An article by Josef Cermak about Josef Skvorecky, a well-known Czech writer, publisher, and expatriate, who spent much of his life in Canada and celebrates his 85th birthday tomorrow.
I don’t think there are many Czechs unfamiliar with the name Josef Škvorecký, even though they may not know that he was born in Nachod on September 27, 1924. And almost everyone of them knows one or two of his books, books such as The Cowards (Zbabělci), The Miracle Game (Mirákl), The Tank Corps (Tankový prapor), The Engineer of Human Souls (Příběh inženýra lidských duší), or the book I love best, The Swell Season (Prima sezona). If the majority of Škvorecký’ s most popular books focuses on a society, split by ideology, at a time of revolutionary changes, his literary pallet is much richer. The Swell Season is a sensitive portrayal of the maturing process not only of Josef Škvorecký, but his whole generation. We find a similar theme in his translation of Hemingway’s A Soldier’s home (he also translated poetry, including T.S. Elliot’s and wrote his own). An excerpt from his translation of the Hemingway story appears in a remarkable book (I received it as a gift from one of my dearest friends) Celý život (My whole life), selections from a diary 1948 – 1984, written by a man of strong courage and tragic destiny, Jan Zábrana:
“He would have loved to have a girl but did not want to spend a long time getting her. He did not want to get into the intrigue and the politics.. He did not want to do any courting. He did not want to tell any more lies. It wasn’t worth it. He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again.”
Škvorecký’s words, in whatever form, provoked the admiration of some and hatred from others. Zábrana’s testimony:
” “Last night Errol (Škvorecký’s code-name , author’s note) spoke on Voice of America about Chester Himes. And so made it impossible to do anything here. But why then did he send me several weeks ago his study about him with a note that some of Himes’s work should be translated here. Didn’t we live here fifteen years in daily skirmishes with the censors – he knows what it was like – he must know that whatever he publicly connects with his name, is here automatically written off, he must know, that his name is here under anathema, that in the libraries they discarded not only his books but tens of English and American authors only because he wrote the epilogue and even just because he was shown as editor…”
Zábrana’s opening remarks may suggest a feeling of disappointment but he admired Škvorecký without reservation (I apologize if anyone should be shocked by Zábrana’s brutally eloquent choice of language):
“People who eternally attack Errol really get on my nerves. This is not the first time. I was with him for years almost daily and I know who he is, I know what he can do (as a writer). They still don’t have a clue. But this was always the fashion in Prague, the cowards always badmouthed those who were not afraid – one day because of this, other times for that. The people who badmouth most are those whose asses are sealed with the chestnuts from today’s, yesterday’s and the day before yesterday’s shit, and on their mugs parade the dignity and festive importance of a freshly festering hemorrhoid. Only I know who he is: the most honorable, the most reliable and the most unselfish man I ever knew.”
If I ever missed anything in Škvorecký’s work, it was an emotional dimension. I felt that he was an intellectual titan in whose work (and life) there was little room for emotion. I am still not sure about his work but I caught a glimpse of Škvorecký in two situations which convinced me that- as far as his life was concerned – I was wrong. Shortly after the fall of communism, a list of alleged communist police “collaborators” was published in Czechoslovakia. Zdena Salivarová-Škvorecká’s name was on the list, which was based on the police records, without providing (in most cases) any information about the “collaboration”. Zdena’s “collaboration” consisted of her speaking to police agents who tried to enlist her as a collaborator at a time when her father was already in exile, her brother in jail and whose husband’s position was shaky. The publication of the list inspired a small group of individuals to engage in mean attacks on Zdena. The attacks almost broke the woman who did so much for free Czech literature, the strongest weapon against communism. It was at that time that I saw a few words written for Zdena by her husband. There was so much tenderness and devotion in his words that they took my breath away. The second occasion which showed me Josef Škvorecký’s emotional make-up was his unconcealed distaste for people who during the communist era looked out for themselves, with the Communist party identity card in their pocket, and after the fall of the regime tried hard – and often successfully – to intrude into lead positions in democratic organizations.
Josef Škvorecký (and his wife Zdena) enriched Czech literature with more than just their own works. Perhaps equally important were their publishing activities. Two or three other publishing houses deserve praise for their effort to bring to light works of authors unprepared to sell their conscience but I don’t believe that anyone would deny the primacy in this endeavor to 68 Publishers (Sixty-Eight Publishers Corp.), the child of both Josef nad Zdena (perhaps more of Zdena, who inherited the publishing passion from her father).
Sixty-Eight Publishers Corp. was incorporated as a Canadian charitable corporation in 1972 with H. Gordon Skilling, Gleb Žekulin, Michael Schonberg (who is presently finishing Škvorecký’s biography) and Josef Čermák as members of the board of directors (largely formal positions). Sixty-Eight Publishers Corp. published over 220 titles (many of them smuggled from Czechoslovakia, most would otherwise never see the light of the day), including works of major importance such as Václav Černý’s Memoirs, the Poetic Works of Ivan Blatný, Jaroslav Seifert’s Poems, new books by Bohumil Hrabal, Arnošt Lustig, Václav Havel…In its early stages Sixty-Eight Publishers Corp. received grants from The Ford Foundation and The Roderick MacArthur Foundation. When it ceased publishing, after payment of minimal compensation to its volunteers, Sixty-Eight Publishers Corp. distributed its assets among community newspapers and organizations. It seems to me that Zdena and Josef Škvorecký’s contribution goes beyond literature. I see their lives and work as a courageous fight of two people for a more true and honest world.
Josef Škvorecký (now Professor Emeritus) also taught English literature at the University of Toronto, is a member of numerous professional and academic societies and holder of some of the most prestigious awards and prizes such as Gugenheim Fellow, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Governor-General’s Award and the Order of Canada. He is also recipient – with his wife Zdena – of the Czehoslovak Order of the White Eagle, and several honorary doctorates. The most recent distinction was conferred on them on August 23, 2009 at the Kroupa Edenvale Aerodome by the Open Book Group, initiator of the movement for erecting in Ottawa a monument to the victims of communism, a painting of Jiří Kyser, “Prague musical”, engraved in crystal by Libor and Lucia Furbacher. And yes, Prague television just filmed his story Malá pražská Mata Hara” (Prague’s Little Mata Hara). Happy birthday and many happy returns.