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.
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.