Thursday, February 16, 2006


One of the greatest books I've ever read is Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal's short novel Too Loud a Solitude. It tells the story of Hanta, an old man who has a job compacting trash and loves his beer (no, that's not the only reason I like the book). This trash includes various books, from the highly philosophical to the lowbrow--he takes it all in uncritically, and in some ways his worldview is completely filtered through the books he saves from oblivion. Hrabal's prose sings even in english translation, as in the very start of the book:

I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel. In an average month I compact two tons of books, but to muster the strength for my godly labors I've drunk so much beer over the past thirty-five years that it could fill an Olympic pool, an entire fish hatchery.

Hrabal's work was greatly influenced by James Joyce's brand of stream of consciousness, but he has a much more approachable populist quality (he also can be very funny). He was also very influenced by the pubs he hung out at all his life, collecting stories that he would magnify and exaggerate in his fiction. His work is the very essence of Czech literature, incorporating absurdity, tragedy, and a wily passive-aggressive attitude toward authority, necessitated by the fascist and communist governments that he lived under for much of his life. His novels I Served the King of England (soon to be a film by his friend Jiri­ Menzel, who won an Oscar for his adaptation of Hrabal's' Closely Watched Trains) and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, in which the whole novel is one very long sentence, are also well worth seeking out. He died when he fell out a window while feeding pigeons, an episode right out of one of his novels.

Lastly, here's a comprehensive James Wood appreciation of all of Hrabal's english language translations currently in print. The photo of the book arch above is from an exhibit inspired by Hrabal's work, which also inspired a graphic novel version of Too Loud a Solitude.

Hrabal has a pilsner or two with Vaclav Havel and Bill Clinton