August 21, 2009

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains

Posted in Hrabal Bohumil at 8:00 am by John Self

In the ever-escalating war against buying too many books, I recently adopted a new policy. I would not buy any books by an author who has unread books already on my shelves. So when I saw that Vintage Classics had reissued two novels by Bohumil Hrabal, I Served the King of England and Dancing 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, Vintage Classics? Your handsome repackaging is powerless against me, at least for another month or so.

Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains

Closely Observed Trains (1965; tr. Edith Pargeter 1968) is perhaps the best known – or least obscure – of Hrabal’s works, having been filmed a year after publication. The film has been described as “deadly serious and comic”, which is an apt description for Hrabal’s fiction generally. As with Too Loud a Solitude, the book begins in a spirited style, introducing the idea that on the Eastern front, in 1945, the Germans were losing control of the air-space over the narrator’s town.

The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the timetable, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

When a German plane is shot down over the town, its detached wing crashes into the deanery garden, and “within five minutes our townspeople had made a clean sweep of all the plates and sheet-metal from this wing, and the pieces reappeared the very next day as little roofs for rabbit-hutches and hen-houses.”

The man describing all this to us is Miloš Hrma, a 22-year-old apprentice on the railway, whose happy-go-lucky surface (concerned mainly with losing his virginity), is betrayed by our knowledge that he has just returned to work after three months’ absence after he slit his wrists in the bath. “I plunged both hands into the hot water, and watched the blood flow slowly out of me, and the water grow rosy, and yet all the time the pattern of the red blood flowing remained so clearly perceptible, as though someone was drawing out from my wrists a long, feathery red bandage, a filmy, dancing veil…” Hrabal, in his seductive way, leaves much for the reader to determine, and keeps the comic tone intact.

Hrabal also maintains his reputation as (in Adam Thirlwell’s words) “a writer of hectic digression”, and in just over 80 pages, he introduces a wild variety of characters and subjects, from pigeon-fancying to branding a young woman’s thighs with official railway rubber stamps. At times, when the digressions pile up, it’s easy to see why Hrabal has been considered an untranslatable writer. But although Hrma does divert his narrative long enough to lose his virginity with some tenderness (“…then she was kind to me…”), the narrative builds in the end to a quite perfectly sober and devastating climax. This concerns Hrma’s involvement in a plan to attack a German ammunition train which is due to pass their station.

The Germans are fools. Dangerous fools. I’d been a bit of a fool myself, too, but to my own hurt, while with the Germans it was always to the hurt of someone else.

In this brilliant overturning of the reader’s emotions, the book again resembles Too Loud a Solitude, and makes clear that Hrabal’s comic charm conceals considerable literary intelligence. The edition I read (Abacus, 1990) includes at the back a selected bibliography of Hrabal’s from the 1960s. Some of these I know of – ‘Dancing Lessons for Older and Advanced Pupils’ will be the one-sentence novella recently reissued (though note the different translation of the title) – but why haven’t we been given English translations of ‘A Pearl in the Depths’, ‘The Enthusiasts’ or ‘Sales Notice on a House in which I no longer wish to live’? Perhaps I’d better read the existing available titles first.

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23 Comments »

  1. Kenny_Shovel said,

    The trick of pulling you in with humour before becoming more serious is repeated, and bettered, in ‘I served the King of England’. IMO the best of Hrabal’s work.

    As with all of his books, it’s best to imagine yourself sitting opposite him in his beloved Golden Tiger whilst he spins you his outlandish yarns.

    btw: I can also reccommend the film version of this book by Jiří Menzel.

    Regards,

    K_S

  2. Emma said,

    Second ‘I Served the King of England’ as the best of his books, with the most perfect balance of tall tales with real sadness.

    Also the film of Closely Observed Trains – captures the absurdity plus pathos perfectly, in a totally disorientating way. The scene with the stamped young girl being told off by the officials must be one of the most simultaneously sweet, sexy and silly in film.

  3. John Self said,

    Thanks both – sold, then, on I Served the King of England. Oddly, I think I had a copy before, when it was published by Picador (which is another reason I didn’t buy the new Vintage reissue – similarly, I’d previously read Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age in a Harvill edition and don’t recall enjoying it much). I will have to look it out or replace it if it can’t be found.

    Emma, I read some Amazon reviews of the film Closely Observed Trains and they seem to agree about the subtle sexiness of some of the scenes like the thigh-stamping. Perhaps quite subversive in the climate of the time in Czechoslovakia.

  4. Seoman said,

    Hello John I recently read Too Loud A Solitude and the rereleased. Dancing Lessons. I’ve got Closely Observed Trains buried at home soemwhere. I’ll have to dig it out now. Great review. From reading Hrabal must have been quite a character.

  5. Stewart said,

    Have been wanting to read Hrabal for a bit. In fact I did at the start of the month, and was lost in the meandering of Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age. Going back to it soon, vigour renewed by skimming over a primer to 20th Century Czech writers.

    For not having read him much, I’ve certainly acquired a few titles, the strangest sounding one being Pirouettes On A Postage Stamp, which is supposedly an interview with Hrabal, but a novel at the same time.

  6. Fin Keegan said,

    Nice to be reminded of a book I read years ago, John, and now feel inclined to re-read.

    I am going to adopt your New Rule on book-buying: a wise policy!

  7. Randy said,

    Great review. I have become a Hhrabal fan, but have yet to read Dancing Lessons, Little Town Where Time Stood Still, or King of England. But that WILL be remedied at some point..Can also highly recommend Total Fears…Letters to Dubenka… its a series of texts, he called them ‘lyrical reportage’ to a young American student he had met.

  8. Mary said,

    I saw the film at the Academy cinema in Oxford Street an awfully long time ago. I still remember the silence that met the unexpected and devastating ending to the film. In my ignorance I didn’t realise the film was based on a novel. Thank you for an interesting review – I’ll look out for Hrabal’s books. Someone recommended `I served the King of England’ to me a while ago.
    I share the guilt about book buying. I’ve discovered that the second hand English ( or American) bookshops in Paris are terrific. I’ve just returned home to Brittany with a bagfull – this in addition to my loot from a recent visit to Hay on Wye ( and of course Amazon). My current regime is to try and not buy anything else before Christmas and to read the great pile(s) by my bed.

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I’m please Hrabal has such a following. Thanks too, Randy and Stewart, for the mention of titles I wasn’t aware of. (The Abacus edition I have also lists as available from them The Death of Mr Baltisberger, which is a collection of stories and in fact out of print, and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still/Cutting it Short, which I remember being published but I never picked up.)

    Mary, one of my happiest memories of Paris a couple of years ago was discovering the English language bookstore (name escapes me) on the Rue de Rivoli. Indeed that’s where I picked up the NYRB edition of Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude which reintroduced me to that wonderful writer.

  10. Trevor said,

    A month or so ago I reviewed a Czech novel on my blog and a few Hrabal followers implied that I couldn’t say I’m well read until I’ve read him. After looking into him, I wanted to buy all of his books I could — but I too have a cursed book buying policy in effect!! You’re a good example today, John, even if you still made me want to go buy a book :)

  11. Stewart said,

    John, in the States the Northwestern University Press, who have their Writings From An Unbound Europe series, feature Hrabal’s In House Weddings and will see the publication of Vita nuova next year. (Don’t know if that’s the title it will come under or now, just saw a casual mention on Twitter.)

  12. John Self said,

    Thanks for the heads-up, Stewart. It may well be that some of these titles from small presses that people have mentioned, include the ones I cited in the post, under differently translated titles.

    Trevor, you should really read Hrabal – and after all, the books are only waffer-theen…

  13. Closely Observed Trains is very good, definitely. I wrote it up myself here, http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2009/02/23/bohumil-hrabal-closely-observed-trains/, I was rather impressed by it. Great translation by Pargeter.

    Trevor, there’s some excellent Czech literature out there, don’t hold back!

  14. John Self said,

    Thanks Max. I urge everyone to read Max’s review which is much more comprehensive an overview of the book and of Hrabal’s methods than I have managed above.

  15. That’s kind John, but I fear I merely used more words. I’m always impressed by the precision with which you cut to a book’s heart, here the mix of tenderness, humour and the terrible.

    I should adopt your rule regarding purchases of authors one already has unread books by. I have a ton of Zweig’s at home, bought in a fit of enthusiasm after reading your back reviews, and have yet to start any of them. I’m looking forward to them, but it was perhaps a bit rash$

    The trouble is, sometimes a given imprint is so attractive that my fear of the author passing to a new publisher with hideous covers causes me to buy the lott. The Vintage covers for Richard Yates, for example, are so spot on that I find them hard to resist. The same holds for anything by Pushkin…

  16. Stewart said,

    The trouble is, sometimes a given imprint is so attractive that my fear of the author passing to a new publisher with hideous covers causes me to buy the lott. The Vintage covers for Richard Yates, for example, are so spot on that I find them hard to resist.

    In the same vein, I’m happier I bought all the Richard Yates novels in the Methuen editions before the Vintage ones appeared.

  17. You don’t like the Vintage covers Stewart? I have to admit, Vintage blow hot and cold for me on the cover front, but I do like the Yates’ covers.

    Still, there goes my point, hesitate and before you know it there’s a new edition featuring Liam Neeson or Samuel L Jackson or somesuch on the front.

    That said, John’s approach would have prevented by having three Julian Rathbones on my shelf, one of which I read and hated, boding ill for the other two.

    On an unrelated note, I made my last comment using my blackberry. I note I ended up with a dollar sign and lot becoming lott. It was worth trying, but not I think an unqualified success.

  18. John Self said,

    I disliked the Vintage Yates covers when they first appeared, but now quite like them, so – to combine Stewart’s and Max’s responses – I was glad I collected the Methuen editions in full (though my Rev Rd isn’t in the same style) but now would quite like to replace them with the Vintage ones…

    That said, John’s approach would have prevented by having three Julian Rathbones on my shelf, one of which I read and hated, boding ill for the other two.

    This made me laugh. How many times have I done that myself! (Not with Julian Rathbone, though…)

  19. Tsk, more typos, and I wasn’t even using my blackberry this time. Oh well.

    Anyway, are you a Rathbone enthusiast John? I read Joseph, and absolutely hated it by the time I was near the end. Unfortunate, as I’m usually a sucker for a good picaresque. I just loathed the character, and loathed the sadism of the author towards him, and didn’t find it funny. I don’t need to like a character to like a book, obviously, but there wasn’t enough else to keep me wanting to turn the pages. I bailed finally at about 50 pages from the end, not something I’d normally do at all but I just couldn’t bear another page. Still, in a way it’s to Rathbone’s credit I had that reaction, I could just have been bored after all.

    I still have The Last English King and Kings of Albion however, are either worth giving a go do you think? Rathbone could plainly write, and he has some marvellous ideas, but even if mine is a minority view on Joseph (and it is), it still makes me a touch gunshy.

  20. John Self said,

    No I’m not a Rathbone enthusiast, Max – by the above I just meant that I don’t have any Rathbone books. My fellow blogger amner (check out his film reviews at These Glory Days) rates The Last English King very highly, if I recall, so I’d certainly give it a go.

  21. Mary said,

    I read `The Last English King’ and enjoyed it because I liked his portrayal of Anglo Saxon life before the Norman invasion. I found his insertion of deliberately anachronistic quotations from modern poems and pop songs at certain points in the narrative quite funny. ( perhaps I was flattered because I recognised them). My husband found it whimsical and very irritating. Neither of us have read another book by Rathbone – perhaps one is enough.

  22. Fiona said,

    Ah. Have only read and loved I Served the King of England, but this morning got a copy of Closely Observed Trains in the post. Am very much looking forward to reading it, and then reading all of the above.

  23. smitha said,

    where is this book available in bangalore


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