Josef Škvorecký 1924-
(Born Josef Vaclav Škvorecký) Czechoslovakian-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, screenwriter, critic, translator, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Škvorecký's career through 1998. For more information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 15, 39, and 69.
Škvorecký has spent his life and literary career caught between two cultures. He began writing about his fascination with American culture under the censorship of the Czechoslovakian government. After immigrating to Canada and finally freeing himself from oppressive Czech censors, Škvorecký began exploring his Czechoslovakian heritage in light of the freedom he enjoyed in his new country. Using such elements as nostalgia, irony, and sentimentality, Škvorecký's work explored themes of displacement, the misrepresentation of history, and the relationship between art and reality. Recognized for his vivacious, melodic narrative style and his extensive use of colloquial dialogue, Škvorecký frequently examined the harshness of life under authoritarian regimes and the fanaticism he associates with political dogma. Writing in several genres—including the novel, the detective story, and the essay—Škvorecký questioned notions of ideology and emphasized literature's significance to the development of cultural history and liberal thought.
Škvorecký was born in 1924 in Nachod, in western Czechoslovakia. Although he was raised in Eastern Europe, he spent much of his childhood interested in American culture. Škvorecký wrote his first novel, Zbabělci (1958; The Cowards) when he was twenty-four, during the period when the Communists were beginning to take over his country. While writing the novel, Škvorecký studied English and received a doctorate in 1951 after completing his dissertation on Thomas Paine. When The Cowards was eventually published, the novel's subject matter caused a firestorm of criticism against the author and the book was banned. The government subsequently stopped Škvorecký from publishing his work, so he began translating the works of several American writers. Škvorecký left Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring of 1968, a period of social and political upheaval that ended abruptly after the Soviet military occupied the country. He immigrated to Canada and returned to writing novels without the threat of censorship. Škvorecký taught American literature at the University of Toronto and assisted his wife, writer Zdena Salivarova, in managing 68 Publishers, a publication house devoted to the work of Czech writers in exile.
Škvorecký's early writings were often based on his own experiences. The Cowards portrays the life of Danny Smiricky, a young boy obsessed with jazz and girls. While the novel was not particularly political, its focus on Western music and culture caused government officials to ban it. When the work was finally published in Czechoslovakia, the state-sanctioned reviewers panned it. The novel was unique in Czechoslovakian literature for its use of slang and spoken Czech in dialogue. Tankový prapor (1971; The Republic of Whores) also features protagonist Danny Smiricky, who has begun fulfilling his compulsory service in the army. Škvorecký adopted a third-person narrative style in this novel to express the loss of identity common with army life. The work's humorous treatment of army traditions effectively satirizes many of the vulgarities associated with life in the service. Mirákl: politická detektivka (1972; The Miracle Game) was the first novel Škvorecký wrote after leaving Czechoslovakia. Danny Smiricky is the protagonist again, only now he is a grown man and coping with life under Communism. Smiricky is not a faithful Party member, nor does he openly oppose the government. Instead he learns to benignly go along with whatever the state expects of him. After the Prague Spring of 1968, Smiricky finds that he must leave his country or face death. With Scherzo capriccioso (1983; Dvorak in Love), Škvorecký began using historical research as the basis for his novels. The work creates a fictional narrative centered around the historical facts concerning the life of musician Anton Dvorak. The main character's interest in American jazz and his perception of the American dream is the primary focus of the text. The story is told from the perspective of those who knew Dvorak and reveals little about the subject's inner life. Nevěsta z Texasu (1992; The Bride of Texas) is set during the American Civil War and follows the role played by a group of Czech soldiers serving under the Union's General William Tecumseh Sherman. In a parallel storyline, Lida, a young Czech immigrant, recovers from an ill-fated love affair in her home country by marrying a Texas plantation owner's son. When the conclusion of the war appears to signal an end to her husband's wealth, Lida leaves him for a Union soldier. Both stories are interrupted by the interjections of a female narrator who explains the historical context of the characters' experience.
Škvorecký's first novel met with critical derision in Czechoslovakia due to pressure from the government censors. However, the novel was later widely acclaimed after its English-language publication. Critics have often discussed the role of Škvorecký's relationship with America and Czechoslovakia in his novels and the ways his writing changed upon his departure from Czechoslovakia. Reviewers have also commented on Škvorecký's aversion to telling stories in a linear progression. In his review of The Republic of Whores Ross Feld asserted that, “Few writers are as happily and securely episodic; this little book herks and jerks along in segments like the lumbering progress made by the Russian-made tanks.” Several critics have noted the importance of music in Škvorecký's fiction and the lyrical nature of his prose. In her essay on Dvorak in Love, Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz stated that “what this work accomplishes is the rendering of musical experience by words and the finding of a linguistic expression for musical culture.” Several reviewers have complimented the quantity and quality of Škvorecký's research in his later novels, and his ability to bring to life a fictional narrative around historical events. Edward J. Czerwinski praised Škvorecký's The Bride of Texas, stating, “[t]hat the author has succeeded in painting a remarkably realistic picture of the events surrounding the American Civil War is a tribute to Škvorecký the scholar and prose stylist; that he has created a novel which surpasses the narrative skills of any writer living today is a measure of his artistry.”