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Headed for the Blues: A Memoir with Ten Stories

by Josef Skvorecky, Kaca Polackova- Henley with Caleb Crain, Peter Kussi, Paul Wilson, trans.

Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish

by Norman Ravvin

Josef Skvorecky’s literary history is tangled with the history of his native land – what used to be Czechoslovakia – in a way for which there is no obvious Canadian-born counterpart. Rudy Wiebe, Margaret Atwood, and Anne Michaels may draw out our history by means of fiction; Skvorecky lived the history and continues to distill it into fiction.

That’s a statement of fact rather than of envy, fact that’s a helpful accompaniment to any reading of Skvorecky’s work in English, including his latest book, Headed for the Blues: A Memoir With Ten Stories.

The Canadian chapters of Skvorecky’s history are well known by now: how with his wife, the writer and actress Zdena Salivarova, the novelist chose Canada as his place of exile after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. How, as well as continuing to produce fiction reflecting back on his homeland, Skvorecky founded Sixty-Eight Publishers, a venue for the work of fellow exiles like Ivan Klima and Milan Kundera, how he thereby established himself as a major figure in the intellectual commerce of his country. In novels like Miss Silver’s Past (1975) and The Bass Saxophone (1977), Skvorecky reflected on central Czechoslovak themes such as repression and censorship. As a publisher whose books were banned in Czechoslovakia, he grappled hand-to-hand with the same issues.

It’s only fitting, then, that Headed for the Blues combines a memoir and a collection of stories in one volume. The book’s not, however, a literary hybrid; in fact, because the parallels are what you might call circumstantial, it could just as well be two books. Certainly there are ideas, outlooks, images, and settings that are common to both the fiction and memoir here (and music from a tenor sax, a Skvorecky signature, breezes through both parts), but for the most part they are separate and different entities.

The memoir, which comes first, is harder going: it’s a roving piece of writing and in places the writing is as densely private to an outside reader as a diary never intended for public consideration. Indeed, without 86 footnotes inserted by the translators, many of the passages would have been resistant to anyone without a fluent knowledge of 20th-century Czechoslovak history.

But then, it may be the mood of the memoir that’s worth more than anything. Throughout, there’s a powerfully tight line of fraught, threatened, fearful energy that suggests, more than any anecdote, what it must have been like to live under the crush of an arbitrarily cruel regime, first Nazi, then Communist. Betrayal, arrest, disappearance: the threat of daily life is almost palpable on the page.

In the stories, collected under the title “The Tenor Saxophonist’s Story,” the background cruelty does not change, but the tone is quite different. Skvorecky’s characters here are often musicians and while they’re just as prone to persecution as, say, writers like Skvorecky, they’re generally a lighthearted lot, aloof in their sarcasm and wry contempt. Having just proved otherwise, they say things like “all in all, socialism suited me just fine” (in “Panta Rei”) or freely admit that “the people who fare best in this world are usually the worst bastards” (in “Truths”), and they get on with their lives. We’ve seen characters like this before in Skvorecky’s fiction – think of the incorrigible (and more than a little Skvorecky-like) Danny Smiricky from his 1970 novel The Cowards. What we haven’t seen – until the publication of the memoir portion of Headed for the Blues – is the life and times in its original dark hues.

Toronto writer Norman Ravvin published his first novel, Café des Westens, in 1991. Judged on the evidence of his second book, Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish, an award-winning suite of seven stories, he’s a writer with promise. If that sounds more like damnation by faint praise than a vote of unconditional admiration, well, here’s what feels like the truth: he’s a writer full of beguiling ideas, a writer of technically competent, acutely observant prose, a writer whose writing is still too stiffly self-aware.

It’s not always the case that when a writer assembles stories under one cover they feel like a collection, but with Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish there’s a strong sense of a whole rather than just parts. These are stories of the lost: lost paintings, lost fathers, lost minds, lost pasts, lost birthplaces. Ravvin’s characters, typically, don’t communicate very well, and they’re not exactly a decisive lot: in many of the stories, they find themselves pushed into metaphorical intersections – places where fathers meet sons, where pasts and presents collide – where they’re forced to act. In “Expatriate,” a Montreal businessman goes searching, by way of a looted painting, for the father he hardly knew. In “A Jew’s House,” a Polish man’s past opens before him when he meets an American looking for the house he was born into.

The prevailing mood of the book isn’t far off Skvorecky’s Communist Czechoslovakia: even when the stories are set against contemporary North American scenes, they are full of faceless functionaries and menacing bureaucracies, black marketers, exiles, corruption. Sometimes Paul Auster’s eerily empty landscapes and anonymous characters seem to have taken charge: in “Expatriate,” a Canadian businessman in Moscow thinks of himself “as the human equivalent of the generic brands sold in supermarkets.”

There are some provocative passages here and some memorable writing (the idea, for instance, of memory sabotaged by history), but there’s also, again, that stiffness. Not only in the actual writing – as when a character sees light shining into an abandoned synagogue and is reminded of “a weight of heartbreak, which he bore but could not remember the source of” – but in the effort, all too apparent, to burden these stories with meaning.

For clean, clear instruction in story-writing – a night course in 52 parts – I recommend enrolling in The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant. And her preface offers, at no extra cost, a deft introductory lesson. That’s where, describing her method, Gallant tells how a story of hers arrives in a single image, how she then fleshes in dialogue, descriptions, full scenes. She writes: “I do not deliberately invent any of this: It occurs. Some writers say they actually hear the words, but I think “hear” is meant to be in quotation marks. I do not hear anything: I know what is being said.” Ravvin’s stories still feel too laboured, too deliberate in their invention. He is a writer with promise and soon, maybe, we’ll read him and know this about his fiction: Like Gallant’s, it occurs.