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.]