The Bittersweet Vision of Josef Skvorecky

By Horowitz, Steve | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Bittersweet Vision of Josef Skvorecky


Horowitz, Steve, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Critics commonly regard Josef Skvorecky as one of contemporary Czechoslovakia's finest writers. His successes and scandals under the Communist regime are well known in his native country, and his works in translation have given Western eyes a glimpse of Czech life during the Nazi and Communist eras. He has also written about Czechs in exile, including those who fought in the American Civil War, the musical genius Anton Dvorak, and the refugees who defected after the 1968 Soviet invasion.

Skvorecky himself is one of those post-1968 emigres, which has led to a curious phenomenon. Although Skvorecky writes in the Czech language about Czech characters, he has become one of the most respected authors in Canada, his adopted country. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1992 and has won the Canadian Governor General's Award. He also received (with his wife, Zdena Salivarova) the Order of the White Lion in 1990 from Czech President Vaclav Havel, the highest award given to foreigners. Certainly Skvorecky's largest audience reads him in translation rather than Czech.

Despite having lived over twenty-five years in the New World, Skvorecky remains quintessentially European in his choice of language, topics, and characters. He has always maintained a Czech sensibility, which filters his perceptions of America. Consider the previously unpublished short story "Three Bachelors in a Fiery Furnace" he has generously donated for this issue. The influence of Ernest Hemingway on his use of dialogue and descriptive style is clear. Yet the story is distinctly Czech, not only in its setting and characters but in its bittersweet vision of the world. Skvorecky discusses his experiences as an East European writer in the changing world in two previously unpublished lectures: his address to the Fourth World Congress for Soviet and East European Studies, and his Keynote Speech to the conference on Eastern European Literature in Transition.

In contrast, no one has done more than Sam Solecki to reveal Skvorecky's accomplishments as a Western writer. His book on Skvorecky, Prague Blues (1990), brilliantly delineates Skvorecky's constant evolution as a fiction writer. For this issue Solecki has interviewed Skvorecky, their discussion focusing on Skvorecky's more recent work, primarily The Bride of Texas. The fresh information provided suggests Skvorecky's increasing Westernization. Indeed, the two essays here on The Bride of Texas approach this same idea from distinct perspectives. Helena Kosek's "American Themes in The Bride of Texas" and Maria Nemcova Banerjee's "Variations on American Themes: The Bride of Texas" both reveal the development of Skvorecky's American concerns and sensibilities, as evidenced in this latest novel.

Tracing a career for most authors is easy, but not for Skvorecky. The details of Skvorecky's early life are simple enough. He was born in Nicod, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, in 1924. He graduated from Charles University in Prague in 1949 and earned his Ph.D. in 1951 with the thesis "Thomas Paine and His Significance Today." At this point, following Skvorecky's career quickly becomes confusing. …

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