I don’t expect I’ll be reading much for pleasure in the next month or so, so I hope to be sustained by the satisfaction I have just been given by The Cowards, the first novel of the Czech (later Canadian by adoption) writer Josef Škvorecký. It’s just been reissued by Penguin in a series of garishly covered books designated Central European Classics, but the edition I read was a nice black and grey-green Penguin Modern Classics one from the ’70s that I bought at the market a few years ago.
The book was written in 1948-9 when Škvorecký was 24, though it was not published until 1958, at which time it met with derision from Czech critics for what they perceived as unpatriotic sentiments, and it fell out of circulation until a revised edition was published in the mid-’60s. The English translation by Jeanne Němcová, which is the one still published by Penguin, appeared in 1970, prompted I presume by Western interest in Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring, though that may be incorrect.
The book tells of the events of a single week, Friday 4th-Friday 11th May 1945 (Tuesday 8th May being VE Day), in the small town of Kostelec, whose inhabitants are nervously awaiting the arrival of either Soviet communist forces or the German SS. Trying to make sense of this unique situation is the novel’s narrator, Danny Smiřický. He’s a young man of about 20, looking forward to going to university in Prague in a few months’ time but currently preoccupied with jazz and girls. One girl in particular haunts his imagination, Irena, the girlfriend of an objectionably sporty young man called Zdeněk. Danny is not exactly what one could call constant in his feelings for Irena, but his belief in the sincerity of his emotions is never in doubt, except at those places where he voices doubts himself.
I suppose one might refer to The Cowards as ostensibly a war novel, but the narrative voice reminded me of no other book so much as The Catcher in the Rye, and not just because the translation uses American idioms. Danny’s occasionally simplistic but always engaging view of the world, his mood swings, his contradictions, his good nature, are very like Holden Caulfield’s:
Girls’ mental equipment is generally pretty primitive. It would have been nice to know there was at least one girl in the world who could understand something. Not just what a person says, but what he means, too. And that maybe he means something entirely different from what he says. And that he says it for completely different reasons than he says. It would have been nice to know there was at least one girl like that in the world. Anyway, then I switched over to the track Irena’s little brain was running on.
I am fortunate in having access to JSTOR, which permits me to read a fascinating article from 1980 by Cornell University’s George Gibian, a compatriot and an exact contemporary of Škvorecký, which looks at The Cowards retrospectively in an attempt to analyse its value. He writes that Danny Smiřický is “one of the national heroes” of Czechoslovakia, the novel is such a part of the national consciousness, and draws parallels between Danny and not just Holden Caulfield but also Stephen Dedalus and Raskolnikov, albeit only in terms of the domination of a single narrative viewpoint.
Gibian writes: “Through Danny’s innumerable reactions to the things going on around him, as well as to his past and future experiences, Škvorecký gives the reader the sense of knowing intimately and sensuously what it felt like to be a young man of Danny’s social class in the Czechoslovakia of May 1945.” This is one of the book’s great virtues – the brilliant snapshot it provides of a society in limbo, which we see through the eyes of a young man who, despite an eternal curiosity about what is going on around him – and despite joining the partisans early on in the book – is not politically committed and is therefore able to see the absurdities of all the different factions trying to assert themselves. Škvorecký writes in his introduction to the book: “I hope that, aside from its juvenile mistakes and shortcomings, the book also reflects the candid, impertinent, Hans Christian Andersen-truths of youth which many of us so persistently overlook on our pilgrimage to the grave.” Perhaps the kind of thing he means is our sometimes simplistic or naïve attempts to rationalise what life is all about. Here is one of a number of passages in the book where Danny meditates at length, in this instance on the subject of cruelty after witnessing the sadistic treatment of captured SS members by his countrymen:
I remembered those two brothers that guy had showed me last night at the brewery. With their eyes gouged out. The bastards, I said to myself. Except the ones that did it had probably cleared out and these others were paying for it. What the hell, maybe they have the same sort of thing on their consciences too, but how could you know for sure? And how could you tell whether they had on their consciences what Mr Mozol and the others here were loading up on their own right now? I knew a few people who had plenty on theirs. Regierungskommissar Kühl. How he bellowed at the Jews when they were standing in line in front of the station, waiting to be taken off. He’d never been sent off to the front. Ein alter Mitkämpfer, he’d been a member of the Nazi Party since 1928. Then there was that bastard Staukelmann who’d turned in Lexa’s father, who was later shot because that was the easiest way to get hold of Lexa’s father’s apartment. And then later, when we already had our band and we donated the proceeds of two concerts to Lexa’s mother, Staukelmann informed about that, too, because informing had become a habit with him by then, and the only reason nothing came of that was because Dr Sabata had bribed some big wheel from the Gestapo with a case or two of slivovitz. Or Zieglosser, head of the personnel department at Metal, who used to pad around the factory picking out girls and then he’d have them called in to his office and if they didn’t come across, they’d be shipped off to the Reich. Like that seamstress Bozka I’d worked with. God knows whether she’d ever get back alive. The bastard. And all of them had cleared out in time. That kind always did. And then when you’d forgotten all about them, they’d turn up again and in the meantime somebody else had to pay for what they’d done. Maybe those SS guys they were killing now hadn’t been half as bad as Kühl and Staukelmann and Zieglosser had been.
This kind of thing, and the fact that he shoots an SS man himself, is hard to take for Danny, a boy (I hesitate to say man, given that he is still searching for his place in the world) who is temperamentally a lover and not a fighter. Most of his thoughts are about girls and sex, and his constantly confounded pursuit of the elusive Irena is poignantly bittersweet. The one scene of physical tenderness that occurs between them is very movingly written, and the sense conveyed in the narrative of the inability to concentrate when in love and the youthful hyperactivity of the emotions, that increases as the book progresses, is very well executed, one of the finest depictions of first love that I have read in fact.
I’d have given anything if she’d only let me have an affair with her, too. But I knew I didn’t have much to offer. I quickly thought about what really great thing I had that I could sacrifice for her. The saxophone! I could play the saxophone better than anybody — nobody in the district could even begin to touch me when I was playing my tenor sax. So I could give that up. Rather never pick up my sax again than never once have an affair with Irena, I said to myself. Then, even head over heels in love as I was with her right then, the more I thought about it the less sure I was I’d really do it and I said to myself, Sure you would! Damn right you would! By God, and you will, too! And I even swore to God I’d never play my sax again if only He’d let me have Irena and then I modified it a bit and swore I’d stop playing when I was thirty — or forty — and at the same time, in some dark corner of my soul, I was pretty sure that something would come up which would get me off the hook somehow, so that, actually, I didn’t swear to anything and I hadn’t given anything up but, in spite of that, I was still in love with Irena, awfully and unbearably and deeply. I longed for her.
I think what I have written so far may give an inaccurate impression of a not particularly palatable kind of earnestness, something which I suspect may bedevil first novels by young writers who wish to be taken seriously. In actuality, Danny’s companionship casts over the whole book a film of lightness and good humour. There are a number of episodes of great charm and even hilarity, such as the brief diversion where a priest unexpectedly rugby-tackles a German soldier to the ground, or the part where Danny finds a group of escaped English POWs and takes them to the swimming pool.
Gibian’s final assessment is that The Cowards in 1980 represents “more than ever before a landmark in the history of twentieth-century European sensibility, as well as a touching and gripping work of literary art.” That’s a bold claim, but I think there is evidence to back it up. I can certainly understand why Danny is such an iconic figure to Czech readers, and was not surprised to find myself feeling a little in love with him by the end of the book. I am delighted to learn not only that Škvorecký continued Danny’s story in other novels, but also that Škvorecký’s books, though mostly out of print, are still fairly readily available in translation. Jeanne Němcová’s translation of this one reads very well, though I gather that part of the furore surrounding the book’s initial publication was due to the characters speaking in colloquial rather than literary Czech, an effect that is difficult to replicate in English.