(b. 27 September 1924)
(University of Ostrava)
(University of Glasgow)
As one of the few internationally appreciated contemporary Czech authors, Josef kvorecký has a special position in the cultural context of his native country. From his earliest literary attempts he has been writing about the Czech national traumas of the last decades, but he did this in a way that did not adhere to the prevailing and recommended traditions of Czech literature. kvorecký's love for jazz and for the classics of modern American literature makes him different from the bulk of Czech literature in the period between the 19th century National Revival and the Second World War, because local cultural trends were inspired mostly by either Russian or French traditions in order to separate the newly revived Czech culture from the "fatal" German influence, which cannot be avoided in Central Europe.
kvorecký's ability to enjoy writing fiction about the most serious problems of his time and to write texts that seem to be created mainly for entertainment has only a few predecessors in Czech literature (Jan Neruda, 1834-1891, Jaroslav Haek, 1883-1923, and Karel Capek, 1890-1938). His sophisticated balancing act between serious and popular literature makes it reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition . kvorecký's deep-rooted belief in democratic principles caused him (together with his wife Zdena Salivarová) to found the small independent subscription publishing house - The "Sixty-Eight Publishers, Corporation" in Toronto. This was one of the main Czech émigré publishing house that helped independent Czech literature to survive the two decades of totalitarian political and cultural oppression following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. More than 220 original titles were brought out by Sixty-Eight Publishers between 1971 and 1989.
Josef kvorecký was born on September 27, 1924 in Náchod, a small provincial town in north-eastern Bohemia. Its streets and houses can be easily recognized in his fictional town called Kostelec, where Danny Smirický, kvorecký's literary hero and his own "alter ego", falls in love with jazz and girls and as a teenage witness to the Second World War meets eternal paradoxes, both Czech and generally human.
In the period 1943-1945 kvorecký graduated from the local secondary school and was then forced to work at the local Messerschmitt factories, by the occupying German forces, which made parts for German airplanes. Immediately after the post-war reopening of Czech universities, kvorecký left Náchod for Prague and began studying medicine at Charles University. After completing one term, he decided to read Philosophy and English Philology. In his diploma thesis (1949) he dealt with Ernest Hemingway, in his Ph.D. dissertation (1951) he researched Thomas Paine. During his studies kvorecký wrote a few early literary works which he later called "the sins of my youth" and which were only published many decades later. The first of these was a Whitmanesque free verse composition Nezoufejte (Don't despair). This work attracted the attention of the great poet Frantiek Halas, whose diaries helped kvorecký to meet important personalities from the non-official cultural milieu (Jindrich Chalupecký, Jirí Kolár). Another collection of poems, Dívka z Chicaga (A Girl from Chicago), in spite of its American title, shows kvorecký's very close connection with the tradition of Czech modernism. The short story collection Nové canterburské povídky (The New Canterbury Tales) won the Prague University literary contest in 1948 and seems most typically to anticipate the future development of its author.
In 1947, kvorecký produced his first novel, Vek nylonu (The Nylon Age), which was however never published. Only an episode from it survived which became the basis of kvorecký's short story "Babylonský príbeh" (The Babylonian Story). Soon after the Communist coup in February 1948, kvorecký wrote his first mature novel Zbabelci (The Cowards). In the following years the writer experienced extremes of political stupidity and absurdity - at first as a young teacher, but especially during his two years' military service with the elite Tank Division. This chapter of his life provided him with a considerable amount of material which he later successfully used in his fiction. In 1954, kvorecký wrote a comic novel Tankový prapor (The Tank Corps, 1971, published in English as The Republic of Whores, 1993).
With a desk drawer containing manuscripts of three který je ten tretí?? novels and being determined to go on in writing and living in his own way, kvorecký started to work as editor of a Prague publishing house specialising in foreign literatures and art. He soon became a recognized essayist writing on modern classics of American and English literature. As a result of this, he was appointed deputy editor-in-chief of the magazine Svetová literatura (World Literature) in 1956. In the same year he submitted for publication his novel Konec nylonového veku (The End of the Nylon Age), which takes place at the dance given by the American Institute of Prague in February 1949. The work was banned by the censors. Nevertheless, literary fame was soon to follow for kvorecký.
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s Josef kvorecký's literary activity was more or less hidden because of the strict cultural dictatorship of the Communist Party. kvorecký was allowed to publish his first book only in 1958, in the atmosphere of the incipient political thaw. It was The Cowards, the work written ten years before, that was published in 1958 and this novel caused one of the biggest scandals in the then Czech literary world.
Initially, Zbabelci received several lukewarm reviews, but then, a strong anti-kvorecký campaign was started in the media. Ideological critics saw Zbabelci as a "slap in the face of the living and the dead", as "worm-infested fruit", and as "spit, hurled in the face of all those whose graves were scattered all over the republic after the war". The work was banned and confiscated. The official campaign directed against Zbabelci was used as a pretext for a clampdown. Publishing houses were forced to cancel the printing of a number of other liberal-minded titles.
Zbabelci describes the last days of the Second World War in Kostelec seen through the eyes of Danny, a young jazzman and unsuccessful lover, who unmasks the mediocrity of the last minute war "heroes". The account of the end of the war is casual, unpretentious and subjective. This is why it provoked a fierce reaction from the communist authorities when it was first published in 1958. It was a direct assault on the official heroic interpretation of the end of the war as well as some of the less pleasing aspects of the Czech middle class small town mentality. Danny Smirický is a relative of Holden Caulfield, from J. D Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), but The Cowards was written earlier. Smirický does not consciously analyse the twists and turns of history to which he is subjected, but he strongly feels the impact of historical events. No wonder that the feelings of small town "rich kids" were radically different from the sacred dogmas of Communist heroism. Danny witnesses the useless deaths and cruel murders, commited by local "patriots" in the final days of the war. At the end of the novel, Danny has a foreboding about the forthcoming era, marked by the arrival of the Red Army. Yet throughout the novel, the war events are not in the centre of his attention. The most important things for Danny are jazz and courting girls. As the top communist literary ideologist Ladislav toll put it at the time: Zbabelci Eis a "work which is thoroughly alien to our beautiful democratic and humanist literature because it is artistically dishonest, mendacious and cynical. The author's ideological standpoint is the greatest cause of concern. A great event of our national history has been used as a garish backdrop for the depiction of an amorous campaign by a hooligan. The provocative cumulation or coarse expressions, along with erotic exhibitionism, shows that the work is not artistically original, but it is a cheap scandalous sensation, a kind of Czechoslovak bestseller."
The Cowards should be seen also as an important milestone in jazz literature: kvorecký's use of colloquial speech together with his ability to express jazz rhythms in prose is matched by hardly anyone else in Central Europe.
After the publication and the subsequent suppression of The Cowards kvorecký was removed from the post of deputy editor-in-chief of Svetová literatura, although he was not sacked, and survived for almost five years in official disfavour in his earlier post as a book editor. He translated American fiction into Czech and wrote detective stories, first under the name of their co-author (poet and translator?) Jan Zábrana. kvorecký was not taken off the list of banned authors until 1963. For the rest of his literary career he remained faithful to detective literature.
kvorecký's devotion to cultivated pop-literature has embarrassed a certain type of the Czech literary critic: in spite of the fact that kvorecký's writing became highly popular in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. It cannot be denied that kvorecký wrote many of his stories primarily for fun. Some of his comic texts were deliberately written for being read aloud in fringe theatres, e.g. Ze zivota lepí spolecnosti (From the Life of High Society, 1965). Written in the stilted school essay prose of a thirteen-year-old, who is under the influence of his pedantic teachers, these texts parody middle-class life in pre-war Czechoslovakia. Later, kvorecký complemented these texts with school essays of a Young Pioneer, parodying life under communism Ze zivota socialistické spolecnosti, From the life of Socialist Society, and with texts by a young son of Czech émigrés which liberally mix Czech and English, both in vocabulary, idioms and syntactic structure, to strong comic effect. All these texts were finally gathered together as Ze zivota ceské spolecnosti (From the life of Czech society, 1985). kvorecký sees himself primarily as a raconteur, who knows that the act of narration can be entertaining both for the author and for his readers (or listeners). Linguistic parody is an important instrument of his art. Humour and lyricism are significant elements of his writing, as is - often comic - linguistic experimentation.
In the 1960s kvorecký wrote two lyrical novellas Legenda Emöke (The Legend of Emöke, 1963 ) and Bassaxofon (The Bass Saxophone, included in Babylónský príbeh, The Babylonian Story, 1967). Legenda Emöke is a lyrical monologue about a brief encounter of two young people on a dreary works sponsored holiday and their incipient love which is destroyed by a primitive. A Prague employee of a publishing house is attracted by the mysterious and beautiful Hungarian girl, Emöke, from Eastern Slovakia. Emöke had been brutalised by a primitive husband. After the breakdown of her marriage she has become a follower of theosophism. She believes that the material world and the human body are evil. People are to free themselves and to dissolve in "mystical divine love". The narrator is gently trying to persuade her to return to earth and at the same time is attracted by her search for transcendence. Their dialogue is disrupted by another participant in the holiday, a coarse teacher who tries to seduce Emöke. She leaves prematurely and the magic bond is broken. During the return journey of the company to Prague, the narrator revenges himself on the teacher by exposing his primitivism. The novella highlights a clash between nobility and baseness and bitterly attacks the philistinism and coarseness, created by the communist regime. While working on Legenda Emöke, kvorecký was translating William Faulkner 's A Fable E(1951) into Czech and the style of the novella is influenced by Faulkner's writing.
Bassaxofon is another lyrical, highly poetic text: it is a homage to music, especially jazz music, which serves as the metaphor of the ultimate in human creativity. Creativity lifts human beings from this second rate, earthly existence and unites them with the divine. Bassaxofon tells the story of an unnamed youth, a jazz player from Smirický's home time of Kostelec at war time. During the second world war, the young man reluctantly agrees to stand in for the ill saxophonist in a touring German orchestra, to play in a concert for local German luminaries, officials from the Nazi occupying authorities. He only does so in an effort to get close to the rare instrument, the bass saxophone, of which he has heard but which he has never seen. Each of the German musicians are deformed or scarred in some way, but music lifts them up from their imperfect human existence. The young man overcomes his prejudice against the Germans and realises that what unites people regardless of nationality or class is the creative divine spark within them.
In the 1960s, kvorecký also published two collections of short stories, dealing with the predicament of his Jewish fellow citizens during the second world war and with life after the war (Sedmiramenný svícen , The Menorah, 1964, Babylónský príbeh , A Babylonian Story, 1967.) Konec nylonového veku, The End of the Nylon Age was eventually published also in 1967.
The literary star of kvorecký was rising in the second half of the 1960s - his writing was praised, his short stories and film scripts were made into successful films, in which he himself played cameo roles, he had a regular jazz music radio programme and Gallimard published La Légende d'Emöke in French. Together with many well-known authors, who had by that time become public figures in Czechoslovakia, kvorecký took an active part in the Prague Spring of 1968, which attempted to democratise the Czechoslovak communist regime, although his political thinking had always been more radical than the reformism which prevailed at that time of hope.
The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21st August 1968 cut short all the high hopes of the time and kvorecký, with his wife Zdena Salivarová, left their native country for Canada on January 31, 1969). On the American continent kvorecký spent some time at Cornell and at Berkeley Universities, but in the end he settled in Toronto, became writer-in-residence at the city's university and later joined the Department of English as a full-time member.
Excerpts from his satirical novel Tankový prapor were published by literary periodical Plamen (The Flame) in 1967. The whole work, due to be published in book form, was printed and immediately destroyed in Prague in 1969. This gave Salivarová the idea of founding a publishing house for independent Czech literature in Canada and putting together a list of subscribers, connecting Toronto with the Czech diaspora throughout the world. Zdena and Josef kvorecký's "Sixty-Eight Publishers, Corp." was not the first Czech publishing house to be set up outside Czechoslovakia. There is a long history of Czech publishing especially on the American continent in the 19th century and a number of very small Czech publishers were founded throughout the non-communist world soon after the communist take-over of power in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and the installation of a totalitarian regime there.
However, the liberalisation movement of the 1960s was a primarily cultural phenomenon. When the movement was halted by the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, several hundred thousand Czechs and Slovaks emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the West. They were used to vibrant cultural activity from the 1960s in their home country and thus they formed a relatively receptive audience to the new émigré publishing ventures that were set up in the West in the early 1970s. Of these, the kvoreckýs' publishing house in Toronto was perhaps the most important. Czech emigré publishing played a major role in Czech literature until the fall of communism in 1989, since the post-invasion neostalinist regime in Czechoslovakia had imposed a total publication ban on some 400 Czech authors. kvorecký became one of the main authors and also a co-editor and reader of "Sixty-Eight Publishers, Corp.". Tankový prapor (1971) was the first title, brought out by this small publishing house.
Written in 1954, Tankový prapor can be seen as a variation on the theme of Dobrý voják vejk . Like Josef vejk in the Austrian army in World War One, kvorecký's hero, the intellectual Dr. Daniel Smirický, doing his national service in the Czechoslovak army of rampant Stalinism in 1951, just over three years after the communist takeover, also finds that there are only two areas in which he is allowed to exist: the area of compulsion and the area of prohibition. vejk as well as his successors in the communist army around Smirický react to the oppressive power of the military machine by humour, which is predominantly verbal. The military life in Tankový prapor is a metaphor about the enslavement of the whole of Czechoslovak society by the absurd Stalinist ideological dogma. The work centers around the conflict of the uncriticisable dogma as represented by the primitive military machinery and its officers and natural reality, which is unsuppressable. People can retain human dignity only if they display passive resistance which borders on animality. You are only free in the army of a totalitarian state if you pretend that you are an idiot. The comedy in Tankový prapor is primarily linguistic and situational. The language of the individual protagonists is again caricatured. In this novel from the life of the army, kvorecký often mocks, caricatures and plays with soldiers' speech, peppered with vulgarisms.
After settling in Canada, kvorecký pursued a wide range of literary activities - he produced numerous detective stories, wrote essays on Czech and American literature (for twenty years, he regularly reviewed American literature for the Czechoslovak Service of the Voice of America) and published his most important work. This included four major novels.
In the 1970s, kvorecký wrote Mirákl (The Miracle Game, 1972) and Príbeh inzenýra lidských duí (The Engineer of Human Souls, 1977). These two long novels have many things in common: the character of Danny Smirický, who is much less naive now than he was in The Cowards . In his middle age, Smirický has developed a slightly cynical streak of a detached, helpless observer of the absurdities of the times. Both novels have a mosaic-like structure and a multilayered plot which interconnects different time levels and different events from the Czechoslovak national history as well as from kvorecký's/Smirický's past. Both Mirákl and Príbeh inzenýra lidských duí simultaneously develop a large number of narrative strands, constantly intercutting from one developing story to another. This creates a strong impression of synchronicity - at the same time, the narrated episodes acquire a generalised meaning. In both novels, there is tension between documentary events and their fictional rendition, thereby sounding a warning note that much of what we regard as authentic news might be a fictionalised version of reality. There is tension between the act of narration and existing literary texts (both by kvorecký and by other authors) as well as tension between various styles of written and spoken language.
The plot of Mirákl focuses on two "miraculous" events. Allegedly, a statue of St. Joseph had miraculously moved in a Czech country church. Such a miracle-trick was in fact widely reported by the communist media in 1949, in the first months of fierce persecution in Czechoslovakia by the authorities, not long after the communist takeover of February 1948. This "miracle" was politically misused by the Czechoslovak secret police as a pretext for the persecution of the clergy.
The second "miracle" is the rise of the Czechoslovak reform movement during the Prague Spring and its failure. Smirický's demystifying reminiscences of 1968, and his critical attitude to revolutionary illusions, can be to some extent compared to Milan Kundera's anti-lyrical stance in his novel Zivot je jinde (Life is Elsewhere), although most of the criticism of the Prague Spring is attributable to Smirický's middle age cynicism and is a part of kvorecký's indirect characterisation of his hero.
Both these miracles are witnessed by Danny Smirický, who works as a young teacher in the 1950s, having graduated from university, at a secondary school for girls in Kostelec, and by his girlfriend, one of the pupils at the school. In 1968, Smirický is also a witness to unsuccessful attempts by a Czech investigative journalist to uncover the truth behind the miracle from 1949 and the subsequent persecution and murder of the parish priest by the Czechoslovak secret police. Mirákl is yet another of kvorecký's "demythologising" works which approach reality casually and with a critical detachment, thus provoking charges of being "sacrilegous". Just as Zbabelci was criticised by the communist establishment for being "subversive", Mirákl was seen by some in Czechoslovakia of the 1970s as an unfair attack on the liberalising reforms of the 1968 Prague Spring, written at the time of a fierce official communist backlash against this period of liberalisation. However, kvorecký's work entered Czechoslovakia in the 1970s only in a few secretly smuggled copies, which then went hastily from hand to hand. The critical reaction of some readers in Czechoslovakia may have been the result of reading without full concentration. People in Czechoslovakia often had a copy of Mirákl at their disposal only overnight and had to read the voluminous work within a matter of hours. Thus misunderstandings of the text arose. Not very many people noticed that the somewhat mocking, almost cynical attitude towards the events of the Prague Spring was not the attitude of the author, but of the narrator. kvorecký indirectly, but powerfully characterises Danny Smirický by displaying his critical attitude towards modern Czechoslovak history, including the 1968 Prague Spring. Danny's attitude however does not say anything about kvorecký's own attitude towards 1968 in Czechoslovakia. If kvorecký did not regard the Prague Spring as a special period in modern Czechoslovak history, he would have hardly given the name of his publishing house "Sixty-Eight Publishers, Corp."
Mirákl is a graphic account of the first twenty years of communism in Czechoslovakia, with all its injustices, cruelty, absurdity and black comedy. The novel contains a number of unforgettable anecdotes, which in a nutshell capture the atmosphere of the times out of joint. (In one episode, for instance, Soviet author Arashidov meets a left-wing British "angry young" author at a literary congress in Vienna and during a drunken session explains to him to the absolutely stunned Westerner the incredibly complex strategy he had to undertake in order to be able to persuade the literary powers that be in Moscow to allow the young British author's novella to be published in Russian translation.) There are many comic episodes from the secondary school under Stalinism where Smirický starts his teaching career.
The main theme of Mirákl is noetic: the work is a bitter noetic game arguing that human beings are incapable of understanding the world around them and gaining true insight about their existence. ("The worst thing was that it was not possible ever to learn anything for sure.") Human predicament is not only tragic, but also banal. The motif of a puppet theatre recurs: "I had a feeling that I was watching a Shakespearean drama staged by an amateur puppet master," says Smirický.
Príbeh inzenýra lidských duí, kvorecký's second long novel from this period, is often understood as a synthesis of the main topics and techniques of kvorecký's work. The novel belongs to the genre of Czech émigré literature. This type of writing deals primarily with the clash of an immigrant's experiences and value system with the civilisation of a new country ("Emigrating is like being born again, this time without childhood", Czech author and folk singer Jaroslav Hutka) and with the process of integration with the new environment. According to some critics, the structure of Príbeh inzenýra lidských duí is tighter than that of Mirákl. In Príbeh inzenýra lidských duí Danny becomes a sceptical university professor in Canada, trying to look back through the kaleidoscope of the various personal histories of his compatriots. The scope of the novel is much wider than that of Mirákl, juxtaposing as it does events and experiences from the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in the 1940s, life in Czechoslovakia under the communists in the 1950s and the 1960s and the carefree existence of people on the North American continent in the 1970s. The main theme of the novel is the non-transferability of human experience. The bitter lessons, learned by the Central Europeans in the crucible of life of the twentieth century, are impossible to communicate to the generation of often somewhat indolent, carefree youngsters in Canada. The novel contains a number of comic conflicts, based on misperception, which are the result of different life experiences by different characters. The author's knowledge of both the Czechoslovak and the Canadian environment makes it possible for him to highlight certain typical features of human behaviour which recur regardless of a particular political situation.
The ironic title of the novel (Príbeh inzenýra lidských duí) is a quotation from Stalin, repeated in a speech by the Czech Communist leader Klement Gottwald to Czech writers: "Be engineers of the souls of our people". Writers under communism were seen as propaganda workers. It was their task to fictionalise the main tenets of communist ideology.
The presented mosaic of personal histories is again complex - readers are offered the tragic love story of young Danny and a working class girl at the time of the Second World War, a less serious love affair between Danny, a middle-aged Canadian professor, and his affluent, beautiful student Irena Svensson - the story of Danny's naive attempt at war sabotage in an armament factory in Kostelec as well as a commentary on the numerous predicament of Czech émigrés, living in Canada. Again, kvorecký uses linguistic caricature with great gusto and to great effect. A larger than life comic character is one Blbenka (Dotty) Cabicarová, a flirtatious young woman with a rich Canadian fiancé and an unforgettable linguistic mixture of low style Czech and American English.
Thanks to letters from people from his Czechoslovak past, Danny is able to follow the grotesque and tragic story lines of their lives even after his departure from Czechoslovakia. This enables him to compare the quality of life in his democratic exile with that under a totalitarian regime.
The postmodern Príbeh inzenýra lidských duí wavers openly between two literary contexts. The main characters and most of its plots are Czech, but the general frame of each of the seven chapters is derived from the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition. The chapters are are given the names of the authors read and analysed by Danny and his students in class: Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Fitzgerald, Conrad, and Lovecraft. Danny as a university lecturer projects many of his experiences into his seminars on literature. These classroom discussions with his students are just as important as the concrete personal histories of the characters. It is in these classes that the difference between the American and European understanding of history is highlighted. Many of kvorecký's Czech characters have experienced the worst aspects of European history at first hand, but Danny's students are carefree and lucky enough just to regard history as an academic exercise which does not concern them personally.
In 1985 the English translation of Príbeh inzenýra lidských duí was awarded the Canadian Governor General's Award for Fiction in English. The award was given to a translation for the first time in history. In1980, kvorecký was awarded the Neustadt Prize for Literature at the University of Oklahoma. To a large degree, this was due to Bassaxofon which for a time came to be hailed in the United States as an important contribution to jazz literature.
In 1975, kvorecký returned again, nostalgically, to his student days in the small North Bohemian town under the German occupation when he wrote Prima sezóna (The Swell Season). The "text of the most important things in life". The collection of six short stories is a series which grew from an earlier, single twenty page text from the 1960s. These are playful, often comic stories, detailing Danny Smirický's unsucessful attempts to seduce various Kostelec girls. The comedy of these stories is based upon on the emergence of sudden unexpected, unsolvable problems, whose absurdity the author develops further and further with the help of his imagination. The backbone of the texts is formed by colloquial conversational variations, "teenage chatting", which is seemingly free-wheeling and laid back, but has a sophisticated underlying structure. The stories are based on human decency and have a strong lyrical streak. Their comedy is thrown into sharp focus by the fact that free and easy teenage life exists on the fringe of omnipresent Nazi brutality, which however intrudes upon the scene only rarely and implicitly.
Scherzo capriccioso: veselý sen o Dvorákovi (Dvorák in Love, 1984) was a new departure for kvorecký: in this and in his next novel, Nevesta z Texasu (A Bride from Texas, 1992) he left Kostelec and Danny Smirický behind in order to deal with Czechs who played a certain role in American history.
Scherzo capriccioso is a historical and biographical novel about the stay of Czech composer Antonín Dvorák in the United States. The novel is introduced with a motto, ascribed by some, as kvorecký says, to Franz Kafka, by others to W.B. Yeats: "Man may embody truth, but he cannot know it." The work is a love story. It is a novel about the mysterious and unknowable essence of the creative genius, about love and about death. At the same time, this novel is a homage by kvorecký to the United States. Again, kvorecký moves on the precarious borderline between fact and fiction. He uses documentary material which he transforms thematically and stylistically with the instrument of his imagination. At the same time, he is trying to create the illusion that he is telling a story which has really happened. Apart from objective narration, the twenty-six chapters of the novel contains personal testimonies by various individuals that knew Dvorák. The objective narrative is often interrupted by passages written in various formal techniques and language styles, e.g. tall-tale, a formal letter, spontaneous narratives in slang or macaronic Czech-English. The "documentary" aspect of the novel is emphasised by period engravings and photographs. Gradually, a complex image of the United States and Bohemia at the end of the 19th century arises from these "personal testimonies". The novel primarily deals with that part of Dvorák's life which the composer spendtin New York in the 1890s as the director of the American National Conservatory. But the memories of individual protagonists broaden the scope of the novel far into the past and into the future.
Scherzo capriccioso is primarily an affectionate portrait of the United States, written by an immigrant. kvorecký nevertheless does not hesitate to mock American crassness and narrow-mindedness whenever he comes across it. He also takes a spirited stand against injustice. He is strongly moved by the predicament of talented black people who could not realise their talent in the United States in the 18th and in the 19th centuries because of the prevailing racial prejudice. Yet kvorecký likes the United States because, as he sees it, ordinary people always achieve what they set out to do. Sometimes, the author gently caricatures this, for instance when describing the long struggle of the Czech beer-loving immigrants against alcohol prohibition. One Czech settler speaks thus: "As our great President Lincoln once said, you can hoodwink all of the people some of the time, and some people you can hoodwink all of the time, but you can't go on hoodwinking all of the people for ever. And as it turned out, the will of the people won out, and it's so wet now, Professor, that it almost makes you want to turn prohib, just to preserve your health." Scherzo capriccioso is also written using the method of mosaic-like intercutting, jumping from one story to another. It is considerably more lyrical and experimental than kvorecký's earlier work.
One of kvorecký's major themes is the inseparable connection between the high-brow and the low-brow. It is impossible, in his view, to intellectualise about art: the only thing one can do is to show one's humility before its incomprehensible and magic mystery. It seems that for kvorecký genuine art is always closely associated with the ordinary and the banal - the dividing line between them is very thin indeed. The divine spark of talent may occur in any person, regardless of their social circumstances - the erstwhile butcher's apprentice Antonín Dvorák is a good example of this. kvorecký is proudly plebeian and deeply democratic. The bitterest stories in the book are those of gifted blacks who find it impossible to develop and cultivate their talents, while the establishment heaps its privileges on limited people with the right social background.
Nevesta z Texasu is a large historical novel from the times of the American Civil War, which again uses the well-tried and tested kvorecký technique of intercutting stories from different places and backgrounds into a multifaceted collage. One critic has remarked that kvorecký seems to have taken as his model the patterning of a war - which may seem like chaos and confusion to those on the ground, but which is, nevertheless, the outcome of several rival plans, one of which - usually the most flexible - will eventually prevail. The themes of Nevesta z Texasu are still love, loss, exile, liberty and the parody of Czechs abroad, but rather than dealing with his own era, kvorecký concentrates on the life and times of Czechs who came to America a hundred years before him. "When I was doing research for Scherzo capriccioso, I came across some brief memoirs printed in the 19th-century Czech calendars, as they are called, so I became interested and then I went deeper into it and found out that there were quite a few Czechs in very interesting positions who marched with Sherman," says kvorecký. This is vintage kvorecký: a myriad of jokes, anecdotes and arguments which eventually overwhelm the reader and fill him with enthusiasm. kvorecký draws not only famous personalities (like Sherman or Kilpatrick) but he especially pays attention to the inconspicuous and mostly forgotten "little men" of history - the Czech immigrants wearing the Union uniforms. kvorecký has tried to defeat the national caricature of the good soldier vejk which seems to perpetrate the myth that the Czechs are not very good soldiers. "The Czechs were great warriors in the Middle Ages," says kvorecký, but in modern times they never fought for their own cause. But in every major war there was a contingent of Czechs who fought against Austria or Germany - the Czech airmen, for instance, who took part in the Battle of Britain distinguished themselves very much indeed. There was such a contingent in the Civil War in the Union army."
In May 1990, six months after the fall of the Iron Curtain, kvorecký and his wife Zdena Salivarová visited Czechoslovakia for the first time after almost two decades. It was a glorious return. The creative and the publishing activities of the married couple were awarded by the highest state award for foreigners - the Order of the White Lion.
Having been banned for two decades, kvorecký's books flooded bookshops and a multitude of viewers were attracted to their TV sets by the television series of kvorecký's detective stories Hríchy pro pátera Knoxe (Sins for Father Knox, 1992) and the nostalgic look at young Smirický's unsuccessful courtships in Prima sezóna, 1994 broadcast on weekend evenings. These TV series have been a huge success and the name of kvorecký became synonymous with sophisticated entertainment in his homeland again.
In 1990, Spolecnost Josefa kvoreckého (Josef kvorecký Society) founded the archive of his works and offered numerous fans publications containing kvorecklý's less-known texts. Spisy Josefa kvoreckého (The Collected Works of Josef kvorecký) have been gradually coming out since 1991. As a result, a number of hitherto unpublished texts by kvorecký are now available in print.
In 1991, Josef kvorecký and his wife became the subject of two controversies. Firstly, in an article in Literární noviny (Literary Gazette) kvorecký argued that a number of texts which had been to date ascribed to Jan Zábrana or which were regarded as having been written by Zábrana and kvorecký together, had in fact been written solely by kvorecký himself. (kvorecký did acknowledge that some other texts were written in collaboration with Zábrana. The incident is described in detail in "Spor o autorství" in Danny - sborník Spolecnosti Josefa kvoreckého, 1996-1997. A Czech critic attacked kvorecký for allegedly stealing Zábrana's Czech translation of The Cool World by Warren Miller, but kvorecký's supporters proved convincingly that the text had been translated by kvorecký.) Since Zábrana had died in the meantime, his confirmation could not be sought. kvorecký's claim has created a certain amount of bad blood in Czech literary circles.
Secondly, as part of the relatively fierce anticommunist campaign in Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s, the name of Zdena Salivarová has, incorrectly, appeared on one of the black lists of Czechoslovak secret police collaborators, published in Czechoslovakia and also available on the internet. In an atmosphere, when true perpetrators of political crimes under communism remained unpunished, but ordinary people, blackmailed by the communist secret police into various types of "collaboration" were scandalised, the revelations about Zdena Salivarová in the eyes of some people damaged somewhat the reputation of 68 Publishers. The accusation against Salivarová was especially welcomed by those people in the Czech Republic who feel distrust towards Czechs living abroad, as well as against dissidents - because dissident anti-communist activity showed up the political inactivity of the majority of the Czechoslovak population in the 1970s and the 1980s.
Josef kvorecký and Zdena Salivarová reacted by publishing Osocení (The Unjustly Accused, 1993.) Significantly, this last volume, brought out by 68 Publishers Toronto as publication No. 226 is a 600- page documentation, compiled by Zdena Salivarová and consisting of personal testimonies of some 100 people, included in the unofficially circulated lists of alleged secret police informers, documenting that these were not informers but people persecuted by the communist authorities. Zdena Salivarová "charged the Ministry of Interior for spreading false rumours about herself and she won the trial in Prague. So she was cleared of that suspicion, but it did terrible things to her. It impaired her health and everything and I don't think she will ever fully recover from that wound," says kvorecký.
The latest novel by Josef kvorecký Dve vrazdy v mém dvojím zivote (Two Murders in my Double Life, 1996) suddenly interrupted the peaceful flow of the gradual publication of kvorecký's Collected Works. This detective story was written early in 1996 and is a semi-fictional reaction to his wife's accusation of colaboration with the Czechoslovak secret police. The main story-line in the work revolves around a Czech emigré publisher Sidonie, who has been unjustly accused of cooperation with the communist secret police and drinks herself to death in despair.
As Viktor lajchrt, a Prague literary critic has remarked: "We are glutted with information and so we live in a world of lists. Every day, the media compile lists of news-items whose informational value is minimal. Their purpose is to make readers, listeners and television viewers participate in information rituals, created by the newsmedia, and absorb the required portion of advertising. The information from the media must be short and titillating. Names and slogans are the most concise. But the heroine of kvorecký's latest novel was unable to bear the publication of her name on the secret police list. People living in the Czech Republic have been hardened over the years by the nastiness of the conditions, prevailing locally, and so they can ignore post-communist dirt quite successfully. Decent Czech exiles however have lost this imunity. The poison of the secret police list has hit one of the greatest Czech writers and his wife quite murderously."
In his later years, after a hip replacement operation in 1995 and the removal of his kidney stones, kvorecký has still been busy writing. "Writing is like a sickness," he says. "I won't get rid of it." In the mid 1990s, he wrote a film about Edgar Allan Poe, which was broadcast on Czech television on 11th and 12th December 1996.
For Zdena Salivarová, Canada is a stepmother which treated her more kindly than her motherland, for Josef kvorecký, it is a promised land where most of his dreams have been fulfilled. As Sam Solecki say in his monograph, "kvorecký is now a Czech presence in Anglo-American culture, before 1968 he was perceived as an 'Americanist' in Czechoslovakia". kvorecký's importance should be viewed in light of his success in surmounting narrow national literary clichés and bridging different cultural contexts.