Born the son of a bank clerk in Náchod, Czechoslovakia, Škvorecký graduated in 1943 from the Reálné gymnasium in his native Náchod. For two years during the Second World War he was a slave labourer in a German aircraft factory. After the war, he began to study at the Faculty of Medicine of Charles University in Prague, but after his first term he moved to the Faculty of Arts, where he studied Philosophy and graduated in 1949. In 1951 he gained a Ph.D. in Philosophy. He then taught for two years at the Social School for Girls in Horice v Podkrkonosi. Between 1952 and 1954, he performed his military service in the Czechoslovak army. He worked briefly as a teacher, editor and translator during the 1950s. During this period he completed several novels including his first novel The Cowards (written 1948-49, published 1958) and The End of the Nylon Age (1956). They were condemned and banned by the Communist authorities after their publication. His prose style, open-ended and improvisational, was an innovation, but this and his democratic ideals were a challenge to the Communist regime. As a result he lost his job as editor of the magazine World Literature. Škvorecký kept writing, and helped nurture the democratic movement that culminated in the Prague Spring in 1968.
After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that year, Škvorecký and his wife, writer and actress Zdena Salivarová, fled to Canada. In 1971, he and his wife founded 68 Publishers which, over the next twenty years, published banned Czech and Slovak books. The imprint became an important mouthpiece for dissident writers, such as Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, and Ludvík Vaculík, among many others. For providing this critical literary outlet, the president of post-Communist Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, later awarded the couple the Order of the White Lion in 1990. He taught at the Department of English at the University of Toronto where he was eventually appointed Professor Emeritus of English and Film. He retired in 1990.
Most of Škvorecký’s novels are available in English: the novels The Cowards, Miss Silver’s Past, The Republic of Whores, The Miracle Game, The Swell Season, The Engineer of Human Souls which won the Canadian Governor General’s Award, The Bride of Texas, Dvorak in Love, The Tenor Saxophonist’s Story, Two Murders in My Double Life, An Inexplicable Story or The Narrative of Questus Firmus Siculus, his selected short stories When Eve Was Naked and the two short novels The Bass Saxophone and Emöke. A recurring character in several of his novels is Danny Smiricky, who is a partial self-portrait of the author. He wrote four books of detective stories featuring Lieutenant Boruvka of the Prague Homicide Bureau: The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka, Sins for Father Knox, The End of Lieutenant Boruvka and The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka.
His non-fiction works include Talkin’ Moscow Blues, a book of essays on jazz, literature and politics, an autobiography Headed for the Blues, and two books on the Czech cinema including All the Bright Young Men and Women. Škvorecký wrote for films and television. The feature film The Tank Battalion was adapted from his novel The Republic of Whores. Other features, written for Prague TV, include Eine kleine Jazzmusik, adapted from his story of the same name, The Emöke Legend from a novella of the same name, and a two-hour TV drama Poe and the Murder of a Beautiful Girl, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Mystery of Marie Roget. Three very successful TV serials were made from his stories: Sins for Father Knox, The Swell Season and Murders for Luck.
A film version of the novel Pastor’s End was produced in 1968, but was never shown and went straight into locked Communist archives due to the fact that its author “illegally” fled the country. Prominent in his writing for radio was a long-running monthly series on literature for Voice of America. From 1973-1990 he wrote over 200 of these shows covering notable literary works and discussing literary themes. He died on January 3, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario from cancer; he was 87 years old.
- September, 27, 1924
- Náchod, Czech Republic
- January, 03, 2012
- Toronto, Ontario