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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.

Footnotes

 

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.

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