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Josef Škvorecký

THE BASS SAXOPHONE
excerpt
(for a reading diary)

 

Škvorecký 80 -
 
 
cena původní: 250 Kč
cena: 210 Kč
Škvorecký 80 -
Útěky ? Lída Baarová. Život české herečky, jak jej podle jejího vyprávění zapsal Josef Škvorecký - Škvorecký Josef
 
 
cena původní: 349 Kč
cena: 293 Kč
Útěky ? Lída Baarová. Život české herečky, jak jej podle jejího vyprávění zapsal Josef Škvorecký - Škvorecký Josef
Josef Škvorecký - Krištof Václav
 
 
cena původní: 699 Kč
cena: 594 Kč
Josef Škvorecký - Krištof Václav

 

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The wallpaper was old and stained, but faded pictures of doves still showed against the beige background. I put my ear to their delicate breasts. The voice came close; it was repeating a nasty, unintelligible litany of anger and irritation, of imperious, spit-polished, boot-shod hysterics. I recognized it. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but I knew who it was talking behind the gentle doves in the next, equally beige hotel room: it was Horst Hermann Kühl: it was the same voice that screeching along ahead of him had penetrated all the way up the iron staircase to the roof of the Sokol Hall, where you had to climb down another iron staircase to reach the projection booth of the movie house (I wasn't there at the time, but Mack, who operated the projector, told me about it). A pair of black boots had appeared on the iron rungs, the voice lashing in ahead of them. "What is this supposed to mean?" he had rasped like a poisonous firecracker. "This is a provocation!" Such was the terrific power of that dark voice (not the voice of Horst Hermann Kühl, but the black singer's - they even said it was Ella Fitzgerald, I didn't know, they were old records, Brunswick, before the era of stars, and the label said nothing but "Chick Webb and his Orchestra with Vocal Chorus"; there was a short sobbing saxophone solo - they said that was Coleman Hawkins - and they said the other was Ella Fitzgerald, that voice) it had forced Horst Hermann Kühl, omnipotent within the wartime world of Kostelec, to leave the seat in which he was enjoying the intermission between the newsreel and the film starring Christine Söderbaum or maybe it was Heidemarie Hathayer; when he heard black Ella ("I've got a guy. He don't dress me in sable, He looks nothing like Gable, But he's mine") he flew out of his comfortable seat and squealing like a rutting male mouse (it all took on the dimensions of the microworld of Kostelec) he tore down the aisle between the seats to the lobby and up the steps and up the iron staircase to the roof and down the iron ladder (more ladder than staircase) to the projection booth and, still squealing, confiscated the record and took it away with him. Mack told on me; yes, he did; what was he supposed to do? He could have said he didn't know where the Chick Webb record came from, he could have played stupid, that tried and tested Czech prescription; sometimes they fell for it; they almost loved stupid Schweiks - in contrast, they themselves glowed with vociferous wisdom. But it didn't occur to Mack, so he told on me.

I had committed a crime; it seems unbelievable today what could (can) be a crime: a Beatles haircut in Indonesia (that's today, and that kind of power is always a festering effusion of weakness) - our ducktail haircuts were also once a crime just like the locks on the heads of youths that shock syphilitic waiters so much today; and the fact that my father had been seen conversing with Mr. Kollitschoner; and the conviction that Drosophila flies are suitable for biological experiments; the use of slang; a joke about the president's wife; faith in the miraculous power of paintings and statues; a lack of faith in the miraculous power of paintings and statues; and everywhere the eyes, the spying eyes of the Kanas and the Vladykas; and the ears; and the little reports; and the file cards, keypunched, cybernetic, apparently the first things of all to be cyberneticized. I used to draw advertising slides for the movie house; I would carry them down the iron ladder to the projection booth and because beauty-inspired joy, pleasure-inspired pleasure is diminished by solitude, it had occurred to me: I had those rare records at home, I always used to listen to them before I went to sleep, on an old wind-up phonograph next to my bed: "Doctor Blues," "St. James Infirmary," "Blues in the Night," "Sweet Sue," the Boswell Sisters, "Mood Indigo," "Jump, Jack, Jump"; and so one day in the projection booth when the electric phonograph was spinning and amplifying a native polka called "Hey, Ma, Who Are You Saving Your Daughter For?" the idea had possessed me: I made my decision. In spite of the fact that they were so rare, I had brought them to the booth (I had labeled the vocal pieces with paper tape so Mack wouldn't make a mistake and put one on by accident) and while Herr Regierungskommissar and the others were awaiting the beginning of the film "Quax, der Bruchpilot," I was awaiting the first beats of Webb's drum in the foxtrot "Congo" -the annunciation, the sending down of beauty on the heads in the movie house; and when it finally came, that bliss, that splendor, I looked down through the little window and I couldn't understand why no heads were turned, no eyes opened in amazement, that they were not suddenly quiet and that the jaws cracking wartime sour candy did not pause in their effort; the crowd murmured on in their trite crowd conversation; and then, that once, Mack made a mistake (he explained later that the label had come unstuck on that side of the record); the crowd murmured on, ignoring the smeared swinging of Chick's saxes, and murmured on when Ella came in with her nasal twang ("I've got a guy, and he's tough. He's just a gem in the rough. But when I polish him up, I swear . . ."); only Horst Hermann Kühl stopped talking, pricked up his ears, took notice, and then cut loose with a roar (hate is unfortunately always much more observant than love, and more observant even than an insufficiency of love).

I never got that record back; I never found out what happened to it. It disappeared into his five- room apartment, which was built around an altar (yes, an altar) with a life-size portrait of that fellow on it; after the war, when we broke in there with a number of other armed musicians, the record wasn't anywhere to be found - only the deserted man in the portrait, and someone who had got there before us had drawn a pince-nez on him and a full beard to go with the mustache, and, along with it, a ridiculously long penis hanging out of his military fly; Horst Hermann Kühl had left town in time, with all his property. Maybe he even took her with him, black Ella, maybe he broke her in a fit of anger, threw her into the ash can. Nothing happened to me; my father set the cogs on the wheels of contacts moving, influence, intercession, advocates, middlemen for bribes, and Kühl simmered down. We belonged among the important people in town (although later, toward the end of the war, they locked my father up for that very reason; in fact he was locked up a number of times for that reason, a position like that is always relative: it can often save you and apparently equally often destroy you, you are always an object of hate, always in the public eye, you can get away with what the populace can't and you can't get away with what the populace can); that's why nothing happened to me and the provocation (arousing public indignation with black Ella's singing in English, while the German citizens of Kostelec were waiting for the romance of Christine Söderbaum) was forgotten. Kühl was silent about it, a silence apparently bought with a bottle of Meinl's rum or something similar (the way payment used to be made in antiquity with cattle, so it is made in the modern world with alcohol: pecunia-alcunia).

So I can safely say that I recognized the voice of Horst Hermann Kühl. It was easy, in fact; I had never heard him talk - he was either silent or he was yelling. Now he was yelling, behind the wall covered with beige wallpaper with its faded design of silver doves, and I pressed my ear up against their delicate breasts. What he was yelling was unintelligible. In the passionate beating of his words, like the beating of a dove's heart, I caught fragments that made no sense: ". . . noch nicht so alt ... an der Ostfront gibt's keine Entschuldigung . . . jeder Deutsche . . . heute ein Soldat. . . . . . . not so old yet . . . on the Eastern Front there are no excuses . . . every German . . . today a soldier . . ." His German was entirely different from that of the mournful Feldwebel, inscribed in Gothic script in a blue notebook (but there are two tongues within every language: not class tongues, nor does the difference between them have anything to do with the difference between literate language and vulgar slang - the dividing line cuts somewhere down the middle of both); Kühl had mastered only one tongue, like Werner, the School Inspector, who tore past the hall patrol like a cannonball (Lexa, our fourth tenor sax, had an encounter with him once and was the recipient of unwelcome praise; Werner liked opposition), burst into our classroom and started to yell at the frail consumptive professor of German; the professor listened with his head on one side, calmly, with Christian equanimity, perhaps resigned to fate. Werner shouted, ranted and raved, spewing ugly words like Kerl, Dreck, Schwein, and Scheisse; we didn't understand him but we knew he certainly wasn't praising the professor; the professor lis- tened; when the inspector paused to take a breath, he took advantage of the moment and spoke, gently, quietly but clearly, with dignity, almost reverently. "I teach Goethe's German, Herr Inspektor," he said. "I do not teach pig-German." Amazingly, no apocalyptic storm arose. The Inspector fell silent, visibly deflated, turned on his heel and disappeared. The only thing that remained of him was a diabolical stink of boot polish.

"I don't want to hear a word! I'll be waiting for this evening," then the voice of Horst Hermann Kühl behind the wall lapsed back into hollering incomprehensibility. Someone (behind the wall) tried to say something, but the whiplash of Kühl's high voice silenced him. I stepped away from the doves; the dusty golden fingers of early autumn were still climbing the wallpaper, up a wardrobe with cream-colored angels with peeling golden locks, forming a canopy of stardust over the bass saxophone. The man in the bed was still asleep. His chin jutted up from the pillow like some desperate cliff. It reminded me of the chin of my dead grand- father; his chin had stuck up out of the coffin like that too, with the stubble that outlives a man, as if in derision. But this one was still alive.

And I was at an age when one doesn't think of death. I approached the bass saxophone again. The main part of the body lay to the left, deep in its plush bed. Next to it lay the other sections: the long metal pipe with huge valves for the deepest tones, the bent lever and the little leather-covered plate on the octave valve, the conical end with the big mouthpiece.

They attracted me the way the requisites for mass attract a novice. I leaned over and lifted the body out of its plush bed. Then the second part; I put them together, I embraced the body with gentle fingers, the familiar fingering, my little finger on the ribbed G flat, the valves of the bass thunder deep down under the fingers of my right hand; I wiggled my fingers; the mechanism rattled pleasantly; I pressed down valve after valve, from B all the way to C and then B flat to B with my little finger, and in the immense hollow spaces of the bass saxophone the bubbling echo of tiny leather strokes sounded, descending the scale, like the tiny foot- steps of a minute priest in a metal sanctuary, or the drumming of little drums in metal frames, a mysterious telegram of tiny tom-toms; I could not resist, I reached for the mouthpiece, attached it, and opened the plush lid of the little compartment in the corner of the coffin; there they were, a bundle of big reeds, like the shovels bakers use to take bread out of the oven; I stuck one of the reeds in its holder, straightened the edge, and putting the mouthpiece in my mouth, moistened the reed. I didn't play. I just stood there with the mouthpiece in my mouth, my fingers spread and embracing the immense body of the saxophone, my eyes misty; I pressed the big valves. A bass saxophone.

I had never held one in my hands before; I felt as if I were embracing a mistress (Domanin's daughter, that mysterious lily among aquariums, or Irene, who didn't give a damn about me; in fact I couldn't have been happier if I had been holding Irene, or even that girl of the fish and the moon). I stood there, a little slumped, and I saw myself in the mirror of the dressing table, hunched over with the bass saxophone resting the bend of its corpus on the carpet, immersed in a sea of shimmering particles, the unreal light of a grotesque myth, like a genre painting, though certainly no such painting exists: Young Man with Bass Saxophone. Yes, Young Man with Guitar, Young Man with Pipe, Young Man with Jug, yes, young man with anything at all, but not with bass saxophone on worn carpet, young man in golden haze of afternoon sun penetrating muslin curtains, with a mute bass saxophone, the Disney-like rococo of the wardrobe in the background, and the man with his chin sticking up out of the pillow like a corpse. Just a young man with bass saxophone and sleeping man. Absurd. Yet that was the way it was.

I exhaled lightly. A little harder. I felt the reed quiver. I blew into the mouthpiece, running my fingers down the valves; what emerged from the bell like a washbasin was a cruel, beautiful, infinitely sad sound.

Maybe that's the way dying brachiosaurs wailed. The sound filled the beige chamber with a muted desolation. A fuzzy, hybrid tone, an acoustical alloy of some nonexistent bass cello and bass oboe, but more explosive, a nerve-shattering bellow, the voice of a melancholy gorilla; just that one sorrowful tone, sad, like a bell - traurig wie eine Glocke; just that one single sound.

 

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