Josef Skvorecky: 1924-2012

The Canadian Press reports that author, activist and former University of Toronto professor Josef Skvorecky has passed away in Toronto. Skvorecky was 87.
After helping to engineer the Prague Spring, the Czech nationalist and his wife Zdena fled their homeland in 1968 when tanks rolled in from the Soviet Union. Pals with Czech heavyweights Milos Forman and Vaclav Havel, he eventually settled in Toronto and won raves (as well as a Governor General’s Award) for his novels The Bass Saxophone, The Engineer of Human Souls and many others, including a slick series of detective novels.
I remember him as a quiet inspiration around the U of T campus. When I tapped into his books, I discovered that he wrote with the same wit and grace with which he conducted his classes. His “Art of film comedy” course at U of T was one of my favourite courses ever.
Skvorecky told the class he learned to speak English watching Laurel & Hardy shorts as a lad–undoubtedly the best way to learn anything. Each week another classic was screened in his class, all in glorious 16mm. There were the usual Hollywood gems from the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin but also lesser known goodies that have always stayed with me. Skvorecky’s class, I think, was the first place I saw a Jacques Tati feature. He spooled some cool Czech films from the ’60s too, such as Closely Watched Trains and Loves of a Blond. The man had an artistic world view that he spread to his students.
The course inspired a whole generation of Canadian film and TV players. In my class alone, if memory serves, film fest fave Atom Egoyan, Kevin Sullivan (Anne of Green Gables), Ron Mann (Grass and other documentaries) and Peter Mohan (Lost Girl, The Listener) were among the more alert students.
I remember having to deliver a final paper–late–to Skvorecky’s door. That was a bit tricky; he was convinced the KGB were still tapping his phone. The essay was on Tati, and Skvorecky didn’t dock me any marks for tardiness. I guess he figured Tati took five years to make a movie, I could have an extra week.
Word is he was pretty sick the last few years, but he must have gotten a smile out of that Arab Spring. Sincere condolences to his family and friends.

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