Monday, 16 July 2012

The Swell Season: A Text on the Most Important Things in Life by Josef Skvorecky (4.5/5)

The back says: ‘What are you punishing me for, God? Why did You make girls in the first place if a good Christian can’t lay a hand on them?’

In the six tales of The Swell Season, Josef Skvoreky, author of the international acclaimed The Bass Saxophone, traces the libidinous ardours of young Danny as he grows up in wartime Czechoslovakia. He boasts of his ‘conquests’ with fine bravado, but no matter how smooth his wooing, his fantasies obstinately refuse to become reality. Fortunately, there is always jazz, Danny’s other passion; in a world of unyielding girls and ruthless Nazi invaders it is his only solace.

These are wonderful tales, full of the wry humour and surprising twists so characteristic of this most impressive of writers.

Translated by: Paul Wilson

I say: I’ve heard about this book since I was a child, but never actually found it anywhere – it was like this elusive unicorn that I thought everyone had seen but me. So imagine my surprise and utter joy (I literally jumped up and down) when I saw this in a used book store a few months ago.

And it was well worth the wait.

The synopsis says that it’s “six tales,” which is true enough, but that makes it sounds like they’re somehow independent of each other; which they are not. I’d refer to them as six chapters in the life of Danny, a relentless skirt chaser.

For serious.

It was hilarious reading about him trying to get just a single girl to like him; and allow him to make out with her as well, I guess. In the course of the 226 pages he tries to hook up with 23 girls, including a set of twins, with some serious consequences. I’ve never read anything like this, or encountered a protagonist as clueless and yet incredibly smarmy as Danny, and yet so exceptionally unlucky.

I just couldn’t help but laugh at his misfortunes.

But there’s also a more serious side to this novel; the occupation by the Nazis. At first it serves more as a backstory, seeing that Danny isn’t Jewish, but as the story progresses we realize that even though he isn’t one of their ‘targets’ he is still affected nonetheless.

This was one of the best and most sobering endings of a novel I’ve ever read.

Even now, as I think about it a mere week later, it still stops my heart.

Throughout the novel Daniel keeps referring to every season as “the swell season” without really having a clue as to what would make a season ‘swell,’ and it’s his naïveté in the backdrop of the war that makes me love this. Skvorecky has an excellent way of making us forget what’s really going on and focus on Danny’s little conquests before throwing the war in Danny’s (and our) face to make us realise that it’s all quite trivial in the end.

And yet, this isn’t a depressing novel, on the other hand, it’s quite the opposite. 

4.5/5 because, although it was brilliant, there was something that I felt was missing. Perhaps I’ll find it when I re-read this in some time, because I most definitely will. Either way, while googling this I cannot believe that it isn’t all over the place along with the other classics – perhaps because Skvorecky didn’t win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982 – but this is one of the best coming of age novel I’ve read.

*This is my thirteenth entry in The Classic Bribe Challenge (which is an additional incentive for me to work on my 100 Classics Challenge that’s been going on for a tad too long).

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