In Bogotá, Colombia, a garbage collector by the name of Jose Gutierrez has been working tirelessly to rescue thrown-away children’s books for use in his homemade community library. If this doesn’t immediately call to mind Bohumil Hrabal’s classic Too Loud a Solitude, then it might be time for a re-read. Also, check out this Millions essay by John Yargo on Hrabal’s rambling fiction.
This year, to celebrate the centennial of the great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, the University of Chicago Press published an early short-story collection previously unavailable in English. Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab was written and published in the 1960s, a mid-career work bringing together some of his best short fiction, like “The Feast” and “A Moonlit Night.”
I’m a corresponding member of the Academy of Rambling-on, a student at the Department of Euphoria, my god is Dionysos, a drunken, sensuous young man, jocundity given human form, my church father is the ironic Socrates, who patiently engages with anybody so as to lead them by the tongue and through language to the very threshold of nescience, my first-born son is Jaroslav Hašek, the inventor of the cock-and-bull story and a fertile genius and scribe who added human flesh to the firmament of prose and left writing to others, with unblinking lashes I gaze into the blue pupils of this Holy Trinity without attaining the acme of vacuity, intoxication without alcohol, education without knowledge, inter urinas et faeces nascimur.(We are born between urine and feces.)
Bohumil Hrabal was born near the beginning of World War I in Brno, in the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was raised by a gallery of colorful relatives, including an uncle who served as an early model for the gregarious and unscrupulous type that populated his later novels. His legal studies at Charles University in Prague were interrupted by the Second World War. After the Communists took over, he worked as a stage hand and industrial worker. He published one book of poetry in the late 1940s, but didn’t publish fiction until he was 42.
When he did begin writing stories and novels, his methods for composing fiction were radical. According to David Short, one of his translators, the Czech writer was a prolific cut-and-paste stylist. The expansive tone and patient rhythms of Hrabal’s writing belies just how drastic his revisions were. According to Short, Hrabal uses “words unknown to anyone;” his cryptologisms still confound lexicographers.
Married in 1956, Hrabal traveled between a co-op flat in a northern district of Prague and a chalet in the Kersko in central Czechoslovakia. He routinely fled the cramped Soviet-style apartment for the more idyllic countryside. A film adaptation of his novel Closely Watched Trains came out in 1967, and it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, a high point of the Czech New Wave. According to the film historian Philip Kerr, Hrabal preferred the movie over his novel. Less than two years after the high point of his success, the Soviets invaded, removed the reformer Alexander Dubček, and initiated “normalization.”
In post-normalization Czechoslovakia, his manuscripts were heavily censored by the publisher Československý Spisovatel. Nevertheless, Hrabal was being praised internationally as a prose master. He influenced Philip Roth and Louise Erdich. Roth, as the editor of the series Writers from the Other Europe, called Hrabal, in 1990, “one of the greatest living European prose writers” and it’s difficult to imagine the barbed mania of Sabbath’s Theater or the absurd feast scene in American Pastoral without Hrabal’s earlier Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age or I Served the King of England.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Hrabal was noticeably silent and did not sign Charter 77. In the cant of Soviet occupation, he “released self-critical statements that made it possible for him to publish.” He died in 1997, after falling out of a fifth-floor hospital window while feeding a cat.
“Ambiguous” and “ambivalent” are overworked terms in the critic’s vocabulary, and vague. The words are accurate for Hrabal, though: a writer engaged with how meaning can shift in the telling and understanding of a story. He dramatizes story-telling (anecdotes, confession, harangue) and he also dramatizes interpretation. Hrabal is preoccupied with how a story can seem to change with an alteration of mood or perspective. How, to pick up a concept from Ludwig Wittgenstein, understanding is deeply aspectual.
In his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein explained this concept of “seeing-as.” First, you see a man’s face. Then, you might see a resemblance between the face and another face, a familial resemblance. You haven’t seen the face differently, but an “aspect” of the face has “dawned on you.” You now see the face as resembling another face.
Or take the picture of the “duck-rabbit:” Looking at the picture, you might see the “duck,” then see the “rabbit.” There’s a cognitive shift between seeing the one and seeing the other. Nothing has changed about the picture. Wittgenstein writes, “I distinguish between the ‘continuous seeing’ of an aspect and the ‘dawning’ of an aspect.”
Wittgenstein writes: “If you ask me what I saw, perhaps I shall be able to make a sketch which shows you; but I shall mostly have no recollection of the way my glance shifted in looking at it.”
Produced in the Academy of Rambling-on, at the Department of Euphoria, Hrabal’s fiction teases out these effects. His protagonists begin as typically superficial readers, who linger on those damaged surfaces or mordant anecdotes for a little longer than they’re comfortable with. They glimpse briefly past the equivocations and the evasions. Finally, their tone becomes urgent and fraught, and their perspective begins to disintegrate.
Translated by Short, the story “Friends” takes up what seems like a hopelessly trite premise, two handicapped friends who teach a friend a deeper life lesson:
And the two friends each had their own truth, their moral fibre was so awesome that all who knew Lothar and Pavel, however slightly, if ever they were a bit despondent, if ever they began to wonder if life was worth living under such-and-such conditions, they’d all…, me too, when, at moments of such blasphemous thoughts, I think of Pavel and Lothar, I feel ashamed of myself compared to the moral compass that backs Pavel and Lothar’s view of the world.
Drawing inspiration from the handicapped? A cliché, sure. Editors who draw a red line through each “batted eyelash” or “on the horizon,” though, would be well-advised to read Hrabal closely, because he understands how cliché eloquently obscures fatigue, despair, and tragedy — writers who work under juntas and dictatorships are especially familiar with the sinister authority of cliches.
Hrabal turns the cliché inside out toward the end of the story. The narrator accompanies them on a trip in which they are bizarrely hassled by a police officer who is interested in how well Lothar speaks Czech. He takes them home and then waits outside the house, watching the two men struggle up the stairs.
I saw Lothar disappear from his wheelchair and then I saw him, like when soldiers crawl through hostile territory, haul himself up with his powerful arms one step at a time, dragging his powerless legs behind him…and then Pavel the same, by his elbows… and I saw how they both had to pause half-way, how though the trip to the pub hadn’t got the better of them, those twelve stairs had, and they had to summon all their strength, turn and turn about, to haul themselves up to the top.
The protagonist Ditie, of Hrabal’s masterpiece I Served the King of England, hides behind cliché, too. Ditie repeats the phrase, “how the unbelievable came true,” in the novel, by my count 12 times.
But the narrator’s trite expressions seem to gloss over his own moral dubiousness. One of the finest novels of the 20th century, I Served the King of England was written in 1971, only a few years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the removal of President Dubcek from office. Shortly thereafter, Hrabal began working on the novel, a searing indictment of Czech complicity during World War II, with a protagonist that affects powerlessness and servility.
After being inspected by Nazi doctors for his suitability to marry and procreate with a German woman, Ditie marries Lise. She brings him a suitcase full of stamps. “At first I didn’t realize how valuable the contents were,” the narrator explains, “because it was full of postage stamps, and I wondered how Lise had come by them.” She explains to him that “after the war they would be worth a fortune, enough to buy us any hotel we wanted.”
As the Nazis are losing battles, Ditie is mistaken for a resistance fighter — according to his explanations, he is often mistaken for being much worse (a thief, a murderer) and much better than he actually is (an anti-Nazi fighter and activist several times). The interrogation becomes a happy accident, since his being targeted by the Nazis will gain him purchase as a subversive in post-war Prague. After being released, Ditie helps an elderly prisoner on a long journey to his home.
“I was doing this not out of any kindness,” Ditie explains, while hesitating to return home, “but to give myself as many alibis as possible once the war was over, and it would be over before we knew it.”
Though Ditie goes to great lengths to exculpate himself from the horrors of Nazism, his own alibi-forging strains credibility: how could he have married a woman like Lise and not recognized her involvement? Wouldn’t the gaps and evasions in his story indicate a more significant crime? Is his confession more significant because of the large-scale omissions that seem implied?
Hrabal, following Joyce, offers up several instances of how mirrors and reflections can misapprehend our true selves, or how we can misapprehend ourselves in reflection. In Joyce’s “Araby,” the narrator’s reflection gives rise to misconceived feelings of piety and self-loathing.
Hrabal picked up the theme in I Served the King of England. The main character becomes a waiter in a prominent hotel and becomes entranced by how pomp can elide one’s own vulnerable identity:
I saw myself in the mirror carrying the bright Pilsner beer, I seemed different somehow, I saw that I’d have to stop thinking of myself as small and ugly. The tuxedo looked good on me here, and when I stood beside the headwaiter, who had curly gray hair that looked as though a hairdresser had done it, I could also see in the mirror that all I really wanted was to work right here at this station with this headwaiter, who radiated serenity, who knew everything there was to know…
Being a waiter requires Ditie to cultivate a kind of passive omniscience. The headwaiter, not Ditie, served the King of England. When a character asks how he knows that a couple is Bavarian, or how a customer likes his veal, the headwaiter simply says, “I served the King of England.”
High Culture is another way Hrabal’s protagonists conceal their motives. Like By Night in Chile’s priest-critic, Ditie’s confession is gilded with references to literature, culture, sophistication, but in stark denial of any moral purpose. The narrator of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age tells his employer, “Like Goethe, I have a weak heart and was more inclined to poetry, which slowed them down for a while.” Ditie is entranced by the rituals and culture of European decadence and hides behind them.
After a lavish feast during which the exiled Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie honors him with a sash, the protagonist is accused of stealing a spoon. Devastated, he takes a taxi to a remote spot in the countryside. He laughs and tells the taxi driver he plans to hang himself. He says it impulsively, but saying the words propels him inextricably towards suicide.
Seriously? The cab driver said, laughing. With what? He was right, I had nothing to do it with, so I said, My handkerchief. The driver got out of his cab, opened the trunk, rummaged around with a flashlight, then handed me a piece of rope. Still laughing, he made an eye in one end and ran the other end through it to make a noose and showed me the proper way to hang myself.
Ditie stumbles into the stand of darkened woods.
I made up my mind to hang myself. As I knelt there, I felt something touch my head, so I reached up and touched the toes of a pair of boots, and then I groped higher and felt two ankles, then socks covering a pair of cold legs. When I stood up, my nose was right up against the stomach of a hanged man.
That reversal might seem familiar. Philip Roth re-imagined the scene in Sabbath’s Theater, a novel deeply influenced by Hrabal. In that scene, the puppeteer Mickey Sabbath has gone to his mistress’s grave to pay homage by writhing in the dirt and simulating sex. As he’s approaching the grave, he sees another figure near the grave:
When Sabbath saw Lewis bending over the grave to place the bouquet on the plot, he thought, But she’s mine! She belongs to me!
What Lewis did next was such an abomination that Sabbath reached crazily about in the dark for a rock or a stick with which to rush forward and beat the son of a bitch over the head. Lewis unzipped his fly…
Roth follows Hrabal in a mode of amplified realism — never magical but wryly attuned to absurdity — and featuring narrators and protagonists whose appetites match their verbosity. Hrabal’s palpable influence, acknowledged by writers such as Roth and Erdich, is a reminder of how vital his work has been to American contemporary fiction.
Months before the Velvet Revolution, at a time when the Czech Communist party was showing its frailty but its decline did not seem inevitable, Hrabal reported on Czech politics in early 1989, with excerpts appearing in the New York Review of Books. He wrote in direct, austere sentences, as if acknowledging that irony was giving way to deeper melancholy impulses:
I walked down deserted Parizska Avenue. A police car quietly pulled up at the curb, a man got out and began quietly placing parking tickets on the windshields of illegally parked cars, then quietly the headlights turned toward Maison Oppelt, from the fifth floor of which Franz Kafka once wanted to jump, and then I stood all alone in the square. The place was deserted. I sat down on a bench and began to reflect…In front of me loomed the monument to Master Jan Hus.
In his afterword to Rambling On, Václav Kadlec points out how Hrabal had begun to focus on longer fiction by the late 1960s, eventually leading to the triumph of I Served the King of England and Too Loud a Solitude. But Hrabal was a great short-story writer, whose works were strained with pathos, absurdity, and beauty. The stories in Rambling On also show a unique range, partly because in 1960s Czechoslovakia, he was able to experiment with theme and language more freely and partly because he is still deciding on a tone, a style, and a subject.
Read the stories. Read the novels. Just read Hrabal.
There is perhaps no more fitting summer job for a writer than processing books in the basement of a university library. To get up before the real heat of the day begins and descend into the air-conditioned cool of the dimly-lit basement archives is a particular kind of atmospheric trick, but emerging after a full day’s work into the thick evening is even better, since it mimics the way writers feel when they get up from a long grapple with a manuscript; your eyes are bleary, your head is half-dazed, and the hot summer night feels overly sharp, hyper-real, cluttered with shouts and sirens.
(I highly recommend an archiving job as a remedy for the effects of writer’s block, since it’s easy enough to pretend that a pile of close reading is a substitute for your own literary production. Your verbal overload is no less intense for being totally vicarious.)
All of this describes the job I worked last summer, in the rare books section of a local university library. I was assigned to a basement room nicknamed “the cage,” because most of the shelving was set off behind a wall of wire mesh, accessible only by a carefully guarded key. I did my work at a small desk in the corner, and when I wanted to enter the cage I had to ask for this key, and return it to its appointed hook straightaway when I was done.
The project that I was hired to work on is somewhat difficult to describe. Sometime in the early aughts, a famous bookstore in New York—I can’t tell you which one, on conditions of job-related secrecy—closed its doors forever, at which point several wealthy patrons banded together to buy its entire inventory (distressed periodicals and all) and hand said inventory over to a local university library. This inventory consisted of thousands upon thousands of volumes: some rare, some middling, some eminently forgettable. They had early editions of Finnegans Wake, nestled next to paperback Modern Library editions of the collected works of Thackeray, propped up against a stack of 25 cent magazines for teen movie lovers of the 1950s.
I am not a rare books specialist; I am not capable of making fine distinctions. I do not know a first edition unless it is clearly marked in the front of the book, preferably in large type, all capitals. Thus my job consisted only of logging the books, regardless of content or merit, into the computer system: name, title, ISBN, and relative condition.
There have been moments of excitement. I have shelved books from the personal libraries of Anaïs Nin and Joseph Mitchell. I have learned terms which include, but are by no means limited to: bastard title page, bumped corners, colophon, ex libris, flyleaf, foxing, worn boards, and gutter tear. I have held William Gaddis first editions and signed versions of nearly every title in Joyce Carol Oates’s massive oeuvre.
But the actual function of my day was repetitive, nearly robotic.
Name, Title, ISBN
worn board edges
gutter tear in front flyleaf, board corners slightly bumped,
dj (short for “dust jacket”) worn
owner’s signature on front flyleaf “(illegible), Chicago, 1923”
inscription on front flyeaf: “To Brenda, for the memories, Cape Cod, 1932”
A New Yorker cartoon, featuring a man pushing a massive cube up a featureless hill, was taped to the wall above my supervisor’s desk. The caption: Extreme Sisyphus.
Common themes in books, 19th to early-20th century:
Detailed author portraits on the title page, covered in thin, almost tissue-like paper (to prevent blotting?)
Inexplicably small, but also thick, multi-volume editions of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, of which multiple volumes are missing
Inscriptions from fathers and uncles in said novels, in loopy, almost illegible cursive, along the lines of: may this add to your education
When one thinks of libraries in literature, the most famous reference point has to be Borges’s The Library of Babel, in which the Argentine writer (in a joking mood) conceived of an infinite library, composed of a series of hexagonal rooms, and posited (half-ironically) that the library was a stand-in for the perfect divine creation: “the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god.”
Often, during my summer in the archives, I would reflect on the fact that all my work was only the reconstruction or (to be more accurate) weird vivisection of an already existing bookstore. The books I catalogued came to me in numbered trays, with each section number corresponding to a section of the now-departed bookstore, and on days when my mind really wandered—which was a higher percentage than I would have admitted to my immediate superiors—I considered the possibility of reconstructing the bookstore in my head, using the section numbers and the books I’d processed, recreating a sort of bookstore-of-the-mind.
Usually, however, I was interrupted from my reverie by one or another common typo:
Worn bards, utter tear.
And, even if I managed to keep my mental concentration long enough to maintain one section of this library-of-the-mind, the idea of trying to juggle multiple sections ended up being too much, and I was forced to give up the whole project, having only completed one of Borges’s hexagons.
Which reminds me of another quote from The Library of Babel:
“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure.”
By the time I arrived at my archiving job, the project had already been going for nearly seven years, and over half of the books had been catalogued. Of course, each volume would still need to be judged and sorted by minds more discerning than mine, which meant that, like many projects conceived at the university level, it might last for much longer than the scope of ordinary human patience.
There is something strange about doing a job that you will never see finished, like Kafka’s Great Wall of China:
“Five hundred meters could be completed in something like five years, by which time naturally the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the building, and in the world.”
Common themes in books, early- to mid-20th century:
Books of obscure poetry inscribed by nuns
Books published under the auspices and regulations of the U.S. Military
Mass-market book plates with bucolic scenes: cows, dogs, and/or roosters
As a fiction writer, I am perhaps unusually interested in what makes a book last. Much of this I ascribe to pure ego. During my stint in the university library, I happened to come across the great English critic Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, which is a very odd and very vain book; it begins as an investigation of this very question, “why does a book last” (Is it prose style? Content? Political conviction?) only to devolve into a self-pitying investigation of why Cyril Connolly himself couldn’t write such a lasting book.
I assume that most readers of books do not engage in this sort of absurd behavior. Fiction writers have such high regard for themselves that they can’t see why they shouldn’t be immortal. Keeping their work in print is the next best thing available.
(An addendum: during my work in the archives I logged several thousand copies of Horizon, the British literary magazine which Connolly edited. Of the many names inside its covers, I recognized two.)
Still, if one puts pure vanity aside for a moment, the process by which a book survives more than a century is a fascinating thing. When I held a copy of Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone, or an early American edition of Wuthering Heights, I’d sometimes reflect on the many deaths the book had to avoid on its way to me. It had to be bought, first of all, and not left to linger on a bookstore shelf, and later pulped—or, as is sometimes the case, burned. Then someone had to keep it after the first read, keep the bindings dry, move it from house to house, and later, after that person died, the book had to be inherited, or else sold, instead of thrown away; at the very least it had to be packed in such a way that the book block didn’t warp and the pages didn’t go moldy: all the little deaths to which a hardbound book is vulnerable.
There is a certain kind of immortality to a passed-down book—the sense of having outlived many human lives.
So what makes a book last—not just in the minds of critics and readers, but also as a physical object? What’s essential here is a combination of initial popularity, physical hardiness, and a sterling reputation. There were more copies of The Moonstone in circulation than a host of other Victorian mysteries, so it had a good start, and the hardback edition I handled one summer morning seemed to have lasted pretty well, but nobody reads Wilkie Collins anymore (my apologies, Moonstone aficionados, bless your cosseted Victorian hearts), and so I have my doubts about what will happen when the library higher-ups finally handle the archive’s copy.
The local university library can’t possibly hold all of the books I archived, much less the whole of the departed bookstore; many of the books will be sold at sidewalk sales, to readers much less scrupulous about their storage.
Some, I’m sure, will simply be pulped—or burned.
Common themes in books, mid- to late- 20th century:
Signed copies of books which immediately go out of print, their authors forgotten
Male poets with sideburns who write poems about driving
Poets of any gender with sad, searching eyes who write about cancer
Long biographical notes which expose their authors’ desperate search for respect
There’s no keeping ego out of the conversation entirely, though. What fiction writer could work for a whole summer handling old novels without wondering about the fate of any book he or she might manage to publish in their lifetime? Based on even the slightest research, the percentages are bad. Is the work you’re producing destined to be recycled—or, now that everyone’s crowing about e-books, erased from the world’s collective hard-drive?
(As if it wasn’t worrying enough to get published in the first place.)
Or, if you’re the type to raise your concerns to the highest power, you can occupy yourself with a larger existential question: why, once you’ve witnessed a pile of words beyond human comprehension—when you’ve personally catalogued more books in a single day than it would be possible for you to read in an entire year—would you ever go on writing novels in the first place?
Forget about the death of the novel, for a moment—that old saw—and consider, instead, its terrifying, zombie-like nature. Old novels never die; they walk among us, tattered and moldy, neither living nor totally destroyed, giving off an offensive fungal stink that can best be described as a cross between rancid dust and damp feet.
Worse still, these zombie books have a way of infecting the living volumes which sit next to them; for every book is only a year’s neglect away from turning undead itself, a victim of time and circumstance, one more body for the undead legions.
From The Library of Babel: “The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms.”
Common trends in books, early-21st century:
Total lack of clarity
Despite all overarching existential concerns, I usually left my job at the archive feeling exhilarated. Part of this was just a matter of getting off work; like I said before, the job itself was rote and methodical, an amazing combination of repetitive stress and screen fatigue. Just being able to walk free in the summer evening was a glorious feeling.
But, during the best —when I could leaf through a whole stack of 19th-century French poetry in translation, or the collected prose of William Carlos Williams, or all the books Joseph Mitchell owned concerning Gypsies—I experienced a more than bodily thrill at having run my eyes over so many odd and obscure titles, so many volumes that had survived years and chance to arrive in my hands—a feeling that was only increased by the possibility of the books’ destruction, despite my careful cataloguing. I was there to log books, not to save them.
It was a feeling I can only compare to the narrator of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, a man whose work consists of pulping books into a paper compactor, which he describes as “holy work,” and whose responses to the avalanche of words echo my own:
…inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself… When my eye lands on a real book and looks past the printed word, what it sees is disembodied thoughts flying through the air, gliding on air, living off air, because in the end everything is air…
At times it felt as if I was swimming in sentences, with the sense of Heraclitus, dipping into the river over and over and coming up with new books, new iterations of language, as if by taking the job I’d turned on a continuous flow of literature. Here, individual work seemed frankly meaningless, reminding me that intertextuality is not some new thing—for language is always in conversation with itself.
Thus I spent my summer vacation: building a library of the mind.
Image Credit: Wikimedia/Alexandre Duret-Lutz from Paris, France