Book Reviewsworld literature

Miss Silver’s Past by Josef Škvorecký #bookreview

Prague-Wenceslas-SquareMiss Silver’s Past by the Czech author Josef Škvorecký is a book I wish I had not read.

It started off reasonably well if not in stellar fashion, but a quarter of the way through the cracks began to show. By the half way mark they had grown to  fissures and by the end, they were canyons. Now you might wonder why, if this was so poor a novel, I didn’t abandon it long before the end. I think it was because I kept hoping it would improve. About a hundred pages from the end I realised it wouldn’t but by then I’d invested so much time in reading it, that I decided I may as well limp to the finish line.

This is a novel written from the perspective of Karel Leden who is a Comrade editor  in a state-run publishing house in Prague. Every novel, every poetry collection; every book in fact, is subject to rigorous scrutiny by an editorial board and its advisors. Any element that doesn’t fit with Party philosophy has to be deleted/rewritten no matter how strongly the author believes in their work. Weighed down by this bureaucratic restrictive regime, Leden becomes cynical and frustrated. Then into his life comes the beautiful, elusive Lenka Silver.  Leden has the hots for her and pulls many tricks to get her to reciprocate but all are to no effect; she seems more keen on Leden’s friend and his boss for reasons that don’t become apparent until the final few pages.

Now according to the blurb,  ‘passions rise and suddenly there is a murder’. Well yes, a body is discovered and there’s a suggestion it was the result of foul play. But it doesn’t happen until we’d got to page 260 in a book of 297 pages and then the identification of the killer is rushed through in about 5 pages so hardly a pivotal moment in the narrative.

In between we get scene after scene where Leden trails after Silver like some mooning puppy dog, declaring his love repeatedly only to meet with rejection. And then there are interminable editorial discussions in the publishing house offices where the wrong decision could lead to a major contretemps. The staff thus wrestle with problems like whether it was risky to capitalise the word God since  “Marxist science had conclusively demonstrated the non-existence of a higher power, and using an uppercase G could be interpreted as a blasphemy against the founder of socialism.”  The question takes them back to a previous discussion about Uncle Tom’s Cabin which some staff members felt problematic because of its anti-Marxist religiosity.

My supervisor at once grasped the potential peril and gravity of the situation … He cut off any further discussion by proposing that we would not publish the book in its original version, but in the form of a so-called adaptation.  this work was turned over to an indigent Latin translator who adapted the work in such a masterly fashion that Uncle Tom talked like a trade-unionist and all references to the non existent deity were eliminated.

Running through Miss Silver’s Past is a debate about whether to publish a book by a young female author who had already caused problems when one of her short stories had to be removed from a magazine at the eleventh hour.  Leden recognises the author’s talent and sees it’s exactly how he had hoped to write himself. Others in the publishing house consider it pornographic and demand extensive re-writes before they will even contemplate approving it for publication.

An independent reader to whom the novel is sent for review reports back:

The novel shows signs of an uncritical acceptable of fashionable Western literary phenomena, such as a decadent interest in degenerate aspects of life, the mixing of chronological planes, emphasis on sex, alcoholism, violence and a variety of esoteric allusions. … I have no doubt that Cibulka’s novel [the author’s name] would be greeted by the snobbish circles with the greatest enthusiasm. It is therefore the duty of a socialist publisher to reject such a work and to exert an educational influence upon the author, urging her to think more deeply about the significance of her work so her future creativity would be free of modish piquancy and so that she would try to portray the whole truth about our lives — lives which certainly have their difficult moments but in which hope and good cheer predominate.

In a foreword to my edition Grahame Greene comments on this passage that it would be ‘hilariously funny’ except that the livelihood of a writer in Czechoslvakia in the 1970s did depend on the control exerted by shadowy figures who determined who – and what – got published. Which presumably means that Greene sees Miss Silver’s Past as reflection of the constraints under which Škvoreckýe himself had to operate.  But if Škvorecký intended this novel as a critique of the political system’s attitude to authors and books, it was so thinly veiled as to be meaningless. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters, the plot was dull and the attempts at comic irony were so lacklustre (how The Guardian found it ‘hilarious’ I can’t imagine) they barely caused me to even smile. I did however yawn, several times.



About the book: Miss Silver’s Past was written in 1969 and was the last of Josef Škvorecký’s books to have appeared in Prague. My edition was published by Vintage in 1995, translation is by Peter Kussi

About the Author:  Josef Škvorecký was born in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia in 1924. His first two novels were banned by the censors because of its lack of socialist realism and its praise of the ‘decadent’ jazz music of the west. After the Soviet invasion of 1968 he and his wife left for Canada where he became Professor of English at the University of Toronto and was able to see his work in print.   He and his wife were long-time supporters of Czech dissident writers before the fall of communism in that country. Škvorecký was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1980.

In an interview with Paris Review, Škvorecký talked extensively about his work and the themes that influenced his writing.

Why I read this book: I bought this in 2015 when I was just embarking on my project to read literature from a more extensive range of countries than I had experienced to date. Škvorecký’s name came up as one of the key writers from the Czech Republic.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

31 thoughts on “Miss Silver’s Past by Josef Škvorecký #bookreview

  • I’ve never read any Czech writers before, and the synopsis certainly sounds intriguing. It’s just a shame this book was so disappointing!

      • Yeah… Milan Kundera is usually the name that tops the list, but I’ve never read any of his books, so I couldn’t say what they’re like.

        • I’ve picked up a few of his books and decided they were not for me

  • My husband used to be a great fan of Josef Škvorecký. Although I shall skip Miss Silver’s Past, I must see what we’ve got on the shelves. Great review!

      • He says he prefers the earlier work and recommends The Cowards and something with Saxophone in the title.

        • great, thanks for that insight Kat – and thank your husband too

  • After reading the first line of your review, how could I not want to read on? Sorry you read it and wished you hadn’t, but at least I can avoid this one because of your good deed. 🙂

  • Maybe something got lost in translation? I assume this was a translated book, and humor especially is very difficult to translate.

    • There could be some element of that Nish – but I just think the book was confusing as to its purpose

  • It sounds so much like 1984 that I wonder what the author’s goal was. I read a book about Bozena Nemcova not too long ago. She’s known as “The Mother of Czech Writing.”

    • I’ll take a look at the Nemcova bibliography in the hope there is something more to my taste

  • The set-up has potential, since the censorship rules were so arbitrary and ridiculous that ot could lead to lots of hilarious situations. But it sounds like it wasn’t that well done.

    • I think the idea is sound but yes indeed it was the execution that proved to be the problem

  • I suspect that your experience with this book is indicative of a larger problem: anyone who’s ever read Aleixandre Solzhenitsyn knows that his *writing* isn’t very good, and yet his books were bestsellers in the western world during the Cold War. That was because IMO dissident literature coming out of the Soviet Union was (a) rare, and therefore had ‘exotic’ value and (b) conformed to western ideology that everything about the USSR was bad. So if you were well-read and keeping up with things, you’d read big clunky tiresome monsters like Cancer Ward, in the same way that today, books by dissident writers from China get lots of prominence, even if they’re not very good. (If you’ve ever trudged through anything by that Chinese Nobel winner, Gao Xingjian, you know exactly what I mean).
    I’ll add to that: why, I find myself wondering, do publishers seem to be more keen to reissue old Soviet-era novels than to bring us contemporary writing from the post-Soviet era? That may just be an impression I get from the blogs I follow, and maybe that’s not indicative, but it seems to me that it’s like flogging a dead horse. We all already know that communist dictatorships were/are #understatement a bad idea, and if the books telling that story are not very good to read, well, that just puts people off reading translated books.
    What’s interesting now is how writers are telling stories from post-Soviet societies that have transformed themselves, or they’re telling stories about what it was really like, now that they’re free to do it. But finding out what’s new in that type of contemporary literature and also good to read is really difficult…

    • with the limited funds available for publishing of any works in translation, you would indeed think publishers would look at more contemporary works. Maybe they are afraid the older ‘classics’ will disappear if they don’t reissue them but then age alone does not a classic make

      • Perhaps it has something to do with copyright. They wouldn’t have to pay royalties to authors of old books that are out of copyright.(especially if they’re dead).

        • it does come down to money invariably

  • Oh dear indeed – I have this on my shelves, and I’ve actually read and enjoyed one of his books. Let’s hope all the others I have lurking alongside it are better….

  • Oh dear… I lack your staying power and would have given it up. Perhaps it’s the translation given Greene’s comments although that doesn’t excuse The Guardian. Better luck with your next read.

    • if it wasn’t for the blurb which promised such a change in the nature of the book I would have given up – but it kept holding out this promise of something different

  • Oh dear, how frustrating. At first I thought this book was one one Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver mysteries, but then I noticed the author’s name in the title of your post! Oh, well…

    • so frustrating when I think of all the better books I could have spent the time reading

  • I enjoy your negative reviews! Shame this one wasn’t a good example of Czech literature for you. I’d never heard of the book or the author.

    • Neither had I until I started searching for something from that part of the country


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