I love my ancestors, and have always wished that I could go back in time, observe their world, and really know them. The second best thing to a time machine is a good novel. Actually, in some ways, the novel is better; you can usually get inside the head of the characters and really understand their motivations and character. If you want to understand the facts, read original source material, including parish registers, land records, deeds, wills, censuses, etc. But if you want to also understand the soul, read literature.
I just finished a hilarious book of short stories called "The Swell Season: A Text on the Most Important Things in Life” by Josef Škvorecký. I loved it, and it was also very sad, and left me feeling melancholy for the past few days.
SPOILER ALERT!!!! I warned you!!!
I could not have phrased it better than this Amazon reviewer, who actually wrote this in regards to a different book in this series called, “The Cowards.”
This semi-autobiographical novel is the first in a series by Czech-cum-Canadian author Josef Skvorecky that charts the life of Danny Smiricky, a Czech sometimes-saxophonist and full-time womanizer. The story opens during WWII in German-occupied Kostelec, a town not far from Prague. The way Smiricky tells it, the war and the occupation are minor hardships and major bores; what really matters is the pursuit of his two true loves: jazz and women. Like most egotistical men, Danny is most charming in his youth, and this novel displays him at his finest. His exchanges with friends and musings on the unattainable Irena are entertaining, and his rhapsodies on a solo with his jazz band and the fit of the ever-tantalizing Mitza's uniform go even further to make up for long stretches of disaffected self-indulgence. As a portrait of everyday life during wartime, the novel is excellent. Skvorecky captures the sort of daily details that bring a historical event to life in an intimate and personal way. One just wishes that the main character didn't block the view quite so often.
I have to say, though I truly thought the main character was a perverted would-be date-rapist with zero self respect and in desperate need of cold shower about every five minutes, I actually appreciated him in the end.
And I think Škvorecký was purposefully using some hyperbole as a literary device; he tries to get you inside the brain of a teenage guy, so of course he is going to sound like a horny self-centered jerk-off. But the truth is that we’ve all experienced extreme loneliness, which is Danny’s real problem.
In the end of the book, we discover the truth: that the girls he is trying to get with, they basically use him just as much as he uses them (though IMO it’s a lot stupider for a girl to use sex as a tool than for a guy but whatevs), and in the end he’s not really after sex, but finding some kind of meaningful connection in his very messed up world of Nazi Protectorate Czechoslovakia. It was actually really nice that the book didn’t focus on that part of the setting as the main “theme”; too often World War II books are tragedies about the setting of war. Well, this one was still sort of a trago-comedy, and the setting was definitely World War II, but it was not really about the war. The surface conflict was that Danny couldn’t seem to ever win with the ladies, but the deeper theme was that even had he succeeded, he would still be searching for love, for which he was starving.
Škvorecký is a great author, and Paul Wilson was also a fantastic translator. The book is full of hilarious scenes and funny dialogue (I laughed out loud many times.) There’s a lot of humor ranging from witty, to sarcastic/dry, and also slapstick/situational. I definitely blushed at some parts, but skimmed those. He did a great job of showing instead of telling, and the stories are all self-contained. I want to read more of this guy’s works.
My favorite story was, “A Family Hotel,” in which Danny and his crush’s little sister (a self identified “consolation prize”) try to sneak off to a hotel in the next town over. The hotel manager plays along with their plot, but actually calls Alena’s dad, who comes and rescues both of them (to both of their extreme embarrassment and relief). I loved this story because it was so brutally honest; it did a really great job of showing how painful it is to be a teenager longing for attention and love, both from the guy’s and the girl’s perspective. They were both horribly nervous and did not really want to go through with it. They both felt really guilty. But they both obviously felt really excited and too prideful to walk away from the plan once it was in action. I found this story very emotionally relatable, and it made Danny seem extra pitiable/pathetic, and therefore more likable.
Some things I learned from the “background” of the book:
- mountain climbing is a hobby in the Czech lands
- a passive resistance by Czechs against the Reich. There were all kinds of references to the policeman watching at the high schoolers’ forbidden dances for the German soldiers, and giving a signal if they should stop. Or the train inspector who is supposed to watch for contraband doing his job, “as if he were blind,” etc. Also, everybody seemed to agree that they hated the occupation, but they were powerless to stop it. Kind of how high schoolers are powerless against the machine of High School. It was really interesting to read about this kind of collective passive resistance.
- Magic as a theme
- Religious guilt as a theme
- American Jazz as an influence
- German language interacting with the Czech language
- Pollution as a backdrop. There were references to “half the town” being sick from bronchitis. The smell of sulfur drifting through the town – of course this makes me think of concentration camps and gives me the shivers.
- Parish Registers mattered a lot. There was one story where the parish priest, Danny, and another student stay up all night recopying a parish register in order to change one entry so that a girl they know will not be recorded as a Jew in the first degree, or whatever degree it was dangerous. I had no idea before I read this book that there were different “degrees” of Jewishness. How terrifying.
Anyway, I am sad this book is over, but glad because there are more in the series to enjoy. If only they were audio books. Nah, scratch that, then I couldn’t skip the extra racy parts. My only hope is that Danny never is successful in his meaningless conquests, so that the theme can stay focused on his tragic/hilarious (very relatable) loneliness. At least, until he becomes mature enough to actually care about somebody else more than he cares about himself, which I don’t foresee anytime soon.