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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997)


Czech novelist and short story writer, whose tales show the influence of Surrealism, Dada, and psychoanalysis. Bohumil Hrabal gained international fame with Closely Watched Trains (1965), set in German occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. The novel was also made into a highly successful film, directed by Jiri Menzel. Hrabal's writings were banned after the Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Hrabal died at the age of 82. He fell from a window at the Bulovka hospital in Prague. According to some sources, he was trying to feed the pigeons, according to others he commited suicide

"When I started to work at the Golden Prague Hotel, the boss hold of my left ear, pulled me up, and said, You're a busboy here, so remember, you don't see anything and you don't hear anything. Repeat what I just said. So I said I wouldn't see anything and I wouldn't hear anything." (from I Served the King of England, 1980)

Bohumil Hrabal was born near Brno, but his childhood Hrabal spent in Nymburk, where his step-father, František Hrabal, worked as a brewery manager. Hrabal's mother, Marie Božena Kiliánová, was an assistant bookkeeper; she married František Hrabal in 1916.

Just before the World War II, Hrabal entered Charles University, Prague. His first printed work Prší (it’s raining) was published in 1937 Nymburk newspapers. After the Nazis closed the universities, he took up various jobs, including a dispatcher in a small railway station and an assistent in a small law firm in Nymburk in 1939-1940. Hrabal received his law degree in 1946, but he never practiced. Instead he tried a wide variety of occupations – he worked as a commercial and insurance agent, a steelworker in Kladno foundries, a handler of waste paper, and a stagehand in a Prague theater. These experiences provided him much material for his tales and anecdotes. In 1956 he married Eliška Plevová, the daughter of Karel Pleva, a procurator and manager of a wood factory. 

Hrabal established himself relatively late as writer, at the age of 49, although he had started to write poetry in the 1940s. Later he focused on prose text and novellas. From the early period dates Ztracená ulička (a lost alley), his scheduled literary debut, which eventually came out in 1991. Hrabal's first book of short stories, Perlička na dně (a little pearl at the bottom), was not published until 1963. At that time the Czechoslovak communist regime moved toward more liberal policy. From Surrealists, he adopted the the technique of "automatic writing", which especially marked his works from the 1970s. His works also show the influence of James Joyce and his stream-of-consciousness style.

In the 1960s, Hrabal's short stories inspired the Czech "new wave" filmmakers. The film adaptation of A Close Watch on the Trains won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 1967. Menzel's film version, with its comic incidents and characters, was relatively successful also in the United States – every major reviewer recognized its merits. Jaromir Sofir's camerawork has a sober, understated aspect. He consciously tried to to blend "archaic stylisation" with "the beloved Czech version of cinéma-vérité." (Making Pictures: A Century of European Cinematography, 2003, pp. 286-287)

Milos Hrama, the young protagonist, is an apprentice stationmaster at a little rural station. He is more interested in losing his virginity with a lively ticket inspector, Mása, than in the ongoing war or time schedules. Milos' maturing ends tragically – he blows up a train and dies heroically in the act of sabotage against the Germans. Menzel wanted a happy ending, but Hrabal persuaded him to retain the original conclusion. "Most important, this concluding sequence turns the entire movie into a metaphor for Czechoslovakia itself," Richard Schickel wrote in The A List: The National Society of Film Critics' 100 Essential Films, ed. by Jay Carr (2002). "It says t hat pleasant, pleasure-loving little country, so often occupied, so often pre-occupied by its own survivors of Schweik-ishness, is more dangerous than it looks. "Menzel also filmed Hrabal's Postřižiny (1980), a loving portrait of the author's parents, and his uncle Pepin, who constantly pours out incredible stories and nearly ruins his brother's marriage and business.

A few year later after the film was released, the Warsaw Pact tanks were in Wenceslas Square, and the brief period of liberalization, the Prague Spring 1968, ended. Two complete editions of Hrabal's books, Domácí úkoly  (homeworks) and Poupata (buds), were destroyed. Menzel was obliged to denounce the "errors" of the Czech new wave. Hrabal himself also had to find a balance between his writing and demands of the Communist regime. To see his books in print, he publicly expressed his support for the new authorities. However, the works which were officially published, lacked much of the spontaneity and non-conformism of his rambling narrative, which had brought him fame.

As Jaroslav Hasek in his time, Hrabal spend much time in pubs, not only for the good company, but for the tall tales and anecdotes he heard and which were washed down with slivovitze or a mug of Pilsner Urquell. He also had a sharp ear for colloquial speech of ordinary people, which he stylized for his books. The smoky U Zlateho tygra (At the Golden Tiger) on Husova street was Hrabal's favorite pub. Also Vaclav Havel felt at home there. In 1994 President Vaclav Havel introduced there Bohumil Hrabal to President Bill Clinton and his Secret Service.

Hrabal's characters are poor workers, soldiers, political anarchists, antiheroes, poets, social misfits, eccentrics, whose imagination and personal histories bring colour into the meaningless everyday life. Hrabal also continually returned to his earlier texts and reworked his themes – good stories are worth many visions. In Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (1964), an old man tells of his life and amorous adventures to six ladies in a single unfinished sentence. The first words set the tone of the story – the narrator, an old man, circles around the truth, just as a bee circles a flower. At the first page he claims that he used to go to church to see beauties, and then corrects, "well, not exactly to the church, I'm not much of a churchgoer, but to a small shop next to the parish house..." The narrator was perhaps partly inspired by Hrabal's eccentric uncle Pepin, who came for a two-week visit, but stayed on for forty years. The Little Town Where Time Stood Still (1978) written in 1973 and published five years later, was Hrabal's moving homage to his energetic uncle.

I Served the King of England was born during one summer month in blinding sunlight. The narrator, Ditie, a waiter, becomes a millionaire and owner of a hotel, but he loses everything when Communists seize power. Ditie's surname refers to a child (Dite). As Oscar Matzerath from Günter Grass' novel The Tin Drum (1959), he remains small in size. Ditie is a faithful servant of the elite, generals, presidents, ambassadors, and their orgies are natural part of the order of things for him. Under the Nazi rule, love is turned into a part of the Third Reich's human breeding program. Ditie is a simpleton and a soulmate of the Good Soldier Svejk, he never grows up and do not understand politics or history. His strength and curse is his naivety, and at the end of the story, when he has lost everything, he again recalls to moment when he served the Emperor of Ethiopia – but his superior had had the honor to serve the King of England.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Hrabal's writings were published in samizdat (underground copies), or in bowdlerized versions. Gustav Husak's regime, a loyal ally of the USSR, was not a laughing matter. Too Loud a Solitude (1976) was about the physical destruction of books, characterized by Hrabal "a crime against humanity." The narrator Hanta operates a hydraulic press, which makes huge cubes of waste paper. Rare books perish in his machine, "I am nothing but a refined butcher," he thinks. Occasionally he rescues and reads precious old books – as Hrabal himself, when he worked at a wastepaper collection point. "It is by and from books that I've learned that the heavens are not humane, neither the heavens nor any man with a head on his shoulders – it's not that men don't wish to be humane, it just goes against common sense." Because Hanta works slowly, he is replaced by two vigorous young men. The film adaptation of Too Loud a Solidute was shot with Hrabal’s participation in 1994 (directed by Vera Cais, a Czech director who emigrated to France in 1967) and released in 1995.

Svatby v domě (1984), Proluky (1986), and Vita nuova (1987), a three-volume autobiography narrated by Hrabal's wife, appeared in the West. They were printed by 68 Publishers Corp., Josef Škvorecký's and his wife's publishing house, which brought out some hundred and thirty original works, banned in Czechoslovakia. Skvorecký himself had emigrated for political reasons to Canada in 1968.

Eliška Hrabal, called Pipsi, died after long illness in 1987. She was of German-Chech descent, and had been employed after the war as a servant in the kitchen of the Hotel Paris, the setting of the novel I Served the King of England. Karel Maryska (Hanta from Too Loud a Solidute), Hrabal’s life-time friend, tried to make a speech at her funeral, but failed and stopped in tears after just a couple of words.

Husak was replaced by Miklos Jakes in 1987, but dissident activities were still suppressed. Following the fall of communism, the writer Václav Havel was elected in 1989 by direct popular vote as president of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. Hrabal started to write after a long literary silence short texts, or letters addressed to Dubenka (April Giffird), an American student.

In Totální strachy (1990, Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka) Hrabal said, "I'm hurt by this whole town in which I live, I'm hurt by this whole world, because towards morning certain beings come to me – beings not unfamiliar to me, on the contrary, they come slowly but surely up the escalator of my soul, and not only their faces come into focus, but also certain horrible events, just like a portrait, or a film, a documentary not only about how I was ever madly in love, but also how I failed people."

Pčter Esterházy's The Book of Hrabal (1990) was a tribute to the author, in which a Hungarian writer has an internal conversation with with Hrabal. The book was named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the Notable Books of 1994. Hrabal's surreal world has also inspired John Albert Jansen's documentary film Life is Everywhere (2000).

For further reading: The Sad King of Czech Literature Bohumil Hrabal: His Life and Work by Radko Pytlík (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Im Paradiesgarten der bitteren Früchte by Monika Zgustová (1999); Encyclopedia of the Novel, Vol. 1, ed. by Peter Schellinger (1998); Bilder Aus Der Tiefe Der Zeit: Erinnerung Und Selbststilisierung als Asthetische Funktionen Im Werk Bohumil Hrabals by Alexander Gotz (1998); Laute Einsamkeit und bitteres Gluck: Zur poetischen Welt von Bohumil Hrabals Prosa by Susanna Roth (1986), World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985); 'The Haircutting and I Waited on the King of England: Two Recent Works by Bohumil Hrabal' by George Gibian, in Czech Literature Since 1956: A Symposium, ed. by William Edward Harkins and Paul Trensky (1980); Fiction and Drama in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, ed. by Henrik Birnbaum and Thomas Eekman (1980) - Special thanks to Nikola Ruzickova for her invaluable help with this page.

Selected works:

  • Hovory lidí, 1956
  • Perlička na dně, 1963
  • Pábitelé, 1964
  • Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé, 1964
    - Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (translated by Michael Henry Heim, 1998)
    - Tanssitunteja aikuisille ja edistyneille (suom. Aarno Peromies, 1966)
    - TV film: Tanecní hodiny pro starsí a pokrocilé, 1991, dir. by Eduard Sedlar, starring Michaela Dolinová, Josef Dvorák and Rostislav Kuba
  • Ostře sledované vlaky, 1965
    - A Close Watch on Trains (translated by Edith Pargeter, 1968) /
    - film: Ostře sledované vlaky / Closely Watched Trains / Tarkoin vartioidut junat, 1966, directed by Jiri Menzel, starring Vaclav Neckar, Jitka Bendova, Vladimir Valenta, Libuse Havelkova
  • Fádní odpoledne, 1965 (screenplay, with Ivan Passer)
  • Inzerát na dům, ve kterém už nechci bydlet, 1965
    - film: Skrivánci na niti / Larks on a String / Kuin leivoset langalla, 1990, dir. by Jirí Menzel, starring Rudolf Hrusínský, Vlastimil Brodský and Václav Neckár
  • Automat Svět, 1966
    - The Death of Mr. Baltisberger (translated by Michael Heim, 1975)
  • Toto město je ve společné péči obyvatel, 1967
  • Výbor z české prózy, 1967 (editor)
  • Morytáty a legendy, 1968
  • Postřižiny, 1970 (samizdat)
    - Cutting It Short (translated by James Naughton, 1998)
  • (Sklenice grenadýny, 197-? (samizdat)
  • Closely Watched Trains, 1971 (screenplay, with Jirí Menzel)
  • Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále, 1971 (samizdat, as Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále, in 1980)
    - I Served the King of England (translated by Paul Wilson, 1997)
    - Tarjoilin Englannin kuninkaalle (suom. Hannu Ylilehto, 1991)
    - film: Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále / I Served the King of England, 2006, dir. Jirí Menzel, starring Ivan Barnev, Oldrich Kaiser and Julia Jentsch
  • Něžný barbar, 1973 (samizdat)
    - film: Nezny barbar, 1990, dir. by Petr Koliha, starring Bolek Polívka, Jirí Menzel and Arnost Goldflam
  • Příliš hlučná samota, 1976 (samizdat)
    - Too Loud a Solitude (translated by Michael Henry Heim, 1991)
    - Une Trop Bruyante Solitude (Traduit du tchčque par Max Keller, 1983)
    - Liian meluisa yksinäisyys (suom. Eero Balk, 2008)
    - films: Une Trop Bruyante Solitude, 1995, directed by Vera Cais, starring Philippe Noiret, Vlastimil Brodsky, Martin Dejdar, Marketa Hrubesova, Jiri Menzel; Too Loud a Solitude (animation), 2007, dir. Genevieve Anderson, with Paul Giamatti and Frank Dwyer
  • Krasosmutnění, 1977
  • Bambini di Praga, 1978
    - film: Andelske oci, 1994, dir. by Dusan Klein, starring Josef Abrhám, Viktor Preiss and Pavel Zednícek
  • Slavnosti sněženek, 1978
  • Městečko, ve kterém se zastavil čas, 1978
    - The Little Town Where Time Stood Still (translated by James Naughton, 1993)
  • Tři teskné grotesky, 1979 (samizdat)
  • Každý den zázrak, 1979
  • Postřižiny, 1980 (screenplay)
    - film: Postřižiny, 1980, dir. by Jiri Menzel, starring Petr Cepek, Miroslav Donutil, Jaromír Hanzlík
  • Kluby poezie, 1981
  • Harlekynovy milióny, 1981
    - Harlequin's Millions (translated by Stacey Knecht)
  • Domácí úkoly z pilnosti, 1982
  • Poupata, 1982 (?)
  • Svatby v domě, 1984 (samizdat; autobiographical trilogy)
    - In-House Weddings (translated by Tony Liman, 2007)
  • Hovory lidi, 1984 (samizdat)
  • Proluky, 1986 (autobiographical trilogy)
    - Gaps: A Novel (translated by Tony Liman, 2011) 
  • Život bez smokingu, 1986
  • Pražská ironie, 1986 (samizdat)
  • Životopis trochu jinak, 1986 (samizdat)
  • Bohumil Hrabal: vita nuova; Kartinky, 1987 (autobiographical trilogy)
    - Vita Nuova: A Novel (translated by Tony Liman, 2010)
  • Můj svět, 1988
  • Něžný barbar, 1989 (screenplay, with Václav Nyvlt)
  • Chcete vidět zlatou Prahu?, 1989 (selection of short stories)
  • Kouzelná flétna, 1990
  • Ponorné říčky, 1990[Underground Rivers]
  • Kličky na kapesníku: román-interview , 1990
  • Schizofrenické evangelium, 1949-1952, 1990
  • Totální strachy, 1990
    - Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka (translated by James Naughton, 2001)
  • Slavná Vantochova legenda, 1991
  • Ztracená ulička, 1991
  • Sebrané spisy Bohumila Hrabala v 19 svazcích, 1991-1997 (collected works, 19 vols.)
  • Večerníčky pro Cassia: [eseje], 1993
  • Já si vzpomínám jen a jen na slunečné dny, 1998
  • Buďte tak hodná, vytáhněte rolety: výbor z milostné korespondence, 1999
  • Drobky z hostiny...; Výběr z textů Bohumila Hrabala, 2003 (odpovědná redaktorka, Jaroslava Harantová)

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