Sunday, January 2, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #9: Josef Skvorecky (1988)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large. 

One section of the book featured interviews with artists who had been exiled from their homeland. In 1984, Paul Mazursky made a profoundly funny (and poignant) film called Moscow on the Hudson which starred Robin Williams as a Russian musician touring with the Moscow circus who spontaneously defects in New York. The movie ostensibly dealt with the complex set of emotions set loose when he finds his freedom. Since the Cold War era was in its twilight years in the eighties, I drew together a number of interviews with those who, like the musician in Moscow on the Hudson, became exiles.The chapter had a number of them, such as Jerzy Kosinski, Cuban poet Herberto Padilla, and playwright Ariel Dorfman, reflecting on the mixed blessings that come when, because of political and ethical issues, you are forced to leave home. One of those interviewed was Czech author Josef Skvorecky who, over the years, had written about the legacy of Stalin (The Engineer of Human Souls) and the impact of jazz on Czech culture (The Bass Saxophone).  In 1988, Skvorecky had just written a book called Talking Moscow Blues, a book of essays on jazz, literature and politics. Our talk came at a significant time when Gorbachev was ushering in the thaw of the Cold War during perestroika.

kc: One of the things that occurred to me as I read your latest book, Talking Moscow Blues, is that although you are an exile in Canada, you bring a world view that is different from other exiles.

js: Well, you know, Czechs are the most Western of Slavic tribes. In fact, we've always been very Western. It's just the language that's Slavic. Also, the Czechs have lived for centuries with the Germans so we are a very mixed race. About one-third of the Czech people have German names without necessarily speaking German. So I didn't experience the cultural shock that most people go through when they come to a strange place like Canada. I was also very well prepared because I studied English and American literature in university. I even wrote my thesis on Tom Paine (laughing). In any case, that is why my world view might be different from other immigrants.

Josef Skvorecky
kcWhy do you think immigrants who come from totalitarian countries sometimes feel that we in the West take freedom for granted rather than simply embracing their new freedom?

js: But people in the West do take freedom for granted. Canadians have experienced depression and wars, but they've never experienced a totalitarian dictatorship. And what you say about some exiles, you have to take into account different traditions. For instance, the Russians feel that there is too much freedom here. They look at it as chaos. In their case, you have to remember that Russia has never had democracy. But the Czechs and the Slovaks lived between the two great wars in a state of liberal democracy not unlike Canada today. I remember when the Nazis marched into my country because I was fifteen years old. And there are others born after the war who have it in their bones because their parents told them about it. So I think the Czechs are better prepared for a Western style democracy than the Russians are. Those who haven't tasted freedom are always suspicious of it.

kc: I can't help but think that maybe it was also your exposure to writers that gave you a true window on the world.

Edgar Allan Poe
js: They certainly were a strong influence. But again the Czech tradition is that we publish more foreign editions than any other country. The Czech language almost became extinct by the end of the 18th Century because the whole kingdom of Bohemia became part of Austria. So educated people and patriots brought back the language mainly through the translations of other works. Edgar Allan Poe, a major influence for me, is probably the most translated Western writer in Czechoslovakia. Thankfully, my father had Poe's books in his bookcase. But they were locked up. One day, he forgot the key in the lock and I helped myself to those books. I read Poe at night under the blankets with a flashlight. Almost all the American classics -- James Fenimore Cooper and Hawthorne -- were available in my homeland. This was my exposure to the West.

kc: Speaking of Western culture, jazz is also a major influence in your life. It has also been a target of totalitarian regimes over the years. Why do you think that is?

js: Totalitarian regimes want control over everything. And when something like jazz, which celebrates spontaneity, comes along, it's immediately suspect. In a free culture, someone like Elvis Presley can have a few chords and from there music can develop and become sophisticated. But in totalitarian states, they only like the traditional kinds of music that they can control. There's also a political reason for this. These 20th Century types of popular music -- jazz, rock & roll and country music -- came from America. Nothing has come out of Russia, for instance, that would have become internationally popular. But America is a capitalist country, a democratic country, and the communists consider jazz to be "bourgeois." And it was this "bourgeois" music that was poisoning the minds of Soviet youth. 

kc: One of the biggest misconceptions that I made when I was an active radical in my teenage years was that communist revolution represented rebellion against the established order. What I discovered, or course, was that it was actually a call to mass conformity. Aside from some very obvious differences, is there really much that's different though between the ultra-conservatism today of the Republican Party and the Soviet politburo?

js: You know, if you read the Soviet writings on jazz in the twenties and thirties and compare it to the ultra-conservative newsman in the United States, it's the same kind of attitude. The only difference is that the American newsman doesn't order someone to stop playing jazz like in Russia. Very recently, the Czech government tried to suppress rock & roll and their reports on punk music were no different than the conservative press comments on punk in England. You're right, once they get to power the communists are more conservative than those conservatives in the West.

kc: There's an essay in your book about a journalist from Winnipeg who attends a peace conference in Czechoslovakia where you ponder as to whether this Canadian is being politically naive by attending. Rather than be angry with her, your tone is one of sadness. Why is that?

js: The tone is one of sadness because I think a journalist who goes to a peace conference in a communist country should do their homework. There are many excellent books on the technique of treating important guests from the West. These Westerners are often fooled. And these often include some very famous people. George Bernard Shaw was fooled by the Soviets who showed him "model prisons." So he writes in an article that the difference between prisons in Britain and the Soviet ones is that once you've served your sentence in Britain you are happy to get out, but in Soviet prisons they decide to stay because they like it so much. What naivety! He wrote this at a time when they already had gulags. So that's what I'm sad about because journalists should be intelligent people. And if they know nothing about a country, they should do some homework and learn. 

kc: Some people, though, would paint you as being reactionary and intolerant for criticizing her attending a peace conference.

Evelyn Waugh
js: Look. I try to be as open as I can about everything. And besides, what is a reactionary? I always quote this beautiful answer by the British author Evelyn Waugh who was a conservative person. In the Paris Review, when asked by an interviewer why he was a reactionary, he replied, "A writer must be a reactionary. Someone has to go against the tenor of the times." But we have to define what is a reactionary. I'm not against progress. I don't want to turn the clock back. But some of the more liberal-left journalists are simply too trusting. They have no historical memory. Many people know that Gorbachev is in power, but they forget everything that came before. They forget, for instance, that he came from a police background. They forget that he made his career in the KGB. I'm not saying that this determines his future, but I would be more cautious. And that has nothing to do with reactionary thinking. It's only that exiles like myself know totalitarianism and Canadians fortunately do not. 

kc: Do you think that when we deliberately forget history that we make totalitarianism possible?

js: I think that's very true. Some people still believe that communism can work. How many millions of people have to be murdered before people realize that it doesn't work? It doesn't even work economically. If communism worked as a cultural phenomenon then I might be able to close my eyes to the economic side. But they have no culture and anything vital in Soviet society has been created in spite of the government. When I was in Czechoslovakia, three of my novels were banned and I had to write under a pseudonym. Nobody knew the books were mine because a friend had lent me his name. So what is so great about communism except the idea which is Utopian? I prefer democracy which doesn't promise such paradise. At least you can improve things by participating in the political process.

  Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011,Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto.

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