Behold! The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in all its glory.
Last November, I had the fortune of attending a guided exhibition of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library’s Petlice Collection of Samizdat Works in Czech and Slovak. Though it’s late in the telling, I recently picked up Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls, a reminder that Toronto’s “literary scene” has sometimes involved more than one literature. In 1971, Skvorecky and Zdena Salivarová founded 68 Publishers in Toronto, where they published banned and exiled Czech and Slovak authors to distribute among the émigré community and to smuggle back into Czechoslovakia. Of course, not every manuscript penned by a State-silenced author could make it across the border. Another professor at the University of Toronto, H.G. Skilling, brought Czech and Slovak samizdat literature back to Canada and his collection is a major contribution to the nearly 400-item Petlice Collection. Nadia Zavarotna of the Petro Jacyk centre gave us some of the context to their reproduction.
Samizdat is Russian for “self-publishing,” and applies to underground literature that could not be published through official channels. The books on display are primarily typewritten manuscripts, some of them loose leaf and others bound by sympathetic binders. Samizdat manuscripts were reproduced manually, by typewriting each copy, itself a dangerous activity since typewriters in Czechoslovakia were registered by the police and their type was traceable.
The Petlice collection includes novels, poetry, and essay pamphlets called “feuilletons.” Seeing Vaclav Havel’s name printed on hand-bound chapbooks of political essays emphasized what’s important about a book in a time of duress, and it’s not trimming. They were evidence that free expression can survive like cockroaches even under Soviet occupation. One particular highlight in the collection came from the ‘80s at the tail end of Communist Czechoslovakia: the Revolver Revue, a ‘zine-style publication sharing many of the aesthetics of the 80’s and 90’s Western ‘zines that were to come later. The copies are printed on bright blue, yellow, or pink paper, and they’re illustrated with familiar Rabelasian cartoons. One issue I happened to pick up even featured an interview with New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The Petlice collection, if nothing else, offers another way of packaging and marketing literature. These bare-bones copies were by no means meant to soar above commodity culture. While some authors published simultaneously in the mainstream press and in the samizdat, others who were banned entirely relied on samizdat as a primary means of income. These books were very much meant to be sold, but the conditions of their production put the words themselves into the foreground. By contrast, the Canadian book publishing industry, at least small- and medium-sized Canadian presses, seem to be going in the opposite direction. As works of literature are themselves being increasingly purchased online, publishers are going out of their way to make quality artifacts. See, for example, Coach House’s attention to tactility in its paper selection, or Book Thug’s grainy covers. And then, at the extreme, there’s Shanty Bay Press, which sells Classic literature in $3000 deluxe illustrated editions. These presses, incidentally, were on display at the Fisher Small Press Fair, among others, on September 7. These kinds of fairs may very well be the way that the book trade survives in the coming publishing era, but these samizdat books stand as a reminder to bibliophiles and book designers that even if governments stop underwriting the costs of book production, books will still be made and literature will still find its way out there. Far more than fancy covers, what the book industry needs most of all are readers willing to engage with the writing and publishers willing to invest so much of themselves in the work of others.