Josef Skvorecky, author of nostalgia and irony, celebrates eightieth birthday

Josef Skvorecky, photo: CTK

Josef Skvorecky, author of many internationally acclaimed novels such as The Cowards, The Bass Saxophone, and The Miracle Game, celebrates his eightieth birthday on Monday. A fan of Anglo-American culture, his first publication, The Cowards, is set in his native Nachod, east Bohemia, during the Second World War. Instead of fighting for their country, the town's youth prefers to listen to jazz, live life, and view the political developments with black humour and scepticism.

Josef Skvorecky,  photo: CTK
Paradoxically, Skvorecky told me, during a break from a conference taking place in Nachod about his life and work, he feels nostalgic about the time of the German occupation:

"When I was sixteen to eighteen years old, we lived in the Nazi protectorate, which was not a very pleasant kind of life. But since we were young, it compensated for the horror of the time because when you are young and are not personally and directly threatened, you can still live a more or less normal life. We were helped, of course, by the fact that we had a jazz band in this town and lived for this band, and of course for the normal interests that young people had, the opposite sex. That was very important."

To Jiri Travnicek, an expert on Central European literature, Josef Skvorecky plays an important role among Central European authors:

Josef Skvorecky in Toronto,  photo: CTK
"I think there is something like a Central European culture, which is based on a mixture of nostalgia and irony and at the same time the refusal to adapt to the political situation of the region. Josef Skvorecky was mostly influenced by the Anglo-Saxon culture but in addition to that, has a sort of nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the first Czechoslovak Republic. He is the author of this experience. I think that all authors like Konrad, Peter Esterhazy, Witold Gombrowicz, Czeslaw Milosz, preserve history."

Following the Soviet occupation of 1968, Skvorecky and his wife moved to Canada in 1969, where he became a professor at the University of Toronto and together with his wife Zdena Salivarova kept Czech literature alive through the publishing house '68 Publishers.

University professor Michaela Swinkels-Novakova remembers reading Skvorecky secretly in Communist Czechoslovakia. At the time, to her and her friends, Josef Skvorecky was a hero:

"He wrote about the war and about the role of the people of Nachod, the town he was born in, but we were to read that they were bad guys. The Russians, of course were the good guys, and the English and Germans were bad guys. But he just wrote about how it really was and how he lived it. That's why that book was so controversial and that's why he had many problems politically. It was forbidden to say something about Russians and that's why we liked him because he wrote how it was. Sort of like Hemingway, you know?"

Josef Skvorecky with his wife Zdena Salivarova,  photo: CTK
But could there be more to Skvorecky, that his English-speaking fans may not understand? Canadian Paul Wilson, who has translated a number of Skvorecky's novels into English, says it has by no means been an easy task:

"There is an enormous variety of slang in English and you have to pick and choose from the kinds of slang that you want to use when you're translating. But the one kind of slang that we don't have is slang that's grown up under pressure from totalitarian regimes. The language, in fact, expresses the resistance that people have to accepting the world view of that system and they develop ways of speaking that express their attitudes towards it. It's sometimes very subtle and sometimes very ironic. It's almost like a tone of voice where you can actually tell what that person thinks of the system that he is living in. We have nothing quite like that in English."