BOOKS

The important things in life

THE SWELL SEASON By Josef Skvorecký Translated by Paul Wilson

ANNE COLLINS November 15 1982
BOOKS

The important things in life

THE SWELL SEASON By Josef Skvorecký Translated by Paul Wilson

ANNE COLLINS November 15 1982

The important things in life

BOOKS

THE SWELL SEASON By Josef Skvorecký Translated by Paul Wilson

(Lester & Or pen Dennys, 226 pages, $16.95)

Ah, Irena of the dark eyes and burnished chestnut hair and the climbing pants with the heartshaped leather patch right where it hurt young Danny Smirický the most as he scrambled up rock faces behind her. Danny’s teenage lust settles on 24 girls in the six connected stories of The Swell Season, every pretty possibility in the “beautiful lustful town of Kostelec.” He loves them all intensely for the few hours before they say a final no—or their fathers catch them. But only Irena can pull him closer at the same time as she teasingly pushes him away. “Irena had a black-out blind in her window. Above the wooded hills the moon peeked out from behind a cloud, blanketing the forest in romantic light like an old painting, and illuminating the

dark glass in Irena’s window____I stood

there in the snow like a fence-post, up to my ears in love, and the snow fell slowly and covered me.”

The light touch of juvenile romance, the dark shadow of the wartime blacked-out window in which Danny hallucinates love—the scene is a perfect introduction to the genius of novelist Josef Skvorecky. He has written at least twice before about Danny, the uncomplicated teenager who wants to be free to pursue hot jazz and cool girls in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. But both his famous novella, The Bass Saxophone, published just before he left Prague for permanent exile in Canada

in 1968, and his first novel, TheCowards, which ends with the Red Army marching into Kostelec, are darker works in which Skvoreckÿ’s adult mind often passes judgment on the thoughts of the boy. In these new tales it is almost as if Skvoreckÿ has taken to heart something Danny vows at the end of The Cowards'. “I didn’t have anything against anything, just as long as I could play jazz on my saxophone. . . . And as long as I could watch the girls, because that meant being alive.” The Swell Season, written in praise of the girls and the boys who played illicit jazz under Nazi noses, is subtitled “A text on the most important things in life.”

Some might think that the inner life of a horny teenager is insultingly fluffy stuff when compared with the degradations of the Second World War. But Skvoreckÿ has his own points to make. Danny’s matter-of-factness about the restrictions imposed by the Nazis is surprisingly honest. He gets boyish pleasure out of fooling the German censors over jazz. Falling in love with a Jewish girl, though, is simply a no-win situation under the circumstances, and he avoids it. Helping the parish priest rewrite the whole church registry to disguise the marriage of the same Jewish girl to a “perfect Aryan” friend aggravates Danny because it interrupts a tryst. Sex is more important to him than God or war. Skvoreckÿ, who for such gentle stuff has had his name wiped out of Czech literary history and whose work passes in his homeland illegally from hand to hand, is apolitical in the sense that drives both the hard-line left and right mad. “Totalitarian ideologists don’t like real life (other people’s),” he wrote in 1977, “because it cannot be controlled; they loathe art, the product of yearning for life, because that, too, evades control. ...” Skvoreckÿ’s characters are always less than politically correct, less than heroic, more than alive.

The Engineer of Human Souls, a major novel that mainly deals with his 14 years in Canada, is in the hands of Paul Wilson, the excellent translator of this book, and should be published next fall. Meanwhile, Skvoreckÿ celebrates the girls of this youth, as lickable and delicious as 24 different flavors of ice cream. Memory distilled has turned The Swell Season into a perfect entertainment that still touches on a great novelist’s major concerns. “To me literature is forever blowing a horn,” Skvoreckÿ has written, “singing about youth when youth is irretrievably gone, singing about your homeland when in the schizophrenia of the times you find yourself in a land that lies over the ocean, a land—no matter how hospitable and friendly—where your heart is not.. ..” -ANNE COLLINS