Monday, March 23, 2009

More proto-detectives!!!

Yesterday's post about Nordic sagas and Dashiell Hammett quoted from pages 77 and 78 of Josef Škvorecký's Two Murders in My Double Life.

I've just read the following on page 103, and I leapt like Archimedes from the bathtub, though I wrapped a towel around my waist and dried myself before shouting, "Eureka!":

"I, too, received an honorary degree. For my detective stories, I guess. Most professors suffer from the secret vice of reading such stuff. even if in their courses they lecture on Elizabethan poetry and Shakespeare. But the bard, too, in a sense, wrote crime stories. Dickens, then? Well, Boz was the author of several thrillers. Mark Twain? What about Pudd'nhead Wilson, not to mention Tom Sawyer, Detective? Faulkner? Who concocted Knight's Gambit and Intruder in the Dust? For a while it seemed to me that everybody in English and American literature wrote crime fiction, except perhaps Victorian female novelists."
Longtime Detectives Beyond Bordersniks may remember my posts about Shakespeare and other proto-detectives. My own list goes back beyond Nordic sagas all the way to Gilgamesh. But then, perhaps Škvorecký's does, too. I still have about fifty pages left in the book.

(Click here and here for more about Škvorecký. I recommend his stories about Lieutenant Boruvka, and I expect to have more to say about his deeply human and humane views on the lingering effects of life under a totalitarian regime. And now, back to the bath.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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23 Comments:

Blogger seanag said...

Peter, I tried to comment on your previous post about Skvorecky, but somehow my computer timed out and I gave up. Just as well, because it was a bit uncharitable toward Skvorecky. I read The Engineer of Human Souls with a reading group and we did all have to sort of slog through it. I might have a different reaction now, but my recall of it is that it was an ambitious book that he was not quite equal to. I might have a different, more tolerant sense of it now. I did pick up a collection of his Boruvka stories and read a few. I don't remember too much about them but I also wasn't as interested in the mystery short story as I might be now.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

For some reason, I was not crazy about Two Murders ... the first time I read it, but I'm obviously pretty excited about it now.

It would be interesting to hear your reaction if you reread the Boruvka stories now that you're more interested in mystery. I say this because I don't think investigation is the big thing in Skvorecky's crime fiction. I do think he loves his characters, and he loves detective stories, though, which makes the stories fun to read. I have not read any of his non-crime writing.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I was interested in mysteries at the time, just not so taken with the shorter form.

But I also think I might get Engineer of Human Souls more now too. It's not that I was especially naive about the travails of living behind the Iron Curtain. Oddly, it's one of the curious effects of reading groups. It was the sense of obligation to get through the thing. Whereas, if I had just picked it up and read it at my leisure, I might have felt much more charitably toward it.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Your image of Archimedes immediately reminded me of an illustration from Richard Armour's The Classics Reclassified about the same incident. Poor Archimedes is depicted as a wild-eyed maniac, dripping wet but grinning hugely.

If you can find Armour, read him. His satiric works are full of wordplay and puns.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I wonder when he wrote that book. One thing I like in his crime fiction is that he can be gently and not so gently humorous and, in this book, occasionally heartbreaking about living behind the Iron Curtain and even on the other side of it, without ever resorting to luridness or melodrama.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Linkmeister. Seems to me I have most often seen Archimedes depicted as you describe. It's hard for our age to imagine someone doing what he did without being a nut.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Paul Brazill said...

The Engineer of Human Souls was a fve of mine back in the 80's. It's a great quaote too!

March 24, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

You include the quoted excerpt: "Most professors suffer from the secret vice of reading such stuff. even if in their courses they lecture on Elizabethan poetry and Shakespeare." Well, more about that in a moment. First, though, many people have pointed to Oedipus the King as one of the first "murder mysteries," and--of course--Elizabethan revenge tragedies (including Shakespeare's) included plenty of murder (though not much mystery); moreover, one could argue that the Hebrew scriptures contain quite a few "murder mysteries." And all of that reinforces much of what others have already noted about the detective story's rich heritage in earlier literature. However, back to my opening point: W. H. Auden, among many other notables, suffered from "the secret vice of reading such stuff," and I--willing to further endanger my wobbly status in academia--hereby confess. Yes, when not lecturing on Elizabethan poetry and Shakespeare, I too read "such stuff." Will this confession under pressure mean the end of an untenured career? Time will tell. In the meantime, though, I would hasten to add: I enjoy your blog, and I now must hurry off to the library and bookstores where I hope to find a copy of Skvorecky's book.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

You're probably toast, R.T. But when the tenure committee cites your comment here as proof of your unsuitability, remind them that there is quite a tradition of professorial mystery writing, although I think most often under psuedonyms. Michael Innes, Amanda Cross, and (I believe) Edmund Crispin spring to mind. For some reason these scholar types write particularly entertaining stuff.

Linkmeister, I remember my aunt and uncle having a copy of one of Armour's 'history' books that we used to pore over when we visited. Of course, since we were too young to have studied real history, I expect most of the wordplay was lost on us.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

I'm still PhD-ing, but when I'm not teaching Goethe et al, crime fiction is definitely my poison of choice. So whether this will doom me to never getting a job...

(Actually, Donna Leon's Death at La Fenice has a slight connection to my research, at least as far as the victim is concerned, but otherwise the two topics don't interact very often.)

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, I'd always wondered about the significance of that title. I was able to make a good guess because the phrase "engineer of human souls" occurs in the final pages of Two Murders in My Double Life.

An engineer of human souls is a grim concept. I wonder if the novel is as grim as the title auggests.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the kind words, R.T. It was interesting to learn, if Skvorecky's description was accurate, that academics still read crime fiction and in North America, no less. A professor did teach a course in detective fiction at my North American university, but I always associated academics and crime fiction more with Britain.

Cain and Abel is often cited as the first murder story, and then there are Susannah and the Elders and also Daniel. Gilgamesh has older roots than that, and its affinities are with noir stories but without the detection. That's why it was such a delight to discover them.

Perhaps you could conceal thin paperback crime novels within heavy books on poststructuralism.

My verification word, if one pronounces the first vowel long, offers advice I endorse heartuly: redablog.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I like that: academic toast. A member of a tenure committee might rebut your defense by suggesting that those academics wrote their detective stories under assumed names for a reason.

This Richard Armour sounds better and better. I you like him, you might enjoy Larry Gonick, whom I think I've mentioned from time to time here.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, Goethe must at least have touched on something that had some affinity with crime fiction. He did just about everything else.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

"Your Honour, this women murdered her illegitimate child. However, she was forced into this wretched situation by her lover, who had made a pact with the devil."

It could almost work as an episode of Law and Order...and the detectives might even be able to come up with the reason Gretchen is also called Margarete.

Or maybe: "Werther. Young, talented, depressed - and dead. They say it was suicide. But the guns belonged to his lover's husband, and Lotte made sure they were working. Kommissar Goethe investigates..."

Incidentally, I like Skvorecky as an author, but it also took several attempts. I think living in Eastern Europe for a while made a difference, even if it was well after the iron curtain had lifted.

March 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, the real mystery is why women named Margaret are called Peg. I think I researched the answer to this once, but I've forgotten it.

Where in Eastern Europe did you live? Much of the fascination in Two Murders ... lies in its examination of the after-effects of Soviet-era communism, even under the "playwright-who-was-now-president" of Czechoslovakia.

March 25, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Although it's a curious question why Peg is a short form of Margaret, especially since there's the much more logical 'Meg' close to hand, I have a question that I think is even more curious. Why did my college friend, whose mother apparently had a peg leg, name her daughter Peggy?

No, it's not a joke.

Great but indefineable v word: sessesse

March 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ol' Peg Leg Peg could probably cuss like a sailor, and the roughnecks who populated her boardinghouse always took off their caps in her presence and called her ma'am.

March 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Had Peg been Meg, she'd have been nicknamed Nut.

March 25, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I just remembered a rather crucial part of the story. Peggy's mother didn't have a peg leg, but she had an artificial one, and her schoolmates used to taunt her by calling her Peggy. Her name wasn't Peggy or Margaret or anything close. So it was really a mystery why she chose to name her daughter after a cruel nickname.

Yet Peggy did seem like a Peggy. And I don't think she minded her name, though she did tell that story. Go figure.

March 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I briefly had an elementary school classmate named Faigie, believe it or not. That reminds of what Bill Ward, co-creator of Rocky and Bullwinkle, said when someone asked him why he named two characters in the "Metal-Munching Moon Mice" episode Gidney and Cloyd.

He explained that he came with the worst names he could think of -- Sidney and Floyd -- then made them even more horrible.

Did Peggy's mother not understand English idiom? Did she want to inculcate bravery and perserverance in her daughter? Or did she just have a sense of humor?

March 25, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

I haven't read Two Murders, and it does sound interesting. Proto-detectives and Havel? I'm there. Hopefully my local library will have it.

I mainly know Škvorecký from the Boruvka stories, though I started with Dvorak in Love. (Actually, the Boruvkas were recommended to me by a friend who knew I enjoyed crime novels and saw me reading Dvorak. I didn't enjoy them at the time, but picked them up again in 2005 and wondered why I'd been so negative the first time round!)

I lived next door, where the president had been an electrician, not a playwright. (I post-dated him, but pre-dated the ex-child-star twins.) Whether this has cultural implications for the two countries, I'm not sure...I've certainly heard the odd joke.

I do know Prague quite well, as several former colleagues and students live there. I've actually spent more time in Bratislava, which had rather less luck with post-communist leaders. (Although for sheer eccentricity, I suspect nothing beats the fairly-recently-deceased former President of Slovenia!)

Somewhat on topic, I've generally found Czech literature (in translation) more accessible than Polish (also in translation. Conversation I can do, but literature is a bit of a slog.) To go back to a question I think you raised ages ago, I found this on Polish crime fiction:

"Until 1989 Polish crime fiction was largely represented by something called the “militia novel”. In the most general terms, these stories typically had an undemanding structure: a brave militiaman chased an evil criminal who, depending on the requirements of the day, was a private entrepreneur or a member of the intelligentsia. Working to political order – as this sort of publishing strategy should be called – deprived Polish readers of the opportunity to enjoy the most salient feature of the genre, which is social, moral and psychological comment on the modern world. But it was hard to imagine a real, red-blooded (because it must involve blood) crime novel in a country where crime, according to the official data, was almost non-existent."

March 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Two Murders never mentions Havel by name, as far as I can recall. It's always playwright-now-president, or something very similar. T

Thist was amusing and odd. I wonder why Škvorecký did this. Humor? Affection for Havel, whose work he had published? Or disillusionment over one strand of the narrator's double life: a tragic event in Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism.

March 25, 2009  

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