Josef Škvorecký – Part 1 – The Cowards

Josef Škvorecký

In this week’s Arts we will be looking back at the remarkable life and work of renowned writer, essayist and translator Josef Škvorecký who died earlier this month at the age of 87. The author of novels such as The Engineer of Human Souls was one of the most important in 20th century Czech literature, first making his mark in 1958 with The Cowards. To discuss that book and much, much more in the first of a two-part programme, I met with respected Czech critic, translator, specialist in Czech studies and Revolver Revue contributor Petr Onufer. In Part 1, we look largely Škvorecký’s debut, The Cowards.

“Well it definitely is a book that set the bar very high and it definitely is one of his most significant novels. Of course, although it was his ‘debut’ it was not really his first book: as far as writing goes it was his first published book, a process that took more than 10 years. By the time it was published Škvorecký was already a full-fledged author and he knew what he was doing. But yes, The Cowards set the bar very high even though he also wrote many other excellent books, some of which I would argue were just as good or even, in my opinion, might be even better.”

We will talk about some of those, I’m sure, but staying with The Cowards for the moment: the book introduced many elements that were trademark Škvorecký, including Anglo-American motifs and his love for things American like jazz and so on, as well as introduced the character of Danny Smiřický. Yet this was the 1950s and from today’s perspective it is hard to imagine how it could get published, how two very different points of view could ‘go together’...

“They certainly didn’t go together with the official publishing policy of the totalitarian state. The very fact that the book got published was the combination of a series of coincidences. A few months later or a few months earlier it probably wouldn’t have been published at all. It was sort of used by own wing of the Communist Party against another and it served that purpose quite well.

“Škvorecký got into a lot of trouble as did a lot of people who collaborated on the book: editors, the first person who reviewed it and had praise for it. Some people lost their jobs and so on and it was banned for several years. Those things that you mention – the Anglo-American influence, jazz and so on were alien to the regime and did not go over well with the authorities. That is why the book was a controversial one but it was also the reason it was loved by readers.”

'The Cowards'
So it was banned on the one hand, loved on the other.

“Absolutely. The thing is, no matter how hard it must have been for Škvorecký as a person and as a citizen of a totalitarian state, the campaign against his book was actually the best form of promotion for him. Even people who would not have normally heard about it – let’s not forget it is really highbrow literature in a certain sense – wanted to read it as a result. It was difficult to get your hands on a copy but it could be borrowed from someone else or simply the readers waited for the second edition, which came out after six years.”

How much time did the book spend on the shelves before it was yanked?

“Legend has it that before the ban became official and before it could be removed from shelves it was already either sold out or hidden away by the book sellers so that the authorities could actually remove it. It must have been an immediate success and it must have been quite fast as it disappeared from the shelves.”

To come back to how long it took to get published: I guess that is one of the reasons why there was continuity with pre-war and post-Second World War ideals so to speak...

“Absolutely. The other thing to take into consideration with its publication is this: the actual novelty of style and writing that Škvorecký presented. It was not only the inherent values but his style of writing. I am always reminded of the fate of books by Bohumil Hrabal: the books were too fresh and too unusual not only for censors and certain clerks but also for certain parts of the audience. Here we can use an example from the free world with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road taking eight years to be published, where it took a few years before other books in the ‘50s got published. You could see a similar phenomenon, albeit under very different conditions, where something altogether new is born and it takes a while before it gets the attention of publishers, editors and critics.

“This is an important point because the book was not only accepted furiously and unequivocally but also criticised as well along aesthetic lines. Some unofficial or banned critics didn’t like it, for example Václav Černý a very important critic who was banned, who couldn’t publish, and even was imprisoned for a while, hated the book and rejected it on basically all levels. Yet he shared the same values of freedom and liberal democracy as Škvorecký did. So, not only was it quite controversial for its values and contents but it brought something new in its form and in the writing.”

How would you describe his work – and this book in particular – stylistically? Obviously, he is an author who is often referred to as having a certain lyrical style... and there is this element of often painful nostalgia, especially through the character of Danny Smiřický...

“I really think that this is one of the aspects of Škvorecký’s writing where we can feel the Anglo-American influence especially that of Hemingway and maybe Faulkner. The nostalgia, those sentimental or lyrical tones that we can hear in Škvorecký’s prose are definitely a part of that American legacy. And his style reflects that in a certain way: he is very keen on dialogue, he knows how to build plot, he knows how to use certain buzzwords, he knows how to use slang.

“These are qualities that we now take for granted but in the 1950s that was far from ordinary. Especially in Czech prose because it is prose of a small nation and a small culture it doesn’t have as large an idiom as American literature does. So Škvorecký definitely brought something new and foreign... but being the genius that he was, he was able to actually incorporate it into the ‘home grown’ tradition. And we can see from certain authors nowadays like Jáchym Topol or Jan Novák that the tradition that actually started with Škvorecký is doing quite well and is completely natural for Czech literature now.”

Who are some writers or contemporaries you would rank as doing something a little bit closer to him at the time, if any?

“When I read about the ‘50s and about the gloomy, murky atmosphere, the communist oppression and ever present or omnipresent fear among dissidents or within the underground movement or amongst people who simply did not agree with the regime I am always struck by how people felt closer to one another. After Škvorecký came to Prague to study English and Philosophy he soon became a part of a certain circle of people. Some of them became his friends and some of them became his colleagues. As early as 1956 there was an underground, illegally-published book called Život je všude (which could be translated as Life is Everywhere) which actually features writing by Škvorecký, by his close friend and great poet and translator Jan Zábrana, a very good essay by Václav Havel on the writing of Bohumil Hrabal and writing by Hrabal himself. So these would be not only his contemporaries but also his friends and co-operators who shared his views of freedom and democracy.”

Be sure to tune in again next week for Part 2, focussing on Josef Škvorecký and his wife settling in Canada after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Topics discussed include how the couple founded ’68 Publishers that helped keep dissident and émigré writing alive.