Novelist Josef Skvorecký, winner of the Neustadt International Prize for literature and a Nobel Prize nominee, has lived in Canada since leaving his native Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of 1968. In his homeland the author labored under the repressive Czech regime that banned his novel The Cowards— about a Czech youth in the years after the Second World War—following its 1958 release. Now Skvorecky, 62, a professor at the University of Toronto, and his wife, Zdena Salivarova, operate 68 Publishers, producing the ivorks of banned Czech and Slovak writers. The Governor General's Award-winning Engineer of Human Souls is one of many books by Skvorecky available in English, and The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka, one of four detective titles previously published in Czech, is scheduled for North American release in July. Skvorecky spoke with Maclean’s correspondent Eva Seidner in his Toronto office.
Maclean’s: How did you come to writing?
Skvorecky: I can say only that I was
born with it. I started writing as a boy. I wrote my first novel (at least what I saw as my first novel—it turned out to be a story of 18 pages when my father typed it up) when I was about nine years old. Then, when I was about 10, I became seriously ill with pneumonia, which in those days was very dangerous because
7n Czechoslovakia I was under constant surveillance, and everything I wrote was read closely by the authorities'
there were no antibiotics. I developed into a very introverted, sickly young boy. I started daydreaming and writing down the daydreams. It never left me. Maclean’s: What was life in Prague like for you as a writer?
Skvorecky: Certainly it was not smooth or happy. After The Cowards, I was under constant surveillance. Every-
thing I wrote was read very closely by the censors. I was not even accepted into the Czech writers’ union until 1968. It is so frustrating to know that your work will probably not be published—or that they will ask you to mutilate it and you will refuse.
Maclean’s: How did the censors operate? Skvorecky: In those days the censorship office had very strange rules. If the editor received a manuscript and he thought that there were no political problems with it, he sent it to the printers and showed the page proofs to the censors. But if the manuscript contained material that the editor judged politically dubious, he had to send the manuscript itself to the censors. This happened to a novel of mine called The End of the Nylon Age [about social tensions at a postwar ball]. I was summoned to the censors’ office and told that they couldn’t recommend this for publication because it was pornographic. I was shocked, because it was so Victorian—there was absolutely nothing in it about sex. It turned out that the woman censor who had read it thought that the word ‘bosom’ was an impermissible word, a pornographic word. I was so mad that I told her, ‘If you want me to use a more folksy expression, I can.’ So they threw me out and confiscated the novel. Maclean’s: Were there other, more subtle forms of censorship?
Skvorecky: Yes, they used another
method with Miss Silver's Past [a love story set in a state publishing house]. The editor called me into his office and said, ‘Look here, we cannot publish this. But we will do a new edition of your detective stories—100,000 copies, first printing.’ They simply tried to bribe me.
Maclean’s: In those detective stories, which use the police procedural style while mocking it to a certain extent, did you deliberately hope to avoid the censors with a popular whodunit?
Skvorecky: I do not
think anyone writes straight detective stories—everyone makes use of the convention in part to poke fun. But these were written purely for entertainment. Boruvka [the central character] is himself, I suppose, in the British or European tradition of rounded, developed detective characters—he has problems, he even falls in love. If Woody Allen were stouter, he could play the part. But these stories are not attempts at deep psychoanalysis, but entertainmentplus, of course, a little social commentary.
Maclean’s: What hap-
pens to a national literature under censorship?
Skvorecky: I always compare the Czech situation to a hypothetical one. Imagine that a young Mark Twain were living in a slave state. Twain would get an idea for a novel about a boy named Huckleberry Finn, but he would be clever enough to know that the censors would never pass such a book because its central issue is slavery, a taboo subject. He would write his novel, but instead of using Negro slavery as his central issue, he would use something permissible, like a law that says people should not spit on the floor. And since he was a writer of genius, the book would be funny and entertaining, but it would not be Huckleberry Finn.
This is precisely what happens to contemporary Czech literature. There are quite a few talented Czech writers, but they are not permitted to address the central issues. The central issue of Czech society today is simply the fact that it is a police state—the police are omnipresent and omnipotent. A typical example was the arrest last September of the jazz musicians in Prague. Because you cannot charge someone with being too active, the government invented an
absurd charge of tax evasion. There is no freedom of speech, of religion, of travel, but writers must not mention that. So they write little love stories and so on, some of them very nice, but so cut off from life.
Maclean’s: Can there be no truly great literature produced under such a system, then?
Skvorecky: Of course not. Great literature always concerns itself with the central, the burning issues. Dickens didn’t
write about the suffering of rich young ladies, though some of them surely suffered. But that was not the central issue of Victorian society. So he wrote about poverty, the mismanagement of law, poor children, orphanages. In Czechoslovakia, this cannot be done. The figure of the policeman must always be benevolent and jolly. So what sort of a literature can you have? At best, skilful performances.
Maclean’s: Although your books are banned in Czechoslovakia, do they have an underground circulation? Skvorecky: Oh, yes. The situation today is very different from the situation in the 1950s, when there was practically no underground literature. There was no copying of manuscripts because it was very dangerous—you could easily be sent to jail for it. But today there is very lively underground publishing activity. There are several series, like the Padlock editions. But they are not printed. They are only typed with carbon copies. They produce about 20 copies from each typing. These are all signed by the author, and it is stated explicitly that this
manuscript is not to be copied. There is a clause in the law that if you don’t make more than a certain number of copies— very few—it is not illegal. So nowadays the country is full of manuscripts that have been typed and retyped. Maclean’s: How many people have access to such typescripts?
Skvorecky: It is estimated that if in one high school there is one copy of a book, in a month everybody in that school, including the teachers, has
read it, because it is forbidden fruit.
Maclean’s: What is your role as a writer?
Skvorecky: I have always considered myself an entertainer, a popular writer. I never aspired to be one of those wise men who solve the problems of the world.
Maclean’s: Most of your books are conventional inform—they tell their stories using traditional narrative. How do you feel about so-called experimental writing?
Skvorecky: It is very easy to break away from the old conventions, but what purpose do these rebellions serve? Only in very exceptional cases are so-called experimental novelists of any worth. Most of them are just people who want to draw attention to their unusual technique. They don’t last.
Maclean’s: What is it, then, that makes a work of literature last?
Skvorecky: The human story. If it tells a human story, and tells it well, it will appeal to people in various countries and various ages. The truth of the human heart does not change.^
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