Novels about the music world are not uncommon, and tend to be trashy. Almost all end with some variation on the fans-eat-the-star theme, and the necessary bit about the star’s mystical communion with the muse is never quite as convincing as the necessary bit about group sex. Fiction about the role of music in life is just plain rare, partly because it must deal with magic, and not merely as a critic’s catchword. In The Bass Saxophone (Knopf, translated from Czech by Kaca Polackova-Henle, 208 pp., $8.95), which collects two novellas by the expatriate Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, magic is palpable, complex and intermingled with lust and politics.
The Bass Saxophone begins with a memoir of Skvorecky’s forty-year love affair with jazz and the efforts of totalitarian rulers to kill it. In a few pages filled with extraordinary tales of Nazis crossing Europe with forbidden sheet music hidden under their uniforms and of how swing persisted even in the concentration camps of Siberia—he sets forth a kind of secret cultural history of our time, a rebellion that took place and is still pursued because at the right moment, when a man blew past his limits or a singer flew right out of a song, music could define what it meant to be alive. And yet nothing in this memoir really prepares the reader for the depth of mystery that follows.
I leaned up against a backdrop; the bass saxophone player inhaled, and then a terrible, somber, prehistoric tone exploded over the stage; it jumped on the mechanical bandwagon of the waltz, drowning out everything, it absorbed the disharmony, its depths dissolved it; the man blew into the big instrument with the immense strength of frantic, desperate lungs and, as he blew, the melody of “The Bear” suddenly slowed down, crumbled, the call of the bass saxophone sounded like breathing, the player’s fingers began to leap wildly along the strong, silver matte body of the giant hookah, as if searching for something, I couldn’t take my eyes off them, temporizing triplets emerged, the fingers leaped, stopped and leaped again, then grasped the body firmly: I shut my eyes…
The sentence goes on: Skvorecky searches for a rhythm that will carry him past the practical narrative goal with which he began the sentence. He writes out of a jazz aesthetic, but ends up sounding completely European, which is fitting for a man who spent World War II trying to sneak swing and scat past Nazi censors while playing in a band called Red Music (no politics—there was another Czech band called Blue Music, and since Skvorecky and his friends “had no idea that in jazz blue is not a color,” they named themselves Red).
Such a dilemma—a matter of life and death, as Skvorecky had made clear with his accounts of a jazz band in Buchenwald and of men sent to other concentration camps for playing jazz—is the framework of “The Bass Saxophone,” of which the passage quoted above is almost the finale. In wartime, a strange German band arrives in a Czech town; a local student seizes the chance to fill in for a missing player, the man who plays the legendary bass saxophone, an instrument the student has only heard about. It’s as if suddenly before him is the actual body of the pagan goddess who has watched over his village since before the beginning of memory.
The specter of the bass saxophone hangs over the story. The student plays it, but he dares not release the spirit it contains. When, in the last pages, the missing player appears, takes up the bass and begins to reach for his sound, the relief is overwhelming and the tension only more fierce. The subplot concerning the student’s fear of the resident Nazis comes to seem trivial, almost beside the point, as if their power were on another plane from that of the bass saxophone, which is Skvorecky’s point.
“Emöke,” the first novella in the book, is far more beautiful than “The Bass Saxophone,” and scarier. Russia now rules Czechoslovakia. At a state-run resort, an intellectual meets a distant, almost abstracted young widow, and his attraction to her is so complete and irrational she soon comes to represent a fate he was born to recognize but never quite fulfill. The woman, Emöke, doesn’t respond. The man determines to save her—from madness, for himself—but he reaches her only on their last night at the resort, when the two of them dive into music, he singing blues, she playing folk piano.
The wall between the man and the woman cracks, and the man thinks he has made it through the opening, but only his soul crosses over, because that’s all the woman wants, and she wants it only for a moment: as one last touch of freedom before she turns back to her pursuit of insanity, of a religious magic that, unlike the magic of the music she and the man have made, can be codified, can provide the illusion of control and safety. As the story ends, Emöke seems to have sunk back thousands of years, to a time when freedom was not even an idea, and the man who wanted her is stranded in the present.
Rolling Stone, May 3, 1979