Josef Skvorecky

01-10-2004

Josef Skvorecky, author of many internationally acclaimed novels such as The Bass Saxophone, The Engineer of Human Souls and The Miracle Game, is one of the country's most renowned twentieth century writers. In this week's Arts, we'll hear about his love for jazz, his experiences in Communist Czechoslovakia, and why he thinks foreign readers can identify with his work.

Josef Skvorecky's first and probably most popular book was the Cowards published in Czechoslovakia in 1958. Set in his native Nachod, it tells the story of the town's youth during the Second World War, who preferred to enjoy life and view political developments with black humour and scepticism, rather than fight for their country and welcome the Red Army with open arms. The book was banned by communist officials and following the Soviet occupation of 1968, Skvorecky and his wife moved to Canada, where he became a professor of literature and Czechoslovak film at the University of Toronto and together with his wife Zdena Salivarova promoted Czech literature through the publishing house '68 Publishers.

On September 27, Josef Skvorecky turned eighty and when we met up with him in his native town Nachod, east Bohemia, we couldn't help but ask what two periods in his life he would choose to relive if he could turn back time:

"Well, I would like to relive my teenage years, of course, but under greatly different circumstances because we then lived in the Nazi protectorate, which was not a pleasant kind of life. But since we were young, it sort of compensated for the horror of the time because when you are young and are not personally and directly threatened, you can still live a more or less normal life. We were helped, of course, by the fact that we had a jazz band in this town and lived for this band, and of course for the normal interests that young people had, the opposite sex. That was very important. But of course, the times were so bad that we couldn't avoid it."

And what was the second period that you would like to relive?

"The second period was when I came to exile. When I first woke up in Toronto and realised that there was no danger that somebody would ring the door bell at two in the morning and that I was free and not in any real danger. It was a feeling that is hard to describe if you didn't live through the other feeling when you went to bed and were afraid that someone would come and ask questions at night."

Could you recall what the first week was like after your first book was published?

"The first week was fine because the attacks didn't start until about two weeks later. At first, people didn't buy the book very much because nobody knew me as I was a new author. The book stayed in the book stores. But then came the first attack in a paper in Prague, which was really very bad and sever. It questioned how the publisher could a book that is detrimental to our understanding of the glorious revolution of 1945. It was, of course, no revolution. It was an uprising at the end of the war. Of course it was still dangerous but everybody knew that the Germans were beaten. And then, after that first attack, every day for two weeks, there was another attack in a different paper, radio, or magazine but they all sounded the same and were obviously written according to one scenario. At that time, I remember we were sitting at home with my wife when her mother came running in and told me that a relative who was a member of the Communist party called from a meeting at which the president attacked me. So, she said I should give her any valuables or bank books to be hidden. Then, I realised it was really bad and anything could happen because her mother was very experienced as they had arrested her husband and son."

So does that mean that you were able to sleep peacefully and weren't worried before that incident?

"I wasn't that worried because nobody knew me. Once you become a public figure then the danger in a totalitarian state increases. It's nice to well-known but in a totalitarian state it has the reverse effect. Here, the reverse side is that you have to have your photos taken, even if you are not a very visually remarkable person, but in those days it meant other dangers which were much greater."

Do you feel that you could be misunderstood sometimes by your foreign readers?

"People, who live in countries where life was similar, such as Germany, France, England, and even Canada and the United States, find many things in common. The great baritone saxophone player Gerry Mulligan, for example, met my friend Doruzka at a jazz conference in Italy. When he [Mulligan] found out that my friend is Czech, he said he had read a novel by a Czech writer whose name he had forgotten because it was difficult to pronounce and he wrote about boys and girls who are eighteen or nineteen years old and lived a life that was exactly like theirs in Wilson, Tennessee. They all played jazz and swing music. So I think that people who lived in this environment understood it easier."

Talking about jazz. Some people say that Prague is one of the few cities left in Europe where you can get a good live jazz performance every night and it's thanks to you that jazz was born here, is still alive, and is still flourishing. What does it mean to you?

"The fact is that I wrote the first novel where jazz plays a very significant role. This has even been acknowledged by American critics. It was the first serious novel about jazz. But, of course, jazz had been played before and was popular before. But maybe I contributed to it a little bit by writing about it, especially in The Cowards and The Bass Saxophone. The Bass Saxophone, I don't know if you read it, became a sort of cult book in the United States because every jazz man read it. I don't know how many non-jazz people read it but among jazz men it was certainly quite popular at the time."

01-10-2004