A Conversation with Josef Skvorecky By Sam Solecki

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Spring 1997, Vol. 17.1

SAM SOLECKI: “The Bride of Texas” appeared in Czech two years ago and in English last year. Could you tell me something about it?

JOSEF SKVORECKY: It’s a historical novel, set during the American Civil War, and deals with a group of Czech soldiers serving in General Sherman’s army in the campaign in Georgia and the Carolinas until the final victory at the Battle of Bentonville. As far as I know, and I did a great deal of research for the novel, this story about Czech-American soldiers has never been told. With the exception of one individual, all of the characters are real.

SS: Why did you make an exception for the one?

JS: Well, I needed someone who could bind the various stories and episodes together. Many of the stories, by the way, are based on narratives written by the soldiers themselves which I found in old Czech-American almanacs published throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.

SS: As with several of your earlier novels, “The Bride of Texas” has a subtitle, “A Romantic Story from Reality.” “Dvorak in Love” had “A Light Hearted Dream.”

JS: In this case, the “romantic story” that runs through the novel came from a nineteenth-century romantic story, a Czech story published in the United States and written by a writer who is now completely forgotten. It involves the very beautiful daughter of a poor family in Moravia who becomes involved with the son of a prosperous local farmer. As you can guess, the father is opposed to his son’s involvement with the girl, but the boy persists and eventually he and the girl try to elope to America, but they are caught. In the end the father decides that the best way to break up the romance is to have the girl and her family emigrate to America. He pays the bill for the entire family, and so the young girl, Lida—which she changes to Linda in the United States—ends up in America.

Unfortunately, when she arrives in America she is already pregnant. Anyway, she has the baby and decides that having tried love, she will now try to find a rich husband. She becomes involved with the son of a rich plantation owner who, like the Moravian farmer before him, is predictably opposed to his son’s involvement with a poor, though beautiful, immigrant. They elope to Savannah, Georgia, and that’s where they come into direct contact with the Civil War as General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army overruns the city.

She’s no fool, and she realizes that a Northern victory signals the end of her fiance’s wealth, so she immediately leaves him and catches a young officer in Sherman’s army.

AA: So far it sounds like a modern romance novel with a very resilient and capable heroine.

JS: It is, or at least one aspect of the novel is. The other involves the soldiers I mentioned who are all folksy characters who spend a lot of time telling stories. They’re not much different from the soldiers in Hasek’s “The Good Soldier Svejk” or in my own novel “The Republic of Whores.” It’s probably the one thing soldiers in all armies and at all times have in common: they spend a lot of time telling stories.

The central character here is Sergeant Kapsa, a real figure whose story I found in my research. He was a real soldier, a professional, who joined the army before the Civil War started. He was in the Thirteenth Battalion with five other Czechs, and the commander was Sherman, then just a colonel. The archives don’t explain why there were six Czechs in this particular unit, but my theory is that they were all probably deserters from the Austrian army, which at that period conscripted soldiers for a seven-year term. And this meant that you had to say goodbye to whatever life you had when you entered the army. If you had a girlfriend, she probably wouldn’t wait until after you got out.

I have a hunch that the deserters who made it to America probably found out that it was easier to join the American army than to do anything else because after so many years of soldiering, they didn’t know anything else. And since they were professional soldiers or at least had some experience in the military, some of them made very capable drill sergeants.

SS: Did documents indicate whether Sergeant Kapsa was a deserter?

JS: No. But in my story he accidentally kills his commandant in a fight over the commandant’s wife, with whom Kapsa has been having a love affair. If he stayed, he would have been tried for murder, so he ran. It’s a romantic story like many I ran across in the Czech writing of the period. These stories are not “great” writing, but they are often very moving.

What I try to do in the novel is to tell the story of the war, of Sherman’s March, through the eyes of these soldiers who also were a part of great historical events even though their story hasn’t been told yet.

The bulk of the novel is composed of five chapters between which are sections that I call the writer’s intermezzos, and these are narrated by a successful woman writer who has had an interesting life. For example, she disrupts her wedding by leaving the groom, the future General Burnside, at the altar and running away. Incidentally, this part of the story is true; Burnside’s fiancee did run away from the altar. The rest is fiction. She changed her mind because she received a letter from a publisher who wanted to publish her first novel. Given a choice between marriage to a soldier and a career as a writer, she opted for freedom.

SS: This section at least sounds like a contemporary feminist novel.

JS: She ends up as a very successful writer, a best-selling author of novels “for young women” that are similar to Harlequin Romances. At the same time she dreams of writing a serious novel, and she begins one at the start of the war when she herself becomes indirectly involved by hiring an escaped slave. She decides to write the story of the black woman who, after the war, unfortunately, ends up as a very successful madam of a very successful brothel in Chicago. Instead of a tragic heroine, she is faced with a real-life successful entrepreneur.

What I find fascinating is how often reality is as funny as any fiction. For instance, before the war, there was a militia in Chicago, organized by the Czechs, which called itself the Lincoln Slavonic Rifles. I found the letter in which they ask for permission to use Lincoln’s name. Their main concern seems to have been about what sort of uniform to wear and how to keep out anyone who was not of Slavic origin. Unfortunately, when the war broke out, few of them wanted to serve and they found various excuses for avoiding combat. So the Slavonic Rifles gradually became full of Germans—only twelve Czechs remained—and the name of the unit was changed to Lincoln’s Rifles.

SS: How does a Czech-Canadian writer find himself writing about the American Civil War? In other words, how did “The Bride of Texas” begin?

JS: It began when I was doing research for “Dvorak in Love,” which was published in 1986, and I ran into some narratives and stories dealing with the war and the Czechs and Slovaks who fought in it. They were often told in a very naive way, and, as you would expect, they were full of Victorian coincidences; but they showed an aspect of history that many people, including many Czechoslovaks, weren’t aware of. One of them, by the way, was a novel by a woman who became a courier for Thomas Masaryk during World War One. She traveled back and forth between Prague and the United States until the latter entered the war.

SS: Is this a true story?

JS: Oh yes, yes. And in the archives and almanacs and Czech publications of the period you find similar ones.

SS: This is one thing that “Dvorak in Love” and “The Bride of Texas” have in common. They’re both grounded in a great deal of research in historical documents. In fact, in the Czech edition each comes with a lengthy bibliography and an authorial note explaining the extent to which the novel is historical and factual. I can’t think of many other novels that make as explicit a claim for their historicity. Each also has many period photographs of the people and places referred to in the novel. It’s as if you don’t want the reader to forget that these novels have a slightly different cognitive status from novels in general. The photos and the bibliographies also create the impression that these books have an indeterminate generic status somewhere between fiction and history; they take the claims of history seriously without necessarily giving historical discourse primacy over the fictional one.

JS: Well, you know I designed the book that way—with photographs and etchings—because I think they enhance the novel’s period flavor. They also help the readers visualize the characters better—how they look, how they dress and so on. I must admit I’m disappointed that the photos and etchings don’t appear in the English translation of “Dvorak in Love” because they are an important part of the novel. As for the bibliographies, I know that there are several novels written about the Civil War which have them as well, as a kind of documentation for the fiction, so I’m not the first to do that.

You know, in Prague I was congratulated on the bibliography in “Dvorak in Love” because it contained some pieces that, though not very important, were not very well known. By the way bibliographies are also important because I could be accused of plagiarism.

SS: Like D. M. Thomas in “The White Hotel.”

JS: Yes. So I protected myself by listing my sources and letting my readers know what the origins of the novel were. “The Bride of Texas” also has a postscript that contains a brief history of the Civil War because Czech readers won’t be as familiar with it as Americans.

SS: Listening to you describe “The Bride of Texas,” I’m struck by the fact that even in a war novel, you have strong central female figures. And this is also true of “Dvorak in Love”; there at least three of the most important and most fully developed characters are women—Josephine, Adele Margulies, and Jeanette Thurber. Would it be fair to say there’s a significant turn toward strong women characters in your later fiction?

JS: No, I don’t think so. I think that if you look carefully at the early work, you will see that the adolescent and teenage girls have independence and strength, though perhaps different than what today’s feminists look for in a woman character. Don’t forget that Danny is almost always a victim of the women he pursues, in “The Cowards,” “The Republic of Whores,” “The Swell Season,” and others.

I’ve always loved that book of Virginia Woolf’s, “A Room of One’s Own,” where she explains about the androgynous nature of people and especially of the writer. And I must admit that I find it exciting to write in a female voice, from inside a female character. Some radical feminists may disapprove and maintain that it is impossible for a man to write from within a woman’s viewpoint. I think that’s nonsense. Two of the greatest novels we have, “Anna Karenina” and “Madame Bovary,” are the result of a man writing about a woman. And as I said, I enjoy doing it, trying to speak in the voice of a Jeanette Thurber or Lorraine, the writer in the new novel.

SS: We’ve talked about the fact that the photographs are missing from the English edition of “Dvorak in Love,” but that’s not the only thing that is different between the Czech and English versions. If you read the novels side by side, you notice that the order of the chapters has been changed significantly, and the last chapter in the Czech version is now the penultimate one. My impression is that the novel is much darker, almost tragic, in the English version than it is in the Czech.

JS: You’re right, of course. There is a difference. Even the title is different. My American publisher suggested that no one would know what “Scherzo capriccioso” meant, and so they came up with some alternatives, including “Dvorak in Love.” As for the ending, the Czech ends with Adele Margulies boarding a train and leaving Dvorak after having failed to persuade him to return once again to America and the Conservatory. In the English the novel ends with a much darker chapter dominated by death, especially inevitable death from cancer of Sissieretta Jones, “the black Patti.”

SS: And there’s that lovely and poignant image of “the white patch of the boat” surrounded by “the black, black darkness.”

JS: You know, I like the changed ending.

SS: I’m not suggesting that it’s better or worse, but it changes the mood of the close and makes for a slightly different novel.

JS: Well, I’m not the first novelist to have a novel that exists in two different versions. There’s Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night” and James’s “The Aspern Papers.”

SS: And Dickens’s “Great Expectations” and Lawrence’s three versions of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” As Joyce said about the allusions in “Ulysses,” this is something that will keep the critics and professors busy for a long time.

I just want to turn back for a moment to the research you did for the last two novels. Did this change how you write a novel? I mean with “The Cowards,” “Miss Silver’s Past,” and “The Swell Season” you didn’t really need anything beyond your memory and your imagination in order to create. But with “Dvorak in Love” and “The Bride of Texas” you did a large amount of preliminary research and then had what must have been folders of material that had to be used, adapted, and referred to if the novel was going to be accurate in a historical sense.

JS: As you know, before “Dvorak in Love,” I had never written a historical novel, and so I had to develop my own techniques. The main difference between “Dvorak in Love” and “The Engineer of Human Souls” is that with the latter, when I had my outline, I could fully immerse myself in my memory and imagination; and I could write eight hours a day without having to consult any books or documents. It was all in my head, and I just kept on writing. With “Dvorak in Love” and “The Bride of Texas on the other hand, I just couldn’t do that because I can’t keep all that information, all those dates and places and names, in my head. I would be writing, and then I would suddenly realize that I had forgotten something that might be important, and I had to stop writing for an hour or more while I looked it up. Only when I was doing the second draft could I write without interruptions, because I didn’t need to consult the sources anymore. You know, before I attempted to write a historical novel, I hadn’t appreciated how difficult and complicated a process it was.

SS: With “The Bride of Texas” your novels now cover nearly a century and a half of Czech life and history. There’s not much about the first three decades of this century, but otherwise your body of work is almost a fictional chronicle of a life of a people.

JS: Well, it may sound old-fashioned to confess this, but one of the reasons I wrote “The Bride of Texas” is the patriotic one of offering a sort of tribute to the Czech soldiers who fought and in some cases died in the war. Their names are in the novel and they are real names, as are the names of the battles in which they fought.

SS: I don’t think there’s any doubt that the last two novels represent a significant departure for you, and it’s certainly one for which there’s little to prepare us in the earlier fiction. But I suspect that most of your reviewers and critics—from Helena Koskova to Paul Trensky—would agree with me if I said that your novels have been permeated by history from the start. “The Cowards,” after all, deals with the closing days of the Second World War, “The Republic of Whores” shows Czechoslovakia in the closing years of Stalinism, and “The Miracle Game” re-creates the Prague Spring and is a political and historical roman a clef with portraits of various individuals prominent in the period, from Vaclav Havel to Pavel Kohout.

I’m not trying to suggest that something new doesn’t enter your fiction with “Dvorak in Love.” I’m simply saying that there also seems to be a certain continuity as well. In fact, I also wonder whether there isn’t a natural progression between the two kinds of historical novels in your body of work, both of which are ultimately rooted in realism and concerned, though in different ways, with history.

JS: I think you’re right in saying that I’ve always been concerned with history; being from Czechoslovakia it was hard not to be. In almost all my novels the action takes place against a historical background. The stories do have a context within which they take place and which influences the characters and their lives in some way. You could probably say the same thing about the Boruvka stories up to a point; the things the Boruvka can do and cannot do are determined by the kind of society he lives in. And if you read them in the order they were written, you can see the different periods or phases of life in Czechoslovakia since the 1950s.

I once planned a series of five mystery novels with my friend, the poet Jan Zabrana, each of which was to have a different historical period for its setting. The first was going to be set during the Great Depression, another during the Second Republic (1938-39), the third during the war, the fourth after the war, and the fifth in the Stalinist era. Anyway, I never wrote the last two because I had to leave Czechoslovakia. For some time, I even contemplated writing the fourth one and sending it to Zabrana who could publish it under his own name. It was tempting and the series was very popular.

SS: The books were published under Zabrana’s name, weren’t they?

JS: Yes, I was still under a political cloud because of the scandal over “The Cowards.” We plotted the stories together, and then I would write the novels and Zabrana would take them to the publisher. Zabrana and I also collaborated on a children’s novel called “Tanya and the Two Gunmen,” which is both an adventure novel and a sort of Russian language textbook. It has a Russian girl, a tourist, lost in the woods, who meets two young Czech boys and sort of teaches them to speak Russian by correcting their imperfect Russian.

SS: I find this interesting because language or languages seem to me to have always been a central concern in your novels. In “The Cowards,” for example, there are at least four major languages spoken as well as a couple of dialects, and this is also true of works like “The Bass Saxophone,” “The Miracle Game,” and “Dvorak in Love.” And several of your critics have commented at some length on your ability to differentiate characters by how they speak. You seem to have a very good ear for dialects and dialogue. When you write dialogue, do you try it out by speaking the lines out loud?

JS: No, no. I just write it out as I hear it in my head. But it’s interesting because when I was a young man and trying to write fiction and poetry- every young man writes poetry because for that you don’t need experience, just feelings—my fictional dialogues were just awful—the dialogue was wooden and just a vehicle for information. I could feel that every character spoke in the same way. And then I read Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” and I could see what could be done with dialogue. I also learned from other American writers I was reading at the time—Faulkner, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, and Mark Twain, of course, and even some of the predecessors of Mark Twain.

SS: Why were you so interested in the American writers?

JS: Well, I was very interested in American folklore; in fact, Lubomir Doruzka and I put together and had translated a huge anthology of American folklore. It must be one of the largest ever put together in Europe. But to return to your question about dialogue, I can’t say that I have ever been aware or self-conscious about paying attention to how people speak. And I have never studied language or linguistics. There are certain mysteries in writing, things that the writer can’t explain.

SS: I want to worry the topic just a bit longer, because it seems to me that one of the ways that you keep the novels from being monologic or monophonic, even when they are narrated by Danny Smiricky, is by your ability to let other characters have their say in voices that are absolutely distinctive. And I would argue that this freedom increases between “Miracle in Bohemia” and “Dvorak in Love.” The former offers various narratives, discourse, and ideological stances, while in the latter each chapter is narrated by or focused on a different character. The final effect is polyphonic, in Bakhtin’s sense, as the reader is surrounded by various viewpoints expressing often conflicting interpretations and systems of value. Even in “The Engineer of Human Souls,” though the novel is narrated for the most part by Danny, the students’ views are given a full hearing and his disagreements with them are part of a novel-long dialogue about ideologies and some of the topics mentioned in the novel’s subtitle.

JS: Well, as you know, I have never been inspired by any ideologies, and I believe that there are novels that are completely devoid of ideologies- unless you agree with Marxist critics who tell you that everything is ideology or ideological, and I don’t. There is a tremendous difference between the not-binding ideology of a liberal democracy and the mandatory totalitarian ideologies of political correctness. Some of the worst novels ever written were written for ideological reasons, and no one reads them now.

SS: But as anyone who has read “The Republic of Whores,” “Miss Silver’s Past,” or “The Miracle Game” realizes, socialist-realist novels, ideological novels, have been the source of some of your liveliest humor and satire.

I want to return to the question of language for a moment. I wonder whether your most radical gesture in language, and perhaps your riskiest, doesn’t occur when those stories and novels in which you have Czechs who have emigrated speak a Czech heavily inflected with English. I almost have the feeling that the ideal reader for these—and these include “The Engineer of Human Souls” and “Dvorak in Love”—is a bilingual reader, or at least one with some awareness of both languages, someone who can appreciate the energy of these bilingual portmanteau words.

JS: Yes, but you know English is such an international language now, that there are few Czech readers who wouldn’t understand the words either from the context or just because they know some English. I suppose they will get the gist of it.

SS: Looking at this from another point of view, these passages must be a translator’s nightmare, in the same way that some of the names in your fiction are. The villain of “The Republic of Whores” is nicknamed “Malinkatej dabel” in the Czech; in Francois Kerel’s French this becomes “le P’tit Mephisto,” while Paul Wilson christens him “the Pygmy Devil.”

JS: There was the same problem with Dotty’s name and the way she spoke in “The Engineer of Human Souls.” I once had a letter from a Czech woman who said she enjoyed that novel but didn’t like the sections in which Dotty appeared because she found the way she spoke incomprehensible.

As for the problems some of these things cause for a translator, all I can say is that some aspects of a novel simply cannot be translated; something is always lost.

SS: Is it Valery who said that literature is what is lost in the translation?

JS: It is unavoidable.

SS: Since we’re speaking of translations, in “The Republic of Whores,” as was the case with “Dvorak in Love,” we have a novel that is substantially different in certain parts from the Czech original. This is particularly true of a couple of scenes and of two chapters that have been very skillfully conflated into one. Again, textual scholars will have a field day some time in the future comparing editions.

One of the scenes that I’m referring to shows a group of soldiers forming a sort of guard of honor or gauntlet for a female military prisoner on her way to the toilet. As she passes, they “present arms” by dropping their trousers and saluting her with their erections. In the English this changed to a “rigid salute” and a swelling in their trousers. It’s not quite the same thing. What happened?

JS: I have a very good editor, and she suggested that some repetition could be eliminated by intercutting the two chapters, and she told me that the night scene in the jail would get attacked by all feminists—it was simply too strong. So I changed it, toned it down. In the Czech film based on the novel they retained the scene as it is, and the film has been very popular. I don’t know.

SS: The Czech text has the subtitle: “A Fragment from the Period of the Cult.”

JS: Yes, that was because I originally planned the book as an introduction to a long novel or a long introductory chapter to a much longer book dealing with Danny’s return to civilian life, but I never wrote that. So that’s why I called it a fragment, though I dropped the subtitle from the English version. That’s also why it has this loose structure which some people have criticized as episodic.

SS: But there are some threads holding the chronologically arranged episodes together. There’s the focus on Danny, his last weeks in the tank corps, and the love affair with Jana, the officer’s wife.

JS: I think that what a reader needs to ask about the book is whether or not it stands on its own despite the episodic structure or form. It’s not meant to have the form of a more conventional novel, and each of the stories is intended to be both self-contained and related to the others.

I wasn’t sure for some time whether or not to publish the novel in English, but what finally convinced me to do so was its immense popularity in Czech.

SS: Your wife once told me that she thought it is the most popular of the novels published by Sixty-Eight Publishers.

JS: That’s true, but I should add it is mostly popular with male readers, most of whom have had similar experiences when they were conscripted into the national army; very few women like it. Still in the Czech Republic, a nation of eleven million people, it has sold over 250,000 copies.

SS: What are you working on now?

JS: I am writing a script for Czech television based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” I have been fascinated by Poe for a long time, and I can’t explain why, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he is the father of the detective story.

SS: You recently wrote an article on Poe for “Svetova literatura” in Prague.

JS: Yes. The dramatist Helena Slavikova read the essay and asked me to write something for television. The script is a drama that focuses on Poe at a time when his wife is sick, dying, and it also develops some of the ambiguities surrounding the death of Marie Roget, especially the possibility that she may have been made pregnant—maybe even killed—by the owner of the cigar store in which she worked. There is a suggestive sentence in the coroner’s report in Poe’s story: “The medical testimony spoke confidently of the virtuous character of the deceased.” The script develops the possibility that—but since this is supposed to be a mystery story, I won’t disclose the solution now.

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