Sunday, March 23, 2003


Written in 2003 for the New York Times Magazine

Location is everything. Ever since childhood, my idea of islands was tropical, or at least Mediterranean, so I’d always been skeptical of Bermuda, only two hours’ flight from New York. It never occurred to me that here was an island with virtually no resources, a lump twenty-two miles square in the middle of the Atlantic, which had traded for generations on little more than ingenuity and beauty to create a calm, prosperous society.

As one of Britain’s earliest colonies, on the same subtropical latitude as Shanghai and Charleston, Bermuda enjoys a fiscal Gulf Stream of its own creation. When I arrived, the place struck me as highly British—from the pillar postboxes to the serenely assured, idiosyncratic architecture—but it became less so the longer I stayed, and began to sense what being Bermudian (that floral word) means.

The surprise comes from what the island is not. It is not greedy, not poor, not full of junky T-shirt kiosks. Its high season is April through November, not the reverse. There are no casinos. It does not allow tourists to rent cars, which keeps down the traffic, encourages bicycles or motor-scooters, and guarantees work for the taxi drivers incessantly polishing their shiny vans. Less starchy than guidebooks would have you believe, it is unfailingly polite.

Best of all, unlike many small places with a deep colonial past, it never feels like a client state, a humbled dependent. Bermudians resent being lumped with “the other islands” and will remind you, with a relaxed pride, that they’re as distant from the West Indies as Washington is from Dallas. They know they are more worldly, more well-spoken, more well-off. And they pay no taxes.

Visitors come for the plentiful beaches, which are Caribbean-lovely, and for the golf courses. But the island now earns far more from the trickle-down of offshore businesses and insurance than from tourism. Locals call it a virtual economy, afloat on the billions flowing through daily, just as it once rode the currents of other ideas it got to first— resort tourism, or trade with the U.S. in a commodity like Revolutionary War gunpowder, Civil War rifles, Prohibition rum, or Bermuda onions.

Another first, I’d hazard, is that the premier is a black woman who succeeded another black woman.

Like Gibraltar, it really is a rock: all water comes from the sky, collected deftly off the ridged roofs, and residents speak of Rock Fever from not getting away enough. Bermudians do tend to live elsewhere for years, then return, and one result is an unplaceable oceanic accent, neither British nor American nor Caribbean, to which everyone seems to give a uniquely different inflection.

The broad ethnic mix of the island can be grasped in any large supermarket. Alongside a wall of British jams and marmalades, for example, are Greek, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Moroccan, Mexican, Italian, Japanese, and Caribbean sauces, spices, or chutneys. The frequency of a red bean soup on menus will remind you that a quarter of the population is, in some Bermudian sense, Portuguese. There’s a long tradition of Italian restaurants; as locals say, the Italians lost the Second World War, so they decided to conquer Bermuda.

I was happy to meet up in Hamilton, the intimate capital, with an old friend. John Zuill is a fourteenth-generation Bermudian I’d known back in the U.S., now co-director of a theater company, Waterspout, whose current season included Mishima, Mamet, and Shakespeare. Over coffee we talked about The Tempest—the play’s shipwreck was prompted by one here in 1609—and gazed toward the harbor. Often people came over to greet Zuill, which he made light of.

“People on Bermuda have to say hello to everyone they know, or they’re in trouble. There’s not enough room for people not to live together, and everybody knows everybody else’s business. So there’s a wide range of toleration, a pragmatic acceptance of eccentric behavior. You can be different—just don’t mention it. Whatever you do will be forgiven, but it won’t be forgotten.

“The key to Bermuda has always been that unless you apply your wits, there’s nothing here. All we have are sunshine and brains. There was never any money to be made here unless you were actually here. There weren’t estates to control from afar; there wasn’t even fresh water. The slaves weren’t plantation labor, because there weren’t any plantations—they had specific skills. Cabinet makers, carpenters, whatever. And a lot of big ideas, like coffee or rubber or onions, failed. So in the end, nothing’s made here. But as long as the U.S. and European tax codes don’t change, we probably have a secure future.”

One deep Bermudian tradition is the nickname. As John said, “You get it young, usually from your friends, not your parents, and it sticks, to the point where nobody can remember where it came from.” It’s not unusual to read an obituary in The Royal Gazette that begins: “Muriel, beloved wife of the late Charles (Sheik), mother of Howard (Boxhead), friend of Alma (Champ).... ” Then turn to the Letters page, and enter an extremely eloquent maelstrom.

Yet there’s nothing “wild” about Bermuda; it’s a highly cultivated island in every sense, careful to dispel any unpredictable sexiness in its ads, relying on the affection of repeat visitors who aren’t seeking adventure. As I wound from parish to parish, either coast road instead offered a sea crashing mildly on the rocks, the lilt of gospel halls, tilled tomato fields nestled in palms, fresh fish or lilies for sale beside the limestone walls and low shuttered houses— some in pinks or cream yellows, some in sorbets of grape, peach, mango. As Winslow Homer proved here in 1899, there is still an immortal calm in the watercolor disarray of a cove, a spit of beach, a peeling red-and-white wooden boat leaned on pale sand and fallen fronds, while an ever-changing force of intensifying blue moves horizonward.

Bermuda’s style is a gentle truce of climate and empire: formally relaxed. In Hamilton, you’d never guess that 13,000 registered companies are squeezed into those scalloped stucco buildings of yesteryear with their breezy wooden verandas. During the hot months, business attire for men becomes tie, jacket, shorts, and knee socks. For lawyers, it’s a half-wig and robes; for magistrates, the full wig. “Never mind summer,” one eminent lawyer told me. “You’re itchy in any weather in all that clobber.”

If you amble by the Hamilton shops once known as The Forty Thieves, on Reid or Front Streets, “the City” (pop. 1,100) feels resolutely upmarket, though without the posh of, say, St. Bart’s. The emporiums still bear family names: Trimingham’s (est. 1844), Smith’s (est. 1889), A. J. Cooper (est. 1897) with its surprising Wedgwood door handles. A world of Irish linen, not sunstruck flesh; indeed, one day I saw a young woman in a rare miniskirt stared at en masse—not in disapproval, but amazement.

My favorite nook was on Queen Street, just below the graceful shade of Par-La-Ville Park. This was the Perot Post Office with its white walls and black shutters, its native orchids in planters, its slots marked Local / Boat /Airmail. Perot, the first postmaster, had also built a large home behind a big rubber tree next door, now a museum of the Bermuda Historical Society. I stopped in to see his first stamp (1848), of which only eleven exist, and found Colin Benbow, dapper in blue Bermuda shorts and knee socks. A history teacher since the 1950s, Benbow is known as a fount of local knowledge.

“Two samples of the stamp left the island last month to go to auction,” he said drily, when I asked if he had one. “The last time, it fetched $300,000.” And what of the WWII spies, “the codebreakers with shapely ankles”—those thousand-odd young women who read the transatlantic mail borrowed off the flying boats that stopped to fuel up here? “They lived at the Princess Hotel, and worked across the street at the Bermudiana. It’s now six feet under a couple of vast re-insurance companies.”

Over in Somerset Village, nine miles west, I walked one of the most evocative stretches of the old railway trail. The “Rattle and Shake” train ran only from 1931-48, before being dismantled soon after cars were permitted on the island. The trail, paved now, wandered through foliage, past limestone shoulders, morning glories, and tart loquats which I picked and ate. Then it became a neighborhood road, behind little houses with boats in their gardens.

From Somerset Drawbridge—the world’s smallest, now never used, with an opening barely big enough for a ship’s mast—I took a chugging ferry up to the green island’s western tip, which locals call Dockyard. This sprawling stone fortress was the Royal Navy’s base from the early 1800s. Restored, with cannon lying about, it’s still active as a boatyard. A Maritime Museum has exhibits from 16th century shipwrecks to 1930s cruise ships to the Bermuda dinghy, that fourteen-foot anomaly with an absurdly tall mast, a huge sail, and an inexplicable way of cutting rapidly through rather than over the water. This means one man bails nonstop; in a race, crew members are eventually allowed to jump overboard.

Nearby, in the grandiose Commissioner’s House, the displays devoted to the slave trade, complete with shackles and collars, were enough to make me want to go stand in the sunshine and weep. At least Bermuda was one of only two colonies to immediately free its 4,200 slaves in 1834, right after the decree of abolition—about half the island’s population.

At the island’s eastern end, I spent a day exploring the slow lanes of St. George, the first settlement—preserved cottages in lime, lemon, mustard, salmon, set amid palms on Featherbed Alley, Barber’s Alley, Pound Alley, Princess Street. It has its personalized museums, from Tucker House with a George III chamberpot hidden in a mahogany chest of drawers, to the Globe Hotel where blockade runners conspired to outfox Union ships, to a homespun Black History Museum with mementos of cricket teams and a diorama of the slave trade using children’s dolls, to a wharfside Town Hall with its signed, faded portraits of Elizabeth and Philip. And there is St. Peter’s, the hemisphere’s oldest Anglican church continuously in use, its interior rich with the cigar-box fragrance of local cedar. In the churchyard, past graves shaped like picnic tables, lies a slaves’ burial ground of smudged irregular headstones.

Bermuda is small, but on the other hand, I haven’t seen anywhere else this large without any ugliness. I hadn’t expected such a diverse and amiable island, with none of the historical darkness of disenfranchised peoples that one often senses in the Caribbean. Go for a walk in Hamilton up Cedar Avenue, past the Queen’s Club, past a church of Christian Scientists and a house of Bahai’is, to the Catholic Cathedral and its convent next door—now a mosque. Or, better yet, take a morning stroll in Victoria Park to see the black, white, Asian schoolkids, of every continental extraction and possible mix, hollering and playing hand-in-hand—just as, in the Botanical Gardens, I came upon a gigantic banyan tree, with innumerable, ever-multiplying downward roots.

Monday, January 20, 2003

Get Me to the Church on Time

Written in 2003 for Sky magazine

One of the reasons I travel—and travel overseas as much as possible—is to do things I never do at home. Not worry about bills. Not worry about returning phone calls or mail. Not worry about work. Most of all, I travel out of a deep need to become someone else, or at least to see how different I become when I’m abroad. As masochistic as it sounds, I like to find out how I am often wrong and how foreigners are often right.

This means trying to keep an open mind no matter where I am, no matter how strange the place seems, and doing my best to understand why they live and think the way they do. One of the most immediate, friendly ways I’ve found to enter a foreign culture, and even another state of mind, no matter how exotic the place, is to go to church.

Church? It could be a temple, a cathedral, a mosque, a synagogue, or a hut on a beach. All that matters is that it’s where the locals go, a place of worship where, as T.S. Eliot put it, “prayer has been valid.” This may sound hypocritical, since (being a jaded American who lost patience with organized religion in this country some time ago) I rarely attend any services back home. I do, however, nearly always enjoy other cultures’ sense of wonder and community; I learn more in a church than by going to a cafe or a sporting event, which are fun but less idiosyncratic.

Now, obviously, my motives are far from purely religious—but they are communal, for no other human activity so efficiently cuts through barriers of class, profession, and all the rest, and shows you a foreign society writ large. It’s also a great way to meet people.

I’ve never found it mattered much whether I witnessed some important holy ceremony; the ordinary days tells you just as much, and sometimes even more. I got a better sense of Balinese belief from wandering into every stony temple courtyard where I happened to hear gamelan music pinging forth than from successfully chasing down that tourist grail, the cremation ceremony.

And I’d even argue that many cultures are incomprehensible unless you get a look at their religious life. How can you ever understand the Italians if you’ve never been to mass? (It may be just as important what people are consciously rejecting as what they’re unconsciously accepting.) Not to mention the Balinese? It always amazes me that people will visit Egypt but never set foot inside a mosque.

In what was formerly Rangoon, dusk prayers at the Shwe Dagon pagoda—ceaselessly gold-leafed by the faithful in one of the poorest countries on earth—will tell you more about the Burmese than any political analysis. Ditto any of the pandemonic processional dances in Morocco, like the festival of Fes, when you can see people whipping themselves through the medina into a mass frenzy. And someone lucky enough to visit, say, Raiatea in the South Pacific, or Lamu off the coast of Kenya, or Eleuthera in the Bahamas—or any island anywhere on the planet that’s not utterly urbanized—cannot begin to know the people unless he goes to a Sunday church service.

The wonderful surprise is how warmly one is usually welcomed. The more outlandish destinations come to mind first—like the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, in Amritsar, up in India’s Punjab—a small jewel box burning at sunset in a vast pool of brimming water, where the turbanned, dagger-toting worshippers give you hearty grins and congratulate you for coming to watch them gently dip their hands into the holy nectar. It is to my mind every bit as majestic as the Taj Mahal, and spotless besides: to see it helped me understand why the Sikhs are so very confident and enthusiastic. It made sense that they welcomed foreigners, while throughout India non-believers were often barred from the great holy temples of Hinduism. (Imagine a sign at Nôtre-Dame, saying Non-Catholics Keep Out!)

At the other end of the architectural scale, but no less moving, was St. Philips Native Baptist Church, in Smith Bay, on Cat Island, in the Bahamas. I had been to an absolutely raucous dance the Saturday night before, till quite late; here, transformed, were the same faces—the women fanning themselves in broad hats, pearls, floral dresses, the men far the worse for wear, sweaty in their suits, mopping their brows. The little choir was accompanied by a bearded guitarist, playing almost a calypso beat; the reverend was a speaker of grave eloquence who received “Amens” with every phrase and reminded me of how, all over the world, there seems more true religious feeling in the small churches than in the grand.

Then there was the tiny village of Taunovo, on the small island of Vatulele, in the island universe of Fiji. It is difficult to explain the well-being one feels in South Pacific churches; perhaps it comes from the communicants’ evidently profound belief. Most of the village’s three hundred residents were here for the Methodist service—the women swishing plaited palm fans and invariably in white, the men in short sleeves and sarongs. The singing was full-voiced and heartfelt, its harmonies setting off the dynamic Fijian syllables. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” became Cavu tu na i valu and shook the rafters—and I was invited back to the village the next day to meet the chief for a kava ceremony.

Equally imposing was a service on Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, with the service conducted in both Maori and English (which sums up the natural welcome of the people) followed by a thunderous call-and-response singing of urgent joy, full of high-pitched cries and cross-rhythms—the equivalent of the complex dancing that was intoxicating in quite another way. In such societies, where church is the high point of the week, the fact that you are freely taking part, wanting to get to know them, immediately sets you off from the common tourist. Had I never gone to that lovely church in Titikaveka and enjoyed that phenomenal musical experience, I’d never have been invited to the night-long ceremony of stories around an umu kai (sand oven) on a hidden beach.

In Havana a few years ago the contemporary frustrations of the people were obvious. It wasn’t until I went to Sunday mass at the glorious 18th century cathedral, and saw, after the service was over, a teak-colored man in his best clothes, ragged as they were, intoning a prayer to himself, that I understood the city’s timeless solaces. As he was finishing, in the plaza outside the cathedral an orchestra began playing.

At these services I sometimes met people I saw again on my journey. In any case, afterward, to a modest degree, I always felt I belonged, was part of the place in a way I hadn’t been a few hours earlier. I still remember people whom I never met, remember their faces bent in prayer or joyously singing, because they showed me their private selves in a public place, among friends. They also allowed me my private fantasy, of being part of their community and even imagining what it might be like to live there. At least until I had to go home.

Sunday, January 5, 2003

Josef Škvorecký

[Written in 2003 as the Afterword for an edition of Emöke & The Bass Saxophone]

“Exile,” Graham Greene wrote in an essay about the Czech writer Josef Škvorecký (b. 1924), “is like some herb which gives its distinct bitter flavor to many different forms of writing: the comic, the ironic, the tragic… to experience exile a man doesn’t necessarily have to leave his country. The sense of banishment can be felt on one’s own hearthstone. Exile is a deprivation—to be an exile is to be unable to communicate freely… The sadness in comedy, the comedy in sadness—of this Škvorecký is a master and this too is the mark of exile. . . . ”

The pressures of internal exile, of banishment from one’s innermost being, from one’s love and from a freedom of expression, run consistently through all Škvorecký’s writing. Like his two constant passions—the detective story and jazz—they suffuse these haunting early masterpieces, Emöke (1963) and The Bass Saxophone (1967). “Extremely modernist short novels,” is how he once described them. Both are written in a style Škvorecký has returned to only occasionally, poured forth with the full intensity of a lyrical jazz cadenza, a fantasia of constant digression and incandescent emotion. In such a closing cadenza the soloist stands alone, ranging freely from subject to subject in a concentrated recapitulation of themes, revealing all that he can before he lets you get away. The style is at its summit, the voice at its most fervent. It takes perfect pitch to write this way, and in both novellas Škvorecký is carefully pushing the limits of how long a cadenza can last. The effect is of a voice telling you urgently what must be told, what almost cannot be controlled, and yet this is an illusion, for each novella is a model of control, meant to be read in one sitting.

Stylistically far removed—apparently—the detective story is a form for which Škvorecký has shown a particular fondness over the years. He has written his own series with a Czech hero, the mournful Lt. Boruvka, but my favorite is a novel known in English as Miss Silver’s Past (in Czech and French, more slyly, as The Lion Cub). It features one of his classic unattainable heroines, older, more erotically mature and more formidably purposeful than most of the girls who torment Škvorecký’s frustrated young narrators.

Emöke too, surprisingly, turns out to be a detective story of the most subtle kind. All throughout, the young narrator is searching for a key that will open a locked door—a solution to the cipher of this strong, vulnerable creature who is in her own way as rare, as gleaming, and as close to extinction as the bass saxophone in its coffinlike case. Like the mythical instrument in the other novella, she is out of the narrator’s natural range; she plays too deep for him. (Emöke is never quoted directly, as the other characters are, which gives her a unique instrumental timbre, like a voice heard in dreams.)

The narrator sees the hypocrisies in the winding paths of her personality; he even senses that they are what saved her during hardships he doesn’t quite understand. He knows she is not some toy to seduce, and too substantial for his rival, the cloddish schoolteacher. He reaches the threshold of leading Emöke into the only equivalent depths he has to offer: the sensual music still alive in her, waiting to be released. On the dance floor he improvises her a blues, and because it is spontaneous—unlike the schoolteacher’s glib pickup lines—and because it is truthful art, it seems to be working. Jazz, the freedom it represents, is the solution.

What happens next is one of my favorite small gestures in the novella. Our hero goes to the toilet, and this proves his undoing. It is a deft, realistic moment (usually left out of fiction, naturally). Overcome by the blues he has miraculously pulled out of himself, he winds up in a bathroom conversation with one of the musicians who momentarily feels like a colleague—and when he returns, he has lost Emöke. The schoolteacher has told her who the narrator is at his worst, and now she can’t let herself believe in him. And yet he keeps trying: by the time he sees her off on the train, she is almost ready to believe in him again. All he has to do is become that person once more.

The passage which returns him to the urbane life he left, the long train journey that is the schoolteacher’s undoing, is sadly, quietly, the narrator’s undoing as well. He gets his revenge on the rival, demonstrates his superiority, but was that ever in doubt? The guessing game leads him farther and farther away from Emöke, and by the time he reaches Prague he no longer feels ready to go after her, to become again the person she wants to believe in. He is instead “permeated with an indifference toward the legend. . . . ”

And there is now tragedy behind that indifference. The world is wide, but Emöke’s world is narrow, and perhaps no one else will come along with the key to her cipher. It is a detective story in reverse, which ends with the narrator retreating, backing away from the solution. The world has not been put right at all, and can never be put right again. In time nothing will remain of the mystery, only a name. And the wonder, the wonder.

Škvorecký has spoken of an actual historical basis behind The Bass Saxophone. “There was no bass sax player in town, but a friend of mine was forced to replace a German saxophonist in a German band in Nachod, and he told me how embarrassed he was about the experience… The primary inspiration for the story, however, was literary.” Meaning stylistic. Alongside the innovators of the early ’60s, despite the prior success and censorship of his first published novel, The Cowards (1958), Škvorecký was now “viewed as something of a traditional realist.” The Bass Saxophone was his way of answering that charge. “I wrote it, really, as an aesthetic statement, not at all in the vein of realism.”

Ever since The Cowards, finished when he was twenty-four and not published for a decade, the glory of jazz has coursed like a deep, ceaseless Mississippi through all his books. “The music was not from heaven but from somewhere else, and I knew where but I wasn’t telling. . . . ” This comes from The Swell Season, but the paradox is that this Czech writer has told of it so wisely and so well, evoking jazz with a profound understanding of its peculiar charged beauty and of its practitioners’ obsessive longing to master it—and with awareness of the inescapable, permanent, improvisatory vanishing which is at its heart.

Speaking as both a writer and a professional musician, I would argue that the list of novels and short stories that deal successfully, meaning not superficially, with jazz is very, very short. Any novelist who tries to write about jazz is asking for trouble. Musicians will invariably cringe, or laugh at him, and in no time all his finest sentences will sound silly even to non-players. Virtually every aspect of the jazz life is different than it appears to outsiders, and it is notoriously difficult to bring melody, rhythm, and harmony to life on the printed page. Plus most descriptions of the act of making music end up sounding like complex troop movements. The players are moving their fingers, but all we readers get is silence.

Why? Apart from Aaron Copland’s remark that whenever a non-musician writes about music every other word is wrong, there’s the deadly temptation of a heightened verbal virtuosity, a panic in the prose, that’s meant to convey the experience of the jazz club (or the concert hall, for that matter) and of what’s going on in a musician’s brain.

All the arts are different, and the novelist who assumes, because he knows what it took to become a writer, that he understands instinctively the process of becoming a musician, much less that odd hybrid, the jazz player—which is to say part instrumentalist, part composer (which is to say: part interpreter, part creator)—is stepping off a tall cliff. Difficult to write fictionally about any of the arts, of course, but music especially has its own ways of thinking, its own maps, and these tend to be different from what most writers imagine. As Paul Bowles, unique in being both a superb composer and a superb novelist, once told me, “The two worlds don’t overlap at all.”

Škvorecký surmounts these problems marvelously in The Bass Saxophone and in the rest of his books, and I can vouch that many musicians who otherwise might not know his work admire it for these very qualities. A sense of severe internal exile suffuses this novella too; as in Emöke, he writes about the Czechoslovakia of those days as if it were as wide as a continent. There are also detective echoes, though in this case the young hero is in the role of the hunted criminal who is at last discovered in disguise, and trapped by both the local Nazi commander and the real saxophonist he has temporarily replaced. He turns out to be an obvious imposter, both as a professional musician and as a German.

One of my favorite moments comes at dinner, when each member of the orchestra, hated so automatically at first, expresses a touching link with the narrator’s small town. Even though he is not one of them—most are Germans, adult, and theatrically grotesque except for the singer, that angel with the Swedish hair—they are likewise victims of the war, stuck in a traveling musical sideshow. Behind it all is the overwhelming sadness that he will never learn to play well enough the jazz he longs to attain. His youthful dream of music is as unwieldy as the dying, blinded bass saxophone he only gets to play this once—“for that desperate scream of youth is still inside me, the challenge of the bass saxophone. I forget it in the rush of the day, in the rush of life. . . . ” It was his best chance; yet despite what life will withhold, in dreams he will keep touring with them, he will keep playing.

A dream of youth resides, lifelong, in every jazz musician. As you get older and become, unexpectedly, the player you were meant to be, the confrontation of those several selves—the youthful dream faced with the mature person you turned into—gives the sensation of being a musician its poignancy, for every stage, every age, remains tactilely alive in you. The dreaming youth is still there at all times, beyond the trained fingers and the experience and the endless nights of playing when either no one was listening or maybe everyone was listening. This is what Škvorecký understands so magnificently, and because it is just as true of everyone else as it is of musicians, the jazz in his work constantly opens out into something embracing and immense and very wise. There is no pretense here but much understanding, and an eternal wonder.

Many great writers rely on keeping a careful, superior distance from the reader. Josef Škvorecký is one with whom we are always—in the familiar way jazz musicians speak of colleagues they’ve never even met, much less played with—on first-name terms.

[Josef Škvorecký: born September 27 1924, died January 3 2012.]