Things have not gone quiet around the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, even though he has been dead since February 1997, when he defenestrated himself from the fifth floor of a Prague hospital, à la mode tchèque. There were some no doubt well-meaning reports that he had fallen while trying to feed the pigeons, but these should be discounted. Not that he didn’t like pigeons, just as he adored cats and dogs and cows and horses, but his friend, agent and German translator, Susanna Roth, is certain that he meant to end his own life, and dismisses attempts to repurpose his death (often by the same people who had stifled his surly life and enchanting work). ‘Bohumil Hrabal did not die tragically,’ she writes in her 2001 memoir of him. ‘The tragedy here is that his work was over so many years censored in his homeland, and then ignored by critics and public alike, only for his biography to be censored … Maybe he didn’t deserve such an old age. He certainly didn’t deserve such a death.’
Hrabal sailed through his centenary eight years ago as a convivial, square-headed, pinch-mouthed, Breton-shirted author (he was born in 1914 in the Moravian city of Brno, then called Brünn and, as he liked to point out, part of the old Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary) and now has, in English, an almost entirely new oeuvre to the one James Wood wrote about here soon after he died (and I wrote about in the TLS). For a dead foreign writer to be allowed to carry on in this way is, to say the least, rather unusual. At that time, Wood wrote about a great comic writer, and I about a man whose best subject was work: shovelling coal, pulping paper, waiting tables, tooting horns, palming basketballs, driving Formula One cars (because music and sport are also work, and he admired everything done with effort and skill). To both of us he was something of a lost leader in modern international fiction. We weren’t wrong, but it’s now clear that comedy and labour were only two facets of his loveable, dark and complicated persona.
There are some things Hrabal is not: he is not a naive beer-guzzling reteller of tall tales (which he called pabeni, palavering or rambling or rabbiting on) or a cuddly twinkle-eyed proletarian grandpapa (he was an introverted philosopher with a degree in law; friends called him ‘the Doctor’; he and his wife, Eliska Plevova, ‘Pipsi’, had no children). And he seems less and less a maker of trim slapsticky stories with some passing pretence at plot (described by hapless reviewers as ‘rollicks’ and ‘romps’). Earlier novels such as Closely Observed Trains and I Served the King of England, first appearing in the late 1960s, are no longer central to his achievement. Cutting It Short isn’t the David Lodge novel that its English title seems to promise; indeed, one of the things that is to be docked – twice, and excruciatingly – by the heroine, who happens to be Hrabal’s mother, Marie, is the tail of a dog. This was the 1920s, and suddenly everything (hemlines, hair) was being shortened; think Orlando mixed with Flush. So the dog gets it too. Cur-tailment.
Hrabal’s books – there are more than a dozen now translated into English and probably more to come – are full of this sort of real pain and real disturbance. He started out as a poet, abandoning conventionality for a kind of inspired spatchcock carelessness. He wrote automatically, reflexively, industrially. He pursued the ‘paranoiac-critical method’. He sought out, even arranged, adverse situations for himself: he drank, because he liked to write off his hangovers; he liked looking in mirrors, because it took him so long to get over the awfulness of what he saw there; he liked, and lived by, Joan Miró’s dictum: ‘Il faut être de plus en plus sauvage.’ A life measured out in radial thematic splotches of guilt and joy and shame; in repeated strings of adopted stray cats (which bred and bred and which Hrabal put violently to death: All My Cats is not for the soft of heart); in letters to ‘Dubenka’ and memories of his artist friend Vladimír Boudník, the subject of The Gentle Barbarian; in Prague tales and tales from the forest of Kersko outside Prague; in a shambling youth in provincial Nymburk and a shambling adulthood in industrial Libeň, in the old tumbledown smithy on the so-called Embankment of Eternity, measured out in ‘in-house weddings’ and slaughtering days. As the section ‘Journal Written at Night’ in The Gentle Barbarian has it, repeatedly, ‘back then … back then … back then’.
The books are cycles, rips, rondos, fugues. They are like bandages, swatches, masking tape; improvised in layers, courting repetition, bluff, deferring, concealing, insatiable and endless. They keep starting over and goofing off in different directions. ‘I’ve been compacting wastepaper for 35 years,’ Hanta, the book-pulper and paper-baler of Too Loud a Solitude tells us, as though he was Dante. (This apparently began as a poem, too, no doubt with ‘35 years’ its refrain.) ‘For 35 years now I’ve been in wastepaper … For 35 years now I’ve been compacting wastepaper … For 35 years I’d compacted wastepaper in my hydraulic press, never dreaming it could be done any differently.’ In fact, Hanta himself is paper, pâpier-maché compacted from beer and old books and mouse nests and green and blue and metallic and ‘cobalt-coloured’ flesh flies (courtesy of wodges of kindly donated butchers’ paper), a palimpsest, a cento, a mummy, a dummy, putting his best (or is it his worst?) side forward. Materials – thoughts – come to mind and are squashed together. A red button and a green button. An ideas man and a physical man. Leaf and mulch verb, then leaf and mulch noun. The chapters of this noisy solitude are wildly tentative basement blossoms, tiger-striped by the line ‘For 35 years …’ Overlapping rounds of an artichoke, the 35 years their heart, or at least their pacemaker. Pressure and product, pressure and product, the spiral, the circle, because ‘in my profession spiral and circle come together and progressus ad futurum meets regressus ad originem.’ The intellectual comes to some accommodation with dirt, with dust, with waste.
It all keeps harking back to the years of endlessly repetitious, minutely distinguished labour. This is a man who stands in his basement thinking about the five storeys above and the rat-infested sewers below (you see, he is Dante!), at the bottom of a chute for unwanted or unnecessary or forbidden books, being fed books or feeding books, pressing a green button and a red button, to have them compacted into wire-bound bales, to be taken away and pulped and made into clean, fresh paper, who satisfies his creative impulse and his sense of independence by slapping a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh on the outside of his bales, where no one will ever see them, and burying a Kant or a Schopenhauer somewhere in the middle, where no one will ever read them, and regularly lugging the odd copy of something home with him in a briefcase, where he has nightmares of being squashed flat in his bed or on the can by the dead weight of accumulated books plunging through his shelves, and dreams of buying up his press, setting up in a field somewhere, and making just one beautiful bale a day, because work doesn’t end, even if there’s no longer a job he’s paid to do, just as his uncle before him, a railwayman, bought a retired Orenstein & Koppel locomotive, repaired it and ran it on weekends on some rails laid through an apple orchard.
Everything recurs. Nothing gets lost in the desert, Paul Bowles writes. ‘Wichtiges kommt wieder,’ is the way German puts it: important things return. But perhaps one doesn’t know that. Hence Hrabal’s gushing sentences, his spiral or circular forms, his pages written for ‘the luxury of diagonal reading’: the writing compacted, ellipses squeezed out of it like air bubbles, as in Daudet or Céline, a fear of full stops, a contempt for the onward march of paragraphs. (In her 2014 book on Hrabal, Monika Zgustová tells us that each year on 1 May, the holy day of Communism, he made a point of publicly emptying his latrine, a personal ritual whose loud stink interfered with the parp of official power. So much for marching, displays, parades.) Each sentence, chapter, book, is a sack being held open – not for the stray cat, though that as well, but for the familiar, the slogan, the reiterated, the distinctive, the mantric. The books form gabby, unshowy, uncoercive trilogies: there is one about Hrabal’s youth in the provinces (Cutting It Short, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and Harlequin’s Millions); another about his married life, put into the mouth of Pipsi (In-House Weddings, Vita Nuova and Gaps). They refer to one another, all drawing insistently and mythically on Hrabal’s life. They are forever in and out of each other’s houses, popping in to borrow a cup of sugar, rehashing old conversations, old memories. ‘As I was saying a moment ago.’ And then maybe saying something different. Or not – it barely matters.
I became so severely addicted to Hrabal that I started buying up old copies of the German editions, published by Suhrkamp in block colours with a single, contrasting stripe. Orange, lemon, lime, black. I own about a foot and a half of these now, and am somehow still being caught out by further, half-familiar titles. Do I own a copy of Ich dachte an die goldenen Zeiten (‘I Thought about the Golden Times’), and if not, how not? Does it exist? Hrabal in English presents a strangely uncharted, almost unnavigable oeuvre, the plethora of publishers (the punt, the suspension, the cessation, the resumption), the oddly alienated titles, the absence of chronology – except that one still can’t really go wrong in it. Broadly, Hrabal worked in the 1940s (as a train dispatcher, in a steel mill, in the paper plant); wrote in the 1950s; published in the 1960s; was banned in the 1970s; became popular and famous and unhappy and compromised in the 1980s. In Czechoslovakia, his books were variously burned or seized or given prizes; some were published in samizdat editions, some appeared in censored versions, others were smuggled out to émigré publishers abroad (notably, to Josef Škvorecký’s 68 Publishers in Toronto). Now they have come full-circle, and many of them are published by English-language publishers in Prague. It’s hard to think of another writer so unconventionally formed, so rebelliously syncopated, so shamefacedly detached from the conventions of writing and publishing. Look, no early promise, no mature maturity, no acclaimed senescence! All this, then, inevitably further confounded by translation, because, as Joseph Brodsky put it, ‘a translation, by definition, lags behind the original work.’
Take Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, seemingly one of Hrabal’s most experimental works: a single sentence filling a short book, a monologue, or rather a speech by an old man, inspired by Hrabal’s Uncle Pepin, a top-gallant, one might say, addressing his ‘young ladies’. It was written in the 1950s and first published in 1964, as Hrabal’s second book in print. Michael Henry Heim’s English translation appeared in 1995, when Hrabal was 81. Old book? New book? Young book? Formal? Formless? A chore? A breeze? Somehow Hrabal makes nonsense of the categories.
Zgustová quotes Hrabal reflecting on his aesthetics (she doesn’t say where from, so I’ll have to translate):
My favourite emblem is a ring of mushrooms. An irregular circle, studded with almost identical mushrooms, like a chain of associations moving harmoniously along like a flock of geese or a swarm of migrating birds on their way to warmer climes. A chain whose every part represents the whole … a magic circle, or the zigzag of a local railway line with a long train on it, the wagons nuzzling one another with loving jolts, and this produces the forward movement of the train.
Characters and settings return: Uncle Pepin, the natty geezer/geyser of Dancing Lessons (he doesn’t stop talking, about the Austrian armed forces, about the Renaissance, about the enlightened sexual philosophy of Master Batista); the tall, gorgeous, wildly self-destructive painter Vladimír; the obstreperous poet Bondy; the woman in red high-heeled shoes and a dainty parasol (‘that Parisian pastry topped with the whipped cream’ – his wife); the small town on the river, the brewery, Prague, the smithy, the forest. Properties recur, words, scenes, phrases. It’s not historical (history doesn’t mean history for Hrabal, some of whose tenderest writing is reserved for a dead German soldier at the end of Closely Observed Trains), it’s not biographical, or rather it’s always biographical, but it’s closer to life than that. It’s biography cut loose from its moorings, the balloon freed, not claimed for this date, that purpose, these circumstances. Not accountable. So of course Hrabal accompanies his father on the rounds of local pubs (he does the books for the publicans), being treated to red and yellow lemonades and getting used to grown-ups and drinking. Of course his mother climbs up the brewery chimney with her brother-in-law. Of course he washes his face in any body of water he comes to: stream, puddle or filthy Rokytka. Of course he loves heat, strips off his shirt in the sun, lights the stove the minute he gets home. Of course his wife is crazy about country Schweinfests and teeters about decoratively in her red heels and parasol or stands there spellbound by the beautiful colour-coded insides of the pig laid bare. Of course he wrote his books perched on the slant roof of the smithy, on variously sawn-off chairs to cope with the angle, following the sun around the roof with his shirt off, hammering away into the dazzle on his ‘atomic Perkeo Schreibmaschine until the sun slips in behind the laundry room’, wholly disinhibited because he’s unable to see a word of what he’s doing (Vita Nuova):
Look sweetheart once you start writing you have to pay particular attention to when all of a sudden the writing starts to give you something different something you never anticipated that’s when the hundred-proof starts to flow when you learn something about yourself something that never even occurred to you and then there it is something yours alone yours exclusively … it’s akin to a machine on a factory floor suddenly churning out rejects it must be shut down right away because of those rejects but when it comes to writing it’s the rejects that are the genuine article and real writing is all about waiting for the moment when you start to produce those rejects.
The Hungarian novelist Péter Esterházy wrote that ‘in Hrabal’s books, the world doesn’t become any more beautiful or true, it just becomes real.’
Puppet theatre and skeleton clocks, Pilsner and roast pork and dumplings and poppyseed and caraway: after years of trying to orientate myself by Czech reference points (Mucha, the celebrant of the Bières de la Meuse; Miroslav Tichý of the suburban beauties and the home-made camera; Janáček of the Intimate Letters and the capriccio for wind ensemble and lefthand piano) I’ve begun to think of Americans also. Because, of course, the Czechs too have a thing for America: take Josef Škvorecký and jazz (The Bass Saxophone) or Václav Havel’s fan friendship with Lou Reed – the Velvet Revolution meets the ditto Underground. So it’s easy to imagine Hrabal feeding a roll of paper into his typewriter and going on until the end, the way Kerouac did with On the Road; he too was a writer of the 1940s and 1950s, a writer of intoxication and excess, who claimed to have cycled to Hamburg all along the Elbe from Nymburk, where his father managed the brewery. He was some kind of Beat, some kind of Expressionist. He was friends with Jan Zábrana, the Czech translator of the Beats, of whom Zgustová writes: ‘He could recite Ginsberg, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti by the page, and Hrabal would listen enraptured.’ Pollock was his Penelope. He travelled to the United States to see his canvases. It’s possible to see Hrabal as a kind of Czech refiguring of Pollock, with the same ideal loop drip of the work and the go-smash of the ending. Or as Hrabal himself says in Vita Nuova (remember, he is Dante), in Tony Liman’s impression/translation of Hrabal’s impression of Mrs Hrabalova:
and Vladimír looked at me and smiled and shook his head amused I’d married a man who was starting to go downhill a bit but now my husband stood erect and dead centre of those numbers and arrows pointing off hither and yon and he shielded his eyes and instead of calling into the distance called down into Vladimír’s upturned face Vladimír I spy with my little eye that Jackson Pollock is no longer with us that Jackson Pollock drank his last glass of whiskey at the Cedar Bar though doubtless he managed a few casks over the course of his short life and when he finished smoking his last Pall Mall he got into that Ford of his and slammed it into a wall somewhere and killed himself and listen up Vladimír! He was only 44 years old and not even his wife Lee Krasner could help him not even his energy made visible drip painting not even his loyal doggy could help him Vladimír Mr Jackson Pollock is dead.