Josef Skvorecky left Czechoslovakia in 1968 and is now Professor of English at Erindale College in Canada. His new novel is about a Czech called Danny Smiricky who also emigrated to Canada in 1968 and who has become Professor of American Literature at Edenvale College. The invented name, ‘Edenvale’, illustrates Smiricky’s mixed feelings about his academic life in Canada: it might seem idyllic, paradisal, to a Czech who spent his youth under the Nazis and then the Communists, but he often catches himself thinking that his students and fellow teachers are too innocent, like Adam before the Fall, too naive, too credulous.
Life was more exciting and purposeful, more serious and more gleeful, in Czechoslovakia when Smiricky was young. About a quarter of this long novel consists of reminiscences thrust in, apparently at random, to interrupt the Canada-based narrative. Smiricky’s memory is jogged by old letters from the friends of his youth, moving about the world, more urgently alive than the Canadians of the 1970s. Rebecca, the only survivor of a family of Jewish sisters, went to Israel. Prema, once an anti-Nazi saboteur, went to Australia but returned to Czechoslovakia in 1968 (just missing Smiricky on his way out) and wrote to him from their hometown, giving the news (mostly bad) about their old friends, and concluding: ‘Well, buddy, I’ve kind of run off at the mouth here but, you know, there’s always something going on here, not like in Australia where it’s big news when a dog dies. Write me what it’s like in Canada ... ’ Prema and Smiricky were involved in reckless acts of anti-Nazi sabotage when they were boys. Middle-aged life in the White Commonwealth is more comfortable but less thrilling.
Smiricky performs his duties as a professor with skill and energy. Each of the seven long chapters contains a passage describing him at work with his students, discussing a famous author – and the name of each author acts as a title for one of the chapters, influencing its tone and content. They are Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Stephen Crane, Scott Fitzgerald, Conrad – and H.P. Lovecraft. The last-named crops up almost as a joke when Smiricky’s girlfriend buys some farcical ‘sex-aids’ at a ‘Lovecraft’ shop: he tells her to read H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories in much the same way he recommends students to try a James Bond novel. All the same, H.P. Lovecraft – with his fatuous ghoulishness, revived and found modish in the 1970s – brings his influence to bear on the seventh chapter.
The female students are cute and dinky, with their bright-coloured, tasteless food and clothes. Smiricky likes them very much, in a rather perverse, Lolita-ish way: but his mind is more engaged by the male students, enlivening him with their wrong-headed opinions. He is provoked by young Higgins arguing that Stephen Crane is not writing about war but about ‘the emotional and intellectual maturing of a young man’. Smiricky reads out a military passage from Crane’s book, The Red Badge of Courage (mentally comparing the fiction with a real-life experience in the 1940s), but then he is distracted by a cute girl who has decided to class the book as an ‘anti-war novel’. Smiricky recognises that his own point of view is ‘formed by direct experience of war’ and that he is now confronted with Canadian ideas ‘shaped by the atmosphere and fashions of an age and its television’. He quotes Stalin: ‘There are wars that are just and wars that are unjust ... ’ But another girl interrupts: ‘Sir, name me a single just war!’ He thinks about World War Two. He thinks about the sufferings of Rebecca and other Jewish girls under the Nazis. Then a third girl tells him that Crane’s book is ‘trash’ because it shows no interest in the sufferings of the black slaves – and this banality makes Smiricky think of half-witted censorship under the Czech Communists.
The next section is a flashback to life with Prema during World War Two. There are more than twenty sections to each chapter, a quarter of them being flashbacks to Czechoslovakia, all out of temporal order: the reader has to work out the date (and the government regime) for himself, from internal evidence. The whole novel demands the sort of mental energy one brings to bear on an intelligence test or general knowledge quiz. The only sections which are precisely dated are the forty-odd letters from Smiricky’s correspondents, carefully sprinkled throughout the book, more or less in temporal order, from 1942 in the first chapter, ‘Poe’, to 1975 in the last, ‘Lovecraft’. As if to confuse the reader, interpreting this collage, there are six other letters from a Canadian called Booker, written (in 1976) to a woman in Czechoslovakia: these are very silly love-letters, spiced with insincere expressions of admiration for the Communist regime. The comic explanation for Booker’s weird letters appears only in the final chapter.
In the first chapter we are introduced to a herd of characters and the reader must try to remember the names (mostly Czech) of 40 of them. The novel is partly about memory – and it is itself a memory-trainer, like Kim’s Game. We might compare it with A Tale of Two Cities (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... ’) but Dickens makes it immediately clear whether his many narratives, comic or horrific, concern London or Paris, before, during or after the Revolution, and we are in little doubt what Dickens himself, with his ‘optimism of the will’, makes of the situation. Skvorecky is more mysterious, more demanding.
He is also more bookish. One of Smiricky’s students, Larry Hakim, fancies himself as a Marxist: he argues more intelligently than the other students, but Smiricky wants to disillusion him a bit, since Larry visits Cuba and seems to admire Castro’s regime. During the ‘Conrad’ chapter, Hakim argues that the ‘bourgeois’ author of Heart of Darkness ‘instinctively understood some of the social evils of his time, but he could not demonstrate how to solve them’ – whereas young Hakim, of course, has the solutions at his fingertips. (Another male student interprets Conrad’s novel in Freudian terms, but Smiricky is not much interested in that.) Hakim holds that Heart of Darkness is ‘a social critique of European imperialism’ and that Mister Kurtz is ‘an ordinary imperialist lackey’. Smiricky counters with the far-fetched theory that Heart of Darkness is ‘a prophecy about the Soviet Union’, presenting Kurtz as the ‘extremist’ of any ‘people’s party’, the clever man who turns scientific theories into an ideology, followed by his loyal, harlequin-like Russian adherent ... This stimulating fantasy may be useful for Hakim’s education, perhaps. The idea about self-styled ‘people’s parties’, Nazi or Communist, echoes a quotation from Mussolini’s theorist, Argento Soffici, which appears as one of the 20 epigraphs to the chapters.
At Edenvale, outside the classroom, there are other political matters to concern Smiricky. His fellow teachers have what we might call a ‘trendy-left’ attitude: they are easily taken in by pro-Communist propaganda and support ‘Camstarve’ (a fictional version of Oxfam) in backing the pro-Soviet group in Angola. Smiricky finds the trendy-left tendency more infuriating than the Hard Left efforts of boys like Hakim or the naive modishness of his attractive girls – even when those girls, in their misguided feminism, decide to show a Nazi film, The Triumph of the Will by ‘Lani Reefen-something’, on the ground that it was ‘the first art film in the history of the cinema made by a woman’. In fact, he enjoys watching the film: seeing all those Nazis reminds him of the days when he was fighting them, the happiest years of his life. (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... ’) He tells his students: ‘I liked it a lot. All art that makes us think is valuable.’
Another of Smiricky’s worlds, in the 1970s, is the world of Czech exiles. The author has a talent for comedy and he uses his collage-like time-shift technique to entrap us into laughing at ‘the funny side’ of life under Nazis and Communists, as well as at the fears and follies of unhappy Czech exiles in Canada. There is Dotty, for instance. ‘In the summer of 1968, when hippies and marijuanoes from all over the world were flocking to Prague, she roped in a chump from Saskatchewan and thus liberated herself from the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ She married the chump, became Canadian, divorced him, and was soon rich enough to take holidays in Czechoslovakia, showing off her silly but desirable Canadian clothes. Dotty is clever at using marriages to win citizenship – and she is connected with the mystery of those letters from Booker to his lady-love in Czechoslovakia.
Another exile is Magister Maslo, who fears that the Czech secret police have pursued him to Canada, because of his subversive writings. Smiricky had not realised that Maslo was an important writer, but he is informed that Maslo writes for Scouting in Exile and believes ‘the Bolsheviks’ are after him because he influences the young. His drinking companion, ‘Frank the Fascist’ (so called because he is anti-Jewish), asserts that Maslo’s pursuers are Zionists, trained in Israel, Moscow’s secret ally. A third exile explains that the old scoutmaster’s nerve has gone, because of the ‘rough time’ he suffered in Czechoslovakia: ‘He’s a homo, and these Commie butchers are extremely moral.’ The exiles also have a sick joke to tell about the one survivor of Lidice. This is the sort of ‘black comedy’ that Skvorecky wants us to accept. It may be thought relevant that when Smiricky tries to discuss black comedy in his class, a black girl complains that there are no black people in the passage under discussion.
Smiricky, as narrator, assures us that there really are Czech secret agents in North America. When visitors from Czechoslovakia arrive, smuggling illicit literature, they may be Communist agents provocateurs or they may be naive, anti-Jewish Fascists. Smiricky finds some of them rather funny, but he takes one of the agents quite seriously, remembering what he was like in Czechoslovakia, as a Christian churchman. On the whole, though, Smiricky seems most serious about ‘life’ (as opposed to ‘literature’, which he almost always takes seriously) when he is remembering the days of Nazism, the factory where he attempted sabotage and made love to a girl called Nadia whose lover beat him up, the conversation of the skiving factory-workers during the smoke-break (spiced with absurd horror stories during the ‘Lovecraft’ chapter). Smiricky is certainly anti-Nazi – and enjoys the simplicity of that political position. About Communism his position is not so clear-cut. He does not seem to be a fervent admirer of the Dubcek regime, but muses: ‘Perhaps the great historical failure of a small episode in history, in the year 1968, has helped me to arrive at this wisdom: I have not lost the meaning of life, merely the illusion that life has a meaning.’
On the same page, he thinks ambiguously about his life ‘here in Canada, with all the creature comforts, in the safety of a decadently anti-police democracy’. Sometimes he wants his students to change the world, so that it is ‘not a picturesque jungle like America but a picturesque and ordered polity like ... a stained-glass window? Most of the time stained-glass windows merely depict the martyrdom of saints.’ Smiricky seems to have a sympathetic respect for Marx’s work and he does not mind quoting Stalin. But, as always with writing from Eastern Europe, nothing is quite what it seems. For instance, Skvorecky explains his novel’s title thus: ‘The expression “the engineer of human souls” is held, by many political indoctrinators, to be Stalin’s definition of the writer: as an engineer constructs a machine, so must a writer construct the mind of the New Man.’ Is he making a joke about Stalin’s rhetoric, or about the pretensions of writers?
I showed the book to a Moldavian in London: he said he had been in London for 12 years and travelled on a Soviet passport, so I thought the novel might interest him. His first response was: ‘Engineer of human souls? That’s what Lenin said about Tolstoy, not what Stalin said about writers ... ’ He seemed to think Skvorecky was deliberately misleading his readers. Certainly the novel contains several sarcastic references to people who think they are wise because they are writers. There is, for instance, Smiricky’s old friend, Lojza, who writes to him from his Czech holiday resort (famous Karlsbad Spa) in 1975, concluding the novel: ‘I just had a article printed in the People’s Fist, which is the district organ of our peasent coop that was juged the best in the district. It happened to be my 150eth article. Who woud of thouhgt, my freind, 30 years ago that you and me both woud end up writers?’ There are eight letters from Lojza running through the book from 1942 to 1975. Paul Wilson has translated them into the style of an early school-leaver, complacent and unashamed about his bad spelling and his clichés. Lojza is as funny as the good soldier Svejk. He always expresses loyalty to governments which favour ‘the people’ and ‘the workers’. In 1942 he is already ‘at the Karlsbad spa for a week and doing fine, on a special deal for workers laid on by Rinehard Hydrick. In the old days only the rich came here but now its for workers too ... ’
We remember that Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated, that Lidice was levelled as a result, that Czechoslovakia was liberated and became a Soviet satellite – and recognise that the Svejk-like Lojza could still soldier on, skiving away, occasionally grumbling, as (in 1952): ‘They are coming round agitating for us to colectivize but the old man says only over his dead body. The communists are swine to take property away from people like that when they never done nothing to earn it themselves. I don’t deserve this, I got that property honest by marriage ... ’ He got it ‘honest by marriage’, just the way Dotty got her Canadian citizenship. Smiricky remarks that his own father, too, could ‘quickly assume the role of Svejk, that most classic of all Czech military heroes’.
We cannot summarise the ‘plot’ of this ambitious novel. There are many little plots, clashing with one another, like a collection of short stories cut up into a collage. There is no Quilp to boo, no Little Nell to sob for – unless we count poor Veronika, the Czech exile ditched by her rich, trendy-left Canadian lover for being too right-wing. We have here a gathering of characters passing through Smiricky’s consciousness, his sensitive, bookish, politically uncertain mind. Half laughing, half dismayed, we may conclude that the most ‘normal’ characters are the dim, cute Canadian girls and the Svejk-like Lojza. The book was written in Czech, rather as Isaac Bashevis Singer writes in Yiddish, to keep the language flourishing and to be translated into English.
The three other novels here are suffused with a peculiar unhappiness endured by members of the English upper middle class in this century. Quite sensitive and idealistic people, they accuse themselves of hypocrisy when they fail to maintain the standards they have been set, they feel ashamed when their sexual desires don’t accord with the norm, and they wonder whether to blame the schooling (starting with Nanny) that separates children from parents so early in life and makes less prosperous people seem foreign. Non-English writers – often from societies with more brutal class and family systems – don’t seem to worry in quite the same way, except perhaps for Chekhov and Ibsen, the only two aliens firmly established in the British dramatic repertoire.
The Governess is the most straightforward of the three. Patricia Angadi is 70 years old and presents, most convincingly, the development and decline of a Hampstead family (two parents, six children) from 1918 to 1938, under the seemingly benevolent sway of Miss Herring, the hired governess. Eleanor, a cold mother who supposes herself to be unselfish, is jealous of Miss Herring as she wins the children’s affection, but refuses to recognise that the neglected father has been taken on as the governess’s lover, out of the kindness of her heart. One of the sons, battered by his terrible boarding-school, falls in love with the governess and commits suicide when he finds her in the arms of his father. Two other sons, identical twins, are locked in a homo-erotic embrace until the governess prises them apart. Two daughters are besotted with her: one goes mad, the other grows ever more babyish and ends her life sharing Miss Herring’s retirement home. The fourth son, a clever, hard-hearted man, narrates the final chapter, arguing that he is the only member of his family who has escaped Miss Herring’s baleful influence: he had always rationally resented her over-kindliness and now he knows, metaphysically, that she is as formidable as the Rat-Wife in Little Eyolf. This clever man does not recognise how thoroughly he has contradicted himself. His monologue is only one of several feats of impersonation in this remarkably assured first novel.
Another cold mother called Eleanor appears in The Anderson Question, with her homosexual son. The father of the family, a doctor in a West Country village, commits suicide in the first chapter. The rest of Bel Mooney’s novel is devoted to a sad discussion of his motives and to the feelings of Eleanor and their son, Paul, trying to get over it. Again we are reminded of Little Eyolf, with the startling death so early in the story and the long, slow discussions that follow as the survivors resent their loss and recognise their separation from their neighbours. We are presented with the thoughts of the doctor as he prepares for death. He remembers his mother crying as she sent him away to boarding-school, and he thinks: ‘We were right not to do it to Paul.’ But Paul has always been conscious of his separation and he blames his parents: they had moved to ‘the country’, this class-bound village, on the ground that ‘London’s a dreadful place to bring up a child,’ and his mother had made him stay with unfriendly ‘friends’, all in ‘the name of growing up, of becoming independent’. Paul holds that ‘it’s impossible to know anybody else in your family.’ He falls for one of the undertakers and then for a man who looks like his dead father. This thoughtful, rather solemn novel seems concerned to fortify readers against the fear of death and (with its epigraphs from Donne and Marcus Aurelius) might be thought to encourage and justify suicide.
Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy is more dashing, in a desperate, surrealistic way. Two of the six stories in his book concern boys’ boarding-schools and the sexual confusion and guilt they sometimes promote. In ‘The Infant Hercules’, a prep-school matron discovers a boy publicly masturbating: out of the kindness of her heart (just like Patricia Angadi’s governess) she decides to satisfy him with her own body – for she has an old medical book which tells her that masturbation is a disease – and eventually she pursues the boy to his public school, so that her course of treatment can be maintained. In ‘The Man Who Laughed’ there is a rather gruesome account of public-school homosexuality, which concludes with the main character going to Oxford (in the 1950s) and throwing a visiting Cambridge poet called Gatt into the pond opposite Pembroke, for being ‘queer as a coot’. When our hero leaves Oxford he finds it necessary to pretend to be a poet, so he gets a poem of Gatt’s, ‘Considering the Snail’, and changes ‘snail’ to ‘beagle’ throughout, passing it off as his own work: he changes it still more, making it quite meaningless, when he needs to impress a bisexual American poet, and is fittingly rewarded for his plagiarism. There is another story about upper-class children picnicking with their governess and accidentally killing their granny, a folkloric tale about sex-change, and a nasty one about baby-battering.
The title story is not so sexy as the others, nor so British. It is a vision of the future, with an obese Swiss controlling national governments through the World Computer Control Centre, until the catering arrangements of his English wife (under analysis for anorexia) get mixed up with his worthy computer programmes. What it has in common with the other stories is a sense of revulsion, which Gathorne-Hardy strives to communicate. The fat Swiss has an antipathy to eggs: to eat them is ‘like forcing down some foul old blanket, eating the solidified scum on a sewer, a raft of filth ... penguin turds ... crocodile semen ... the contents of burst wombs ... ’