Our book today is Josef Skvorecky’s rollicking, hilarious, and ultimately extremely touching 1977 novel, The Engineer of Human Souls (in the original Czech – hold onto something now – Pribeh inzenyra lidskych dusi), and I’m taking refuge in it today for two reasons: first, it’s a genuinely great book, endless inventive and sad and funny, certainly Skvorecky’s masterpiece (although all his books are very, very good), and second, because it’s been my experience that if the subject of ‘great 20th century novels’ comes up at a party or a bookstore or a convivial all-you-can-eat hostelry, any mention of Skvorecky will be met with blank stares. Even a recondite cinderblock like The Recognitions (which, don't mistake me, I also heartily recommend) will have at least one or two heads nodding, but Skvorecky? If people want to talk about great modern Czech writers, they’ll talk about Milan Kundera. You can just guess what I think about that.
It’s odd, because he has the just the kind of c.v. hip young litterateurs should love: born in 1924, enslaved by the Nazis while young, a patriotic Czech at a time when the Soviets were inclined to kill you for being that, a champion of freedom and a publisher of dissidents, by all accounts a mesmerizing teacher (though rather hard on his favorite students’ livers), and most of all, a tireless writer, always working at his craft. You think comp lit. grads would gobble him up.
My guess as to why they don’t is because his books are big – they’re labyrinthine, super-garrulous, endlessly allusive (none more so than The Engingeer of Human Souls) – they disdain simplicity for simplicity’s sake, they are unafraid of taking foolish rhetorical stances they can in no way justify, and they can almost never resist a squirt of seltzer water in your face, even in the most serious circumstances. In other words, despite the fact that Skvorecky wrote them in a relatively comfortable exile in Canada, they’re pure Czech.
The Engineer of Human Souls concerns the young Czech writer and dissident Danny Smiricky, who has many misadventures with the occupying Nazis (all of which are described with the pitch-perfect precision of high comedy, a thing Wodehouse understood, and Joe Heller – an incredibly difficult and painstaking kind of art that has endured many hardships over the centuries, including having to hear And Then We Came To The End described as ‘high comedy’), including an scatterbrained sabotage attempt that’s derailed when Danny inadvertently blurts out “Sorry!” to his Nazi Obermeister Uippelt, thereby revealing the highly suspicious fact that he speaks English. Naturally, the Nazi officer has questions about this. Here’s a bit of the nervous interview that follows – just look at the incredibly subtle shiftings going on here from slapstick to tragedy (“Mr. Katz, now probably dead…”) and back:
Without even being aware of it I stood at strict attention. He stared at me like a blue-eyed suckling pig, but it wasn’t his usual geheime Staatspolizei squint.
“’Sorry’ ...,” he said ponderingly. “Warum haen Sei diesen Englischen Ausdruck benutzt?”
“I’m- I’m learning English,” I replied in German. “I said it without thinking.”
“Warum lernen Sie Englisch?”
Oh God! Why, indeed, did a citizen of the Protektorat learn English with the Reich waging a victorious war against the English-speaking world? Why not learn Italian? Or, if you like – given the way the Italians were conducting the war – why not learn Japanese?
“I – we used to take it in school. I haven’t been able to forget it …”
“Warum wollen Sie’s nicht vergessen?”
He had me cornered.
“I …I …”
Once more the words flew involuntarily out of my mouth. The source of this next evident untruth was my teacher at the time, Mr. Katz, now probably dead. “Once you know something, no one can take it away from you.”
Uippelt raised his eyebrows,set his prince-nez on his nose, and I lost my courage. Against my will, I began babbling like a quisling. “I mean – after the war we will – I mean, Germany will occupy England – and then we will need to know English – vielleicht …”
The little blue eyes blinked and Herr Obermeister leaned towards me over the blueprints. I expected an explosion in elegant, baroque German, but Uippelt merely said in a soft, confidential voice, “Bullshit.”
The book is organized almost entirely around other books, other authors – this is, among all its other virtues, one of the most sustained and stunningly enthusiastic hymns of praise to books and reading you’re ever likely to read (the chapters are titled “Poe,” “Hawthorne,” “Twain,” “Crane,” “Fitzgerald,” “Conrad,” and, wonderfully, “Lovecraft,” and some of the academic comedy here – as Danny must deal with his terminally stupid students – is among the finest such ever written). There are readings of the authors in question – and dozens of others – that you’ll remember forever, but the bookish never upstages the forward-surging tangle of the book’s two plots, nor the hedge-growth of subplots in which Danny teaches his students and falls in and out of love (there’s a scene on a train in which young Danny realizes a girl he grew up with has become a fervent Nazi that will quite simply break your heart)(but you’ll be laughing at something five pages later).
I think it’s this studied, lively busy-ness that tends to keep The Engineer of Human Souls from being known at those parties and bookstores and all-you-can eat hostelries. Skvorecky can be wistful, melancholy, and sometimes very, very sad – but he is never solemn, and maybe that’s one sin too many in the current comp-lit hymnal. Danny hints at such a thing himself, after regaling his students with yet another story of the hapless Czech resistance fighters under the Nazis (this one involving, among other things, a series of events that cause a Nazi official to take a sip from a glass of what he thinks is champagne but which is in fact a more common yellow liquid altogether) and encountering their outright skepticism:
“You’re making this up,” says Irene. “it’s like a scene from a screwball comedy.”
“Svensson,” I say, “kindly remember this most banal of all truisms: the most incredible comedies are written by life.”
“My life is more like a railway timetable.”
“Just wait till time intervenes. The alchemy of time transforms everything into comedy. Everything.”
Naturally, I’m of precisely the wrong ethnic background to believe that myself, but Skvorecky did – or at least this wonderful book does. It would no doubt spare a rueful chuckle even for its own desuetude, although I don’t find that funny either. Somebody should hurry up and reprint this book – no need to commission a new translation: the snappy, cheerful one by Paul Wilson that I’ve been quoting from is quite good enough.