Rabelais in Prague

Vita Nuova: A Novel (Writings from an Unbound Europe) BY Bohumil Hrabal. Northwestern University Press. Paperback, 248 pages. $19.
Gaps: A Novel (Writings from an Unbound Europe) BY Bohumil Hrabal. Northwestern University Press. Paperback, 144 pages. $19.

The cover of Vita Nuova: A Novel (Writings from an Unbound Europe) The cover of Gaps: A Novel (Writings from an Unbound Europe)

“Everyone thought my husband was a happy person that a husband like mine must make me the envy of every woman that life with my husband must be nothing but fun and games,” says Bohumil Hrabal’s wife, Eliska, the narrator of Hrabal’s novelized biography Vita Nuova: “But it was something else entirely.” In a series of interviews given in 1984 and 1985, published in English as Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, Hrabal said that he was eager, in “the trilogy I’m working on now . . . told with great mirth by my wife,” to avoid creating an image of himself stylized “too much in the direction of greatness,” as had often been the case with books (genuinely) written by the wives and lovers of artists, such as Françoise Gilot’s Life with Picasso. Instead he chose to portray himself, through Eliska’s tired eyes, as a clown and a pain.

The publication of the unruly, barely punctuated Vita Nuova and its calmer and more approachable sequel Gaps completes the translation (by Tony Liman) of a trilogy of fact-based narratives that started with In-House Weddings (the three books were originally published in 1986). The trilogy opens in the mid-1950s and ends in the mid-1970s, and takes the hapless but gifted Bohumil, whom Eliska usually calls “my husband,” from what John Updike called “non-publication’s shame” to the fulfillment of Bohumil’s against-the-odds conviction that he would become “a champion writer,” “a number one.” Hrabal’s aim was not just to lay bare the shortcomings of his character but to relate the details of his career. It is a tale of unsteady progress told from the point of achievement and realization—a famous writer recalling the days of anonymity, penury, and fear. We know that things will work out OK for Bohumil, however; his real-life counterpart ended up sufficiently reputable to write the skew-whiff autobiography we are reading. The comedy of the books comes from seeing why it took such a long time for him to get there; the pathos, which catches you off-guard, comes from the price that Eliska has to pay. Hrabal inhabits his wife’s perspective so successfully that the reader is liable to forget the central gimmick and read the book as a pragmatic, hardworking woman’s exasperated memoir of her beer-drinking, cat-loving husband, a man who talks the talk while (initially) going nowhere fast.

Elsewhere in Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, Hrabal, after praising Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel (“that Renaissance ‘Bible’”), expresses a like-minded desire to juxtapose “a diamond and gonorrhea in the same text.” Vita Nuova attempts such a juxtaposition by pitting Bohumil’s pie-in-the-sky aspirations and high-flown chatter against the lowfalutin reality of his life, characterized as it is by dissipation and delay. The author of Closely Watched Trains (1965), Too Loud a Solitude (1980), and I Served the King of England (1982), the celebrated comic writer beloved of Milan Kundera, Susan Sontag, and Julian Barnes, emerges here as the kind of guy who says, in defense of his own behavior, “the father of dialectic inquiry” Socrates played with his thingamajig too. Hrabal was a proponent and practitioner of an art he called pábení, a form of poetic chatter or anarchic small talk usually translated as “palaver,” but it might be thought of as the mode of dialectical inquiry favored by men who spend most of the day playing with their thingamajigs.

Bohumil Hrabal with friends at his favorite Prague pub, the Golden Tiger.
Bohumil Hrabal with friends at his favorite Prague pub, the Golden Tiger.

One of the many sly jokes in Vita Nuova is that while Bohumil has “an impressive signature” and his typing is “so fast it was hard to believe,” he still hasn’t gotten around to typing anything he can put his name to. He spends a great deal of time “droning on . . . as if his magnum opus were behind him already and all that remained was to shell out advice on how easy it was to be a writer and an artist.” But Bohumil is also a hungry, agitated apprentice with a passionate desire to find the “words that are his and his alone.” Bohumil tells Eliska he wants “to blow a hole in the world” by writing something “along the lines of The Sorrows of Young Werther just a little tome like Vita Nuova,” to become “the champion of the covered courts” like Goethe and Dante before him. But at this stage, it isn’t looking very likely. Eliska recalls an encounter, in 1957, with Jiří Kolář, an exact contemporary of her husband’s (b. 1914) but a successful and respected poet when Hrabal was still struggling his way toward his first proper book of stories, Pearl of the Deep (1964). After fiercely challenging Hrabal—“when is it going to come”?—Kolář reassures Eliska: “That husband of yours is a writer . . . with him I’ll make an exception. . . . Don’t rush things before their time.”

When Bohumil’s debut is finally published, at the beginning of the third book, the general response is adulatory. In its tale of an underdog’s belated victory, Gaps risks resembling the later chapters of a conventional biography—all praise and prizes (including an Oscar in 1967 for the adaptation of Closely Watched Trains). But Hrabal puts in some strong dissenting voices; even once he has found success, the Bohumil bashing doesn’t stop. “Can it be possible!” says the writer’s mother. “Who reads Galsworthy? . . . But Hrabal!” And Eliska, having suffered through all the years of premature grandstanding, confides to the reader: “I’d trade every one of those stories in Pearl of the Deep for just one story of Mr. Chekhov.” It is felt, by the women who know him best, that the stupid schoolboy, the wayward (though bookish) man who excelled in menial jobs, had no place becoming the most successful writer in Czechoslovakia.

If anything limits these tickling, poignant books, it is that Hrabal revels in certain freedoms without calculating the cost to the reader’s enjoyment. You can see why he favors the long sentence as a channel for the tumbling forth of reclaimed impressions, but it is difficult to find a pressing reason for writing Vita Nuova in sentences as long as chapters, with dialogue unheralded and description unpunctuated. It’s like reading a jaunty Thomas Bernhard; you don’t object to Hrabal’s high spirits, you just wish that he’d put them between periods. In a preface to the book, written in his own voice, Hrabal claims that he alighted on a form of writing that, in its unregimented fluency, suited his method of reminiscence—a book that invites, rather than vertical reading, “a crosswise probe across the pages,” much as the process of composition represented “a crosswise probe into my subconscious.” The name of Jackson Pollock, Hrabal’s favorite painter, is invoked on two occasions; Bohumil, in conversation with a pal, talks of Pollock’s “energy made visible drip painting.” In the preface, Hrabal (more or less predictably) refers to Molly Bloom’s “morning monologue,” another breathless account of an unsatisfactory husband, though the dates of composition placed at the end of Hrabal’s text—“November 1984–February 1985”—seem incriminating rather than boastful when placed next to Joyce’s “1914–1921.”

Neither Hrabal’s claims that his approach was based on abstract thinking nor his professed allegiance to a painter genuinely betrothed to abstract technique disguises the plentiful, and very welcome, evidence across the trilogy of structuring impulses and conscious control. Hrabal’s native humanism is always there, for all his forced experimentalism. Eliska’s account covers only those years the Hrabals lived at 24 Na Hrázi Street in Prague, with each book pausing at a symbolic point—marriage, completion of a publishable book, leaving the apartment. Hrabal divides the books into chapters, in the case of Vita Nuova chapters that form neat episodes or expand on stated topics: “The sole reason I did needlepoint was because I knew it sent my husband around the bend,” “My husband never took his vacation all in one stretch he liked to take it by the day.” Pollock may have operated without conventions of painting roughly equivalent to punctuation in writing, but he didn’t employ diurnal time frames, and his technique did not allow for the portrayal of acceptance and accommodation, which is what Hrabal swiftly and powerfully achieves in passages such as this one (from Gaps): “Those moments when we kissed gradually took on a greater significance than when we first kicked off this strange marriage of ours, wherein both of us know that although we didn’t much like each other, we did somehow belong together.”

There is no biography of Hrabal; everything available in book form about his life comes from him, and it amounts to a voluble, if not necessarily reliable, testimony. Before the Eliska books, Hrabal wrote a trilogy of novels dealing with aspects of his nonwriting life, the last of which (Harlequin’s Millions) will be published in English later this year. And as well as the very literary interviews that make up Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp—the title refers to both cramped living and a soccer move—there are the more personal reminiscences in Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka. “My wife . . . didn’t have an easy time of it with me at all,” he said in 1990, three years after Eliska’s death from cancer. “I often used to be not just a right old dreamer but also a big rogue. What can we do about it . . .” But he had already done the most a writer could do about it, in an astonishing, if somewhat undernurtured, trilogy that achieves a genuinely reproachful self-portrait through an act of loving ventriloquism.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.