Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On Bohumil Hrabal's Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age

This essay appeared last weekend in The National.

One of the minor arts of the novel is the art of the title, of a word or a phrase that successfully broadcasts the sense and spirit of the whole. Novelistic prose has all the time in the world to unfurl its nature, but titles, if anything, belong to the universe of poetry, to its mode of tightly wound suggestion. No matter how distinguished it is, we carry within our minds, at best, a few sentences of any prose writer's work; good titles, however, ring on forever.

Sometimes a title can prove to be, disappointingly, the most intriguing bit of a work, a cover charge that yields no reward in the establishment to which it gives access. But on other occasions titles are not just thresholds to narrative worlds of the greatest density and distinction; they are the whole work in microcosm. Such, at any rate, are the titles of the great 20th-century Czech novelist - some would say the greatest 20th century Czech novelist, above Kundera, Hašek, and Škvorecky - Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997). Even in translation, where they surely lose some of their colloquial charge, the phrases Too Loud a Solitude, Closely Observed Trains, Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, I Served the King of England, and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced In Age are flares that light up the teeming, gusting worlds, red with carnival and heavy with suppressed laughter, from which they emerge.

At one point in I Served the King of England, one of Hrabal's most perfectly realised works, the protagonist, a small waiter named Ditie, is seen moving from a big hotel in Prague to a small but plush establishment in the countryside called the Hotel Tichota. He arrives with his suitcase in the middle of the day, but mysteriously the hotel and its grounds are absolutely deserted, the only sound being that of the wind, "which smelled so sweet you could almost eat it with a spoon". Perplexed, Ditie turns and is about to leave, when suddenly he is stopped in his tracks by a piercing whistle: "It blew three times as if it were saying, Tut tut tut, then gave a long blast that made me turn around, and a short blast that made me feel a line or a rope was reeling me in, pulling me back to the glass doors." Even sounds in Hrabal's world are as perfectly measured and varied as the sentences that then describe or translate them, and the entire universe rains meanings upon the fevered brains of his heroes.

Hrabal's protagonists are also agents and enablers of the central force in his work, which he termed pabeni, or, loosely, shooting the breeze. He is a kind of poet of the beer garden, gathering up folk wisdom, old maid's tales, testosterone-fuelled exaggeration, and street chatter into perfectly formed monologues delivered by characters he called pabitels. A pabitel, he explains in a note to his early work The Palaverers, "is a person against whom there is always welling up an ocean of intrusive thoughts. His monologue flows constantly ... As a rule, a pabitel has read almost nothing, but on the other hand has seen and heard a great deal ... He is captivated by his own inner monologue, with which he wanders the world, like a peacock with its beautiful plumage".

Thus, although Hrabal's fantastically vivid narrations throb with incident and anecdote, they are paradoxically (except in Closely Observed Trains, his most popular but in many ways most conventional work) often plotless, taking delight in their very aimlessness and susceptibility to suggestion. The series of "little men" in his work - Ditie, the paper compactor Hanta in Too Loud a Solitude, the train dispatcher Miloš Hrma in Closely Observed Trains - achieve a gentle subversion through their very earnestness and naivete, blowing the pompousness and absurdity of the world's structures and doctrines into bubbles of the strange and the surreal. Although Hrabal worked under the aegis of a communist regime, in an age of "socialist realism" in literature, about the only doctrine sounded in his work is the exuberant conclusion of the unnamed narrator of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced In Age: "Mother of God, isn't life breathtakingly beautiful!" Taken in the context of its time and literary environment, this is not so much a declaration of aestheticism as a reproach to a world that hums with, to adapt one of Hrabal's titles, too loud a certitude.

The most important word in Hrabal's work might, however, be not so much a particular concept like pabeni or the repeated emphasis on the delights of sense life, but the humble conjunction "and". Since his narratives thrive on an effect of copious simultaneity, of a dozen balls of incident being juggled in the air at the same time, the word "and" is the well-oiled hinge through which this sense is circulated. Like Jose Saramago, Hrabal loves run-on sentences and enormously long paragraphs, though in Hrabal these things are not meant to mime a primitive "folk voice" as in Saramago, but to produce an onrushing river of richly embroidered and seemingly unstoppable incident.

This principle of composition reaches its logical conclusion in Hrabal's early and daringly experimental work from 1964, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, just published in a translation by Michael Henry Heim. The entire novel is told in a single sentence. Once we begin, we are allowed no pause for breath. In his life Hrabal worked variously as a warehouseman, a railway dispatcher, an insurance agent, and even as a waste-paper collector, in which incarnation the novelist Josef Škvorecky first met him, finding him (in a detail that might have come straight out of Hrabal's own work) "saving the proofs of a Thackeray novel from the rubbish". The unnamed narrator of Dancing Lessons is similarly diverse in his vocations, telling us about his tumultuous exploits as a cobbler, a brewer and a soldier, even as he retails to us his application to the real world of the lessons he has learnt from his favourite, if fanciful, books (one on the interpretation of dreams, another a book of wisdom on marriage).

Stories and characters come sailing out of nowhere, such as the tale told to the narrator by some truckers about a dentist they see while they are racing one another down a hill: "He'd left his umbrella in his office, and just as he was sticking his key into the door one of the [lorries] burst a spring and barrelled smack into the office and it lurched away from the key, the whole office, and he was left standing there with his key in the air." In Hrabal it is not the key that misses the door, but rather the door that escapes the key. Elsewhere we find human hands blown off by grenade explosions slapping people as they fly, and a flock of turkeys blown to bits by a careering express train coming down, part by part, at stations all the way down the line.

As everywhere in Hrabal, we see from numerous amorous exploits "how a real man trembles like a frog about to leap whenever he sees a beautiful woman", and are led through parades of comic complaint: "Why will no one see that progress may be good for making people people, but for bread and butter and beer it's the plague, they've got to slow down their damn technology." Never has the workaday world of bread and butter and beer been rendered so lyrically as in the work of this essential writer, every phrase of whose narrations both prove and demand "the world is a beautiful place, don't you think? not because it is but because I see it that way."

And some links. Some beautiful passages from Hrabal novels can be found here. And an essay on Hrabal by Adam Thirlwell, "The Pleasure Principle", is here. And last, the film critic Richard Schickel's essay on Jiri Menzel's film version of Closely Watched Trains, a classic of the Czech New Wave, is here.


Anonymous said...

You have introduced me to some great writers. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

@ Chandrahas - I checked in all bookstores in CP Delhi, Bohumil Hrabals books arent available. Where do we get these books from?


Chandrahas said...

Karan: you can find lots of them quite easily on Flipkart.com.

jamesreegan said...

You have introduced me to some great writers. Thank you.

Pessimist Fool said...

Chandrahas - bought 'I Served The King of England' from Flipkart..very happy and thanks