Josef Škvorecký Škvorecký, Josef (Vol. 152) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Zbabělci [The Cowards] (novel) 1958

Legenda Emöke [Emöke] (novella) 1963; published in The Bass Saxophone: Two Novellas, 1977

Sedmiramenný svícen (short stories) 1964

Revue pro banjos (screenplay) 1965

Ze života lepŠí společnosti: paravanprózy s text-appealů (short stories) 1965

Smutek poručíka Borůvky: detektivni pohádka [The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka] (short stories) 1966

Bassaxofon [The Bass Saxophone] (novella) 1967; published in The Bass Saxophone: Two Novellas, 1977

L'Escadron blindé: Chronique de la période des cultes [French edition] (novel) 1969; republished in Czech as Tankový prapor: Fragment z doby kultù, 1971

Farářuv konec (novella) 1969

Lvíče [Miss Silver's Past] (novel) 1969

The Birth and Death of the Czech New Wave (essays) 1970

Tankový prapor [The Republic of Whores] (novel) 1971

Mirákl: politická detektivka [The Miracle Game: A Political Whodunnit] (novel) 1972

Hříchy pro pătera Knoxe: detektivní divertimento [Sins for Father Knox] (short stories) 1973

Konec poručíka Boruvky: detektivni žalozpěv [The End of Lieutenant Boruvka] (novel) 1975

Prima sezóna [The Swell Season: A Text on the Most Important Things in Life] (novel) 1975

Příběh inženýra lidských duŠí 2 vols. [The Engineer of Human Souls: An Entertainment of the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love, and Death] (novel) 1977

Návrat poručíka Borůvky [The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka] (short stories) 1981

Scherzo capriccioso [Dvorak in Love: A Light-Hearted Dream] (novel) 1983

Nevěsta z Texasu [The Bride of Texas] (novel) 1992

Headed for the Blues: A Memoir with Ten Stories (memoirs and short stories) 1998

Two Murders in My Double Life (novel) 2001

André Brink (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Girl and the Legend: Josef Škvorecký ‘Emöke’ (1980),” in The Achievement of Josef Škvorecký edited by Sam Solecki, University of Toronto Press, 1987, pp. 104–11.

[In the following essay, Brink discusses the title character and the unusual structure of Škvorecký's “Emöke.”]

The eighty-odd pages of ‘Emöke’ (published originally in Czech in 1963 under the more significant title Legenda Emöke) is an evocation of a week's sojourn, years ago, by the narrator, in some obscure Culture Centre in an anonymous Czech town.

… thirty years old, still single … a guy who didn't believe in anything...

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Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A World Symphony in a Scherzo: Dvorak in Love (1986),” in The Achievement of Josef Škvorecký, edited by Sam Solecki, University of Toronto Press, 1987, pp. 158–64.

[In the following essay, Goetz-Stankiewicz discusses Škvorecký's melding of the historical and the fictional in Dvorak in Love.]

Imagine a panel discussion on Josef Škvorecký's novel Dvorak in Love. Meet the panelists: a historian, a musical theorist, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a literary critic of Jungian archetypal persuasion, and a literary theorist. As you listen to an imaginary discussion between them you hear entirely different opinions: the historian is...

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Milan Kundera (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Preface to the French Edition of Mirákl (The Miracle Game) (1978),” in The Achievement of Josef Škvorecký, edited by Sam Solecki, University of Toronto Press, 1987, pp. 25–35.

[In the following essay, Kundera discusses the spring of 1968 in Prague and the antirevolutionary spirit of Škvorecký's novels.]

When I arrived to spend a few days in the West in September 1968—my eyes still seeing Russian tanks parked on Prague's streets—an otherwise quite likeable young man asked me with unconcealed hostility: ‘So what is it you Czechs want exactly? Are you already weary of socialism? Would you have preferred our consumer society?’...

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Edward L. Galligan (essay date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Telling the Truth: The Novels of Josef Škvorecký,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 101, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 107–15.

[In the following essay, Galligan provides an overview of Škvorecký's work and discusses how censorship affected some of his novels.]

I have tried, I really have tried, to read and admire the novels that you are supposed to have read and admired in the last twenty years or so, but with a few stray exceptions I can't quite make it. Saul Bellow seemed downhill all the way after Augie March, which hadn't struck me as that high a hill in the first place; about fifty pages into Mr. Sammler's Planet I gagged, permanently as it...

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Eva C. Karpinski (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Immigrant as Writer: Cultural Resistance and Conformity in Josef Škvorecký's The Engineer of Human Souls and Raymond Federman's Take It or Leave It,” in Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 92–104.

[In the following essay, Karpinski analyzes the influence that immigrant status has on Škvorecký's The Engineer of Human Souls and Raymond Federman's Take It or Leave It.]

The experience of immigration is usually a story of survival: the economic, political, cultural, or simply the personal survival of the individual who has been—by choice, accident, or necessity—thrown into a new existential context....

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John-Paul Flintoff (review date 13 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Comical Conscripts,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 13, 1994, p. 20.

[In the following review, Flintoff traces the comedy present in Škvorecký's The Republic of Whores.]

Danny Smiricky, a conscript in the Czech army, is a secret satirist. In quiet moments, he takes out his notebook and develops his treatise on officers' bullying techniques. Headings include: “Soviet bellowing—our model”; “Bellowing as an instrument of world peace”; and “Hints on how to be decorated for exemplary bellowing.”

Josef Škvorecký has enlisted Danny, a favourite old character, for his own military satire The Republic of Whores, an...

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Edward J. Czerwinski (review date Autumn 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Bride of Texas, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 4, Autumn, 1996, p. 988.

[In the following review, Czerwinski lauds Škvorecký for his scholarship and narrative skills in The Bride of Texas.]

All the ingredients of an epic are found in Josef Škvorecký's latest novel The Bride of Texas, originally issued in Czech as Nevesta z Texasu by the author's own highly acclaimed Sixty-Eight Publishers Corporation, located in Toronto: the American Civil War provides a colorful and tragic background for the escapades of a group of Czech émigrés, fleeing the oppression of the Habsburg Empire. Their Schweikian heroics are...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Keith Miller (review date 4 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dying for Happiness,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 4, 1996, p. 25.

[In the following review, Miller describes the appeal of Škvorecký's The Bride of Texas.]

War, as William Tecumseh Sherman once famously observed, is hell. And just as the predicament of the damned has inspired generations of poets, so the literary appeal of war endures, with the tender, melancholy First World War novels of Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker currently battling for window-space against rather blunter reminiscences. Our appetite for such books may seem ghoulish, but perhaps it stems from a perverse nostalgia. One does not have to be a disciple of Jean Baudrillard to...

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Maria Nemcova Banerjee (essay date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Variations on American Themes: The Bride of Texas,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 149–56.

[In the following essay, Banerjee analyzes how Škvorecký's immigrant history has affected his presentation of the American experience in The Bride of Texas.]

First loves don't just fade away. They usually outlive the significance of the initial object of desire by turning desire into an end in itself. Nostalgia, that passion of memory, proves most powerful when it attaches to an experience of adolescence, as in the case of Josef Škvorecký's infatuation with America. He was sixteen, just like Danny Smiricky in The...

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Helena Kosek (essay date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “American Themes in The Bride of Texas,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 141–48.

[In the following essay, Kosek asserts that Škvorecký's The Bride of Texas is a merging of American and Czechoslovakian themes.]

Josef Škvorecký's canon is characterized by a spiritual bond with American culture which, since his youth, has played a major part in his professional and artistic development. His personal fate granted him an experience of the greatest importance for a writer, namely life on two continents and complete familiarity with two cultures. The basic feature of his novels is precisely his ability to...

(The entire section is 3590 words.)

Josef Škvorecký with Sam Solecki (interview date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Josef Škvorecký,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 82–91.

[In the following interview, Škvorecký discusses his writing, the importance of language and dialogue in his work, and the difficulty in translating his novels.]

[Solecki:] The Bride of Texas, appeared in Czech two years ago and in English last year. Could you tell us something about it?

[Škvorecký:] It's a historical novel, set during the American Civil War, and deals with a group of Czech soldiers serving in General Sherman's army in the campaign in Georgia and the Carolinas until the final victory at the...

(The entire section is 4878 words.)

William Shawcross (review date February 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Headed for the Blues: A Memoir with Ten Stories, in Observer, February, 1998, p. 15.

[In the following review, Shawcross praises Škvorecký's portrayal of Czechoslovakia's years of dictatorship in Headed for the Blues.]

Josef Škvorecký is one of the great Czech writers of the cruel post-war Communist years, His new book Headed for the Blues does not disappoint. Subtitled ‘a memoir with ten stories,’ it is in fact several. All, of course, describe aspects of the grim dogmas that descended on Czechoslovakia after the Soviet occupation of 1945, the Soviet-inspired Communist coup of 1948, and the 20 years of Stalinist and...

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James Simmons (review date 14 February 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Running out of Breath,” in Spectator, Vol. 280, No. 8845, February 14, 1998, 31–32.

[In the following negative review, Simmons notes his disappointment in Škvorecký's stories in Headed for the Blues.]

[Headed for the Blues] is a memoir plus ten stories written in English by the author Josef Škvorecký who now lives in Toronto. I suppose I am not unique in approaching the work of writers from eastern Europe with some humility. They have been through a mill that never ground me. The story is told in an impressionistic, unbuttoned, free-association style that is hard to follow, although partly elucidated by notes. Certain themes recur....

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Feld, Ross. “Josef Škvorecký Evokes the Dawn of a False Society.” Chicago Tribune Books (21 August 1994): 1, 9.

Feld discusses the comic aspects of The Republic of Whores.

Hampl, Patricia. “What You Don't Know Can Save You.” New York Times Book Review (10 November 1996): 53.

Hampl asserts that Škvorecký's Headed for the Blues is more a historical memoir than a personal one.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “Kapsa's March.” New York Times Book Review (21 January 1996): 14.

Klinkenborg discusses the irony and contradictory voices in The Bride of...

(The entire section is 163 words.)