DVORAK IN LOVE by Josef Skvorecky


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It's understandable why Skvorecky (The Engineer of Human Souls, The Bass Saxophone) might be drawn to the story of the composer Dvorak's interlude in America in the 1890's: Dvorak, like Skvorecky a Czech, was a (temporary) expatriate, a musician open to the vital genius of American jazz. And so we have here a historical novel abrim with sympathetic identification. Since Skvorecky didn't want to write an Irving-Stone-dead this and then this tome about a great master, though, he's taken just one wedge of Dvorak's life--and further told it from the perspectives of his family, friends, baffled colleagues at the National Conservatory in New York (where he'd been brought to teach), and simple folk in Spillville, Iowa (where he spent a summer). Dvorak's tough-minded wife Anna is given voice (Antonin was originally in love--the title--with her sister Jo, who instead then married an aristocrat); there's a jaunty counterpoint set up, too, between Dvorak (called Borax in America--they can't pronounce that devilish name) and the scoffing Mencken-of-music-criticism James Gibbons Huneker; and the suitors of D's daughter Otylia are generously given scenes as well. Always offstage do we see Dvorak himself--generous, sentimental, a glutton, tuneful to excess, an enthusiast, a simple genius--popping up out of the shadows. The book has few of the lovely comic ironies that Skvorecky's other works are so filled with; but there are two kinds of scenes here, flashbacked and not, that Skvorecky does to a turn: flirtation (between Anna and Antonin, transcribing pre-sexual maneuvers); and the jazz scenes, of Dvorak reveling in ragtime. But these exuberances apart, the book lacks center and torque; it has a charming miscellaneousness, but seems handicapped by the extra-authorial demands of historical accuracy and the ""big picture."" Not a success, but with intermittent real charm.

Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 1986
ISBN: 0393305481
Publisher: Knopf