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.

“That’s just who I am”: Is that Kafka? 99 Finds by Reiner Stach

“Now I’ve taken a closer look at my desk and realized that nothing good can be produced on it. There’s so much lying around here, it creates disorder without regularity, and with none of that agreeableness of disorderly things that otherwise makes every disorder bearable.”  (Find #29 Kafka’s Desk)

I have never understood those who feel inclined to disparage Franz Kafka. It should be sufficient to admit that a writer, especially one whose work has entertained and inspired so many and has clearly withstood the test of time, is simply not one who speaks to you. Admit, if you like, that you just don’t “get it”. But why, like Joseph Epstein in a 2013 Atlantic Monthly column, declare that Kaka’s apparent joyless, dark vision of the world reflects a personal defect that undermines his worth and proclaim: “Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.”

isthatkafkaOf course, there is no law that says that great literature and a delusory, ominous imagination are mutually exclusive, nor does a writer’s work necessarily represent their personal inclinations or moral character. Readers can, and have been, misled. And although Kafka, a German Jew living in Prague in the early part of the 20th century plagued by a persistent, crippling and ultimately fatal illness, would have more than ample reason to be every bit as morose as the tone of some of his most famous works suggest, Is That Kafka?, a collection of 99 fragments, letters, reminisces and insights offers an image of a man who was warm, friendly and well liked by those who knew him. He comes alive here as anything but a soul tortured and crushed by life.

Newly released from New Directions, this entertaining, illustrated compendium of facts and photographs, texts and testimonies represents a selection of fascinating finds uncovered by Reiner Stach in the course of researching his acclaimed three volume biography of Kafka. These are exactly the sort of glimpses into Kafka, the man, that rightfully inform a sensitive biographical study but can easily get lost in the retelling. An affectionately curated collection such as this volume offers a chance to slip back in time and glimpse the human, humorous man behind a body of work that has acquired mythic dimensions that would likely have embarrassed, if not horrified, its creator. Translated by Kurt Beals, this richly illustrated volume is ideal for anyone who has found themselves drawn to Kafka’s work, a book best enjoyed at leisure, a few entries at a time.

Divided into themes such as Idiosyncrasies, Reading and Writing, Illusions, Reflections and more; the entries are labelled and presented as exhibits, each offering an image, an excerpt, or an anecdote. We learn that Kafka was frightened of mice, fond of children, delighted in slapstick, and was skeptical towards doctors, medicines and vaccines – perhaps to the detriment of his own health. The floor plan of the apartment where he lived with his parents and sisters while writing The Metamorphosis is reproduced with the rooms marked as reassigned in the setting of his famous tale, while photographs of events at which Kafka is thought to have been present are scoured to pinpoint a tall, slim individual who might be the very man himself – the finds that give rise to the book’s title “Is that Kafka?” Some pieces will be known to even he most casual fan, such as the excerpts from two drafts of Kafka’s Will famously advising his friend Max Brod to collect and destroy all of his writings. Others may well surprise even the most dedicated enthusiast.

KafkaPersonally I was fascinated by Kafka’s reluctance to suffer doctors gladly (“Medicine knows only how to treat pain with pain, and then they say they have treated the disease,” he complained in a letter) and his attraction to what might be understood as alternative or holistic remedies. He was, like many with prolonged, serious illnesses, constantly on the alert for new treatment options, relocating as his symptoms demanded. He did seem to enjoy travel insofar as he was able to do so, fascinated by the experience of riding the Metro in Paris and even entertaining the creation of a series of guides for travelers on a budget. Women were drawn to him as evidenced by his numerous love affairs, his sisters adored him, and he was especially close to his youngest sister Ottla. Although he never did marry or have children of his own, he was deeply invested in his sisters’ children and appears to have taken great care selecting gifts and books for the youngsters he had a an opportunity to know.

However, one of my favourite finds is an extended account from a letter to Felice Bauer to whom he was twice engaged. Perhaps she had accused him of being too dour but he takes great pains to convince her that he is quite capable of falling into uncontrollable laughter by describing an incident during a ceremony at which he and a colleague are being honored with promotions at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute where he was employed. He starts to laugh during his colleague’s speech, a situation that is worsened when the president takes the stage:

“But as he began his speech–the sort of customary speech that you know long before you hear it, following the imperial formula and accompanied by heavy chest tones, altogether meaningless and unjustified–as my colleague cast sidelong glances my way, trying to warn me even as I fought for self-control, but in the process vividly reminding me of the pleasures of my earlier laughter–I couldn’t hold myself back. At first I only laughed at the harmless little jokes that the president scattered here and there; but whereas the law tells us to respond to these jokes only with a respectful smile, I was already letting out a full-throated laugh, I could see my colleagues give a start for fear of contagion, and I felt more sympathy for them than for myself, yet I didn’t try to turn away or cover my mouth with my hand, rather in my helplessness I kept staring into the president’s face, unable to turn away, probably feeling that it could only get worse, not better, and so it would be best to avoid any change at all.” (Find #51)

The portrait of Franz Kafka that takes shape over the course of these carefully edited and selected discoveries is one of an engaging, intelligent man – someone who could be shy and nervous at times, but hardly a man totally consumed and destroyed by hopelessness and despair. This makes the singular visions that haunt his work, that continue to speak to readers and are recognized all too frequently in a real world that turns, at times, on an axis that is rightly called Kafkaesque, even more profound because they did not define his life or relationships with others. He channeled them into his writing. Maybe that release even kept him sane.

Stach argues: look at his letters, his diaries, his sketches and unfinished drafts, and it becomes clear that Kafka’s whole life was literature. Thus to understand it fully, his stories and novels tell only part of the truth. He wrote, like all great writers, because he had to. As he says in the conclusion to the piece quoted at the outset of this review:

“Wretched, wretched, and yet well intended. It’s midnight after all, but considering that I’m very well rested, that can only serve as an excuse insofar as I wouldn’t have written anything at all during the day. The burning lightbulb, the quiet apartment, the darkness outside, the last waking moments entitle me to write, even if it’s the most wretched stuff. And I hastily make use of this right. That’s just who I am.”

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.