Biographical novel speaks of Dvor'ak

Dvor'ak in Love, by Josef Skvorecky. Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 323 pp. $18.95. Josef Skvorecky describes this as his first attempt at a historical and biographical novel. The Czech writer, who emigrated to Canada in 1968, has chosen for his subject the great Bohemian composer, who did not emigrate to America, but did pay a visit commemorated in his Symphony No. 5, ``From the New World.''

The Anton'in Dvor'ak who emerges in these pages is an artist with a marvelous openness to new experience and new musical ideas. He is sincere, devout, kind, and sometimes boisterous. His spirit is expressed not in words but in music. Perhaps this is one reason Skvorecky has chosen to portray him indirectly, through a mosaic of other people's recollections of him in diaries, monologues, letters, and stories.

This mosaic is also a group portrait - of the New World and the various voices resounding in it. Skvorecky has taken great care in crafting each of the many parts of this ``symphony,'' from the pretentiousness of a magazine article comparing Dvor'ak's genius with the ``genius'' behind the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show to the voices of the many black musicians and composers in whom Dvor'ak took an appreciative interest.

Yet there is more virtuosity than substance in what these voices tell us. We read pages and pages of set pieces without coming any closer to the heart of Dvor'ak - or, indeed, to the deeper layers of any of the tantalizing themes and characters. This makes ``Dvor'ak in Love,'' for all its skill and charm, far less involving and satisfying than Skvorecky's earlier novel, ``The Engineer of Human Souls.''

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