent": his most famous exploit was the battle of Fredericksburg, where he ordered a frontal assault on Marye's heights and lost 12,700 men. In fact Lorraine's picture of him conforms pretty well to the generally received one-honourable, brave, loyal, and not very bright.

It's amazing that after the enormous research he has clearly done Skvorecky had the energy to write this long, vigorous book. Just why he took the trouble to tell his story out of chronological order isn't clear to me, but as I have said it works; though I'm bound to say that I enjoyed the book even more on a second reading, when I had a better idea of what was going on.

The translator too had her work cut out for her, and she has carried it out superbly. It never feels like a translation, and she renders Northern, Southern-white, and slave speech with equal felicity.


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