One of the most popular and prolific Czech authors of the second half of the 20th Century, Josef Skvorecky (1924- ) left for Canada in 1968. With his wife Zdena Salivarova, he went on writing in Czech and established contacts between Czech émigré literates. A lecturer at University of Toronto till 1990, he received several major awards including the Order of the White Lion (1990) in Czechoslovakia, a Nobel Prize nomination (1982) or a fellowship of the Royal Society of Canada.
His 1956 novel Zbabelci (The Cowards) was quite a sensation at the time of its release. It got terrible reviews from the official media and was soon banned for some time, since it completely ignored the contemporary canon. Set in Náchod (disguised in the book as Kostelec), Skvorecky’s birthplace, it described everyday life of a gymnasium student at the end of World War II. What enraged official critics was the fact that there is virtually no heroism, no self- sacrifice, no pathos. It’s the occupation years, but the narrator is most concerned with girls and jazz. Shame!
It’s in fact hardly shameful and so it happened that the book became immensely popular, secretly, of course, precisely for the same reason as why it was condemned by the regime. It addressed common experience, it was true to life, humorous, entertaining, elegant and ambiguous. The moral stance was present, but this time the author decided not to hit the reader in the face with it. It was a great relief in the ocean of self- importance, bombast, heroism and pathos that defined war- related novels at the time. The form was also a breath of fresh air into the socialist- realist environment: seemingly improvised, causal style, stripped of literary decorations.
Later on he wrote many novels and detective stories. His work is generally accessible, down- to- Earth, lively. It is not universally accepted though, many criticize him for being too reader- friendly. It really depends on which work one has in mind, since he was and is very productive and a large part of his work is decidedly lightweight.
Another very important, and, for some, more important part of his work is the project of the ��?68 Publishers. The publishing house was designed to spread Czech émigré literature that was illegal at the time, distributing it among Czechs living abroad. During the years of its existence (1971- 1993), the company distributed dozens of authors that would otherwise rely on home- made copies and underground distribution. It managed to distribute the black-listed, in Czech and Slovak, both to the expatriates and to the readers from the countries of the Eastern bloc. After the Velvet Revolution a large stock of older titles was available from Skvorecky’s company. It helped to cover the blank space after decades of censorship- it would have been very difficult for the new publishing houses to release a 20- year stock of unofficial literature. ��?68 Publishers provided a great number of older titles ready for distribution and so contributed to keeping the Czech authors of previous generation in public memory, not entirely overrun by new production and import of Western literature.