Josef Škvorecký 1924 - 2012

Czech-Canadian Literary Giant

Plaque located at: 487 Sackville Street, Toronto, ON, Canada

Josef Škvorecký was a very human hero who loved the freedom he had as a writer in Canada.

Born in Nachod, Czechoslovakia, Mr. Škvorecký was educated at a local school and was intent on learning English because he was a great fan of the American singer/actor, Judy Garland.

During the 1950’s he worked as an editor, translator and teacher.

He attended Charles University in Prague and in 1952 completed a Phd in philosophy. While working for a government publishing company, he translated the works of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler from English to Czech.

At this time he wrote several novels including his first novel The Cowards and The End of the Nylon Age. They were banned after publication but have now been translated into 20 languages.

Although he loved his homeland, after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Mr. Škvorecký and his actress/novelist wife Zdena Salivarova came to Toronto.

He began working as a writer- in-residence at the University of Toronto, and then in 1971 he taught literature and film until 1990. He also wrote for television and radio, and wrote screenplays for film.

Also in 1971 he and his wife founded a publishing company called 68 Publishers which published banned Czech and Slovak books. These books, written by such people as Vaclav Havel, Ludvik Vaculik and Milan Kundera, were smuggled into communist Eastern Europe. For providing this critical literary outlet, the president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, later awarded the couple the Order of the White Lion in 1990 during their first visit back to Czechoslovakia.

Josef Škvorecký was a brilliant storyteller who wrote more than 40 books. In Canada, he is considered to be a Canadian author despite the fact that he wrote mostly in Czech.

“I am a Czech and I am a loyal citizen of Canada,” he told an interviewer in 2006.

“Canada is the country where, for the first time in my adult life, I found freedom, including the freedom to be a Czech and at the same time a Canadian.”

The miracle of jazz, the expatriate experience, repression and the horrors of totalitarianism are the themes of his fictitious novels.

He once declared: “To me literature is forever blowing a horn, singing about youth when youth is irretrievably gone, singing about your homeland when, in the schizophrenia of the times, you find yourself in a land that lies over the ocean, a land – no matter how hospitable and friendly – where your heart is not, because you landed on those shores too late.” He and his wife visited their homeland often, but never wished to return permanently.

In a most humble way he thanked Canada for his freedom. “There is beauty everywhere on earth, but there is more beauty in those places where one feels that sense of ease which comes from no longer having to put off one’s dreams.”

He is buried in Cabbagetown’s Necropolis, just beside the chapel.

Awards and Honours

  • Neustadt International Prize for Literature and Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980
  • Nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1982
  • Canadian Governor General’s Award for English Literature Fiction 1984
  • Awarded the Order of the White Lion by the President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, 1990
  • In 1992 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada
  • Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, République française, 1996
  • Czech Republic State Prize for Literature 1999
  • Prize of the Comenius Pangea foundation “for Improvement of Human Affairs” 2001 which he received with the Polish film director Andrzej Wajda.
  • Škvorecký was a Guggenheim Fellow as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada

Škvorecký monument at Necropolis

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