Friday, December 3, 2010


Bohumil Hrabal

Ah, the creator of the great "idiots" of world literature, often only slightly masqueraded as the author himself.

Hrabal was born in the province of old Moravia on 28 March 1914. He had a rough childhood. Milan Kundera, years later, would attend the same grammar school as Hrabal. During WW2 our hero studied law while working as a laborer in a war-torn era. The law degree came in 1946. The first book of poems in 1948, heavily influenced by the Surrealist poets. He worked at almost every basic and menial job and wrote and published prolifically, often pirated editions, mostso after the Soviets moved into Prague in the late 60s — many of his brethren went into exile, Hrabal hung in. Some accuse him of giving-in. But no, he was the wiliest of survivors. Josef Skvorecky thought Hrabal's world came from a well-oiled talk of Prague's bars & taverns. A well known raconteur who published at least fourteen volumes of a collected works, so few yet translated into English. Some of the better known (also made into films) are Closely Watched Trains (1965) and I Served the King of England (1989). Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (1964) consists of a single sentence, book-length!

Like Kerouac, like Montaigne, Hrabal loved his cats. There is a mural in Prague showing him with his cats.

An imaginative and engaging satirist in a land of them — Kundera, Capek, Hasek, and close enough by, Gombrowicz (before South America).

A subversive to the end, in 1997, at age 82, while being tended to in a Bulovka hospital for back and joint pain, standing atop a table feeding the pigeons on a window sill, the table tipped and spilled our hero out the window five flights down to his death.

But nothing this good dies.

Hrabal's portraits on bottles of Postrizinske beers (BH was the stepson of a brewery manager)

Bohumil Hrabal from Too Loud A Solitude:

For thirty-five years I've been compacting old paper, and in that time I've had so many beautiful books thrown into my cellar that if I had three barns they'd all be full. Just after the war the second one - was over, somebody dumped a basket of the most exquisitely made books in my hydraulic press, and when I'd calmed down enough to open one of them, what did I see but the stamp of the Royal Prussian Library, and when next day I found the whole cellar overflowing with more of the same - leather-bound volumes, their gilt edges and titles flooding the air with light - I raced upstairs to see two fellows standing there, and what I managed to squeeze out of them was that somewhere in the vicinity of Nové Straseci there was a barn with so many books in the straw it made your eyes pop out of your head. So I went to see the army librarian, and the two of us took off for Nové Straseci, and there in the fields we found not one but three barns chock full of the Royal Prussian Library, and once we'd done oohing and ahing, we had a good talk, as a result of which a column of military vehicles spent a week transporting the books to a wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague, where they were to wait until things had simmered down and they could be sent back to their place of origin. But somebody leaked the hiding place and the Royal Prussian Library was declared official booty, so the column of military vehicles started transporting all the leatherbound volumes with their gilt edges and titles over to the railroad station, where they were loaded on flat-cars in the rain, and since it poured the whole week, what I saw when the last load of books pulled up was a constant stream of gold water cum pitch and printer's ink flowing down from the train. Well, I just stood there, leaning aginst a lamppost, flabbergasted, and as the last car disappeared into the mist, I felt the rain in my face merging with tears, [...]

from James Wood, London Review of Books, 4 January 2001:

"And a great writer. His finest book, Too Loud a Solitude, enacts an even more acute modulation, from early buoyancy to late despair. Hrabal, who himself worked for a while as a trash-compactor, creates, in Hanta, his subtlest ‘idiot’. Hanta may also represent the closest Hrabal came to a self-portrait. (Hrabal, like Hanta, rescued books from the compacting machine, and built a library of them in the garage of his country cottage outside Prague.) Hanta’s wide reading allows Hrabal to use all the mental resources of his hero, however insanely, and the result is a free-flowing prose of extraordinary flexibility, a prose with many interiors within interiors, like some of the Dutch Masters – or perhaps many false bottoms. That would be the proper, unsolemn, Hrabalian image.

Hanta is put out of work, effectively, by the arrival, on the outskirts of Prague, of a much larger, industrial-scale trash-compactor. He visits it, and does not like what he sees. It is clear that this machine does not simply compact trash, with the occasional discarded book, as his small press does, but is swallowing thousands of books. The books are lined up on lorries. It is a giant metal censor, and the harbinger of a sinister new era. But although Skvorecky describes this novel as Hrabal’s ‘poetic condemnation of the banning of books’, this is too heavy a reading. For how nimbly Hrabal describes a comic crescent around obvious political allegory. Having seen this huge machine, what is Hanta’s response? He returns to his one-man press, and tries to increase his output by 50 per cent, so as to keep his job. As usual in Hrabal, political critique is slyly neutralised by the unreliability, indeed in this case the madness, of the narrator."




Listening right now

Oliver Nelson, alto/tenor sax, clarinet
Eric Dolphy, alto sax, bass clarinet, flute
Richard Wyands, piano
George Duvivier, bass
Roy Haynes, drums
On LP: Prestige