Novelist and essayist Mark Slouka, a guest author at the ongoing Prague Writers’ Festival, was born in New York to Czech refugees who never should have married but stayed together for nearly half a century. For a time, their chaotic lives, often distorted to tell a greater truth, provided rich fodder for his fiction. When both were gone – his father dead, his long-estranged mother suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s – he found the courage to search for the true story behind her “descent into madness”. The Czech version of the resulting memoir, Nobody’s Son, is out this week.
In the spring of 2014 the invisible world decided to put in an appearance. I couldn’t move, couldn’t laugh, couldn’t write. I didn’t know what was happening. The novel I was writing kept twisting like a heliotrope toward betrayals I’d never intended my characters to feel.
It had been a little over a year since his father died when Mark Slouka wrote that passage in what would become his memoir. He had also lost his mother, though she would live a couple more years, “her mind having long ago lost any trace” of him. For some twenty years, the American novelist and essayist, the only child of Czechs who had fled their homeland after the communist coup of 1948, had been writing about his parents – indirectly – hiding “the three of us in fiction, story after story, book after book”.
‘Looking back, I see that I stretched and pulled their story because it was too much for me then, too vast a canvas, and because I thought no one would believe it if I wrote it straight. Fiction would allow me to shape the deeper truth. This is what I told myself. Maybe it’s true.’
‘But I’m older now, my mother’s gone, and I’m less concerned with being believed. It’s time to settle up with memory, square what can be squared, come to terms.’
An overpowering listlessness had come to define his days, while his nights were full of relentless, exhausting dreams, “obvious as a club”. The nest of memories, sacred and profane, wonderful and dark; the truths hidden in the narratives told and retold; the fictions he had written for others and told himself far longer – all of these, finally, had to be untangled.
“I think I didn’t have the courage early on. My parents were both still alive, first of all, and I didn’t have the courage to actually face it straight. I kind of hid my parents and their history, and their life, and their troubles, their marriage, their exile – I hid all of these things in fiction, in that kind of distorting mirror that fiction is.”
“At some point, interestingly enough around the time when my mother’s memory had lost all trace of me – she slipped into dementia and Alzheimer’s at the end of her life – around that time, I ran into kind of a wall in my life, and I realized – actually my wife pointed it out to me; she said, ‘You need to deal with this, with that thing that’s stopping you now’ – I realized I had to tell her story, their story.”
“This is a woman who I loved in a sort of unqualified way as a child and as she got older, her own demons started to drag her down and she basically tried to take me with her. So we had a very difficult relationship, but it wasn’t until I was almost sixty that it was time to come to terms, time to look that in the face and say either I do this now or I’m going to live out my life talking to ghosts, arguing with ghosts. Trying to get her approval, trying to understand why she was the way she was. I need to clean house now.”
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that only a year after I wrote this book I moved to Prague. I think I was finally able to do that. Before that, I think my whole relationship with this country was kind of shadowed by my relationship with her.”
Mark Slouka’s father, the son of a janitor, was seventeen when he joined the anti-Nazi resistance in secret without telling his father, who himself had also joined in secret. His mother’s father had been a Nazi sympathizer who’d barely escaped death when the war was over. They married in June 1945, in haste, when he was a cub reporter for the newspaper Lidové Noviny, not yet twenty-two, and she all of nineteen.
Within a month of the wedding, her mother arranged for an abortion.
“The ‘original sin’ at the centre of this thing is what happened to my mother, whose father, František Kubík, was essentially a Nazi sympathizer during the Second World War, roundly hated by his neighbours – partly because he shot their cats. He loved birds, so he would shoot the neighbours' cats when they came into the yard and then he’d throw the bodies over the fence. Naturally, everybody in the neighbourhood hated his guts. He didn’t care. He had a little Hitler moustache for a while, as a way I guess of signally his sympathy.”
“But this is also a man – I was able to put all the pieces together through the act of writing this book to figure out what was tormenting my mother all those years, what it was that changed her from the person I knew as a child to the person she became by the time I was fifteen.”
“And I realized that the thing she’d been carrying inside herself all those years was – well, there’s no way to put it delicately – was sexual abuse. The monster of incest – with her father. This was at a time when you didn’t confess these things, you didn’t talk to anybody about these things, you just buried it. The only person who knew was her own mother, who walked in on her husband and daughter. And literally within a month or two of that moment – which strangely enough happened in the spring of 1945 as the war was ending – my mother was basically packed off and married to my father.”
“I had to put all these pieces together like a detective. I had nothing. I had no hard facts, but I had mountains of circumstantial evidence that I’d never dealt with, never looked at, never wrestled with. If this gets any uglier – and the book on the whole isn’t an ugly book; I actually think of it as an act of love, a way of reconstructing love that had been hurt by all those decades. But first I had to get there. I had to mine through some pretty awful stuff. One of which was that within two months of marrying my father, my mother had an abortion.”
“She never told my father. There’s every reason to think that the child was not my father’s, that the reason it happened so quickly is that the abortion was absolutely necessary. My father was simply trotted out – the janitor’s son – he was just a boy my mother had been seeing and there was no particular reason for them to get married, but man it was arranged at lightning speed. And then a forty-six year marriage followed. It’s a complicated tale.”
That complicated tale, as with others in Nobody’s Son, does not unfold as a straight story. Some aspects loop back as they ripple through time; others appear as passages of Mark Slouka’s fiction, chosen for what they revealed to the writer himself many years later or for the larger truths he had wished to convey at the time.
In broad brush strokes, though, the chronology is as follows: his parents, Zděnek and Olga, who never should have married, escaped across the Czech border in the winter of 1948 with the aid of a professional smuggler. After a year and a half in an Austrian refugee camp, then shovelling coal and cleaning toilets in Australia for some months, and spells in Washington, D.C. and New York – where Mark was born in 1958 – the family eventually settled in suburban Pennsylvania and his mother’s “descent into madness” began.
‘My mother loved me when I was young, in that bone-of-my bone, flesh-of-my-flesh kind of way which leads so easily to betrayal. She came to hate me as I grew older—you could see it in her face, hear it in her voice—which was like watching someone you love draw a razor down their arm to hurt you. There are harder things than being hated by someone who loved you once and not knowing why, but not many.’
In Mark Slouka’s youth, he and his mother weren’t just close, he writes, “We were in league with each other, soulmates, a church of two.”
‘It’s not surprising that it took my mother so long to teach me to hate her, or that when I learned it at last, I embraced it like an apostate drowning his doubt. The hate that replaces love is always a violent thing; to rip out those roots, you have to reach deep, get a good grip, close your eyes and pull. Ignore that strange loosening in your chest.’
She instilled him with a love of literature as a boy, asking him “why such and such a character in a Maugham or Maupassant story had said this or done that, what I thought they really wanted, and why, and whether they knew it themselves.”
Could you tell me a little about your mother’s influence on you becoming a writer? You started writing a “ten-year-old’s story” about disappearing into the woods but that your mother “trained you in paradox, in contradiction”; and at that same age, she asked you a lot, essentially, about what you thought the inner monologue of the characters was, were they aware of it themselves and that kind of thing…
“Yeah, it was like a game we played. My mom was an amazing reader, adored literature. She was a librarian for most of her adult life. She just loved writing – what she considered good writing. But she also had tremendous respect for the act of writing, again for what she would consider serious writing, or good writing. One of her cornerstone beliefs that enabled me to write this book – which says some hard things about her and grapples with who she became – one of her cornerstone beliefs was that if you’re going to call yourself a real writer then, by God, write what you need to write. Don’t flinch. And if you’re going to flinch, then don’t write. Do something else. Go into another line of work – become a politician, I don’t care, anything, but don’t write.”
“And so when it came around to writing this book, I had to ask myself, ‘Do I have what it takes to look at everything – to look at our family, at how it disintegrated, at some of the uglier sides of things?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, I do’. Because I kind of heard – ironically, I heard my mother’s voice saying, ‘Write it. If you’re going to do it, write it. Don’t ask permission. Don’t look behind you.’ And if you do it to your satisfaction, if you do it as well as you are capable of doing it, then the reaction to the book is secondary. That’s not important – that’s not up to you. What you can control is the act of writing itself.”
“I’ve inherited that completely. I think that if you’re going to be a writer then by god don’t tiptoe around things that make you uncomfortable … because often the best writing is in the most difficult places.”
There are quite a few passages in the book I’m not comfortable asking you about – not only because of not wanting to have sort of ‘spoilers’ in this interview because reading the book is itself a process, not a linear one, but to come around to these discoveries. But I wonder if you could tell me about the significance of the ‘cat in the well’, how this appeared in your own writing and you had an epiphany about it.
“It’s interesting because sometimes our books – the act of writing – will reveal certain things to you that you weren’t aware of even as you were writing it. In other words, your books can sort of reveal you, whether you are able to see it at that moment or not.”
“My first novel was a book called ‘God’s Fool’ about the original Siamese twins and in it I describe these two men waking up in South Carolina in 1868 or something and hearing this weird wailing from outside in the dark and eventually – because they can’t sleep – they go out and find a cat that is drowning in a well. It’s fallen into the well and it’s been swimming as long as it can and it’s drowning. They pull it out, they try to warm it up and it dies.”
And I just wrote that scene and one of the things I’d forgotten and blocked out is that I had that same exact thing happen to me when we were living in San Diego. I woke up in the middle of the age, hear this bizarre kind of barking sound; eventually, I went to check and I pulled this pour thing out of the well and later it died, it didn’t make it. We brought it to a veterinarian but it was too far gone.”
“But then one thing kind of opened another thing and these doors kept opening and a couple of years later I suddenly had this epiphany – this sudden realization – I remembered being nineteen, twenty and my parents being here in Czechoslovakia, at the time, and I was supposed to be the man of the house, taking care of things, and our cat had had a litter of kittens. And I’d been raised on these stories of people in the country they were a sort of unsentimental lot and if there were too many kittens, they’d put them in a bag with a rock and throw them in the river. And ‘real men’, basically, would take care of business and do what they had to do. So, here I am, I’m by myself, I had this notion that I’m not weak, like my father – my mother loved to make that point – I’m supposed to be a real man of the house. And after trying to give them away and failing, and trying to find pet stores that would take them and failing, I put them in a bucket of water … and drown them.”
“And it was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life because it was something I did not want to do felt disgusted by but pushed myself to do because of all this baggage that I’d sort of inherited about what masculinity is … And, first of all, it was extraordinarily uncomfortable to write about it – and that’s okay – but then I ran with it and realized really that what made it so reprehensible was that somewhere in my heart I knew it was wrong, that for me it was wrong to do this thing, and I did it anyway.”
“And I realized at that moment that a great many of the things that are done in this world that are cruel are often done by people who don’t want to do them. But they do them anyway. They talk themselves into it, they rationalize it, they justify it… And so for just that moment – I haven’t had many moments like that in my life, I can say that – but for just that moment I touched a darker part of myself which I’m not proud of.”
“So that’s the story of the cat. And again, I think everybody has moments that they choose not to look at in their past because it makes them uncomfortable or embarrassed. Part of the business of writing is, I think, unveiling. You know – look at it. This is real. It’s just hidden underneath all these masks. Our job is to strike through the mask, as Herman Melville once said.”
Mark Slouka’s stories have been included in the Best American Short Story anthology and selected for the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. In 2008, he was a finalist for the British Book Award for his novel ‘The Visible World’. As part of the Prague Writers’ Festival, he will be reading from his memoir ‘Nobody’s Son’ on October 7 at the Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia at 2:15 p.m. The full schedule of events is available at www.pwf.cz