Headed for the Blues:
A Memoir with Ten Stories

by Josef Skvorecky,
280 pages,
ISBN: 0676971032

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Built-in Bends
by Marketa Goetz-Stankewisz

This is a brief but extraordinary memoir. It seems to move effortlessly between various levels-geographic, chronological, political, personal, literary. The reader feels as if afloat on a tossing vessel, touching land on different shores, awash with different rhythms of life. Despite an impression that the boat drifts with the tides and momentous streams of the author's consciousness, the reader constantly feels that he/she is in the hands of an agile but seasoned oarsman who knows exactly what he is doing, although he resists using a compass and shuns a chronological logbook. The result is what André Brink called Skvorecky's "striking interpolations".

How to get to the essence of this multi-levelled, concentrated recherche du temps perdu? How to grasp this idiosyncratic, frustrating, cliché-challenging, deeply literary, funny, political, self-reflecting, wise piece of writing, which causes familiar literary thrills for Skvorecky readers and may puzzle those to whom he is new? We certainly do not get at its essence with linear thinking, with the customary tools of psychological interpretation of the characters, with knowledgeable recounting of historical events, or with academic analyses of its philosophical musings.

Perhaps the author should be taken at his own word, concealed in a lengthy paragraph about his "repertoire of capacities" as a writer. Quietly ensconced in brackets we find this: "I love key sentences; key sentences; the entire meaning of my messages-not all that remarkable, in fact pretty ordinary, but certainly human, I hope-is concealed in those easily overlooked sentences.." Led by this signpost, we set out on a Skvorecky dig and try to bring to light some of these key sentences-I would prefer to call them focal points of creative energy-which punctuate the seemingly easy-flowing journey of this mystery-laden book.

Let us start on the serious side. Here is one instance (again in brackets): "It strikes me that during the age of exhausted executioners, the bourgeoisie lost all the bad qualities described by classical greats of literature, and neither the age of executioners nor the age of fizls would allow the description of their good qualities, or else there were no greats in literature to describe them; it seems to me that the bad qualities were passed on to upper-level cadres, or those who would become cadres; a new class but not a new bourgeoisie." By the time the reader reads this sentence he/she is a third of the way through the book and has encountered these "executioners" several times. Always appearing casually between easy-going quotation marks, always as an anonymous group that seems to merge into the socio-political landscape, endowed with adjectives that indicate their activity in terms of a normal day-to-day job, haunting the pages of Skvorecky's memoir with their hardly noticeable presence. "Hardly noticeable" because, had the word "executioners" been replaced by, say, "bureaucrats", the surface of the text would hardly change-the adjustment could have been made with a simple "replace" command on the computer-but the timeless, deep recesses of the text-always most important in Skvorecky's writings-would have dropped into darkness. For there are always "executioners" (not necessarily in the physical sense) in societies, right or left, that are given to one irreversible truth, one mode of thought, one mould of humans.

This key passage is also about the bourgeoisie, which, we would naively assume, is removed from that group. But Skvorecky's world resists assumptions. Here we encounter an unsentimental apologia for the mainstay of the population in Europe and the Western world: the bourgeoisie. The window swings open on history: classical writers had found fault with them and there was no writer of the present who would describe the good qualities of the timeless, indestructible bourgeoisie as a class (say, the silent majority, say, the average guy, say, the middle class, say, the people-according to your political leanings). They are the ones who carry on regardless, who do not try to change things, although in their midst, among the little opportunists, among the eager beavers with preconceived notions, the busy squirrels collecting whatever there is to collect, there are also those who can murder. We know all this, of course, but under Skvorecky's singular light, we become more aware of the enormous complexity of what we are facing here.

Another "key sentence" appears while Skvorecky is musing on Utopia (he admits that in his youth his "soul wanted Utopia", a country that is sought, as we know, by saints and murderers alike): "I try to serve the memory of Utopia. Let others pave the way. I still think that if it weren't for the ones who try to build bends into the inhumanly straight road, or even barricade it, straight as it is, it would never get where it's going." Clearly this author is one of those trying to "build bends", questioning single-minded straightness in our unpredictable lives, raising uncomfortable thoughts about the time-honoured patterns of attempts to think things out. Take his comment on dialectics (a term that journalists as well as academics throw about with gusto) and his brief demonstration of how the concept deteriorates, from Heraclitus' remarks on the contradictions of fire and water, through the arid abstractions of mediaeval churchmen, to the rigid formulations of twentieth-century dictators. And just to disperse any shadow of suspicion of moralism in the reader's mind, Skvorecky later gives an example of an "adaptable" writer-colleague of his, who managed to avoid "a car wreck on the highway to Utopia" by pliably moving with the times and adjusting his ideals, the way one adjusts a hat. And "perhaps" Skvorecky wonders, "he's right, in this absurd world of unlimited possibilities.."

A third "key passage", coming right after the Utopia section, deals with the author himself. It is a modest, indeed a self-torturing passage, trying to comment on the writer's task. Of the numerous pseudo-intimate "writer's workshop" discussions one reads and hears nowadays, this one is impressive in its truly unassuming candour. At the same time, it is a sort of key to the Skvorecky's personal quality: to his frequently mentioned abundance in story-telling. "I probably don't possess the gift of telling all I know, all my uncertainty with only one story, the way they teach it in writing courses, the way Balzac did and Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky." Then follows the bend in the thought (for just as there are straight roads to Utopia, so also there are also straight roads in thinking about entirely different matters): "Did they? With one story? All they knew?" Whereupon the shadows of the twentieth century again loom large: "Perhaps we know too much already, more than they knew, too much to translate into a story (or: I don't possess that gift)." The afterthought naturally sends our mind chasing after the implications of the statement. Skvorecky's dialogue with the reader certainly does not lead along a straight road. But we are given more material, in a list from that repertoire of his capacities as a writer that I mentioned earlier. Taking The Miracle Game, the author runs through his own attitude to his literary characters, points out his attempts at skilful plotting, bon mots, and other ruses to capture the reader's attention. He surprises and amuses us when he shows how his works have met with diametrically opposed interpretations (a compliment to the writer, in my opinion), because the works' deeper meaning was concealed in those hidden sentences easily overlooked by those "professional orators from far right to far left."

At this point, then, we have had a cursory glance at this memoir's political perspective, philosophical tenor, and artist's confession. And yet "the extravagance of words", much cherished by Skvorecky, has got in the way. We have gathered neither a clear perspective nor a definite tenor, nor have we heard a confession. The author is always a step ahead of us, snaps the binoculars out of our hand, and turns them around before our eyes. Figures are dwarfed, merge into a larger context, and are no longer clearly discernible until they re-emerge in full concreteness a few pages later. The text asks its readers for a flexible spirit.

Woven into the memoir, there are several life stories that reflect-as if under rapidly changing strobe lights-miniature versions of some Central Europeans' fates. There is the correspondence with Prema (whom we know from The Engineer of Human Souls), who stored ammunition under the Nazi occupation for sabotage purposes; a "born Communist" who believed in the ideological cliché of equality but kept being trodden on; who escaped to Australia, where he laboured for a meagre salary until he decided to go back home, where he delights in listening to his native Czech on television but is cooled off drastically when he realizes the content of what he hears. Even apart from that, things at home do not work out either, because he is overheard saying something politically incorrect at the factory and promptly becomes an "undesirable person". So back he goes to Australia, from where he is glad to report that Labour won the election but still he has to work too hard for his age and can afford only a furnished room and possibly a little holiday at Christmas. The last image we have of him is a photograph of an old man whom the narrator hardly recognizes.

There is Benda, the eternal film buff, who got into political trouble (it does not really matter much whether under the Nazis or under the Communists) because he happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Once his prisoner's shaved head has recovered its hair, he merges with the grey multitude who carry on regardless, and keeps walking along the promenade in his hometown watching the girls go by, but never catching one. Then there is Pavlas, the "Fool", who haunts Skvorecky and his wife in Canada with sugar-sweet compliments and nosy questions about their Czech publishing firm, who turns out to be working for the Czech secret police. He has become one of the fizls (a contemptuous slang expression for the police informers that haunt the pages of Skvorecky's memoir) not because he is inherently evil or out to destroy Western democracies but because he is simply-and this is (or is it?) much more disturbing-an opportunist. Or there is Jarka, "straight out of Kundera" with his large sexual propensities, who is always in trouble with women and who exhausted himself "moonlighting as a bookkeeper for three manufacturing co-operatives" in order to pay child support without his wife noticing any shortage in the household money. There is Rosta, the painter, who, during times of political pressure, invented a non-existent realm with non-existent creatures long before anyone had heard of Tolkien's hobbits; and there is simple Lojza, whose delightfully illiterate letters we may know from The Engineer of Human Souls, who equates a nicely fattened hog in the sty with all human ideals of mind or spirit.

Despite the pages teeming, Brueghel-like, with motley lives, the narrator is always with us. We are acutely conscious of his calm, skeptical voice. He does not pontificate (as his former countryman Milan Kundera sometimes does), avoids the baroque dimensions of another writer dealing with historical memory, Günter Grass, and he does not try to be "relevant" like Margaret Atwood.

As in any memoir, there are also private revelations. For example, the author treats us to a description of his youthful discovery of "a milestone to maturity" in graffiti on the wall of the boys' toilet. In case the reader wonders whether this is a piece of information he can't really do without, Skvorecky readily provides us with an ironic pedagogic thought about "classical" story-telling: the venerable Leo Nikolayevich [Tolstoy] never had Anna Karenina go to the bathroom. But, as we ponder this fact, we are assured that there is a difference: Tolstoy was writing a novel whereas "this isn't a novel but a patho-biography." "Patho-"? we ask. Why? Does a pathological aspect emerge because a wild shadow of the absurd, tragicomic roller-coaster of East-Central Europe's history haunts the narrator's mind? Is it because he senses-and makes the reader sense-how the general feeling of uncertainty about life increases as he gets older? Is it because, on the last page but one of the memoir, he seems to throw in the towel of ethical judgement and concludes: "Parallax-position is all in where you view it from?" Questions, one of the precious ingredients of good literature, keep opening up.

Headed for the Blues again proves what readers of Skvorecky have known for a long time: his intimate involvement with literature. The pattern of literary allusions extending from Chekhov to Sinclair Lewis, from Shakespeare to Tolkien, from Terence to Henry Miller, emerges in references chosen with scholarly learning as well as idiosyncratic intuition. Mostly these references contain an element of surprise, for they subvert cliché assumptions about these authors by pointing to very different qualities or by the context in which they are found. For example, Chekhov's advice-contrary to the strivings of most of his characters-not to cultivate a complex notion of life, which is basically simple, immediately follows thoughts on the juxtaposition between general mediocrity and Jan Palach's self-immolation, or on a puppy love in Auschwitz. Shakespeare's works are shown as proving useless for a person stuck in an infectious hepatitis ward because a book taken in had to remain there, so cheap paperback detective stories relieve the patients' (including Skvorecky's) frustration much more effectively than the fates of Hamlet or Cleopatra, who were too precious to be abandoned forever in the hospital. Henry Miller is quoted as preferring fragments and splinters of text to eloquent whole tales, and Nietzsche's Beyond Good & Evil makes an appearance in a scene that takes place while Czechoslovakia was on the threshold of Stalinism in 1948, when the narrator's cousin, formerly a member of parliament, was listening helplessly to news about the lawless decisions of an "ad hoc action committee".

Awareness of Skvorecky's constant swim against the current and the undercurrent-his subdued trademark since he began to write-becomes more intense as one's ear becomes more attuned to the echoes and reverberations of the text. There is, say, one image of the SS (whom we were bound to think of with a shiver on page one, when the author briefly refers to Lidice, a village razed by the Nazis) as "half-killed, still twitching bodies" at the end of World War II, pitied by a Dunkirk veteran from Manchester who cannot grasp "how they can let them lie here like this." Or else-to exchange the mask of tragedy for that of comedy-the theme of poetic licence is touched upon with a reference to Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth), and lifted into ironic concreteness when Skvorecky claims that he supplied one of his hometown's youthful beauties (we may know them from The Cowards or The Swell Season) with long slim legs, whereas in reality they were "more like hockey sticks". Poetic licence? The essence of truth? Everything one writes is an amalgam of Dichtung and Wahrheit! The writer-reader discussion continues. Throughout the text-possibly to the irritation of some but to the intense pleasure of others-Skvorecky holds an idiosyncratic dialogue with his reader. Comments in brackets, modifications, queries of the just stated, second thoughts, explanations, and references constantly sound the theme of uncertainty, which becomes stronger as we move through the memoir. And perhaps this is one of the most exciting aspects of this text.

Having attempted to follow a great writer on his journey of memories-which is simultaneously a journey of the intellect, the spirit, and the heart-this reviewer feels that she has not really satisfied her reader's wish to be told "what the book is about". Perhaps its arresting images reveal its essence better than the fumbling words of a reviewer: the memoir starts with a blinking glance at the sun filtering through leaves and lace curtains-something we may all have experienced at one time or other. Immediately afterwards, in fact in the very same sentence, we are in for a shock: "pregnant women in prison (we're told), as soon as the baby is born, mother goes either to the gallows or to the separate solitude of a women's camp, but the infant...is dispatched straight to its grave, tiny mounds of soil.." While this chilling image is still floating in our minds, we are told about the author's discovery of death as a child: a glance from a baby carriage, safely pushed by his mother along a road by the lovely river flowing through his peaceful hometown, reveals a run-over frog. It remained his first, his "oldest memory". In this way, after less than one page, the reader is prepared for the journey he will be taken on. The book ends with a faint echo of the frog's frightening image, embedded in other images reflecting life and love, expressed in a fragmentary, incomplete sentence, as if spoken by a stuttering, breathless voice. The last two words, separated from the rest of the paragraph, are "This testimony." At a time when there are numerous testimonies of our century on the book market, Josef Skvorecky's is indeed a unique one, written with a light pen that alleviates, even disperses, dark thoughts about human life in this turbulent century. As such, in one way or another, it relates to each of us. Read it and you will find in it a fragment of your own life. 

Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz is Professor Emerita of Germanic Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her latest book is an anthology, Good-bye Samizdat: Twenty Years of Czechoslovak Underground Writing. She is co-editor of the forthcoming Critical Essays on Vaclav Havel.


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