Josef Škvorecký, 10. 1. 1988, New York, USA


Location New York, USA
Date 10. 1. 1988
Length 08:28

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Tell us briefly about your meeting with the two censors over one of your novels.

That was a novel called The End of the Nylon Age I’d written before The Cowards, and it was accepted for publication, but in those days, if the editors thought that the novel was controversial they sent the manuscript to the censors, otherwise they sent page proofs. I was invited there, and there were two of them, a youngish woman about in her 30s and an old man. And the woman said, well, comrade, we couldn’t recommend this manuscript for publication. I said why, and she said, it’s pornography. Which surprised me, because if you could read it, it’s totally Victorian. So I said, well, can you show me some of the pornographic passages? And she had a whole list of them. She said, well, right on page six, I can’t read it, I would have to blush. Or on page eight. You can’t ask me as a woman to read it. And she went on like that. And then the old man said, well, give it to me Mary, I’ll read it. And he read a longish passage which described a young woman in a beautiful shiny dress doing her make-up. And she was smoking a cigarette and inhaling, and her bosom under the shiny cloth swelled and fell. And he went on reading, and said, well Mary, where is the pornography? And she said, you’ve just read it, the word. And the word was bosom. In socialist realism, that was considered a pornographic word. So I got mad and told her, well, if you want me to use a folksier expression, I can. And that was the end, they threw me out.

What is, or was, the essence of socialist realism in art?

That depends on whether you want to hear reality or official definitions, there are many of them. And nobody really knows. I remember in the 1950s when Sholokhov, the Nobel Prize winner who is regarded as the representative of this strange literary trend or school or method, was in Prague. He was interviewed by an editor who is still active in Prague in the Underground. And he asked him, Comrade Sholokhov, what is socialist realism? And Sholokhov said, “Chort znaet”, which means “the devil only knows”. So who can really know? But I think the best definition of socialist realism can be found in 19th century American literature. The name of the writer slips me, he was one of the minor American classics, who said once that the rosiest aspects of American life are the most American. And that’s socialist realism: you describe the rosiest aspects of life. Of course we know from centuries of experience that the rosy aspects usually are just on the surface, but under the surface there is reality, and that’s the provenience of literature. But socialist realism simply gives you an illusion of reality.

How did the Czech Stalinist political cultural system, which was very tough, de-freeze so quickly to allow the cultural freedom of expression?

It seemed to be very quick but in fact it had started right after Stalin died. And then came the secret speech by Khrushchev that was such a shock to these true believers, especially the young ones, that I had the impression that some of them are going to commit suicide. Because the whole world collapsed. So that started in 1954. But in the 1950s the Stalinist faction in the party was still very strong, so the more liberal faction, or whatever you want to call them, were just gaining momentum slowly, and then they won in the 1960s. In the early 1960s they took over the party. Which doesn’t mean that there were no Stalinists. The situation was never so clear-cut. But the liberals had simply more influence in the 1960s. The President, for instance, was a Stalinist. So there were constant battles between the President and the film-makers and the writers. So it seemed to be so sudden, such an explosion, but it had been in preparation for some ten years, maybe.

But essentially even the liberal party faction were setting the limits for what was possible and told you what you couldn’t go beyond.

Yes, of course they were. They were still communists, Marxists who believed in the monopoly of power. They only thought that the power should be used more intelligently.

How was it possible, particularly in the cinema, for the new wave to develop after being schooled in Stalinism and socialist realism?

I think that is not so difficult to explain, because all these prominent names like Miloš Forman, Němec, Věra Chytilová and others were students at a film academy in the early 1950s and mid-1950s. And as students of the film academy they were shown excellent western films, like films by Orson Welles and others, French films. They had two screening days every week and they watched films from 8 in the morning until 10 at night. And they were surrounded by a city which was full of cinemas that played trash. So they saw the difference between what was presented to them as the ideal, the socialist realist film, and what was presented to them as a privilege because they were students of film and they were supposed to learn the technical tricks from Orson Welles. Technical tricks they did learn, but they also learned to see that cinema can be a serious art and that it can tell some truthful things about life. So then, when the political atmosphere became more liberal, they used that experience and suddenly you had this sudden explosion of excellent films which looked like a miracle, but again it had been prepared in the 1950s by this strange thing.

What was the social impact on ordinary Czechs of going to the cinemas and seeing some of these new wave films for the first time?

They were the films that you know in the West, the best ones, really art films. And they had a limited audience at the time. I think that what you would call a general audience still wanted to see comedies. But the impact on young people who were interested in art and on artistically-minded people was immense. In order to understand the impact, you would have to be familiar with the ordinary films that were still being made in the 1960s and you would see the terrible difference between Black Peter, which was the first film by Forman, it is sometimes called Peter and Paul, which showed an apprentice as apprentices really are. Interested in girls, not interested in their boring job. That was impossible. This presentation of reality was impossible before that. If you are an apprentice in a socialist realist film, you had to be an enthusiast, trying to learn your trade. So the impact was immense.

What was the meaning of the Party and the Guests?

It’s a film about a police state, actually. One of the ideas of communism, which was never, of course, expressed in so many words, is that we do the revolution in spite of the feelings of the people. We will force the masses into happiness, because we know better and the masses are stupid. Lenin considered the masses stupid. So that’s why he created this avant-garde of the proletariat as a sort of club of Besserwissers, as the Germans say. So we’ll force the people to be happy, even against their wishes, and that’s what the film is about. This host invites guests and obviously many of them are very uneasy, and one of them decides to leave the party. And so the host sends dogs after him, and the film ends with the screen blackening and you can hear the barking of those Hounds of Baskerville, obviously hunting the man who decided not to be happy.

And people who saw that film would understand?

Oh yes, they did understand. It’s a very demanding film of course. You have to have some experience with modern literature, with Beckett and even Kafka and things like that, but also the people, for instance, understand Kafka. I think even not very educated people can understand him better than most people in the West. If you take The Trial, a man is being arrested and he doesn’t know why, and in the end he perishes and he never learns why. This is something that in Kafka’s time was just a nightmare, but then it became reality for many people. So people did understand that film very well.

Staying at the broader political issues. Do you think that the liberal communists who were involved in developing the Prague Spring had a clear idea of what ‘socialism with the human face’ really meant?

I don’t think people ever have clear ideas about revolutionary movements. They have ideals, but the Stalinist system was so oppressive that you simply reacted against it, and so did they. Their idea was obviously to liberalise it. I don’t think they intended to permit the activities of other political parties for instance. But once they started this avalanche, suddenly the old Social Democrats claimed the right to have their Social Democratic Party and various other groups, like the political prisoners, organised themselves into a club. And then the non-party people organised themselves into a club of the non-party people. So suddenly what they called the National Front, which is supposed to be a sort of general organisation of various socialist clubs and movements and so on, became a real national front, which was composed of voluntary organisations. So I don’t think they had a very clear idea, they just knew what they didn’t want. But to where it should lead, that was probably very difficult to know and to foresee.

Did you think that one of the ideas of being pluralistic in some ways but still having the leading role of the party (yeah) was feasible?

I think they based this on that Italian communist who was in jail under Mussolini. What was his name? Not Togliatti, but the one who perished in jail. It was Gramsci, who said something that if the party keeps its leading role but then persuades the masses that it was right, then it could abandon that former leading role and be supported by the masses. I don’t know whether that is not just another utopian dream. But the effect was that towards the end of the Prague Spring, shortly before the invasion, I don’t think the party was in full control of what was going on. But on the other hand, they had really very much great support from the people, because the Czech people, with all their political experiences, as far as politics are concerned, are pretty sophisticated. And most of them realise that unless we support the party in this effort it will lead to disaster. So the support for Dubček was tremendous. Of course, you always have these extremist groups who just don’t mind. I remember that when they abolished censorship, Dubček used to meet with journalists and he told them, well we have no censorship now, but I ask you not to write about certain issues which are touchy, and so on. And they promised. But of course if you don’t have censorship you will always find someone who will ignore any such wishes of the leader, and some people started to write about controversial issues, which led then to Soviet protests and all that. So they didn’t have the situation fully in hand. But I don’t think it was a dangerous situation for socialism in Czechoslovakia. It would have become a different socialism than we have now. Probably with the role of the party being less prominent than it is now, but who knows, this is now the historical past and nobody can really say what would have happened.

What happened to you and other leading writers after the Soviet invasion in the period of ‘normalisation’?

I saw very soon that there was simply no future for me as a writer. I was a controversial writer, several of my books were confiscated, so I saw that unless I recant or start towing the line I would not be able to exist as a writer. And I was too old to go back to the underground. I was in the underground in the 1950s, we were not called dissidents in those days, but we met secretly, and so on. But then I was young, and when the Russians invaded I was already 46. So I decided to go to the West and try my luck there. And I was probably one of the lucky ones who found goods jobs and who were able to continue writing and publishing.

Does the writer, the intellectual, have a different role in Eastern Europe than in the West?

I think there are several reasons. Certainly in Bohemia and Moravia, writers traditionally had a very important role. That has historical reasons and also other reasons. The historical reasons are that simply the Czech nation, the Czech language almost died out in the 18th century under the Hapsburgs. The intellectuals spoke German and most of the schooling was in German, so then with the Romantic movements, the Czech patriots, many of whom probably spoke very bad Czech, tried to somehow re-vivify the language. And they did it mainly through translations first, and then through writing their own books. So then it became a must for an intelligent person to read fiction and poetry, and that turned into a habit so that people read serious fiction, who in the West would probably read Harlequin romances or something like that. And the second reason was that for the past 50 years now, the nation lived under very strict totalitarian regimes, first the Nazis, then the communists, with censorship. So that good literature, good fiction, good poetry, has become a sort of forbidden fruit. So when it happens that something goes through, people will read it.

So these intellectuals don’t talk unto themselves.

Beg your pardon?

The intellectuals don’t talk unto themselves, lots of other ordinary citizens take note of them.

Oh yes, sure. It’s a traditional role. The country under the Hapsburgs was much freer than it is now, but still there were restrictions. So the traditional role of the writer was not just to write books but also to act as a spokesman for the nation.

What is the size of the Czech publishing now in exile?

I think it is quite sizeable. Me and my wife have a publishing house in Toronto, called the ’68 Publishers, and we have published already 190 titles. We have been in existence for 14–15 years now. So we publish about 25 titles per year. We don’t have any employees, just one secretary, it’s a medium-size publishing house. And we are not the only publishing house. There are several publishing houses in Europe. So altogether, my estimate would be that since the Soviet invasion, between 400 and 500 titles, if not more, appeared in exile.

How do some of these titles get back into Czechoslovakia?

They are smuggled. There are people who smuggle them, and then there are all these old mothers and fathers, retired people, who get permission to visit their children in the West, and some of them are courageous, they hide the books under their clothing and smuggle them back. So my estimate is that about between 100 and 200 copies of every title make it back. But the people who own them in Czechoslovakia don’t keep them for themselves. They act as lending libraries. They have lists of interested parties, and whoever is on the list can keep the book for only I think 48 hours, and then he must pass it to the next person. So that after 1,000 readings the books fall apart, that’s the only complaint we hear, that we should publish hardcover books. But we can’t because it’s a mail order thing.

How important for the Czech people living in Czechoslovakia is the existence of these publishing houses outside and the sort of support they offer?

I think it’s very important. I can judge by the number of picture postcards that we receive every summer when people leave Czechoslovakia for Yugoslavia or for Rumania, Bulgaria, for Poland. They send us postcards from their vacation, usually signed only by their first names but saying like, keep on the good work, we are glad that you exist, and thank you for all the beautiful books. Which is very encouraging. And then there are even the signals sent to us through officially published books, it’s incredible. For instance, recently I read a book by a very young author, which was officially published by one of the publishing houses, which ends in the sentence, “And then I thought about the boy I am going to meet in Prague.” Damn, I must have read it somewhere! Now, that’s the end of The Cowards, where Danny says, “And then I thought about a girl I am going to meet in Prague.” So this is an obvious signal to me that I am still being read. I have a colleague in the university in the English Department, Rosemary Sullivan, who is a very pretty young woman, young professor, and she visited Prague. And on her first night in Prague she went just for a walk, and saw a group of young people sitting somewhere, so she approached them, and when they realised that she was talking English they started talking English to her, and when they found out that she was from Canada they asked, well, do you know Škvorecký in Canada? And she said, well, he is my colleague, he teaches in my department. And she was theirs of course, the next four days they just showed her around. And these were people who are in their early 20s. That means that they were probably babies or not even born when I left. They are of course university students. That only shows that people keep following the development of Czech literature in the West.

How do you account for the cultural renaissance of the 1960s?

There have always been very many talented people in the arts, but when the regime is too rigid, they cannot really bring their talents to flowering. And then, when the regime eases off a little and becomes more liberal, suddenly it looks like an explosion, but it’s simply pent up energies which suddenly appear and produce and bring the fruits.

Was the Stalinist period of brutality in some way helping to produce, making people more creative, sharper?

I am sure it was. I am always saying to my students that the best thing that can happen to a writer is to go to war, provided that he survives. That’s such a terrific experience that you have to be very stupid not to produce an acceptable novel. And the same is true about repression. People who survive have the experience of Stalinism and Nazism [which] is so dramatic and full of real shocking, cruel, bloody things, that Czech writers never had any problem with finding topics. You just pick them up on the streets. You have too many things to tell. So in that respect, totalitarianism is very inspiring, provided that there comes a time when you can publish it.

How important for ordinary Czechs was the role of writers and their works in the 1960s and later in the 1970s?

It was much more important than, let’s say, in the democratic societies for several reasons. The main of them is the historical tradition and the other is that, for instance, there is no free press in totalitarian countries, so the only section in the papers people read and believe is the sports page. Otherwise, they just skim through it and they know that they won’t find the truth about the important issues. But they know that they can find some sort of human truth in good fiction even under censorship, because people learn to read between the lines and writers learn to express things indirectly. So especially fiction and drama to a great extent also replaces the role of journalism. That’s why it was and has always been very important.

How intense and brutal was the repression after the Soviet invasion?

That was very brutal. They expelled, I don’t know how many, tens of thousands of people from the party, and of course many many writers were banned from publication. In our publishing house, we publish a dictionary of banned Czech writers which has 500 entries of contemporary writers. Five hundred entries! I’m not saying that all these people are geniuses, of course many of them are average or even worse than average, but they are writers, they have a right to express themselves, and they are banned. So imagine that in a country, there are only about 10 million Czechs and this is just Czech literature, you have 500 writers that are not permitted to publish. If you multiply it by 20 times you would get the number of American writers that would be banned under such a regime. So it was very brutal and very widespread.

Has this brutal oppression broken the spirit of writers, and of the Czech people in general?

No, it hasn’t. It has, of course, made many writers into cynics and careerists, but not all of them, I think not even the majority of them. And then if you follow the literary scene in Bohemia, there are not only the extremes, the dissidents and then the officially published writers. There is a grey zone in between. Many of the young writers who want to see themselves in print are very decent and very good and very talented, and they try to do as much as they can within the limits of censorship. And then there are such writers as Bohumil Hrabal, the man who wrote The Closely Watched Trains among many other things, he is simply so popular and so loved by the people that although they tried for many years to suppress him, they simply couldn’t. And now he’s publishing, and every time a new book by Hrabal appears it immediately disappears from bookshelves because everybody is after it. So there is a grey zone, grey transitions.

What is it about the Jazz Section that really offends the Czech Government?

They were permitted initially. That was a group of enthusiasts who applied for permission to form a jazz section of the Czech Musicians’ Union, and they were given permission. And whoever gave them the permission didn’t think far enough. He thought, well, this is another organisation, and organisations in totalitarian countries are not supposed to be too active, they are supposed to follow orders. They didn’t follow orders, they became too active. And it turned into a spontaneous movement, with thousands of young people supporting it and many thousand members. So the party didn’t like it, they don’t like people to be too active. That was the reason why they were after them and started making trouble for them, not jazz music. Jazz music is more or less tolerated now in communist countries because it doesn’t have mass following. That’s rock and roll now. Rock and roll has mass following, so all the guns are aimed at the men with the guitars. But jazz as such is even supported in many cases, because the records are exported, as proof that we are very liberal.

And was it the involvement of young people particularly that bothered them?

Yes, that was the real reason that bothered the government. Because the support came mainly from students, high school students, very young people. And the Jazz Section, because they started banning their concerts, spread their activities. They started organising art exhibitions, they started publishing books which the official publishing houses would not touch. They, for instance, published a beautiful novel by Hrabal which was never published by the government publishing houses. And of course that was a big success and it’s now going to be published in English. So they spread into other fields, other activities, and the government simply couldn’t tolerate it.

Josef Škvorecký (1924–2012)

Josef Škvorecký

Writer, essayist, translator and publisher of exile literature

Born in Náchod, East Bohemia, he graduated in philosophy and English from the Faculty of Arts of Charles University. He obtained his PhD degree for his dissertation entitled Thomas Paine and His Relation to Today. He was an editor at the Státní nakladatelství krásné literatury, a state publisher, and at the Světová literatura [World Literature] bi-monthly. From 1963 he was a full-time writer. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, he left for the United States, lectured at Cornell University and, together with his wife, Zdena Salivarová, settled in Toronto. He was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship. For two decades, he lectured at Toronto University in courses in English and American literature, creative writing and film theory. In 1971 he and his wife established a leading exile publishing house, ’68 Publishers, which issued more than 227 book titles over more than twenty years.

His very first novel, Zbabělci [The Cowards] (1958), introducing his lifelong alter ego, Danny Smiřický, caused a scandal. A peculiar view of Czech society was also brought by other books from the sequels, Tankový prapor [The Tank Battalion, known also as The Republic of Whores] (1971), Mirákl [The Miracle Game] (1972), Prima sezóna [The Swell Season] (1975] and Příběh inženýra lidských duší [The Engineer of Human Souls] (1977). His other books include Ze života lepši společnosti [The Life of High Society] (1965), Konec nylonového věku [End of the Nylon Age] (1967) and Hříchy pro pátera Knoxe [Sins for Father Knox] (1973). His articles were published in many Czech and Slovak periodicals in the 1950s and 1960s, later in virtually every exile and prestigious Canadian and American paper and, after 1990, again in Czech and Slovak newspapers and journals. Škvorecký’s works have been translated into many languages. His translations of modern American literature are highly valued. He was known for his affection for jazz music. Many movies have been based on his literary works, such as Vědecké metody poručíka Borůvky [Scientific Methods of Lieutenant Borůvka] (1967, directed by Pavel Blumenfeld), Farářův konec [The End of a Priest] (1968, directed by Ewald Schorm), Zločin v šantánu [Crime in the Night Club] (1968, directed by Jiří Menzel), Flirt se slečnou Stříbrnou [A Flirt with Miss Stříbrná] (1969, directed by Václav Gajer) and Tankový prapor [The Tank Battalion] (1991, directed by Vít Olmer).

In 1990, President Václav Havel awarded Josef Škvorecký and Zdena Salivarová the highest Czech order, The Order of the White Lion, for their support of Czech and Slovak culture. Škvorecký was also awarded the Jaroslav Seifert Prize (2004), the Order of Canada (1992), the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction (1984) and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, awarded by Oklahoma University (1980).