Renowned author, publisher Josef Škvorecký dies at 87

Josef Škvorecký, photo: Tomáš Krist, ISIFA/Lidové noviny

Czech emigré author and co-founder of '68 Publishers Josef Škvorecký died at the age of 87 on Tuesday, succumbing to cancer in Toronto, Canada. Mr Škvorecký was one the last great Czech 20th century authors and literati. His first novels published in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s – were quickly banned by the Communist regime. Later, following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, Škvorecký and his wife Zdena Salivarová moved to Canada, where they founded ’68 Publishers. The imprint was a crucial avenue for Czech and Slovak dissidents like Milan Kundera and Václav Havel to publish in Czech and English in the West.

Josef Škvorecký,  photo: Tomáš Krist,  ISIFA/Lidové noviny
Josef Škvorecký’s life and work were nothing if not remarkable: both as an author and as a co-founder of ’68 Publishers, Mr Škvorecký had a huge impact on both Czech literature and dissident writing, giving a voice to those whose works were suppressed by the communist authorities ‘at home’. As an author, Škvorecký made his mark as a young man in the late 1950s – publishing a decade after the Communists seized power – one of the darkest periods in Czechoslovak history. His fiction often examined the impact of repression and totalitarianism and celebrated jazz (through his most famous character and alter ego, Danny Smiřicky). Especially The Cowards earned him early renown – but also proved a threat; Czech editor Michael Špirit:

'The Cowards'
“From today’s standpoint it might look like his breakthrough was sensational, but we know from Mr Škvorecký himself that there were consequences. It wasn’t an easy period: people stopped greeting him in the street, he lost his job and his family worried that he could share the same fate as other authors and be politically persecuted.”

The Cowards tells the story of an innocent, idealistic youth at the end of World War II but it is also a darkly comic tale, farcically portraying locals “playing at revolution” on the approach of the Red Army. Much of its strength, Michael Špirit says, stemmed for the author’s own fresh spirit and youth:

“It sounds banal but I think that its strengths lie in a certain youthfulness that is timeless, as well as his witty use of language, the novel’s anchor in a Czech-English setting and in desires that would grow in intensity in the coming years. It was written 10 years before it was published, so Škvorecký couldn’t know which way things would go, but I think, through several references in the text he predicted quite accurately what would come.”

After 1968, Josef Škvorecký and his wife settled in Toronto, Canada, beginning a new life but never forgetting their friends and colleagues at home. In 1971 they founded ’68 Publishers, which many years later Milan Kundera described as a publishing house that had “moral and aesthetic authority” beyond compare. ’68 Publishers put out works by authors like Arnošt Lustig, Viktor Fischl, Jiří Gruša and many others, and the works, very often, were smuggled back into Czechoslovakia they could be read there illegally. The author always stressed, though, that the publishing house was primarily his wife’s accomplishment and success. Škvorecký himself authored numerous novels, including the acclaimed The Engineer of Human Souls. He received the Governor-General’s award in Canada in 1984, the Order of the White Lion in Czechoslovakia in 1990, and the Czech Republic’s State Prize for Literature in 1999.