Josef Skvorecky: Writer who championed dissident Czech authors

 

Josef Skvorecky, one of Czechoslovakia's leading novelists, gave voice to that country's sardonic optimism, wryly surveying the horrors and compromises that attend life under totalitarianism, whether of the left or the right.

He described all of his work as having a basis in autobiography, citing Goethe's dictum "Dichtung un Wahrheit" – poetry and truth. After negotiating years of labyrinthine censorship, he moved to Canada, where his perspectives on expatriatism climaxed in his masterwork, The Engineer of Human Souls. His books have an improvisatory quality inspired by his love of jazz, a topic that ran like a thread through his work.

Skvorecky was born on the Czech-Polish border and as a child wrote fiction influenced by Hemingway and Faulkner. During the war he was forced to work for the Nazis under the Totaleinsatz programme. After the war he quickly dropped medicine to study philosophy at Prague's Charles University.

From the fringes of Prague's literary life – underground meetings of surrealists and unapproved writers – Skvorecky became an editor and translator: one of his assignments was, perhaps surprisingly, Fahrenheit 451. But in 1956 his first novel, The End of the Nylon Age (Konec nylonového veku), was banned before publication. Though it finally emerged in 1967, the GDR expressed belated solidarity by banning the German version in 1969.

In 1958 Skvorecky published the ten-year-old The Cowards (Zbabìlci), featuring his teenaged alter-ego Danny Smioicky, who spends the war playing tenor sax (as did Skvorecky himself), chasing girls and outwitting Nazis. But it was immediately banned for its inappropriate depiction of the war, and the ensuing scandal was used as a pretext for a crackdown on intellectuals. Folk singer Karel Kryl (who also emigrated after 1968) called Smioicky, "the greatest literary figure of Czech literature in the second half of the 20th century."

Skvorecky, then editor of Svetová literatura magazine, was sacked. He wrote three detective novels and a children's book, pseudonymously using the name of his friend Jan Zábrana. Murder by Proxy (Vražda v zastoupení, 1967) contains the Latin acrostic "Skvorecky et Zábrana fecerunt ioculum". In Sins for Father Knox (Hrichy pro pátera Knoxe, 1973) Skvorecky, back under his own name, wittily broke each of Ronald Knox's ten rules for writing detective fiction, though some of them ("no Chinaman must figure in the story") were themselves jokes. He also created the popular detective Lieutenant Boruvka.

The novella The Legend of Emöke (Legenda Emöke) was published in 1963, but the authorities remained wary and he was not allowed to join the Writers' Union until 1967. By then he had suffered another ban: 1966's Tankový prapor (The Tank Battalion). It was permitted three years later, but in 1970 Communistic fervour took control and a reprint was pulped, while Miss Silver's Past (Lvíce) was confiscated.

Though his longer fiction remained elusive, Skvorecky did manage to publish essays and short stories, several following the fortunes of Smioicky, as well as hosting a regular jazz programme on Radio Prague. A collection of stories spanning his entire career was later translated as When Eve was Naked.

The Prague Spring was the trigger for him and his wife, the singer, actress and novelist Zdena, to leave and he joined the University of Toronto. Unsurprisingly, he was also a prolific literature, jazz and cinema critic and had a regular programme on Voice of America.

In 1971, commemorating the cause of their exile, they set up Sixty-Eight Publishers, releasing their own and fellow Czechs' work in translations and in the original, which often found themselves smuggled home. Bohumil Hrabal and Milan Kundera were amongst those they championed and they also released albums of Kryl's music. Václav Havel recognised their work with the Order of the White Lion and in 1992 Skvorecky was appointed to the Order of Canada.

1977's The Engineer of Human Souls (Pøíbìh inženýra lidských duší) – Stalin's description of the writer's role – is an epic, black yet humane comedy, probably Skvorecky's masterpiece. It follows Smioicky into professorial exile in Canada and its seven chapters hop discursively between his lectures on various authors, his life as an expat and his memories of life in Czechoslovakia. Echoing Skvorecky's own feelings, the tone hovers between contentment at his relaxed post-Communist life and a nostalgic feeling of homelessness.

Skvorecky's criticism also includes All the Bright Young Men and Women: a Personal History of the Czech Cinema (Všichni ti bystrí mladí muži a ženy: osobní historie ceského filmu), and an analysis of Closely Observed Trains – Hrabal's novel and Jirí Menzel's film. The Menorah (Sedmiramenný svícen, 1964) is a moving set of portraits of Jews from his home town who were taken to camps. Intriguingly, Skvorecky also ghost-wrote the autobiography of actress Lida Baarová, the mistress of Goebbels.

Josef Skvorecky, author: born Náchod, Czechoslovakia 27 January 1924; married Zdena Salivarová; died Toronto, Canada 3 January 2012.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us