Another winter solstice is upon us: 2016 – The year in review

Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

Moving forward, the days grow steadily longer and, in less than two weeks, we will leave a dark, disturbing year behind us.

But it would be reckless to imagine that 2017 will be brighter. However, with luck, we can be forewarned, forearmed, and determined not to relax our guard. We can stand together against the rising tides of hatred, and remember what is truly at stake.

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Since I started this blog two and a half years ago, winter solstice has become my annual check-in point. Last December, I reflected on the key elements of a year that began with a move to writing seriously about books and culminated with my first review for Numéro Cinq. Against that trajectory, I wrote about my trip to South Africa, and the pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest that followed within a few weeks of my return. I imagined that the eventful year I had experienced would not likely, for better or worse, be exceeded this year.

Cue 2016.

This has been a year of heartache, anger, and dismay. Around the world and close to home. I watched the violence in Syria, the outcome of the Brexit vote, and the spectacle of the American election, among the other tragic and unexpected events that have unfolded. And as economic uncertainty and anxiety has grown in my own hometown—a city that lives and dies with the price of oil—the crime and homicide rate has risen sharply this year. It does not feel like the same community any more.

Then there is the lengthy roll call of the writers, artists, and performers who have left us. But to be honest, I cannot say that I have felt these losses as acutely as many others… I’ve been distracted by the immediate, personal losses that marked this year. My mother, my father, and one of my closest friends, all gone within the span of two months. And my grief—that most fundamental human emotion—is complicated, inarticulate, and wearing.

It will take time.

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But, 2016 has also been a time of amazing growth and opportunity for me as a writer. I don’t know how often I resolved, with the dawn of a new year that: This year I will write. Last December, with that first critical review under my belt, I could not have imagined that I would have, in addition to regular contributions to Numéro Cinq, published reviews at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and The Rusty Toque. And I would not have dared to dream that I would see my essays and prose pieces published on line and in print, or that I would be invited to join the editorial team of The Scofield. As 2017 approaches, I have a handful of reviews scheduled and several prose projects underway. I’m also feeling inspired to return to photography after a lengthy hiatus, and to see how I can incorporate photos into my written work.

I have much to look forward to, in spite of, or rather, against the new darkness that threatens.

Art and literature are more important than ever at times like this.

So, this seems to be an appropriate time to look back over this year’s reading, and highlight the books that stand out for me.

I’ve read about 50 books to date, a little more than half of what I read in 2015. I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to how many books I bought, received as review copies, or brought home from the library. I feel, as usual, like I fell short of my intentions. However, I have to remember that I was writing, working on critical reviews, and dealing with considerable life stresses over the past twelve months.

More than ever before, I read like a writer this year. That is, I was especially attuned to voice, structure and approach to storytelling. Consequently, the books that made my year-end list tend to reflect this focus. Of course, any “best-of list” leaves out many excellent books. I’ve managed a baker’s dozen here, and it’s probably a reflection of the increased number of off-blog reviews I wrote that this year’s list is predominately composed of new releases. I was surprised to see that once I’d made my selection.

In reverse chronological order, my top reads of 2016 include the following:

Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter (France), translated by Rachel Careau
I will write about this collection of three short stories once I have completed The Attraction of Things. My verdict is still out on that title, but this tiny book is simply wonderful.

The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves (UK)
Fragmentary, cross genre writing that works fascinates me. Billed as a “memoir by other means”, it is Eaves’ unique tone that makes this blend of memoir, literary criticism, and poetry so compelling. His thoughtful reflections on reading and writing made this an ideal meditation to turn to after a year of reading critically and exploring my own literary voice.

gravediggerThe Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval (Czech Republic), translated by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická)
I have found myself turning to poetry more and more as the world seems increasingly unstable and, well, surreal. This newly translated collection of poetry by one of the best known Czech Surrealists should be essential reading at this time. Originally published in 1937, the darkness he could see on the horizon are all too familiar once again.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann (Swiss), translated by Kurt Beals
I read this collection of short stories when I was in a very low mood. But in the spare, sombre prose of these tales I found a beauty that, rather than deepening my depression, brought strange comfort. Admired, in her lifetime, by the likes of Rilke, Mann, and Musil, Ullmann’s work is mostly forgotten today. This volume, released in English translation in 2015, is a rare treasure—one that I encountered at just the right moment.

panorama-coverPanorama by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia), translated by Rawley Grau
For me, as a reader and a writer, one of the most important books I read this year is this literary meditation on migration, language, landscape, and loss. This novel finally broke through my own stubborn determination to hold to a sharp delineation between fiction and nonfiction, and has made me re-evaluate potential approaches to themes I wish to examine. What Šarotar achieves here with his own unique take on what might be deemed a “Sebaldian” approach, is the creation of an atmospheric, captivating, and intelligent work.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (Brazil), translated by Idra Novey
Oh wow! In a way, I am glad I didn’t read Lispector before writing and publishing my essay “Your Body Will Betray You,” because she is exploring the process of coming into being so beautifully that I might not have been able to write at all after reading this. Employing an unconventional narrative, Lispector’s G.H. experiences a vivid, metaphysical crisis triggered by the sight of a cockroach. The result is a remarkable, thoroughly engaging read. I have at least three more of her books waiting for the new year.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (US)
I bought a number of essay collections this year and currently have several on the go. This collection impressed me not only for the way the essays were composed—written without consulting outside sources—but for some of the ideas explored, and for reinforcing the value and possibilities of the personal essay/memoir form. I also greatly appreciated his guiding caveat: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.

SergioSergio Y. by Alexandre Vidal Porto (Brazil), translated by Alex Ladd
This book is significant and important for dealing with gender identity and transition in a sensitive and original way. I am, as a transgender person, critical of much of what passes as literary writing on this subject. This is a most impressive work with a startling and unique approach. As I noted in my review, Sergio Y. is novel that approaches the transgender experience from the inside and the outside, allowing for the comfort with names and pronouns to vary, over time and from person to person, reflecting the complexities of relationships that others, even loving family members, can have when an accepted and assumed identity is challenged. That is the book’s greatest strength.

surrThe Surrender by Scott Esposito (US)
This book was on my radar from the moment I first heard of it. Again, despite my typical gender related skepticism, I was drawn to this transgender-themed memoir/film critique/literary diary. I wanted to know how Scott would present his story—one that is not commonly heard. Although his journey is very different than mine, we share a certain sensibility. This is a brave and most wonderful book by a man who has long been one of my heroes. He has since become one of the many literary friends I have come to know and cherish this year.

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Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), translated by Simon Pare
This book was a total surprise when it arrived courtesy of the good people at Seagull Books. This most unusual travelogue, a series of brief “encounters” across the globe, contains some of the most stunning descriptive language I have ever read. Each episode begins with the words “I saw…” and ends with a wise, evocative observation. From the North Pole, to South America, from deep inside the mountains of New Zealand, to a parking lot in San Diego, this is a journey that will not be easily forgotten. Highly recommended.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (Brazil), translated by Adam Morris
My third Brazilian book on this list is this enigmatic novella that led to one of the most entertaining literary discussions of the year. What is it about? Well that is the challenge. I had to read it three times before I could begin to get a handle on it. The narrator, a young man who finds himself in a strange situation that is rapidly growing stranger, is, in his oddly passive tone, almost more disturbing than whatever might be happening. Opaque and surreal, this book gets under your skin.

The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha (Egypt), translated by Robin Moger
This novel still holds fast in my memory although I read it back in February. It is, as I described it in my review, a prose poem of simmering power, unwinding across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring. It is a dark, intense exploration of youthful political idealism, that builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a compelling narrative force as it moves toward its stunning conclusion. Again, this is another work that is increasingly relevant in today’s world.

On-the-edgeOn the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (Spain), translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Finally, the very first book I read in 2016 is probably my favourite book of the year. I wrote about this novel at length for Numéro Cinq and I regret that it has not generated more discussion. In what is essentially an extended monologue with brief cameos from other characters, Chirbes creates a memorable, engaging, and tragic character in seventy-year-old Esteban, a man who has lost absolutely everything in the economic collapse of 2008.  Thoroughly human in his wisdom, his resolve, his shortcomings, and his despair; this is a powerful and important book that deals frankly with many of the critical issues—including migration, xenophobia, and economic decline—that are more vital than ever as we step into 2017.

Cold comfort: The Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval

That terrible fist swings the bell
The blasphemer
Is boxing
Hell-bent on knocking out the eye of heaven
That cynically floods desolate white-washed houses
With radial light
With an iron resolution to act
While the knuckles crack
This fist delivers bruises shaped like swallow nests to roofs
In the name of vengeance
(from “The Blacksmith”)

Upon my first read-through of this newly translated collection of poetry by prominent Czech Surrealist, Vítěslav Nezval, I was struck by an eerie sense that the poet was speaking to the present moment. Published in 1937, the poems gathered in The Absolute Gravedigger form a gallery of darkening, disturbing, and frequently grotesque images that capture the mood of the shifting landscape of the years leading up to the Second World War. Some are small, contained, and often bucolic scenes. But others depict expansive nightmarish vignettes of obsession, violence, corruption and decay—evoking imagery worthy of Bruegel, Arcimboldo or Bosch—and closely aligned with the spirit and sentiment associated with the more widely known French Surrealism.

Returning for a second reading, in the immediate aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, I cannot help but wonder how quickly the lessons of the last century have been forgotten—and shudder at the thought of what potentially lies ahead.

gravediggerBorn in 1900, Nezval began writing and publishing poetry in the 1920s, but by the early ’30s, he and a number of his fellow Czech writers and artists had fallen under the influence of the French avant-garde. He first met André Breton in Paris in 1933, and the following year he helped found the Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia, the first such group to receive the Breton seal of approval, so to speak, outside of France. Yet, even though they made important contributions to the movement, the Czech Surrealists have remained relatively obscure, a situation further exacerbated by the artistic restrictions applied under the years of Communist occupation. The release of The Absolute Gravedigger from Twisted Spoon Press should help to ameliorate that situation, and spark further interest in the work of Nezval and his contemporaries.

In his poetry, as evidenced in this collection, Nezval was a stylist who drew widely from the Surrealist playbook. In an interview in The Bohemist, translators Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická describe their decision to work together as follows:

Nezval was prolific and incredibly gifted, so the book is over 200 pages, and contains a range of styles from traditional rhymed quatrains to freewheeling litanies and dense, paranoiac prose. A challenge to translate, to say the least, so approaching it as a team seemed like a good idea.

The diversity of the poems in this collection is difficult to capture in the space of a short review. Suffice to say that they range from the relatively conventional to the decidedly bizarre. For example, “The Windmill” is a section comprised of a series of rural compositions featuring farm and small town scenes. However, the imagery is vivid, sometimes surprising in its unexpected shifts, and an unmistakable darkness seems to wait just over the horizon, as demonstrated in this portion of “The Reapers”:

The birds have flown off
Everything on the verge of tears
Huge carts haul off bales of straw
A cock crows
And wheels squeak
The landscape changes
Brown pitchers peak from under gladiolas
And confusion seized the horses
The mills clatter
From afar
As a signal
Like an imminent declaration of war
And suddenly the whole place is holiday empty

Similar bucolic settings return in the later “Shadowplays” section which features tightly rhyming, orderly quatrains which, to preserve the feel of the originals, the translators have chosen to carry into English with as much of the spirit and musicality intact as possible. Because these pieces stand out so sharply against the more open and, at times, unrestrained quality of the rest of the book, this seems to be a wise choice. Coming on the heels of the intense, fantastic and disturbing imagery of the poems in the “The Absolute Gravedigger” section— the title poem, “The Fetishist,” The Blacksmith,” “Milking,” and “The Plowman”—the sudden appearance of a traditional formality catches the reader off guard.

2016-10-27-16-12-40The author has also included several pieces of his own artwork and the poems they inspired framed by two prose pieces in which he talks about the process of decalomania (the creation of abstract images by laying a thick layer of paint on a surface and pressing a piece of paper or canvas against it) and its influence on, not only the directly referenced pieces but other key poems in the book. Nezval explains that the process gave rise to prototypes of “the hybrid creatures” that people his most surreal poems.

There is harsh brutality that runs through the most fantastic and, to put it simply, “surreal” of these Surrealist poems. The characters that are brought to life, resemble the denizens of an adult Grimm’s fairy tale—grotesquely featured, obscenely sexualized, dirty, decaying—and trapped, sentenced to their miserable fates. But the piece that is most profoundly political, and devastatingly timely once again is the final poem, “The Iberian Fly.” Here on the wings and body of a gigantic fly making its way through the skies, a terrifying spectacle is playing out, summoning imagery reaching back to the Spanish Inquisition, but zeroing in on the rising waves of fascist ideology sweeping Europe. Nezval’s original version was apparently more specific, naming names, but increasing censorship stayed his hand before the final version went to print. All the same, the message is clear:

[The Iberian fly’s] proboscis
Was gradually
Immersed
Into several drops of blood
Squeezed out
Of different races
And subjected these drops
To analytical chicanery
Whose fraudulent result manifested
As diagrams
Once these drops
Of blood
Hardened into a crust resembling sealing wax

As the drop
Of drying Aryan blood
Turned into a faux jewel
Spectrally depicting
Absolute nobility
In the form of Ionic columns
Under which reflected in miniature
The beguiling image of bathing women
On the sparkling left wing of the Iberian fly
The other drops
Drying
Transformed
Under the touch of the dirty finger
Of the little man with the Chaplin mustache
Into this pictorial relief

The relief that is depicted in the following stanzas incorporates African and Asian features—a chilling echo of the type of racist graffiti, propaganda and attacks that we have seen post Brexit and, now Trump. And these patterns know no borders. In Canada, where I live, the past week has seen a sharp upturn in the same trends. The immergence of this translation, at this time, is uncanny, there is a new chill to these words, almost eighty years after they were first published.

Plus ça change.

The Absolute Gravedigger is published, by Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press, in a handsome hardcover edition featuring Nezval’s own decalomania artwork on the cover.

Through my people you shall know me: I, City by Pavel Brycz

It could be argued that the celebrated cities of the world – Rome, Paris, Vienna and others – owe their mystique to words of the poets who have walked their streets. But what of the humble, disregarded metropolises, where are their voices to be found? For Czech writer Pavel Brycz, his own love/hate relationship with the city in which he grew up inspired him to wonder how he might access the beating heart of a place more associated with crime and unemployment than romance. He decided to give the voice to the city itself, allow the city to express its affection for the souls residing within its boundaries, and the result, I City, is a work of melancholy tenderness.

CityMost is a city with medieval roots in the northwest region of the Czech Republic. Situated in the middle of the lignite mining region of Northern Bohemia, this fated urban centre has, since the mid 20th century, been associated with industrial development, pollution, environmental degradation, and the social problems that often percolate in similar communities. During the 1960’s, under the Communist government of the day, the historical old town was demolished to allow greater access to the lignite deposits lying beneath its foundations. Remarkably to preserve the late Gothic Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, dating from the 1500’s, the entire building was physically relocated 841 metres, a painstaking process involving 53 transport trucks set on special rails. Meanwhile, rows of uninspired housing constructed of prefabricated concrete panels were erected to house the relocated residents and the new workers who began to flood into the area. The personified city frames this event as indicative of its own nomadic spirit:

“Mine is a migratory soul. And one day you’ll wake up, and you’ll be somewhere totally different than you are today:
You’ve already experienced it once. Don’t you remember?
You looked on in astonishment as the church rode away.
Where does our faith ride? In which direction is our lack of faith headed?
To heaven or to hell, which is the destination of our future? Shhh…
Once before you watched the church slowly going, and the birds were off to the south.
You didn’t know what was behind it. Now, I’ll reveal it to you: I, city, unhappily, happy, hitched up invisible horses and dreamt of a promised land. And I dream about it still, incessantly.”

Through a series of “appearances” – short stories, fragments, prose poems – the city of Most tells its own history, through the stories of its children, young and old alike. And because it was leveled and rebuilt, these are timely, modern stories told with the magic of folktales. There are touching stories of love – kindled, sundered, missed by coincidence. There are the vagaries of youth – from the poetic angst of teenagers to the dreams of hockey glory in far off Canada. There are heartbreaking stories of the lost who return home, like that of the young woman who arrives on her parents’ doorstep after years of living rough in Prague and is welcomed without question; and of the lost who are lost for good, like the solemn lament for the young man whose mean life was cut short:

“He needed wings. He needed to wave at the world from high altitude. Now he’s gone. He sniffed Čikuli stain remover and flew off far away from me, though he lies dead on one of my streets. I, city, don’t know how to shed tears. Because of one boy, the rain won’t fall from the sky.”

The city, as narrator, loves its people, and, as such brings to life a place that is more than its industrial setting might reveal. Kafka, Pope John Paul II and other historical personages make fictional appearances, but it is the common person, the unadorned life, that gives the inanimate entity its pulse. Bohumil Hrabal, one of Brycz’s literary heroes comes to mind here, as his work likewise celebrated the lives of ordinary people.

For all the mixed emotions we often hold for the very places that shape us, Brycz has, in this unique novel, a created a city worth loving because it cares about its own, even if it is helpless to protect or change the fate of any one its citizens. It can only watch, listen and, at times, sit along side them:

“I am a city. I’m full of people. Nothing human is strange to me. I love people. But not because they are great.
I love them because they are small.
There are a lot of them, and they’re all lonesome.
Fettered, they yearn for freedom. They pray for immortality, and yet they don’t survive the touch of death, the Medusa jellyfish. They thought up money and they eternally lack it.
They explained their dreams and then they took sleeping pills.”

I, City, translated by Joshua Cohen and Markéta Hofmeisterová, is published by Twisted Spoon Press.

My Review of Mr Kafka & Other Tales from the Time of the Cult by Bohumil Hrabal at Numéro Cinq

I’m thrilled to announce that my first review for Numéro Cinq is now live. Here’s a taste and a link to the entire review, an excellent online magazine, and your chance to see what a rough ghost really looks like!

Mr KafkaMr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult, recently released by New Directions, represents the latest addition to the growing body of work by the late Czech author, Bohumil Hrabal, to be made available to an English speaking audience. Composed and set, for the most part, during the early years of Communist era Czechoslovakia, this collection of seven short stories is deeply informed by a time when Stalin’s larger-than-life cult of personality loomed over a country unwillingly caught up in the thrust of major social and economic reforms. Yet, as the author indicates in his preface, this book can be seen as both a representation of his society’s evolution, and as an expression of his own creative evolution. During this period there was no single experience more profound for Hrabal, the writer, than his recruitment, in 1949, as a “volunteer” manual labourer at the Poldi Steelworks in the town of Kladno near Prague.

Today the Koněv division of the steelworks where Hrabal worked stands in ruin. During his term of service though, it was a bustling operation devoted to turning the wreckage of war into the raw material required for, among other things, armaments for the forces of the Soviet Union. Although he studied law, Hrabal had worked at a variety of positions including railway dispatcher, insurance agent and salesman prior to finding himself on the factory floor of the steelworks. He arrived in the company of an assortment of other white-collar workers and professionals who suddenly found themselves engaged in unfamiliar work in a strange and dangerous environment alongside seasoned labourers, Party hacks, and prisoners.

Read the rest of the review here.

 

 

Some memory I’ve got, eh, young ladies? Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal

“…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.

Dancing-Lessons-for-the-Advanced-in-Age_1024x1024The 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…”

Oh yes.

* Translated by Michael Henry Heim, with an introduction by Adam Thirlwell, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age is available from NYRB Classics.

Bohemian dreamer: A Gothic Soul by Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic

“Fiction is eternal; reality perishes” we are warned in the preface of A Gothic Soul, “Invented forms live, real ones vanish. Truth is ephemeral; illusion everlasting.” What follows in this classic of Czech Decadent literature, originally published in 1900, revived in a new translation by Kirsten Lodge and lovingly presented by Twisted Spoon Press, is a poetic account of the emotional and philosophical torments faced by a troubled young man who struggles to place his disaffected existence between real life as lived by others and the internal world of his dreams.

2015-05-19 19.33.24One can sense from the outset that this is not a happy story. The author has already made it clear that it will not be a “story” in the typical sense at all but rather a journey of internalized reflections. A romantic darkness and decay looms large, it is hard to imagine sunlight filtering through. The humour, the playful nods that the narrator directs to the great French Decadent writers, is very black indeed. And yet this work is permeated with a remarkable beauty.

The hero of A Gothic Soul is the last of his line, raised by maiden aunts after his parents’ death. His childhood is gloomy and oppressive, haunted by a fear of inheriting the religious mania that drove a cousin to take his own life. He responds to the external world with an affect of remote deadness while allowing to flourish, within his soul, an internal reality filled with light and magic. Each time he resolves to engage with world, to seek an end to his lonely isolation, he ends up retreating into his dreams to seek comfort. A deep conflict arises when his natural misanthropy clashes with his abiding desire for a true and perfect companion, a male friend and lover with whom he can meld body and soul. On the few occasions when he meets a potential friend, his fear and shyness drive him away.

“But everything was so distant. He was sick – he felt it. He could find no peace. It was as though all the atoms of his soul had been vapourized. He could no longer calm himself. He longed for a friend, a kindred soul. How beautiful to give himself to someone and to feel that he had given himself to someone. His life would immediately acquire meaning. What happiness! What charm!”

Early in his self-exploration he believes that the ultimate respite for his agonized soul lies in the Church, in monastic life. But his nihilistic temperament causes him to lose his grasp on his faith, to fall away from the idols and saints that once gave him comfort and to question what it means to believe in God. Spirits now begin to follow him through the streets and into his ancient family home. Fears of madness return.

His reflections then turn to the role that his Czech identity plays in this wretched existence to which he seems to be condemned. His Czechness, his city, become entwined with his struggle to make sense of his inability to live life fully. Is his nation seeking its own medieval traces, its own Gothic soul? Does the fate of his nation trying to define a space for itself in the Austro-Hungarian Empire mirror his own search? Some of the most stunning passages in this novella read like a heartbreaking ode to his native city.

“And now the evening bells rang out over Prague. A weight, darkly clanging and tragic, fell from their harmony. And unexpected numbness imbued the air. Stifling shadows hung drowsily over the rooftops. Not even a wing of a belated bird moved in this air. Everything suddenly seemed to be standing stock-still to listen to the conversing bells. Iron strokes broke through the windows of belfries and towers. The resonant sound cascaded down before dying out in the distance, flowing haltingly over the city’s rooftops.”

As the story progresses, our hero continues to overthink his dilemma as he wanders the streets of the city or takes refuge in his rooms. His reasoning pivots between optimism and despair. He realizes that he is losing his grip, that a life unlived is his likely destiny.

2015-05-19 19.38.39Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic (1871-1951) was an instrumental figure in the formation of the Czech Decadent movement. In a fascinating Afterword and author’s Biography, translator Kirsten Lodge describes the nature and development of this movement. In contrast with other strains of the same tradition, for the Czech Decadents the themes of despair and death are taken to the level of national obsession. For Karásek, his homosexuality also deeply informed his conception of Decadent thought. A desperate homoerotic longing runs throughout A Gothic Soul. This is complimented in this gorgeously presented publication by a series of illustrations by artist Sascha Schneider (1870-1927).

Twisted Spoon Press is a small independent publisher based in Prague. This is my first encounter with one of their publications. I was drawn in by the sheer beauty of this book. It is a joy to read and an important literary work that still resonates 115 years after it was first published. Trust me, an electronic copy would not be the same. You will want the hard cover version.

Witness to old times: Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal

“…what is human happiness? Whatever it is, unhappiness is always lurking just around the corner…”

One of the last novels by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, Harlequin’s Millions opens as an elderly woman and her husband have settled into an old Gothic castle which has been converted into a pensioners’ home. This fantastical seniors’ residence, once the resplendent abode of Count Špork, is perched on the edge of a small town, a little place where, we are told, “time stood still”. From the opening pages, the reader is swept into the meditative melancholy reminisces of a once proud and self-centred woman. As she looks back on her own life and the way that history has formed and reshaped her hometown, and in fact, her country; images, phrases, and characters flow through her account echoing the serenade that is piped throughout the premises and lends the novel its name:

“The string orchestra curls gently around the old tree trunks and ‘Harelquin’s Million’s’ climbs like old ivy into the crowns and trickles down along the leaves, the corridors of the home are filled with a pleasant phosphorescent gas, with the scent of cheap perfume, so no one is really aware of the music, only when there’s a power failure and ‘Harlequin’s Millions’ is suddenly cut off, stops short, the way everything stops as if by magic in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, all the pensioners glance up, they look up at the speakers and the sudden loss of the music feels to them like when the lights go out and everyone longs to hear it again, because without it the air in the castle and along the paths in the park is unbreathable.”

HMThe gentle narrative flow will not be rushed. Each chapter is one long languorous paragraph. Our unnamed narrator is by turns sentimental and shrewd. Toothless, wrinkled and defiant, she casts her keen eye on her fellow pensioners and systematically dissects her own life and marriage. Her husband Francin remains glued to the radio, following all the news he can access from afar and looking ever to the future, while she realizes that she has become increasingly enamoured with the history of her town, with the past. Her guides are three eccentric male residents of the seniors’ home, her “old witnesses to old times” who periodically wax lyrical about the milestones that have passed, the characters who have come and gone, the memories that risk being erased like the weathered sandstone statues in the park and the cemetery headstones that are ultimately removed and carted away. It is difficult not to get wrapped up in this reflective monologue, swept away with her musings about joy, vanity and loss.

But be assured that this is not a novel without humour. In one particularly hilarious episode, a handsome young doctor who fills in for the regular octogenarian physician, arrives and shakes up the sleepy environment of the home. He cuts back sleeping medications, advises his male patients to smoke and drink more, and inspires this female patients to powder and preen. Then, as an antidote to the ceaseless string orchestra theme that filters through the grounds, he heads into the former banquet hall with a phonograph and an armful of records. Beneath the ceiling painted with glorious battle scenes from ancient Greece, the music he plays stirs in his ancient patients memories of youth, passion and the glory of war. But it is the doctor himself who snaps from the intensity of emotion, setting off on a wild rampage, trailed by his female admirers, like a hoard of crazed aged groupies. Needless to say, in the end, the medication regime is resumed, “Harlequin’s Millions” once again pours forth from the ubiquitous speakers, and order is restored.

An ode to his own hometown, Hrabal offers, in Harlequin’s Millions, a deeply affecting meditation on collective versus personal memory. For this little “town where time stood still”, time is only standing still for the observer. In the rooms and halls of the Count’s former castle, each elderly resident wanders lost in his or her own thoughts, passing time, waiting until it is their moment to move on. The past belongs to the community but its experience is in the sole possession of the individual. It is at once resilient and transient.

Stacey Knecht’s sensitive translation brings to life the beautiful, hypnotic prose of this wonderful novel – my first encounter with the work of Bohumil Hrabal and with another fine not-for-profit press, Archipelago Books. I am most impressed by both.