Josef Škvorecký – Part 2 – ’68 Publishers and writing in Canada

Josef Škvorecký

In this week’s Arts enjoy Part 2 of our look at the life and work of renowned author Josef Škvorecký, who died at the age of 87 earlier this month. I continue my discussion with respected Czech critic, translator, and specialist in Czech studies Petr Onufer, who talks about how Miloš Forman almost made a film version of The Cowards, Škvorecký’s style as an author and his role as co-founder of ‘68 Publishers.

Josef Škvorecký
We begin by talking about Škvorecký in the 1960s including how the author felt about the period of reforms known as the Prague Spring.

“Strangely enough he kept his distance towards the Prague Spring because, especially from today’s perspective, because he felt the Prague Spring was to a large extent a creation of the reformist movement within the Communist Party. And he simply never trusted the Communists and history shows us that this was probably the right way of viewing the Prague Spring because it was partly a clash within the party and so on. But he definitely belonged among the most popular and widely-read authors of the 1960s – he was a symbol of the ‘60s in fact.”

He and his wife left after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia and settled in Canada where he became a famous émigré author. Within a few years he and his wife founded ’68 Publishers: this is the other great part of his work, isn’t it?

“Absolutely and it is an aspect that is sometimes neglected because of his writer’s qualities just as his work as a translator and literary critic. Škvorecký’s role in Czech culture is quite unique because throughout his life he actually did the job of five people: he was a brilliant writer, he was a great translator – one of the best translators from English that we’ve ever had, he was a very good literary critic which was surprising because he wasn’t that keen on criticism, nevertheless he was a great critic! And he became a publisher quite late, together with his wife. Milan Kundera once said that no one in 20th century Czech history had done more for Czech literature, for the survival of Czech culture than the Škvoreckýs. And he was quite right: Škvorecký and his wife Zdena Saliverová worked very hard and did an amazing job in keeping free Czech culture alive.”

So these would be either émigré authors like themselves or dissidents back home included people like Václav Havel, who they would publish in Czech but also in English, and basically kept the cycle going. And then there was the ‘loop’ that some of the literature was being smuggled back into Czechoslovakia through various channels...

Josef Škvorecký,  Zdena Salivarová
“That is really quite interesting when you imagine a banned author who has to smuggle his or her banned manuscript out of the totalitarian state so that it can be published and then for it to be subsequently smuggled back so that the author can get his beneficial copy! It’s quite bizarre looking back, but that’s the way it worked in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

A few years ago I had the privilege to attend an event at the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Prague where there were a lot of former Canadian diplomats for a conference, recalling how they had feared becoming persona non grata for their active role in smuggling things out and back as well. It is, as you say, a very fascinating period.

“It’s amazing plus it is one of the debts that we owe to Canada that it did become a second home for Škvorecký. He saw himself as a Czech-Canadian author which was reinforced by the fact that after 1989 he and his wife decided not to return but stayed in Canada.”

How did Škvorecký’s writing change after his move to Canada? Did he become more political, did he retain a bit of that earlier lyrical style?

“It’s an interesting question because of course he was nearly 50 when he decided to go into exile. What I would say was that his writing became more intensive in a certain way. Because he also became a professor at the University of Toronto so he had to teach students, he had to publish articles, reviews and papers on literature and I really think that his writing in a way became more intellectual. Which is quite funny because we also know that a huge part of his work deals with genre fiction: he was a great fan of detective stories. But that sort of intensity or intellectual capacity, that might have been accented by his teaching position and so on, is visible in his later work.

“One of the examples of what might be his opus magnum – The Engineer of Human Souls – through which he was nominate for the Nobel Prize and received the Neustadt International Prize for Fiction – we can see that it is a sort of gesamtkunstwerk.

'The Engineer of Human Souls'
“It’s a really complicated novel that features his brilliant literary critical skills, his writing skills, it’s almost as if he was showing off: ‘look what a great writer I am, look at the styles I can use’. But it somehow works; he makes it work, because of that lyricism of his, because of that slight nostalgia of his, and last but not least because of his, let’s say, personal integrity or personal investment in the fiction. I know it sounds like a terrible cliché, but that’s just the impression that the novel raises. It’s very intellectual, it’s very well built, very well structured, very well written, but keeps the human touch, as it were. This is what remind you of, let’s say, William Faulkner’s novels, or Graham Greene’s novels.”

If we come back to his earlier book and his character of Danny Smiřický that we first meet in The Cowards, he did an interesting thing with that character – Smiřický had more than one life, more than one literary existence.

“Yes he did. We could even say – and now I’m quoting the Czech critic Michal Špirit – that there are more than just one Danny Smiřický, there are like seven or eight personas that keep changing in his novels. What’s funny though is that he himself changes according to the author’s stages of life, but the other characters don’t change that much in fact. The world around Danny Smiřický seems to be the same with the narrator, with Danny Smiřický himself (who is sometimes the narrator and sometimes is not), the character of Danny Smiřický doesn’t seem to reflect the outer world, which doesn’t change, while Danny does.”

What are some of the other popular books or favoured books of Škvorecký’s where the character features?

One of the funniest books that features the character of Danny Smiřický and also one of the funniest books by Josef Škvorecký is The Swell Season, which basically tells the story of Danny’s youth, of his growing up, his first sexual experiences and so on. Compared to The Cowards or to the Engineer of Human Souls it’s pure fun, it’s a lot of burlesque, it doesn’t really carry those heavy tones that we see in other books of the Smiřický saga.”

Some of our listeners will no doubt be interested – if they don’t know already – that Škvorecký’s work was more or less successfully adapted to film on several occasions.

“Sadly enough, I think there is not a single good adaptation made after 1989. There are quite a few good films made that were based on Škvorecký’s books in the late 60s, such as Crime in a Music Hall or the End of a Priest, those are probably the two best films. What I really regret is that in the 60s Josef Škvorecký and Miloš Forman – who he knew from his childhood – planned to work together on a film adaptation of The Cowards. Well, of course Miloš Forman, as an Oscar-winning director and one of the leading Czech directors of that era, would have made a great movie I believe. But first the movie was banned, and then both of the artists went on to work on other projects, so it was never actually realised.”

I definitely agree with you that a Forman-Škvorecký combination at that stage – I run into a lot of people who prefer the earlier Forman to the later Hollywood Forman because there was a certain gentleness of approach that some would say Forman later lost – would have been an amazing combination, so that’s the one that got away...

“It’s like the legendary possible cooperation between Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix shortly before Hendrix died. It’s just one of those historic moments that you will always regret never took place.”

Incidentally, when you said that the film was banned, was it actually at some developmental stage when it was banned?

“It was. They already had the first draft of the screenplay, but of course as the film industry was then owned by the state, pretty much every step had to be approved by the authorities, and the authorities banned the screenplay in its first draft, so no subsequent steps were taken.”