Issue 112, Winter 1989
A native of Nachod, a small town on the northeastern border of Bohemia—the westernmost part of Czechoslovakia—Josef Skvorecky has experienced virtually every major political system of twentieth-century Europe: liberal democracy under the nation’s first and second presidents, Tomas Masaryk and Eduard Benes, until the Munich Pact of 1938; Nazism from 1939 until the Potsdam Conference of 1945; “uneasy” democratic socialism until the Communist coup d’état of 1948; Stalinism until 1960; the liberalization of Communism until 1967, culminating in Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring of 1968, and terminated by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year.
The son of a bank clerk and chairman of the local Sokol Gymnastic Association, Skvorecky graduated from the local realgymnasium in 1943, worked for two years in the Messerschmitt munitions factories in Nachod and Nove Mesto under the Totaleinsatz scheme, and was then transferred to the Organization Todt for trench-digging duty, from which he defected. For the last two months of the war he worked in a cotton mill.
He subsequently studied for a year at the Medical Faculty of Charles University in Prague, but transferred to the Philosophical Faculty, graduating in 1949 and receiving a Ph.D. in American philosophy in 1951. After teaching for two years at the Social School for Girls in Horice v Podkrkonosi, Skvorecky was drafted into the army where he served with the elite tank division stationed in the Mlada military camp near Prague, now the headquarters of the Soviet occupation army.
In 1948, at the invitation of the literary and art critic Jindrich Chalupecky, he became a member of the Prague underground circle of Jiri Kolar, and, as a frequent visitor to meetings of the Prague surrealists at the apartment of the artist Mikulas Medek, he was introduced to the underground litterateurs of the early 1950s.
An aspiring tenor saxophone player, Skvorecky began writing at an early age, but time and again political circumstances thwarted the publication of his works in Czechoslovakia. His first novel offered for publication, The End of the Nylon Age, was banned by the censors before publication in 1956. His second novel, The Cowards, which he had written ten years earlier, was published in 1958, but became the pretext for a cultural purge by Stalinist members of the Communist Party. As a result, Skvorecky lost his job as editor of the magazine World Literature, and was unable to publish until five years later, when the novella, The Legend of Emöke (1963), appeared. Though criticized by the Party, Emöke became one of the major publishing successes of the mid-sixties in Czechoslovakia. Skvorecky was still closely watched, and yet another novel, Miss Silver’s Past, was banned before its publication in 1967, only appearing afterwards under Dubcek in 1968. Not until 1967 was Skvorecky made a member of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, and then only because of his position as Chairman of the Translators’ Section.
With the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Skvorecky and his wife Zdena, a singer, actress, and novelist (Summer in Prague, 1973), left for Canada, where he now teaches film and American literature at the University of Toronto. His works published in Canada include two books continuing the adventures begun by Danny Smiricky in The Swell Season (1974) and The Engineer of Human Souls (1984), which won the Canadian Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1984. He is also the author of a novel about army life, The Tank Corps(1971), a series of detective novels, including The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka(1966) and The End of Lieutenant Boruvka (1975), short stories, screenplays, essays on the Czech cinema, and translations from English into Czech of Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry James. In 1971 he and his wife founded Sixty-Eight Publishers in Toronto, now the most important Czech-language publishing house in the world. Since then they have published more than 150 books, among them new works by leading poets, playwrights and novelists such as Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, and Ludvik Vaculik.
Skvorecky’s most recently published work in English is Dvorak in Love (1987). His The Miracle Game, which was written in 1972, is to be published in early 1990. He is currently at work on The Bride from Texas, a novel about the role of Czech-Americans in the Civil War, “whose life stories,” he admits, “may not be important historically, but they make for good fiction.”
A natural storyteller who brings a special Old World sensibility to life in the New World, Skvorecky has become a satirist by circumstance, a dissident out of necessity, and has emerged as one of the most important voices in contemporary world literature. His work is distinguished by its far-reaching historical consciousness and sense of social engagement, an irrepressible wit, and a long-standing concern with human rights.
In 1980 Skvorecky was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and on presenting him to the jury, Arnost Lustig, a fellow Czech émigré author, wrote: “In a country that has not had any democracy for over forty years now, books like those of Josef Skvorecky have become forbidden fruit on the one hand, and a hope for dignity and freedom on the other. Taken together, his works constitute a highly artistic presentation of recent Czech history as the common intelligent people saw it and felt it.”
A man of warmth and generosity, Skvorecky chooses his words carefully, speaking in a low, gravelly voice, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Like many Czechs, he has a fondness for beer, which we drank to the strains of contemporary Czech jazz, while conducting this interview over two sessions in New York City and Amherst, Massachusetts.
Asked on one occasion about the meaning of one of his works, Skvorecky replied in the words of Veronika, the sad heroine of The Engineer of Human Souls: “Let’s leave it to the horses to figure out. They have bigger heads.”
How old were you when you first tried your hand at fiction?
When I was a boy, I was something of a sportsman. I played soccer, and I skied, but then I fell ill with pneumonia, which in those days was a serious disease. I almost died of it, and I was afterwards forbidden to play sports. So I became a sheltered child, and got interested in writing. I was especially interested in an American writer by the name of James Oliver Curwood, who wrote romances. Towards the end of his life he started a trilogy about trappers, but he died before finishing it. He was very popular in Czechoslovakia, and I decided to finish the trilogy for him. I wrote The Mysterious Cave as the third volume of his trilogy when I was about nine.
What was the first novel you completed?
It was a story about student life I wrote right after my matriculation in the gymnasium—about an affair I had with a schoolgirl. My second unpublished novel was An Inferiority Complex, again a love story based on real experiences, which in a way prefigures The Cowards. My first real novel was The End of the Nylon Age, which I began writing in the university. It’s about a student who has an affair with a shopgirl, and then an actress, and gets involved in smuggling. It was important for me as a writer, because I found I was good at lyrical description—which is easy if you’re at all talented—but writing dialogue was something else. Remember, my formative years were spent under the Nazis, when access to good literature was restricted. Many books were simply banned.
What books did you have access to?
The Czech classics, which one had to read, and therefore hated. Czech fiction didn’t really come of age until the 1930s; poetry had been the primary literary form until then. The first genuinely good Czech fiction writer was Jaroslav Hasek, a genius who didn’t have any schooling, but wrote The Good Soldier Schweik in the early 1920s. It was his one great novel; its greatness is not as a novel, but as an observation of life in a very original, personal, and caustic style. Hasek was atypical. After Hasek come Vladislav Vancura, a highly sophisticated stylist, Karel Capek, a very good short-story writer who gained renown because of his plays, and Polacek, a Jewish-Czech writer who has never been translated into English and whom I really love—a master of the language.
Did you have any other literary influences?
Well, this shopgirl I was in love with was a real influence because she was very talkative, and she talked in scenes—literally using “scenic method.” She couldn’t tell a story in any other way: And then I said to him . . . and he said to me . . . And she also used contractions which I tried to imitate in my novel. One of the scenes from The Nylon Age, “A Babylonian Story,” is just such an experiment in dialogue. But the novel itself is probably unreadable.
Why was writing dialogue so difficult for you?
There’s this tradition in Czech literature that books are sacred, and therefore the language used in writing books is very formal—without contractions, distortions, or slang. The Czech expression for correct language is spisovna cestina, which means bookish Czech, and it’s not a derogatory term. Most of the Czech books I was able to read were in this formal manner, and I was brought up thinking that’s how books were written.
What changed your perception?
Hemingway. I suddenly saw that you could write dialogue as people spoke it. But I didn’t read Hemingway until the end of the war in an English-language Swedish edition of A Farewell to Arms. And then I read everything. It opened my eyes. I realized that you could write dialogue that need not be informational; it simply was.
How were you first introduced to American culture in Czechoslovakia?
Seeing Judy Garland’s movies. I saw Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry with Mickey Rooney, in which Judy sang “Stormy Weather.” I was determined to write her a letter, so I had to learn English. The two languages everyone had to learn in Czechoslovakia were German and French, but instead of studying French, I studied English. I wrote Judy Garland that letter, but I never heard back from her.