November 29, 2007

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

Posted in Hrabal Bohumil at 9:46 pm by John Self

I was inspired to revisit Bohumil Hrabal by his appearance in Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert, described there as “a writer of hectic digression” with “a comic refusal to be polite, and to stop talking.” I’ve read two of his books before, the other one being the epitome of his comic refusal to stop talking, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, which comprises one sentence that lasts for a hundred pages. I didn’t feel fit for that much hectic digression, so Too Loud a Solitude it was.

Too Loud a Solitude

By contrast, this hundred page novel is made up of, oh, at least a dozen sentences. Or at least some of them last a page or more. But it’s a readable and charming story, where the narrator, Haňťa, opens almost every chapter with a variation on a theme:

For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story…

For thirty-five years I’d compacted wastepaper in my hydraulic press, never dreaming it could be done any differently…

For thirty-five years now I’ve been compacting old paper, and if I had it all to do over I’d do just what I’ve done for the past thirty-five years…

Each opening allows him to spin off into, well, hectic digression, on his life in a police state, where for a living he pulps books deemed unsuitable by the authorities. Of course, the first lesson is that ideas cannot be flattened down into print and that “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.” In other words, “How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain and anyone wanting to compact ideas had to squelch human heads, but even that wouldn’t have helped, because real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work.”

The squelching of human heads is an indicator of the comic grotesquerie that Hrabal delights in, and the book has a fine line in scatological slapstick; indeed the only thing I remember about Too Loud a Solitude from first time around is a lesson in the dangers of al fresco defecation while wearing skis.  I’m not proud.

Haňťa combines his earthy humour with great erudition, because for thirty-five years now, he has been rescuing books from his pulper and taking them home:

Lost in my dreams, I somehow cross at the traffic signals, never bumping into street lamps or people, yet moving onward, exuding fumes of beer and grime, yet smiling, because my briefcase is full of books and that very night I expect them to tell me things about myself I don’t know.

As such the tale is littered with literary references, spliced in with his memories and observations, and the whole is told in a spiralling narrative that returns to its themes over and over amid the apparently inconsequential diversions, “and so everything I see in this world, it all moves backward and forward at the same time, like a blacksmith’s bellows, like everything in my press, turning into its opposite at the command of red and green buttons, and that’s what makes the world go round.”  Which is not to say that the tale doesn’t have a direction, and an ending, which it does: as appropriate and devastating as one could wish for.

Hrabal’s achievement in Too Loud a Solitude is astonishing: to bring together elements of modern European history and aspects of humanity in a story which is simultaneously horrifying and absurdly funny.  My only regret was that I know I would have got so much more out of the book if I knew the slightest thing about Czech culture, literature and history.  Well, there’s one way to help that: read more Bohumil Hrabal.

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9 Comments »

  1. w said,

    Beautiful digressions—ah, the stuff of life. Check out I Served the King of England as well, if you enjoyed Too Loud a Solitude.

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks w. I had my eye on Closely Observed Trains, admittedly because it’s just as short as Too Loud a Solitude. I am nothing if not a coward.

  3. w said,

    I haven’t gotten around to getting past page 5 in Trains because the voice and syntax in the translation (I am blaming the translation even though I know nothing about this translation) are so different from what I fell in love with in Too Loud. But I did find complete satisfaction in I Served—and I wonder if it could be a translation issue after all, because both Too Loud and I Served were translated by one while Trains was done by another.

    Back to the point at hand: Don’t be scared of I Served; you’ll wish it were longer (though the length, where it ends, is just perfection).

    My own bias, of course. :-)

  4. beer good said,

    So glad you liked this one; I read it a while back and, like you, I hold it miles above the rather annoying “Dancing Lessons…”. Now I just need to get around to all the other Hrabals I’ve got sitting in my TBR pile.

  5. jem said,

    Interesting to hear ‘horrifying’ alongside ‘funny’ – but it makes me think that perhaps each extreme helps the other to stand clearer than it would on its own. In a way it reminds me of Comic Relief – how the ‘serious’ films feel more shocking because you were laughing moments before, and the comedy when it comes is funnier for the relief from the miseries…

    Nice title too.

  6. John Self said,

    The title is terrific, jem: when you’ve read the book you understand why solitude can be ‘too loud’ for Hant’a and what he ends up doing about it. And that in itself is both horrifying and, in a way, grotesquely funny… The book is actually growing on me the more I think about it – which can only be a good thing.

  7. The first time I visited Prague, I asked a local to recommend a Czech author; they wrote the name Bohumil Hrabal on the bookmark I was using at the time. I’ve used that bookmark to record my progress through every one of his works translated in English. Although translating him is apparently a difficult task, as he wrote in a rural Czech dialect, playing with the language in a way that is pretty much impossible to replicate.

    “a writer of hectic digression” with “a comic refusal to be polite, and to stop talking.” A fair description of Hrabal I feel, and also of the writer he most resembles – his fellow countryman Jaroslav Hasek. To get the best from both men you need to put them in context. Not so much the ‘Czech culture, literature and history’ that you mention, but the way they lived their lives. To that end, imagine yourself sitting in a pub with Hrabal, slowly getting drunk, listening to him tell his tall tales. And what tales they are…

  8. John Self said,

    Thanks for dropping in, BB: nice story of how you discovered Hrabal. I think your advice on how to get the most out of him would have been valuable to me when I tried (and failed) with I Served the King of England a couple of years ago. I found it maddeningly anecdotal, which presumably was missing the point.

    As for Hasek, John Carey in his book Pure Pleasure recommended The Good Soldier Svejk as one of the 50 most enjoyable books of the 20th century, but I’ve never been tempted to take him up on the challenge. Something to do with the length, no doubt, and the fear that humour might not translate – but then I might have thought that about Hrabal too until now…

  9. [...] Lessons for the Advanced in Age, I resisted buying them even though the last title of his I read, Too Loud a Solitude, still resonates two years later. Instead I plucked out a book of his I bought back then. See, [...]


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