“…yes, tragedy rules the world and writers always have something to write about…”
The passionate interlocutor who commandeers the pages of Bohumil Hrabal’s breathlessly intense monologue/novella, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, is perhaps one of the most absurdly memorable narrators one could want to meet. For a little over 100 pages he entertains a group of sunbathing young women, engaging them with rapturous tales – the taller the better – peppered with endless asides, diversions and commentaries. Apart from commas and the occasional question or exclamation marks, there are no real sentence breaks; no full stops, not even at the very end of this glorious single sentence verbal escapade.
The genesis of this early, experimental work lay in a series of texts Hrabal transcribed in 1949, at the elbow of his Uncle Pepin, an inveterate raconteur who will, himself, feature as character in his nephew’s later works. These tales were originally gathered as a collection titled The Sufferings of Old Werther which, as it turned out, was never published. But, as any decent storyteller in possession of a goldmine knows, no good tale dare go untold. So these stories were dismantled, literally cut and pasted, reworked, and recycled into the present novel which was originally released in 1964 – one of a number of diverse works that Hrabal would publish in the early 1960’s.
The narrator at the centre of Dancing Lessons, is what Hrabal called a pábitel (typically translated into English as “palaverer”), a dreamer caught up in his own world of memory, spilling forth an endless stream of anecdotes, tragic-comic observations, and beer hall philosophy. Here we have an old man who, without unnecessary delay, launches straight into an account of his past exploits as a soldier, cobbler, brewmaster and, in his own mind at least, legendary womanizer. His narrative spins off into so many diversions and asides that his audience has no option but to submit to the whirlwind:
“… here I am pushing seventy and having the time of my life with you like the emperor with that Schratt lady, promising you red leather pumps like the ones I made for Doctor Karafiát’s sister, who was a beauty, but had one glass eye, which is a problem, because you never know what it’s going to do next, a hatter from Prostějov once told me he took a woman with a glass eye to the pictures and she sneezed and it flew out and during the break they had to go crawling under the seats for it, but she found it wiped it off, pulled up her eyelid, and pop! in it went, by the way, baking is as much of an art as shoemaking, my brother Adolph was a trained baker…”
And on he goes. You get the idea. His asides are often as brutal as they are hilarious. With suitably ribald and absurd black humour, they are just as frequently both at once. Characters surface briefly, generally to either amorous or unfortunate ends, but, throughout the monologue, his banter does tend to revolve around themes – his experiences at the front during the war, the qualities of well fashioned footwear, the technical aspects of brewing beer, or the unlikelihood of achieving marital bliss. Eventually, in true beer hall fashion, the narrative becomes dominated by a series of pissing contests toward the end. After all, a lot of beer is consumed in the course of these tales, it has to go somewhere!
An admirer of the “European Renaissance”, his euphemism for sex, our hero is guided by the wisdom of two essential texts that resurface repeatedly throughout the course of his monologue and add to a sense of continuity. One is a handbook on sexual hygiene ascribed to a Mr. Batista who warns, for instance, “men against giving in to their passions, no more than three times an afternoon or four times for Catholics, to prevent sinful thoughts from taking shape”. The other guidebook from which he quotes regularly is Anna Nováková’s book of dreams that conveniently offers explanations – even handy excuses – to be gleaned from nocturnal imagery: “holding a dead man’s watch means a wedding and being locked in an insane asylum means a great fortune awaits you!” or how repeatedly dreaming about canaries in cages would mean one “would always long for freedom”.
When it comes to the ladies, our narrator has an insatiable appetite and no shortage of offers that tumble, often one into another, in his recollections. Even in the hospital recovering from surgery, while his rugged blacksmith roommate succumbs to pneumonia, he confesses that :
“… I was the only one who came out on top, a pretty nurse served me pheasant and asked me why I wasn’t married, why I let so fine a body go to waste, and for an answer I slipped out from under the covers and was about to give her a dancing lesson when they chased me back to bed because after a hernia operation they make you lie there like a corpse, a giant of a girl, but beautiful, once called to me from the Elbe, Come in to the water and I’ll give you a kiss, so in I went – neck deep, clothes and all – and got my prize, a hero once more, back on land I had to wring out more than my clothes, I’d just picked up my pay in ten-crown notes, and there I stood in my underpants, the women rushing down to the river to have a look at me, the whole town on its feet, yes…”
The ineffable character of Hrabal’s unstoppable narrator lends an infectious momentum to this novella. It also allows him to blend in a backhanded social and political commentary, often in the manner of an unreserved sentimentality for a bygone era. As Adam Thirlwell indicates in his introduction, Hrabal’s fiction simultaneously lingers on and evades what it is trying to say. One sentence can easily be contradicted by the that follows.
“But Hrabal’s technique is so moving, finally, because the world historical past is only an element of our universal nostalgia. For ‘in the days of the monarchy shoemaking was more chemistry than craft,’ laments our hero, ‘ today it’s all conveyor belts, I was a shoemaker, but I wore a pince-nez and carried a stick with a silver mounting because back then everyone wanted to look like a composer or a poet’…” (Introduction)
In his joy for the “good old days”, there is a melancholy need to preserve proof of the trauma, not only of the past, but presumably of the present circumstances as well. Hrabal and his fellow artists were, at the time this book was published, working under the restrictions of the Communist government, a situation that would become more oppressive in the years to come.
But as his erstwhile rogue – at once grandiose, hysterical and fatalistic – wishes to remind the reader, worthwhile literature should cut sharply:
“… which must be why Bondy the poet says that real poetry must hurt, as if you’d forgotten you wrapped a razor blade in your handkerchief and you blow your nose, no book worth its salt is meant to put you to sleep, it’s meant to make you jump out of bed in your underwear and run and beat the author’s brains out…”
* Translated by Michael Henry Heim, with an introduction by Adam Thirlwell, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age is available from NYRB Classics.