The Czech writer Josef Škvorecký has long been a central figure on the literary scene, renowned both in his native country and abroad. Born in Náchod, Czechoslovakia, in 1924, he wrote his first novel, Zbabělci (The Cowards), between 1948 and 1949. Set during the last days of the Second World War, the novel was criticized when first published in 1958 for not depicting this historical event in a more heroic, Socialist-Realist manner. As a result, Škvorecký was unable to publish again until the early 1960s.
Škvorecký received his doctorate in English literature at Charles University in Prague in 1951, after which he took up a career as a teacher and editor. He has also translated numerous works of English literature into Czech, including novels by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Henry James.
Together with his wife, the author Zdena Salivarová-Škvorecká, he left Czechoslovakia in 1969. They settled in Toronto Canada, where they founded the exile publishing house Sixty-Eight Publishers in 1971. Sixty-Eight Publishers did much to keep Czech and Slovak literature alive during the Communist years, publishing the works of exile writers as well as dissidents within Czechoslovakia. During this period, he was also a professor in the English Department of the University of Toronto.
All the while, Škvorecký continued to write. Over 30 of his works have been published to date. Škvorecký has received several awards and honors, including the Neustadt Prize in 1980, the Governor General's Award in 1984, a Nobel Prize nomination in 1982 and both the Toronto Arts Award for Literature and the Czech Republic's State Prize for Literature in 1999.
Švorecký's most recent book, entitled When Eve Was Naked, has just been published by Key Porter Books. It includes stories which first appeared in Czech journals and anthologies in the 1960s after the scandal concerning Zbabělci had died down, as well as works he wrote in Canada. Three novellas from the 1950s, "Divák v únorové noci" ("Spectator on a February Night"), written right after the February coup in 1948, "Zákony džungle" ("Laws of the Jungle," 1949) and "Špinavý, krutý svět" ("Filthy, Cruel World," 1955), appear in English for the very first time in this collection.
Central Europe Review recently interviewed the author about his new book, his work with Sixty-Eight Publishers, his views on literature and more.
Central Europe Review: A new collection of your stories, When Eve Was Naked, has just been published in English. How would you describe these stories?
Josef Škvorecký: These are stories I wrote from the beginning of the 1950s up to the present. They cover about half a century of my life.
CER: How autobiographical are these stories? Are any of the events or characters based on your own experience or people you knew?
JŠ: Yes, all the stories in When Eve Was Naked are autobiographical—in the sense, of course, that the basis of each story is taken from personal experience, which is expanded in all kinds of ways, wrapped in imagination. It's just as Goethe put it, Dichtung und Wahrheit, poetry and truth.
These early stories were highly regarded by the main figures in the underground of the Stalinist years—Jiří Kolář, the poet and collage artist, and Jindřich Chalupecký, the theorist of the avantgarde. Thanks to them, I became a member of an underground group, which besides these two included the painter Mikuláš Medek, Bohumil Hrabal, Věra Linhartová, Luděk Šváb (psychiatrist, scenarist for Ladislav Fialka's pantomime and guitarist with Prague Dixieland), the composer Jan Rychlík, Zdeněk Urbánek (author and translator of Shakespeare), the poet Jan Hanč, Vratislav Effenberger (head of the Prague Surrealists) and others.
The book When Eve Was Naked consists of four sections, the names of which suggest the four main phases of my life: Introduction to Life, The Thousand Year Empire, The Evil Empire, All's Well That Ends Well.
The effects of writing in exile
CER: How has living in exile, distanced from your native language and your first reading public, affected you as a writer?
JŠ: Henry Miller recommended that writers live abroad, because their native language suddenly becomes precious to them. They see its possibilities and beauty, which they hadn't noticed at home, because there everyone spoke Czech. I think that is confirmed by the fact that Hemingway, who was probably the most influential stylist in American literature, wrote his early stories and novels abroad.
And I had the good fortune, thanks to Louise Dennys, my first Canadian publisher, to have found the way to Canadian readers, who accepted me for the way I wrote. I didn't have to change anything in my style or subject matter. I just learned, I hope—having grown wiser with the passing years and the new surroundings—to write somewhat better.
CER: Given the innovative style of your novels and stories, as well as the various dialects reproduced in the dialogue, have you ever been dissatisfied with translations or foreign editions of your work, as, for example, Milan Kundera has?
JŠ: Milan Kundera, as far as I know, doesn't use slang and is also sparing with colloquial language. That's why he could sometimes be excessively demanding of his translators. Inasmuch as I am a translator myself (I've translated over ten American and English novels), I know that translating slang and dialect is sometimes virtually an insurmountable problem.
Czech also has genders, and the endings of verbs and adjectives differ accordingly. English doesn't have that. And the feminine endings in Czech have a strong erotic suggestion, which must be compensated for somehow in translation. No, I'm satisfied with my translators, and I'm grateful for the hard work they've had with my texts.
CER: Have you been back to your hometown of Náchod—fictionalized as Kostelec in many of your works—since emigrating in 1968? What were your impressions? How much has it changed?
JŠ: Yes, I've been back to Náchod-Kostelec a number of times now. I wrote a text about it (in English, even), called "A Magic Mountain and a Willowy Wench," included in When Eve Was Naked, depicting the return to one's hometown after 20 years.
My impression? With regard to my friends, it's as if I had left just yesterday. With regard to the beautiful town of Kostelec? It really fell into disrepair under Communism; the Communists, as is well known, lived on their capital. They didn't renovate, modernize, maintain or invest, and it showed on the town.
When I was first there in the spring of 1990, the beautiful Art Noveau hotel Beránek had been covered by scaffolding for many years, but no work had been done on it; it was just there to hide the dilapidated facade. The Sokolovna [local center of Sokol, the pre-Communist nationwide gymnastics club] from the early 1930s looked like a ruin. And so on.
Over the course of my almost yearly visits after that, the town began to peek through: new buildings were built, old ones repaired, and I now consider the Hotel Beránek to be the most beautiful hotel I've ever been in. Pure Art Noveau, renovated very faithfully, strictly in the Art Nouveau style.
A life-long passion for jazz
CER: Jazz has a strong presence in many of your works, both thematically and stylistically. Can you tell us about the significance of jazz in your life and works?
JŠ: When I was about 14 years old, my father bought me a gramophone with a hand crank, and I bought the record "I've Got a Guy" with Chick Webb's orchestra. Most of the names of the singers didn't matter at the time, because it was the band that was important, its sound, arrangement, its swing. It seemed to me, sitting over that record, that I heard the music of the spheres that Kepler had written about. I had never heard anything so beautiful in all my young life. The singer was the young Ella Fitzgerald, and she belonged to that music of the spheres. I found out who it was only after the war, a good while after the war.
I then talked my father into buying me a tenor saxophone, and I started playing with a student band called Red Music. That wasn't an expression of political sympathies, just a mistake. In Prague at the time, there was an excellent swing band, Blue Music, and we still didn't know that "blue" in jazz didn't mean a color.
I played, but I soon discovered that my talent was negligible and insufficient for me to become a professional saxophonist. So I started to write about it. Remember? Faulkner, "An Odor of Verbena": "Those who can, do. Those who cannot, and suffer long enough, because they cannot, write about it."
That's my case. But as far as jazz goes, big band swing and Dixieland have stayed with me my entire life. Later styles didn't take hold of me in the same way—perhaps because swing and Dixieland were the music of my youth.
The mystery genre
CER: You've written several detective stories, as well—a trilogy co-authored with Jan Zábrana in the 1960s, the three Borůvka collections (1966, 1981, 1981) and Hříchy pro pátera Knoxe (Sins for Father Knox, 1973). What was it that first drew you to this genre?
JŠ: Initially, I didn't read detective stories at all. But in 1960, I nearly died of hepatitis B. I was in the hospital for four months, and friends brought me books. The trouble was that according to what doctors knew at the time, hepatitis could be transmitted by books, and therefore books had to remain in the hospital. So friends brought me loads of paperback detective novels. And I realized that in similar situations, when it's a matter of life and death, detective novels have great therapeutic value. And so I started to write them together with Honza Zábrana.
I liked it. I wrote Borůvka, and now Zdena [Salivarová-Škvorecká] and I have written our second detective novel together. Both have been published in Prague: Krátké setkání, s vraždou (A Short Encounter, with Murder) and Setkání po letech, s vraždou (A Reunion, with Murder). The comma indicates that murder is not entirely the main thing here.
CER: Who are your favorite writers in the detective genre? Are there any authors in particular who have influenced you?
JŠ: Raymond Chandler. I've translated his work (The Lady in the Lake), and his style, particularly his descriptions of cities and nature and the dialogue, enchanted me. I returned to Poe, who is one of my favorite authors in general. In his honor I wrote the novel Narratio Questi or an Inexplicable Story and [the screenplay for] the film Poe and the Murder of a Beautiful Girl for Czech Television. Otherwise, I read various detective novels when I'm tired, but nothing has taken root in me in the same way as Chandler and Poe.
CER: What other literary works or authors have influenced you?
JŠ: Three: Hemingway—his early stories and the novel A Farewell to Arms, which I translated. And Faulkner—again, his stories and, of the novels, probably most of all Absalom, Absalom!, the Snopes trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansions), The Unvanquished, The Sound and the Fury and A Fable. I translated the last one together with my friend P L Doružka, the jazz historian and theoretician. And finally, Sinclair Lewis, whom I read passionately as a boy in bad Czech translations, and, eventually, I translated myself what I believe to be his best novel, Babbitt.
CER: Your two most recent novels, Scherzo capriccioso. Veselý sen o Dvořákovi (Dvořák in Love, 1984) and Nevěsta z Texasu (The Bride of Texas, 1992), have depicted Czech characters in an American context—a change from your earlier works, which were set in the Czech lands. Have you ever considered switching languages in your fiction, giving up Czech for English?
JŠ: Scherzo capriccioso and Nevěsta z Texasu are my attempts at honoring American Czechs. I was taught to love Dvořák by my wife, who was helped immensely by his music in the beginnings of exile, because she suffered terribly from nostalgia. Especially the opera Rusalka. While doing research for this novel, I came across short recollections of the Civil War by Czech soldiers in the old Czech-American calendars.
And so, after Dvořák, I started to do research on Czechs in the Civil War, which took me about seven years. I've attempted to write the novel like a symphony in five movements, and all the Czech and American characters have real-life models. Even the American Lorraine, who ran away from the altar when she was supposed to marry the future general Ambrose Burnside. That really happened, but I was unable to find the identity of the terrified bride. So I thought one up, and since she's a writer of popular novels for women, I attempted to suggest, in her texts, something of the problems encountered by an author.
Regarding switching from Czech to English: I tried it just once in prose, in the novel Two Murders in My Double Life. Otherwise I think that a writer—at least a writer who writes in slang, argot and dialect (including American Czech), as I do—can't begin writing just as well in a language in which he is not entirely, and I mean entirely, at home. I write articles, essays and such [in English]. But novels? Aside from that one, no.
Looking back on Sixty-Eight Publishers
CER: Next year it will be 30 years since you founded Sixty-Eight Publishers in Toronto together with your wife, Zdena Salivarová-Škvorecká. Can you tell us about how the idea for Sixty-Eight Publishers was conceived and realized?
JŠ: Zdena had the idea of founding a publishing house. The Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in America had offered to publish my novel Tankový prapor (The Republic of Whores, 1971). And my wife said, "Why? In Canada you don't have to apply for a permit. We'll just register the firm for 20 Canadian dollars (at that time)."
That's how it started. It preserved my wife's sanity, because in the beginning she suffered a lot from nostalgia. I wrote to a few writer friends who were in exile. Later, Karel Pecka in Prague took the risk, and others after him, and they started secretly sending us manuscripts. The publishing house grew to such an extent that the Velvet Revolution saved us, because by that time we were both so exhausted from the work that we were considering how we could bring it to a respectable end.
CER: What criteria did you use at Sixty-Eight Publishers in deciding which authors and works to publish?
JŠ: We gave precedence to prose, but we also published non-fiction, historical works, memoirs and poetry. The authors had to be Czechs or Slovaks; they could be foreigners only when they wrote on a Czech subject. For instance, we published Margaret Buber-Neumann's book about Milena Jesenská, Kafka's girlfriend, because Buber-Neumann was in a Nazi concentration camp with her in Ravensbrück. Or Arthur Miller's The Archbishop's Ceiling, which takes place in occupied Prague, as does The Prague Orgy by Philip Roth. Otherwise our criteria were just the same as in any other publishing house in the West: quality.
We were very strict with poetry, because we received perhaps a hundred times more of it than prose, and the great majority of it was worthless. Walt Whitman dealt the worst blow to poetry. He was a great poet himself, but because people got the idea that free verse doesn't have any esthetic rules, or any rhymes or rhythms, they started to write good-for-nothing prose chopped up into unequally long lines. Only a very few understood what free verse was, or perhaps only a very few had enough talent to remain poets in free verse.
Of course, a big criterion was the effort to discover new authors, or to rediscover forgotten ones. We succeeded with that a few times. The superb and forgotten poet Ivan Blatný, whom we found in an English psychiatric hospital; new authors like Jaroslav Vejvoda from Switzerland, Stanislav Moc from Australia or Iva Pekárková from the US; or the entirely unique Jan Křesadlo, a man of such great talent that he managed to write science fiction in classical hexameter in ancient Greek, which was highly regarded in Greece.
Otherwise, we valued, of course, good Czech authors, whose works helped us publish poetry that perhaps wasn't very marketable. Milan Kundera published the first Czech editions of all of his novels written after 1968 through us, as did Arnošt Lustig and the authors from the dissident movement at home: Ludvík Vaculík, Jiří Gruša, Alexandr Kliment, Karel Pecka and, last but not least, Václav Havel.
In order to make money for publishing unknown authors and poetry, we published three hugely successful autobiographies, those of Martina Navrátilová and two actresses who one way or another got mixed up with Germans: Adina Mandlová and Lída Baarová, lover of the notorious Dr Joseph Goebbels.
Among the historical works, there were, in particular, the works of Václav Černý, the leading non-Communist literary theoretician and historian, and Karl Kaplan's works utilizing material from the Communist Party archives that he had managed to smuggle to the West, and others.
CER: What was most challenging about running an exile publishing house?
JŠ: I was employed full time as a professor in the English Department at the University of Toronto, and, believe me, preparing lectures in a foreign language and then teaching was hard work. In Communist Czechoslovakia, it was very difficult to gain access to secondary materials on American and English literature; here I had to read up on a lot of books that I hadn't known.
But my wife Zdena carried most of the burden of the publishing house. She literally did everything: managed the technical and business side, set type, later even printed, but she also had to mop the floors and clean, for example, because there was no money for that. Later, she had the help of a secretary, but she was killed in an accident on her bicycle soon after. So, she was on her own again. I wrote letters to authors, helped Zdena edit and proofread and packed books for shipping, which we then both dragged to the post office in big postal bags. Believe me, it was quite exhausting, especially for Zdena.
CER: What was most rewarding about it?
JŠ: It was rewarding that so many people read our books. At its peak, we had a directory of about 15,000 readers. Some ordered occasionally, others ordered a few books each year; the best ordered the entire list each year. It functioned like a book club. At the beginning of the year, we distributed the catalog, people prepaid for books, for which they got a discount, and we then published them in stages, according to the amount of orders: those with the greatest number of orders first, and over the course of the year, people ordered more. And we knew that we were helping Czech and Slovak literature survive. After all, back home there were 500 authors on the index of banned writers. So, the most rewarding part was the knowledge of having accomplished something meaningful.
CER: Between 1971 and 1994, you published 225 books. What, in your view, were the most important or memorable events in the history of Sixty-Eight Publishers?
JŠ: When we bought the first typesetting machine. When my American editor Bobbie Bristol organized a benefit for us in New York, over a thousand people came, mostly Americans who didn't speak Czech, and the yield for the publishing house was USD 10,000. Arthur Miller, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Joseph Papp, Jane Smiley, Gallway Kinnell and Paul Wilson read excerpts of our books in English.
Another great moment was when Václav Havel received an honorary degree from York University in Toronto, and because he was imprisoned at the time, Zdena accepted the diploma for him as his Czech publisher. Oscar Peterson, the great Canadian African-American jazz pianist, said to her: "Tell Mr Havel I'm with him all the way!" And the paramount event was the visit of President Havel and his first wife Olga to our Toronto publishing house in the spring of 1990.
New Czech literature
CER: What are your impressions of contemporary Czech literature? Are there any particular writers or works that stand out to you?
JŠ: Unfortunately, I no longer have the time to follow it very closely. Of the new authors, I like Michal Viewegh and Jáchym Topol very much. Jiří Kratochvil, too. Otherwise, I have the impression that it's very quiet in Czech prose right now. The market has been flooded with translations from Western languages, the publication of which had been very restricted for 40 years. But I think Czech literature will survive even the onslaught of these times.
CER: What are your plans for the future? What are you currently working on?
JŠ: Zdena and I are preparing to finish that detective trilogy. I've begun writing a novella, Disunited Reunion, about a ten-year class reunion in the early 1960s, when, just as in society, groups as small as former classes were divided by an invisible line that is the backbone of every dictatorship.
Julie Hansen, 30 October 2000
Julie Hansen has translated four of the stories included in When Eve Was Naked.
- Read "The End of Bull Mácha" by Josef Škvorecký in this week's CER
- Recommended reading by and about Škvorecký
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