Rarely-displayed Josef Škvorecký manuscripts exhibited in Toronto

The original writings and manuscripts of Josef Škvorecký

The Czech-Canadian émigré author and publisher Josef Škvorecký wrote his novels and stories on reams of paper. After his death in 2012, he left behind over 140 boxes of documents, manuscripts and personal correspondence, which he donated to the university library in Toronto. These are rarely shown to the public – but recently they were put on display during a conference for Czech teachers in North America.

The original writings and manuscripts of Josef Škvorecký are nowadays kept mostly in the library archives of the University of Toronto. John Shoesmith works at the university’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

Photo: Pavel Novak,  Czech Radio

“This is the largest rare book library in Canada. We have somewhere along the lines of 800,000 volumes of books, 5,000 linear metres of manuscript material. The Škvorecký material is part of a large collection of archival material we have here of various Canadian writers – Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Sheila Heti.”

Shoesmith’s description of Škvorecký points to the fact that in Canada, he is largely considered to be a Canadian author, despite the fact that he is mostly published in Czech. Škvorecký spent half of his life in Canada, publishing Czech and Slovak books that were banned in Czechoslovakia during the communist era. He also taught literature, creative writing and film at the University of Toronto from 1971 until his retirement in 1990.

The original writings and manuscripts of Josef Škvorecký | Photo: Pavel Novak,  Czech Radio

Shoesmith says that although some of his writings can be found in other archives, the one at the University of Toronto is the most comprehensive.

“The first donation was in 1973, and he subsequently donated another eight or so more times up until his death in 2012. It’s a near complete archive – there’s some other material in California as well, but if you wanted to study his output, his manuscript materials, his correspondence, so much of it is here.”

Škvorecký and his wife Zdena Salivarová emigrated to Canada after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. They were long-time supporters of Czech dissident writers, founding the publishing house 68 Publishers in 1971, which published the work of world-famous Czech authors such as Václav Havel and Milan Kundera, among many others.

Luba Frastacki knew Škvorecký and his wife personally | Photo: Pavel Novak,  Czech Radio

Luba Frastacki – who, coincidentally, has Slovak heritage and even speaks a little Slovak – is now retired but previously worked at the library for 43 years. She knew Škvorecký and his wife personally.

“We worked together since the first donation in 1973 and I got to know him very well. He was a pleasure to deal with. I also learned about the importance of the publishing house that he and Zdena established, 68 Publishers, and how it impacted the Czech and Slovak expatriate community all over the world. I also learned from him how he smuggled in writing material so that the people in Czechoslovakia could produce the samizdat that we also have a large collection of. He didn’t only impact the Canadian community with his writings, but the whole world, and the impact of his publishing empire, small as it was, impacted all over the world also.”

Josef Škvorecký | Photo: Ministry of Culture
Authors: Anna Fodor , Pavel Novák | Source: Czech Radio
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