Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Josef Skvorecky

Review from Quill and Quire, December 2000.

*

When Eve Was Naked
by Josef Skvorecky
Key Porter Book, 2000

Writers of fiction often cringe when readers attempt to draw connections between the life of the writer and their art. Josef Skvorecky’s recently released story collection, When Eve Was Naked, however, not only perpetuates this confusion, it encourages it.

Fiction – even good fiction like Skvorecky’s – apparently sells too slowly under its own label and requires the beefier tag of true-to-life-prose.

Skvorecky’s life-in-stories contains 24 strongly crafted episodes, ranging from his childhood in pre-Second World War Czechoslovakia, through that country’s Nazi occupation to the Communist coup in 1948 and Skvorecky’s later days as a professor at an Ontario university.

The three repeating themes of the collection are the sexual domination of women over men, the idiocy of ideological systems, and the saving power of art, particularly jazz. The stories are, in other words, traditionally romantic, relying on the standard inherited tropes of individualism and sexual and esthetic transcendence.

As a result, Skvorecky’s best stories, like “The End of Bull M├ícha” (written in 1953), swirl in a brew of joy and terror. His weaker stories, those based on the fictional “Edenvale” campus west of Toronto, lapse toward the nostalgic and sentimental. They also make a poor ending to the collection, however true to life they may be, as they lack the backdrop of moral struggle behind many of the earlier tales.

The subtext of Skvorecky’s fiction, and his life outside bound covers, might well be that terror is good for art, while suburban contentment is not.

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