Josef kvorecký, 1924-2012, was an author and jazz musician who moved to Canada following the Soviet invasion of his homeland in 1968. This novel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, appeared in 1989 and represents homage by one Bohemian for another. In his Acknowledgements, the author states that this is his first experience of writing a historical or biographical novel. Interestingly, he also thanks two 100-year old ladies that he talked to who had met the composer in the Czech refuge of Spillville, iowa, in their youth.
Many music lovers, especially those with a love of Czech music, will know something about the composer's period in America and the novel, which is not a biography, amplifies this period within an overall historical context. Ideally, this book would be read whilst listening to Dvořák's symphonies, concertos, symphonic poems or chamber music, and before reading his biography.
The subtitle of the book, "A light-hearted dream" (not "'A master' Graham Greene" as might be understood on the front cover), refers to the dreams of the various characters for artistic fruition and personal and social advancement. This is not a book for readers who want to read the facts because the author takes significant liberties with dates, contacts and events, but this is fully justified by the marvelous result. The composer, who seems from his music to have had a constant stream of memorable and lilting tunes flowing onto his manuscript paper, is revealed, like Schubert, to have faced serious personal and professional challenges. The family's first three children all died at an early age.
The reminiscences come mainly from Jeannette Thurber, a New York arts patron, married to a wholesale grocery magnate, who paid for the composer's way to America in 1892, and her emissary, Adele Margulies; from Josephine, the love of his life, who rejected the musician for a Count, and her sister, Anna, who caught him on the rebound, from Otilya, their romantically inclined daughter, who finds herself in love with two of her father's students at the same time, and finally married the composer, Josef Suk.
There is a wonderful character for the reader to boo, the American critic Huneker (who now remembers him?), who considered the New World Symphony to be "melodious, yes, but shallow and insincere. Impressionistic, as was everything he ever wrote, yet in this case the impressions were superficial, and he tried to give them a semblance of profundity by lacing his orchestration with special effects" and who, after the composer's death, continued his denigration of the composer by writing that his influence on serious American music was actually detrimental . . . "it won't be long before they're blowing the clarinet in Carnegie Hall like drunken Negroes in Chicago calling it serious music". Huneker's concern was well founded since Will Marion Cook, a black musician and key character in the book, who studied under Dvořák in America, was a tutor of Duke Ellington.
The author's saxophone-playing jazz experiences are also deftly inserted with a question being asked about the composer ''What might he have written had he stayed here [in America] and lived to see the age of the saxophone?'' Watching the woodwind players in the orchestra, Jeannette thinks of "the paradox of saliva, moist breath and trembling reeds becoming immaterial sweetness, a harmony of wood pervaded by the call of the forest, the ocean. This more than anything else, saddened her for the blind".
The story bounces back and forward between America, New York and Spillville, originally Spielville, and Europe and the author has a delicious sense of humour. A young Czech girl, writing to her sister from Chicago talks about a rather dark Scottish composer, Joplin, and the music that he composed and played, "Mabel, Leave Greg" which "must have been sad though it sounded pretty happy to me". She also heard Dvořák's "Gee, Major" but wasn't impressed.
This is a very enjoyable novel, almost a potpourri of events, and I look forward to reading the author's other books.