Sixty-Eight Publishers – books of dissent

They published Václav Havel and all those Czechoslovak writers banned by the communist regime. Forty years ago, Zdena and Josef Škvorecký created in Toronto one of the most important publishing houses of the Eastern European resistance.

Published on 27 December 2011 at 11:00

Setting up a publishing house was the idea of Zdena Salivarová-Skvorecky. Before she left in 1969 with her husband for the U.S., and from there to Canada, a book of her stories had been published in Prague (Panska jízda, later published in English as Darkness], as well as several translations from French.

As an actress she had appeared in Jan Němec’s O slavnosti [‘The Party and the Guests’] and Evald Schorma’s Farářův konec [‘The End of a Village Priest’], two works that rank at the forefront of the Czech New Wave. She also sang in the Paravan theatre and had begun to study dramaturgy at FAMU (a film and television arts college in Prague).

Now she was in Toronto, where her husband got the opportunity to lecture at a university. Both knew returning home was impossible, as the process of “normalisation” in Czechoslovakia had begun to reveal in full its inhuman face.

At the time they lived in a tiny, sparsely furnished apartment and had very limited financial resources. The first book they published, in November 1971, was Tankový prapor (literally "Tank Battalion", published in English as "The Republic of Whores"). Josef Skvorecky had written this “fragment from the time of cults,” the book’s subtitle, in 1955, based on his experiences in the war.

Publishing it then was out of the question. An excerpt that appeared in the 1960s in the literary journal Plamen (‘The Flame’) caused a scandal. During the Prague Spring Miroslav Horníček read out passages on the radio, and in April 1968 Josef Skvorecky signed a contract with the publishing house Československý spisovatel (Czechoslovak Writer) to bring it out.

Tank Battalion was set in type, and the author managed to make a few corrections. In November 1970, however, he received a letter signed by the new director, the poet Ivan Skála, informing him that the publishing house had made “changes in its cultural-political orientation,” and the book would therefore not be printed.

Both husband and wife worked for it for free

This decision, paradoxically, brought some publicity to the fledgling publishing house setting up in exile – Tank Battalion’s reputation as a banned and scandalous book caught the attention of many potential readers who had left Czechoslovakia for the West after the August occupation. In the words of Zdena Skvorecky, Tank Battalion made Sixty-Eight Publishers. It became the most successful book in its history and was reprinted five times.

Initially the publishing house was financed entirely by its founders. Both husband and wife worked for free, and Josef Skvorecky invested part of his salary as a university teacher. In addition, he edited most of the books – in the imprint he was not always listed under his name, but under pseudonyms that referred to his literary characters, such as Josef Borůvka, Lenka Stříbrná and Daniel Smiřický.

Zdena Skvorecky typeset the books, packaged them, took them to the post office and handled the orders. The Skvoreckys ploughed all the money earned from book sales into the publishing house. Eventually they signed up about two thousand permanent and one thousand occasional subscribers, for whom they developed a system of discounts based on the number of books ordered and the speed of payment.

To Czechoslovakia and other countries "behind the Iron Curtain" they sent the books free of charge. The fact that they ran the publishing house without subsidies and gave up all their free time to it was the price they paid for their independence. Books from Sixty-Eight Publishers had a uniform format, namely paperback, at 17.5 x 10.5 cm. In total, 224 titles were published. The average print run for prose works was from 1,500 to 2,000 copies, and for poetry from 500 to 1,000 copies.

Besides the books they published themselves, Sixty-Eight Publishers also reprinted prose works of other Czech émigré writers – such as Egon Hostovský, Jiří Gruša, Milan Kundera, Arnošt Lustig, Ferdinand Peroutka and Viktor Fischl.

“Bandages on torn wounds”

In 1974 Sixty-Eight began publishing contemporary works of authors living in Czechoslovakia. The first to be published was Štěpení, a novel by Karel Pecka. In the catalogue for 1978 Skvorecky announced that to encourage fellow writers in the old country, severely affected by the "normalisation" bans, he would publish such texts in the samizdat imprint Edice Petlice (‘Padlock Edition’), whose spiritual father was Ludvík Vaculík.

Writers published by Sixty-Eight included Ludvík Vaculík, Jan Skácel, Ivan Klíma, Egon Bondy, Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Lenka Procházková and Jan Trefulka. Books were smuggled through the Iron Curtain in different ways – concealed and hidden in the luggage of travellers allowed to go to the West, disguised with detective novel dust jackets or slipped into boxes of washing powder. The books could be purchased not only in Canada but also in the USA, Europe and Australia. Packages of books also got to Czechoslovakia in the diplomatic mailbag.

Reading and owning them was punishable by law, yet people borrowed and copied them all the same. Almost everyone who got any of the books from the Škvoreckýs still recalls who brought it to them, how much time they had to read it, which of the books they copied and which were confiscated in a search of their homes by the StB (Czechoslovakia’s State Security Police).

“Till this day I remember the feel of the books, how wonderfully they slipped into your pocket, and how pages fell out of them in frantic, all-night reading marathons,” recalls the writer Jachym Topol. The Director of the Libri Prohibiti library, Jiří Gruntorád, who was sentenced to four years for “subversion of the state" in 1980, says that books from Sixty-Eight Publishers were “bandages on open wounds” for him.

"Conditions unreal to professional editors"

"They had often been thoroughly read, and I had to return them the next day. After getting out of prison, dissident friends kept me supplied with new ones. I read Havel’s “Letters to Olga”, “A Report on Organised Violence” by Hejl and Kaplan, Tatarka’s “In Bad Weather”, Rotrekl’s “The Hidden Face of Czech Literature…”

Czechoslovakia’s national security agency, with the help of colleagues in the intelligence service and interrogations of people who had met the Škvoreckýs during their stay in the West, tried to obtain information on the activities of the publishing house and the ways in which these books were being smuggled into Czechoslovakia.

Some of these files were thrown away, and so unfortunately one will never know exactly what the communist intelligence services gleaned about the workings of the Toronto publishing house and what resources they deployed against it. In any case, the communist regime considered Sixty-Eight Publishers one of its leading opponents in the Czechoslovak exile community after August 1968.

In May 1989 Milan Kundera wrote of Sixty-Eight Publishers:

Virtually all of contemporary Czech literature moved into their tiny publishing house, which consisted of only two or three rooms – both the literature written in the country, and that written outside it. And because those two people, who did the right thing at the right time, are also excellent novelists, their publishing house has both moral and aesthetic authority, and I don’t know when any other Czech publishing house has had that.

For almost twenty years Zdena Salivarova and Josef Skvorecky, alone, working with a keen and youthful spirit under trying conditions that seem unreal to professional editors, have allowed us to remain writers in the sense that the European modern age understands: as authors of books. If we realise what it cost them in time, work, effort, exhaustion, we will understand that those two have, in addition to all the ways they served the Czechs, have also set a precedent unique in history: sacrificing a part of their own work for the work of their colleagues.


After the Revolution

In 1990, after the Velvet Revolution, the Czech émigré publishing house, Sixty-Eight Publishers, announced "a year of farewells" which it would dedicate to bringing out works written before 1989. That same year, Zdena and Josef Škvorecký were awarded the Czech Republic’s highest distinction, the Order of the White Lion, by President Vaclav Havel. Four years later, they shut down the presses.

In the meanwhile, the abolition of censorship allowed the Czech public to discover authors that had been banned and led to the founding of over 3000 publishing houses, many of which went bankrupt after bringing out a few titles. Like Sixty-Eight in Toronto, the other publishers in exile had to reconsider their purpose. Some decided to shut down (such as Index), others to come home to Czechoslovakia and to carry on publishing in a free market economy (Arkýř, Pražská imaginace).

Are you a news organisation, a business, an association or a foundation? Check out our bespoke editorial and translation services.

Support independent European journalism

European democracy needs independent media. Voxeurop needs you. Join our community!

On the same topic