Sunday, 29 September 2013

Bohumil Hrabal - the Close Watcher of Trains

"BOHUMIL HRABAL TRAGICALLY DEAD," ran the headline on the front page of the daily Mladá fronta, 4 February 1997. The 82-year-old Hrabal died instantly when, on 3 February, he fell from a fifth-floor window at the Bulovka hospital in Prague. He had been at the hospital's orthopedic clinic since December 1996 for back and joint pain and was schedule to be released soon. According to witnesses, Hrabal was trying to feed the pigeons on his window sill when the table he was standing on tipped and fell. 

The particular - and almost eerie - significance of the fifth floor in Hrabal's life and work prompts speculation as to whether his death truly was an accident and not suicide. His Prague apartment was located on the fifth floor, and his fear of falling from this floor was known. Moreover, the motive to commit suicide by jumping from a fifth floor reoccurs several times in his writings. Ultimately, his exit made an appropriate ending point for an exceptionally vital and powerful career.

During Hrabal's lifetime, nearly three million copies of his books were printed in his native Czechoslovakia, and he was translated into twenty-seven languages. Among Hrabal's best-selling works, "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age" (Tanecní hodiny pro starsí a pokrocilé, 1964), an exceptional story written in a single sentence, also came out in more editions than any other of his works. And Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky, 1965), his book about the little train station Kostomolaty under German occupation, is one of many of his novels adapted to film; directed by Jirí Menzel, the movie won an Oscar for best foreign film in 1967. Another of Hrabal's gems, "Cutting it Short" (Postriziny, 1976), also adapted to the screen by Menzel, features Hrabal's mother giving an unforgettable account of life at the brewery in Nymburk and how uncle Pepin came to visit for fourteen days and stayed for fourteen years.

Readers loved Hrabal most of all for his inimitable prose - at times richly orally descriptive, other times sensually lyrical - which so completely captured life: from everyday dialogue - taken directly, it seems, from pubs and workplaces - via lyrical descriptions of nature, to philosophical expositions on the innermost meaning of life. Often, Hrabal fills his texts with odd characters, individuals from the fringes of society - anti-heroes of a sort - who possess a never-ending joy in their existence, a joy manifested foremost verbally. Moreover, Hrabal is a genuinely entertaining writer with a sense for the comically absurd in life. Hrabal stands alone in his ability to tell a story - often with the assistance of the authentic uncle Pepin - which sends the reader into fits of sensual delight:
My cousin was a twin and a real card, he was christened Vincek and his brother was christened Ludvicek, and when they were a year old their mother was bathing them in a tub and popped out to a see a neighbor, and when she got back half an hour later one of them had drowned, and they were so much alike nobody could tell which one, Ludvicek or Vincek, so they flipped a coin, heads for Lucvicek, tails for Vincek, and it came up Ludvicek, but when my cousin Vincek grew up he began to wonder - and he had plenty of time for it, he was always out of a job - he began to wonder who really did drown, whether the person walking around on earth wasn't really Ludvicek and he, Vincek, was up in heaven, which led him to drink and to wander along the water's edge and go in swimming, testing the waters, so to speak, till at last he drowned, by way of proof that he hadn't been the one to drown back then, " (Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, 1995 . Transl. Michael Henry Heim.)
Bear in mind that all of what Hrabal wrote derived from actual events; nothing is invented, only displaced in time and rearranged. As one of his admirers put it, instead of a brain, Hrabal had hard disk, which stored everything. While sitting amidst his admirers at the pub the Golden Tiger, Hrabal could effortlessly recite long passages from books he had read during his youth-from Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, to Batista's text on matrimonial bliss, and Anna Nováková's book of dreams.

Appropriately, Prazská imaginace, a small publishing house run by Hrabal enthusiast Václav Kadlec, planned to release the nineteenth and last volume of Hrabal's collected works 28 March 1997, Hrabal's eighty-third birthday. Instead, the volume, which Hrabal had already seen in proofs, came out at the beginning of March.

Hrabal's death came at a point when, according to the author, he had said everything he wanted to and could. He had described his years growing up with his mother and uncle Pepin at the brewery in Nymburk, east of Prague, his experiences as a train dispatcher at Kostomlaty outside of Nymburk and from several different occupations (clerk, insurance agent, traveling salesman, steelworker, paper packer, stage hand, and film extra), and he had accounted for his years in Prague and Kersko.

Due to the circumstances of World War II and the normalization of culture under communist rule, Hrabal, who started as a poet, was forty-nine before he had his first breakthrough as a writer of prose with the collection of short stories "A Pearl on the Bottom" (Perlicka na dne, 1963). From 1963 to 1968, he published eight original works including two other collections of stories, "The Palaverers" (Pábitelé) and "An Advertisement for the House I Don't Want to Live in Anymore" (Inzerát na dum, ve kterém uz nechci bydlet), as well as "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age" and Closely Watched Trains.

More here.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Why W H Auden still matters

He wrote a poem in praise of limestone. He wrote a poem about Sigmund Freud. He wrote poems about cats and opera, about the minute organisms that live on human skin. He wrote an achingly beautiful love poem, a lullaby that stands among the gentlest and most forgiving poetry of the 20th century. Years after his death, when the World Trade Center towers were brought to the ground, traumatised New Yorkers faxed each other copies of a poem he had written for an earlier and greater crisis, “September 1, 1939”. They took comfort in his words even if many of those who received them must have had no idea who he was.

My own discovery of W H Auden came in the early 1970s, when I was living in Belfast and working at Queen’s University. I picked up an edition of his collected shorter poems – many of which are, in fact, rather long. It was done on impulse, as many of our personal literary discoveries are, but I immediately felt that the voice I heard in the poems was speaking directly to me. That may sound like solipsism, but it is just what a great poet often does: he or she is there in the room with you, at your elbow, addressing you in particular. You can hear the voice. For me, some of the attraction of Auden was the hint of the political in the backdrop to his earlier work; to read him in the midst of the Northern Irish Troubles seemed somehow right.

A few months later, when I was back in Edinburgh, Auden arrived to give a public reading in George Square. I was in the second row and watched as the great poet shambled in, flanked by committee members of the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse. He was a terrible mess: a shapeless grey suit, stained and covered, as far as I could work out, in cigarette ash, complemented by a pair of ancient carpet slippers and that face, famously lined with what he called its geological catastrophe. The same face has been described as looking like a wedding cake left out in the rain. But there he was, and he mounted the platform to read – or rather to recite, as he needed no notes. And at that moment there was an involuntary intake of breath from the audience. His flies were undone.

Not that it mattered. Auden’s words, particularly when we hear them delivered in that curious mid-Atlantic accent that he developed after he left England for the United States, have an electrifying beauty and, in the case of so much of his work, profundity. It is this combination of lyricism and intellectual depth that makes him, I think, the most engaging of 20th-century poets.

From that early encounter with his work, I developed an increasingly strong interest in his writing. I began to travel with a collection of his poems in my suitcase; lines of his verse came back to me at odd moments; I started, I suppose, to look at the world through what might be described as an Audenesque set of spectacles. I taught our daughter, then aged four, to recite his ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening”. She enjoyed it. We are all pushy parents in one way or another, and may as well admit it.

When I started to write novels set in Edinburgh, the characters in these books – unsurprisingly, perhaps – began to show an interest in Auden. In particular, Isabel Dalhousie, the central character in my Sunday Philosophy Club series, thought about Auden rather a lot – and quoted him, too. A couple of years after the first of these novels was published, I received a letter from his literary executor, Edward Mendelson, who is a professor of English at Columbia University in New York. Unlike those writers who appoint coevals to look after their work, with the result that their executors either predecease them or do not last much longer, Auden made the wise move of appointing a young man to watch over his literary legacy.

Mendelson was then a junior academic at Yale – and this gave him the opportunity to devote much of a long and distinguished career to producing commentary on Auden’s writing. It transpired that he was a reader of my Botswana novels and he wrote to me to tell me that, in his opinion, Auden and Mma Ramotswe would have agreed on practically every subject. However, what particularly pleased him, he said, was the attachment my other fictional characters had to the poet.

More here.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Stefan Zweig's World Of Yesterday

Some months before the suicide of Stefan Zweig in February 1942, Klaus Mann bumped into him on Fifth Avenue. Zweig, whom Mann referred to as “the tireless promoter of striving talents,” held a special place in Mann’s imagination since his early youth. On the publication of Mann’s first books, Zweig’s was “the most heartening and hearty” voice enjoining him to courage. “Go ahead, young man!” Zweig urged in a congratulatory note. “There may be prejudices against you because of your famous parentage. Never mind. Do your work! Say what you have to say!—it’s quite a lot if I’m not mistaken.” Zweig’s high expectations proved inspirational, and Mann, like many other fledgling authors, came to see Zweig as an exemplary patron with a maternally solicitous streak. He heartened the anxious by cajoling them to self-expression and quietly deployed his ample bank account to dissolve logistical obstacles confronting the impecunious. Yet now, in the middle of New York City in 1941, Zweig looked bizarre—unkempt and entranced. He was so lost in some dark train of thought, Mann wrote, that it took Zweig a while to realize he was being observed. Only when directly addressed did Zweig rouse himself “like a sleep-walker who hears his name,” abruptly metamorphosing into the familiar, polished cosmopolitan of old. Still, Mann could not rid himself of the memory of that first wild look—a stare Carl Zuckmeyer, the refugee playwright, encountered a few weeks later when, over dinner, Zweig asked him what the purpose was of continuing to live as a shadow, “homeless in all countries . . . We are just ghosts—or memories,” Zweig concluded.

In a few years, Zweig had unraveled; stumbling from the ranks of the world’s most successful writers and (in Jules Romains’ phrase) a “catalyst,” dedicated to forging affiliations between artists and advocates of European humanism, into a lonely, spectral wanderer. The zealous bibliophiliac had lost his 10,000 books and was reduced to haunting the libraries of New Haven and Manhattan, fingering the volumes he’d once defined as “handfuls of silence, assuaging torment and unrest.” His commanding residence on the Kapuzinerberg above Salzburg, formerly an archbishop’s hunting lodge, where he composed at a desk that once belonged to Beethoven and entertained a steady stream of luminaries and artistic aspirants, had been replaced by a shady little bungalow in Ossining up the hill from Sing Sing. (What did the frequent train rides up and down the Hudson past those massive walls with their gunner watchtowers conjure for this man who writhed at even venial bureaucratic infringements on mobility?) He spent his days struggling to complete his memoir, lacerated by visions of the war and fretting about identity documents. Lotte, his intriguing, under-acknowledged second wife, could not lift his mood. On the night at the Wyndham Hotel when Zweig tried to bequeath his old friend Joachim Maass his beloved Remington typewriter (an act Maass saw foreshadowing Zweig’s renunciation of life), Lotte remarked privately to Maass, “the only thing I can do now is compel him to drag me with him.”

For all the glaring depression of his final years, Zweig’s suicide with Lotte in Brazil outraged certain members of the exile community. His voluntary death was impugned as a deliquescent surrender to Hitler by one whose fortune and sheer popularity shielded him from the savagery most émigrés had to contend with. It was for some, Thomas Mann among them, the culminating failure in a long history of failing to set the right example—a charge leveled equally at Zweig’s life and literary production. In a letter to Zweig’s first wife, Friderike, explaining his refusal to make a fuss over Zweig’s demise, Mann cited Zweig’s “radical, unconditional pacifist disposition,” which—despite the fact that “one had to pray for” the coming of this war—had led Zweig to see in it just another “bloodstained misfortune and a negation of his whole nature.” Zweig, Mann observed, had actually “praised France for not wanting to fight and thus ‘saving Paris.” He had balked at living “in any of the belligerent countries,” and when it was apparent that Brazil, too, would be drawn into the war, Mann opined, Zweig consequently “took leave of life.” Indeed, Mann implied, there was something about Zweig that was simply too weak for this world—and repellant to the life spirit for being so.

Echoes of Mann’s critique can be found in Hannah Arendt’s condemnation of Zweig’s “hypersensitivity,” his detachment from the cause of the Jewish people en masse—the inadequacy of the “whole structure of his life, with its aloofness from civic struggle and politics,” which left him “unable to fight against a world in whose eyes it was and is a disgrace to be a Jew.” And in Michael Hofmann’s recent cap-a-pie impeachment of Zweig’s life and works, wherein he characterizes him as a reprehensible “passivist,” and thoroughly “putrid” fruit of “catty, envious Vienna,” a sentimental faker who (in Robert Neumann’s words) “spent his life on the run.”

When approaching Stefan Zweig’s story, many of his detractors seem to mine what Zweig’s friend Freud described as humanity’s psychical bedrock, the “repudiation of femininity.” (Freud used the term in the stereotypical sense of a submissive attitude linked with structural disempowerment.)Yet perhaps there’s another way of looking at Zweig’s complex history—another lesson in this “femininity”—that unfolds outward toward the larger predicament of the times as opposed to closing in on Zweig’s ambiguous core. As Zweig himself wrote of Marie Antoinette, after noting her absence of heroic impulse, “[But] history the demiurge can construct a profoundly moving drama even though there is nothing heroic about its leading personalities. Tragical tension is not solely conditioned by the mighty lineaments of central figures, but also by a disproportion between man and his destiny.” In our own era of perpetual disruption and upended cultural values, Zweig’s preemptive surrender evokes a line from yet a third Mann, Thomas’s brother Heinrich: “The vanquished are the first to learn what history holds in store.”

More here.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Jester and Priest: On Leszek Kolakowski

Almost a quarter-century after the collapse of communism, and four years after his own death at the age of 81, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski remains a prisoner of the Cold War. He has been lionized in the West for Main Currents of Marxism, the indispensable three-volume history of Marxist ideas first published in Paris (in Polish) in 1976, and also for the essays he wrote a decade earlier that inspired advocates of “socialism with a human face.” Yet travel across the old Iron Curtain to Warsaw or Wroclaw, and one will encounter a different Kolakowski: not the Marxologist or dissident socialist, but the religious thinker and elusive cultural critic who found wisdom and solace in the works of Spinoza, Erasmus, the Dutch heretics and the Catholic skeptic Blaise Pascal. Highly esteemed in Polish Catholic circles, Kolakowski was a frequent guest of John Paul II’s at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence. But even in Poland, opinion about this other Kolakowski is mixed. Marek Edelman, a leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, was among the mourners at his graveside in July 2009, and upon hearing the blessings being spoken as the casket was lowered into the pit, he whispered audibly, “Why are you making a Catholic out of him, that man was a decent atheist!”

Was Kolakowski a socialist, a Catholic, an atheist or something else entirely? In the early 1950s, he was the communist state’s most prominent critic of Christianity; in 1956, along with most of Poland’s intellectual elite, he broke with Stalinism and began floating ideas for reform. By the 1970s, his certainty about God’s nonexistence had waned, and he took to calling himself an “inconsistent atheist.” Late in life, he playfully labeled himself a “conservative-liberal-socialist.” To the question of whether he believed in God, he answered that only God knew.

Yet Poles, whatever their politics and opinions about religion, do not want to disown Kolakowski. Looking past his complexities and caginess, they are proud of a countryman who was born in the humble provincial town of Radom in 1927 and became world famous. As a professor at Warsaw University for more than a decade and at Oxford for nearly four, Kolakowski garnered countless awards and honorary doctorates, but the near-universal esteem he enjoys in his homeland is perhaps his greatest laurel.

With Is God Happy?, Kolakowski’s daughter Agnieszka has collected (and partly translated) twenty-seven of her father’s essays that together span half a century. (Ten of them are appearing in English for the first time.) The book is a valuable introduction to Kolakowski’s extraordinary intellectual versatility: here are his reflections on the heritage of socialism, Erasmus, the “death of God,” relativism, the “future of truth” and much else. Still, Is God Happy? gives a partial view of the philosopher. Kolakowska has omitted from it the body of work that Kolakowski wrote before 1956, so this collection alone cannot help us answer an essential question: How did a communist devoted to demystifying religion in Poland become a vocal apostle of a reactionary Polish pope?

More here.