World Literature

Josef Skvorecky

 

BORN: 1924, Nachod, Czechoslovakia

NATIONALITY: Canadian, Czech

GENRE: Fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The Cowards (1958)

The Engineer of Human Souls: An Entertainment of the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love, and Death (1977)

Dvorak in Love (1991)

When Eve Was Naked (2002)

 

 

Josef Skvorecky. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

 

Overview

Josef Vaclav Skvorecky, who writes and publishes primarily in Czech, has resided in Canada since he fled Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Soviet invasion. Although he initially gained notoriety in his native country for his first published novel, The Cowards, which was condemned by government officials, Skvorecky remained virtually unknown outside Czech-speaking communities until the 1984 English publication of The Engineer of Human Souls: An Entertainment of the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love, and Death. Writing in several genres, including the novel, the detective story, and the essay, Skvorecky questions all notions of ideology and emphasizes literature’s significance to the development of cultural history and liberal thought.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Life of Resistance: From Early Mistrust to Adult Rebellion. Skvorecky was born and raised in Nachod, a small town on the northeastern border of the Bohemian province. During his forty-four years in Czechoslovakia, Skvorecky lived through the Nazi occupation, the postwar era of Stalinist communism, and the Soviet invasion of 1968, after which he immigrated to

Canada. As an adolescent, Skvorecky attended the local grammar school, a traditional institution that emphasized such classical subjects as Latin and mathematics. During the Nazi annexation, most subjects, especially geography and history, were taught in German so as to indoctrinate Czechoslovakian youth into Nazi social theory. Skvorecky explains: ‘‘It was the Nazis who introduced the term ‘ideology’ into our vocabulary; can anyone wonder why ever since I have mistrusted that word and all the varying contents it signified?’’

Although he passed his college entrance examinations, Skvorecky, along with all other able-bodied Czech men and women, was mobilized by the Nazis to serve in the armament industry. Working fourteen-hour shifts alongside students, businessmen, and lawyers, Skvorecky was exposed to a wide array of experiences and opinions that were expressed in the privacy of the factory washroom: ‘‘The discussions were profound, lively, and on many subjects; sometimes the shitting room resembled a philosophy seminar.’’ After World War II, Skvorecky enrolled at Charles University in Prague. Following one semester at the University Medical Facility, Skvorecky decided to study English and philosophy, receiving his doctoral degree in 1951. Due to the government’s increasing use of censorship and intimidation, Skvorecky, along with many other writers, became actively involved in the Prague literary underground.

Suppression of The Cowards. Although Skvorecky wrote The Cowards shortly after Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party gained control of the country in 1948, he did not submit the novel for publication until 1958 for fear that party members would object to its presumably bourgeois elements. Satirically describing the events that transpire during eight days in a small Czechoslovakian village in May of 1945, The Cowards is told from the viewpoint of Danny Smiricky, a young saxophone player who watches conservatives and liberals scramble for power as a new political era begins. Garnering widespread attention in Czechoslovakia because of its irreverent examination of Marxist ideology and its seemingly sympathetic attitudes toward Western music and literature, this work was quickly condemned by government officials for ignoring the tenets of socialist realism.

All copies of The Cowards were seized from Czechoslovakian bookstores, but, ironically, the book attained underground cult status as a result. After the publication and the subsequent suppression of The Cowards Skvorecky lost his post as deputy editor in chief of Svetova literatura and survived for almost five years in official disfavor in his earlier position as a book editor. Skvorecky was not taken off the list of banned authors until 1963. He translated American fiction into Czech and wrote detective stories, first under the name of his collaborator, the poet and translator Jan Zabrana. For the rest of his literary career he remained faithful to detective literature.

Effectively Exiled. Skvorecky’s literary reputation was rising in the second half of the 1960s: His writing was praised; his short stories and scripts were made into successful movies (in which he even played cameo roles); he had a regular jazz-music radio program; and in 1966 Gallimard published La Legende d’Emoke in French. Together with many well-known authors, who had by that time become public figures in Czechoslovakia, Skvorecky took an active part in the Prague Spring of 1968, a movement that attempted to democratize the Czechoslovak Communist regime—although his own political thinking had always been more radical than the reformism that prevailed at that time. The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968, cut short the high hopes of the reformers, and Skvorecky and his wife left their native country for Canada on January 31, 1969. On the North American continent, Skvorecky spent some time at Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley, but in the end he settled in Toronto, where he became writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto and later joined the Department of English as a full-time member. He continued to write and publish, with Dvorak in Love appearing in 1991—just as the Soviet Union was dissolving and the Iron Curtain falling (and two years after the bloodless revolution that had brought democracy and an era of constitution-building to Czechoslovakia). He continues to teach in Toronto today, and his recent volume of short stories, When Eve Was Naked (2002), has garnered high accolades from critics.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Skvorecky's famous contemporaries include:

Elie Wiesel (1928—): Romanian Nobel laureate whose work deals with his survival of the Holocaust.

Chinua Achebe (1930—): Nigerian novelist and critic famous for Things Fall Apart, the most widely read African novel ever written.

Robert Altman (1925-2006): American film director most famous for M*A*S*H.

Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995): Israeli prime minister who was assassinated while in office in 1995.

Roger Bannister (1929—): English athlete famous for being the first person to run a mile in under four minutes.

 

Works in Literary Context

Using such elements as nostalgia, irony, and sentimentality, Skvorecky explores themes of displacement, the misrepresentation of history, and the relationship between art and reality in a manner that reveals the joy and despair in individual lives. Recognized for his vivacious, melodic narrative style and his extensive use of colloquial dialogue, Skvorecky frequently examines the harshness of life under authoritarian regimes and the fanaticism he associates with political dogma. Skvorecky has particularly found himself drawn to so-called popular fiction or ‘‘genre’’ fiction, writing many detective stories and, later, working on historical fiction.

Detective Stories and the Nature of Truth. Shortly after the success of The Cowards, Skvorecky began to question the role of the writer in society and, therefore, the quality and purpose of his own work. After reading numerous detective stories and realizing that this genre ‘‘may not be much of an art, but it is a hell of a craft,’’ Skvorecky began to write crime fiction. Skvorecky also discovered that, in addition to its providing him with financial stability, ‘‘this debased genre may be useful. ...I realized I could tell quite serious things through [it].’’ The stories in The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka feature a morose civil police lieutenant as their title character and are comically ironic; the protagonist is reluctant to fire a gun and tends to solve crimes through accident and coincidence rather than logic. As Stewart Lindh observed:

A reader can choose to treat these narratives as parodies of mystery stories, but lurking at the side of every story is the following question: How can a detective find truth in a society concealing it? He can’t. This, too, is perhaps part of Lt. Boruvka’s gloom. He lives in a society that itself is guilty of a monstrous crime: the murder of truth.

Historical Fiction. In addition to writing extensively in the detective story genre, Skvorecky also dabbled in historical fiction, a genre in which an author takes a moment or person from history and creates fictional characters and events to surround it. Dvorak in Love: A Light-Hearted Dream, for instance, is a historical novel about the Czechoslovakian composer Antonin Dvorak, who directed the National Conservatory of Music in New York City from 1892 to 1895. Although another piece of historical fiction, The Miracle Game: A Political Whodunnit, was originally published in Czech in 1972, the novel did not appear in English translation until 1990. Set in Communist Czechoslovakia, this work is based on an actual incident in which Communist government officials purportedly tried to discredit Catholicism.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Skvorecky is known for putting his own twist on the detective novel genre. Some other works that play on detective novel conventions include:

The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2006), a novel by Michael Chabon. Pulitzer Prize winner Chabon here sets a detective novel in an imagined world in which U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt had established a temporary Jewish homeland in Alaska.

''The Garden of the Forking Paths'' (1941), a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. Postmodernist master Borges here delivers a "deconstruction" of the classic detective novel.

The Club Dumas (1993), a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Spanish author Perez-Reverte creates a mystery novel in which the characters seem to be re-creations of figures from the fiction of Alexandre Dumas.

Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), a novel by Jonathan Lethem. Lethem blends science fiction and the hard- boiled detective genre in this novel set in a not-so- distant dystopian future.

 

Works in Critical Context

To say that critical response to Skvorecky’s work has always been strong—either positive or negative—would be an understatement. Skvorecky’s first novel, The Cowards, caused a flurry of excitement that led to ‘‘firings in the publishing house, ragings in the official press, and a general purge that extended eventually throughout the arts,’’ according to Neal Ascherson in the New York Review of Books. The book was banned by Czech officials one month after publication, marking ‘‘the start of an incredible campaign of vilification against the author,’’ a Times Literary Supplement reviewer reports. Skvorecky subsequently included a ‘‘cheeky and impenitent Introduction,’’ Ascherson notes, in the novel’s 1963 second edition. ‘‘In spite of all the suppression,’’ the Times Literary Supplement critic explains, ‘‘ The Cowards became a milestone in Czech literature and Joseph Skvorecky one of the country’s most popular writers.’’

The Cowards. Ascherson explains why The Cowards caused so much controversy: ‘‘It is not at all the sort of mirror official Czechoslovakia would wish to glance in. A recurring theme is ... pity for the Germans, defeated and bewildered. ...The Russians strike [the main character] as alluring primitives (his use of the word ‘Mongolian’ about them caused much of the scandal in 1958).’’ The Times Literary Supplement writer adds, ‘‘The novel turned out to be anti-Party and anti-God at the same time; everybody felt himself a victim of the author’s satire.’’ The narrator, twenty-year-old Danny Smiricky, and his friends—members of a jazz band—observe the flux of power, human nature, and death around them while devoting their thoughts and energies to women and music. ‘‘These are, by definition, no heroes,’’ states Stuart Hood in the Listener. ‘‘They find themselves caught up in a farce which turns into horror from one minute to the next.’’ The group may dream of making a bold move for their country, but, as Charles Dollen notes in Best Sellers, ‘‘they never make anything but music.’’ All the same, Skvorecky often employs jazz ‘‘in its familiar historical and international role as a symbol (and a breeding-ground) of anti-authoritarian attitudes,’’ according to Russell Davies, writing in the Times Literary Supplement.

The Engineer of Human Souls. The Engineer of Human Souls, winner of the 1985 Governor General’s Literary Award, remains Skvorecky’s best-known work in English-speaking countries. The novel reintroduces protagonist Danny Smiricky who, reflecting Skvorecky’s own fate, is now a professor of literature at the University of Toronto. Interweaving Smiricky’s experiences with those of his students and members of the Czech community in Toronto and with letters from dissidents and emigres, Skvorecky conveys impressions about both the injustices of totalitarian states and the naivete of Western political values. Though literature is the unifying motif in The Engineer of Human Souls, jazz music appears as a metaphor for individualistic, antiestablishment attitudes. While some commentators castigated Skvorecky for his frequent shifts between past and present, others considered the book a convincing and potent means by which to examine the cyclical nature of history. James Lasdun explains, ‘‘[Unfettered] by the demands of a linear plot, Skvorecky is free to jump back and forth in time, grouping disparate incidents for the sake of the patterns they reveal in human affairs.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read The Engineer of Human Souls. In this text, Skvorecky is said to have made keen observations about both Czech and Western culture. What role do Skvorecky’ stylistic choices play in making these observations more or less accessible and potent?

2. Read The Cowards. Then, using the Internet and the library, research what really happened to prisoners of war after the end of World War II. In a short essay, compare the history you discover on the topic to the fictional reality Skvorecky presents. In what ways does Skvorecky’s fiction seek also to evoke something true?

3. Skvorecky has written in the ‘‘historical fiction’’ genre. Pick a character or event from history. Then, imagine how you might go about writing a fictional story based on that person or event. Which elements do you think would most likely be made up? Which would be based on reality?

4. Skvorecky is not the first and will not be the last author to be pushed into exile for his writings. What is it about the word in literature that makes it so threatening to figures of authority? What power, in fact, do words have? Ground your answer in a detailed analysis of passages from Skvorecky’s writings.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Galligan, Edward L. The Truth of Uncertainty: Beyond Ideology in Science and Literature. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Porter, Robert. An Introduction to Twentieth-Century Czech Fiction: Comedies of Defiance. Portland, Ore.: Sussex Academic, 2001.

Solecki, Sam. Prague Blues: The Fiction of Josef Skvorecky. ECW, 1990.

________, ed. The Achievement of Josef Skvorecky. University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Trensky, Paul I. The Fiction of Josef Skvorecky. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991.

Periodicals

Zekulin, Gleb. ‘‘The Intellectuals’ Dilemma: The Hero in the Modern Czech Novel.’’ Canadian Slavonic Papers (1972).