Category Archives: Central European fiction

… floating on a sea of milk and honey

Memoirs of a good-for-nothing, by Joseph von Eichendorff

Memoirs of a good-for-nothing is one of the most charming books I’ve read in ages. Written back in 1826, it’s the story of how an amiable idiot goes out to seek his fortune but instead finds love and adventure, without ever understanding anything that’s going on around him.

The novella opens with our hero waking up to his father’s complaints that once again he’s been sleeping while others worked, that he’s a good-for-nothing and should go out and earn his own living.

“So I’m a good-for-nothing, eh?” I retorted. “All right, then. I’ll go off and seek my fortune.”
The idea was indeed very much to my liking. In autumn and winter the yellowhammer used to sing a lament outside our window: “Farmer, please hire me! Farmer, please hire me!” But a short time ago I had seen him sitting proudly on top of the tree, singing his merry springtime song: “Farmer, keep your work!” – and this had given me the idea of making for the open road.

So he heads off down that road, singing and playing his fiddle. Before too long he meets two beautiful ladies, countesses it seems, who enjoy his happy folksong and invite him to join them in their carriage bound for Vienna – or more precisely to a palatial country estate just near Vienna.

The estate’s a confusing place, for our young man is fresh from a village and knows nothing of domestic servants or the doings of the nobility, but no matter, for he has fallen in love with the younger of the two ladies he just met and besides in no small time he has a job as an assistant gardener and then as tollkeeper to the estate – a position of some responsibility, even if largely his duties involve smoking a pipe and sitting outside in a particularly lurid dressing gown. Once he’s pulled up the vegetables in the tollhouse garden and planted flowers in their place, well, if it wasn’t for the difficulty of seeing his love (their stations are very different) he’d be a happy man.

But then, he’s almost always a happy man anyway. Our hero is prone to bursting into song on seeing a pretty view, plays his fiddle at the slightest provocation (or just for the sheer enjoyment of it), he jumps for joy when he has a happy thought, and he has a lot of happy thoughts. When sadness strikes him, or anger, it’s like a summer squall of rain, soon past. He cries bitter tears more than once in his journeys, but his heart is an optimistic one and he’s never sad for long.

And that, in a nutshell, is what makes this such a likeable book. The protagonist is incredibly naive, and none too bright, but he’s good natured and well meaning and I found him impossible to dislike. There’s such an overabundance of joy in this novel, sheer joy of life, in art and music, in love and in the German and Austrian countryside and its beauties, it’s a story free of cynicism and that’s no common thing.

Of course, life as a tollkeeper is not the end of our hero’s travels. Soon, believing his love’s heart belongs to another, he leaves for Italy with two itinerant painters, spends time in a remote mountain castle staffed with people he has no common language with but who seem to be expecting him, visits Rome where he has various adventures and generally gads about the place. He’s chased by a mysterious hunchback, his companions are stolen from him, all manner of incident occurs, none of which he has the remotest clue about.

I journeyed onwards day and night without rest. I had no time to collect my thoughts, for wherever we stopped, fresh horses were waiting ready harnessed; moreover I could not speak to the people, and my gesticulations served little purpose. Sometimes, when I was in the middle of an excellent meal at an inn, the postillion would blow his horn and I had to drop my knife and fork and jump back in the coach, without having the slightest notion where I was supposed to be going at such breakneck speed, or why.

There’s an air of Shakespearean comedy to much of this work. Our hero is pursued by people, but it’s wholly unclear for most of the book why, or even if they’re after the right man, and although he finds some of them frightening in truth none of them really seem all that menacing. Our hero isn’t a man prone to questions, or reflection for that matter, and for a good chunk of the novella he can’t speak the local language anyway, so though it’s obvious something’s going on it’s not until the end it’s terribly clear what (and I don’t think he ever really works it all out).

It doesn’t matter though, because Germany and Austria are beautiful, because a wandering man with a fiddle can cause a whole village to leap up and start dancing, and because whatever’s going on our hero is guided by love and by desire for adventure and he’s basically a good person. And this is not a story in which bad things happen to good people.

Much of Memoirs is very funny. The hero has a habit of falling asleep whenever nothing much seems to be going on, leading to him missing out on quite a lot that happens. His misunderstandings lead to bizarre and comical situations, and his own emotions are so changeable that at any moment he can plunge from joy to despair and back again. There’s also some wonderful set pieces. Here he’s in Rome, and encounters a parrot in an open window above him:

Then I tried to start up a conversation with the parrot, for it gave me great pleasure to watch him clamber up and own in his gilt cage and perform all manner of contortions, in the course of which he always contrived to trip over his big toe.
Suddenly he shouted “Furfante!”* at me, and even though he was only a stupid animal, this annoyed me. So I called him an insulting name in return, and we both got angry; the more I insulted him in German, the more he shrieked away in Italian.

There’s an equally marvellous sequence where, as he enjoys a secluded mountaintop view, a group of musicians creep up behind and strike up their instruments believing him to be an English nobleman on the Grand Tour and hoping to earn some money from him. The image of young English lords being surprised by lurking bands of mountaintop musicians was one I just couldn’t resist.

More seriously, it’s a work of German romanticism (a genre I know a bit, but not well). There’s a well written introduction by the translator, Ronald Taylor, where he writes that the essence of German romanticism is a Holy Trinity of Nature, Love and Art and their connection with the soul of the German people. The novel’s a paean of love to Germany, to the German nation, and while naturally it’s hard for a modern reader to read of German “national spirit” without unfortunate connotations creeping in, that’s not really von Eichendorff’s fault.

Memoirs makes a marvellous counterpoint to The Black Spider, both are nineteenth Century pastoral novels and both I think come from a common cultural tradition, but where one is a dark tale of divine retribution the other is an idyll in which good is rewarded and nobody is really very evil. It’s also a tremendous corrective. If you’re finding yourself bogged down in a literary great which is heavy going, or depressed by a tale of unusual bleakness or cynicism, then Memoirs is as bright a contrast as you might wish for.

It’s taken me a while to warm to Oneworld Classics, with my reading this year though I’m seeing how they live up to their title. It’s marvellous to see these works being translated, German classics, Italian ones, a wealth of European literature that has tended to be obscure to English speaking readers – and like The Black Spider this is a fresh and enjoyable translation. Couple all that with good paper and print and attractive covers, and I expect to be reading more of them as the year goes on.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Memoirs is full of folksongs, Eichendorff was primarily a poet and lyricist. I’ve not quoted those songs here, for reasons of space, but one of von Eichendorff’s poems (not from this book) can be found here, with different translations of it being set side by side. Interesting stuff.

Memoirs of a good-for-nothing

*Scoundrel. The endnote is in the original.

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Filed under 19th Century, Central European fiction, German, Novellas, Picaresque, Romantic Literature, von Eichendorff, Joseph

It is so very easy to deceive children

Burning Secret, by Stefan Zweig

Burning Secret is a 1913 novella by Stefan Zweig. It’s the first Zweig I’ve read, and it’s brilliant.

Secret is the story of essentially three characters. There is the baron, never named, a suave young man who amuses himself by seducing women and is rather good at it; Edgar, a bookish twelve-year old who is recovering from an illness; and Edgar’s mama, a woman no longer quite as young as she was but not yet so old as to have put all thought of adventure behind her.

All three are at a mountain spa, the mother accompanying Edgar, the Baron for relaxation. Unfortunately for the baron, he has arrived at the wrong time of year, his friends are absent, and so he has to make his own entertainment. He decides to do so by seducing Edgar’s mama, and his chosen route to conquest lies through Edgar himself. Befriend the boy, and wait for him to make the necessary introductions.

Soon, to Edgar’s delight and confusion, this polished and urbane nobleman is acting as if nothing could give him greater pleasure than to pass his time in the company of a lonely young boy. Edgar is entranced, the baron’s scheme is set in motion:

He had found his go-between. Now, he knew, the child would pester his mother to the point of exhaustion with his stories, repeating every single word – and he remembered, complacently, how cleverly he had woven a few compliments intended for her into the conversation, always speaking of Edgar’s “beautiful mama”. He was certain that his talkative friend wouldn’t rest until he had brought his friend and his mother together. He didn’t have to lift a finger to decrease the distance between himself and the fair unknown, he could dream happily now as he looked at the landscape, for he knew that a pair of hot, childish hands was building him a bridge to her heart.

The baron’s plan, naturally, works and before long Edgar has forged an introduction. Having done so, Edgar himself of course becomes redundant, the baron only has so much appetite after all for spending his days with a child. Quickly, although he has done nothing wrong he can think of, Edgar finds that his marvellous new friend seems no longer to have any interest in him. Worse, it seems his mama has stolen his friend from him, sharing some secret with the baron that neither of them are willing to let him into.

Where Burning Secret truly shines is in its psychological nuance and accuracy. The baron is merely bored, a man about town with no town to go about in. He feels some small guilt when he realises how much he has hurt Edgar, but he is a man focused on his own desires and his concern does not detain him long.

Edgar’s mother by contrast is aware of her own fading youth:

…at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice between maternal and feminine love.

What is not dwelt on, but clear, is that she is also of quite a different class to the baron, a bourgois who speaks in French to her child though she doesn’t command the language sufficiently to converse in it at any length. The baron is younger than her, better travelled, aristocratic. For a woman open to a last chance of adventure, he’s a dangerous and seductive lure.

And, of course, Edgar. Edgar is at twelve on the cusp of adolescence, moving from the certainties of childhood to the ambiguities of adult life. He has not yet moved far, but there is an irrevocability even to the small steps he is here taking. When Edgar is described, words like hot and burning are constantly used, referring to his heart, his hands, his tears. Everything for him is absolute, passionate, intense. When he realises the adults are excluding him, he is not merely disappointed as an adult might be, he hates them with all his force:

So they’d got away from him after all, by means of a lie as mean as it was vile. He had known since yesterday that his mother told lies, but the idea that she could be shameless enough to break a downright promise destroyed the very last of his trust in her. He didn’t understand anything at all about life, not now he knew that the words he thought had reality behind them were just bright bubbles, swelling with air and then bursting, leaving nothing behind. What kind of terrible secret was it that drove grown-up people so far as to lie to him, a child, stealing away from him like thieves?

He had a secret of his own now. Its name was hatred, boundless hatred for both of them.

As the novella progresses, Edgar decides to revenge himself on the adults, accompanying them at all times, speaking about his papa (he doesn’t know why it disturbs them, but notes that it does), disrupting their plans with his presence and his scrupulous yet truculent obedience. To their frustration, he does nothing that would give an excuse to punish him or send him away to his room. They become his prisoner, but the dynamic between the three keeps shifting, they understand and can counter each other’s actions, but none of them understand the other’s motives.

For Edgar, those motives are particularly obscure. The adults have a burning secret, something between them so momentous that they will lie to children over it, meet in secret, behave incomprehensibly. When the baron tries to lure Edgar’s mama down to a secluded part of the woods, Edgar wonders if he intends to kidnap her, but instinctively it seems to him that’s not quite right. He knows the baron has some other purpose, and that if could but comprehend the burning secret of that purpose the doors of the adult world would forever be opened to him.

Of course, he’s quite correct. The fire that motivates the adults is one he is as yet untouched by, he can’t understand it because he doesn’t yet feel it. Part of his fury is his knowledge that his own lack of comprehension means he is still a child, as long as he doesn’t understand the burning secret, he can’t be considered grown up.

Burning Secret is brilliant. Superbly well written, filled with nuance regarding age, class, intensity of emotion (to the baron it’s all a mere diversion, to the mother a last opportunity, to Edgar it’s his whole existence if only for a brief while). Among all this Zweig manages to bring the setting to precise life (what is it with German speaking authors and mountain sanitaria by the way? They seem very fond of them), and he packs it all in to less than 120 pages. I’d heard Zweig’s reputation, I’ve been missing out though on not starting to read him sooner.

Burning Secret (along with most Zweig’s), has received a fair bit of attention from the blogosphere. Dovegreyreader covers it here, Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life here, Tom Cunliffe of A Common Reader here and Nicholas Lezard of the Guardian writes about it here. Bizzarely, John Self of The Asylum hasn’t written about it, though he has seven other Zweig’s. Clearly I’ll have to buy him a copy for his birthday sometime…

Burning Secret is published by the ever reliable Pushkin Press. It’s in their small, gem, format and is as ever physically a pleasure to hold and read. The translation is by Anthea Bell, and while I can’t comment on its faithfulness to the origiinal (and there’s big questions of course as to what it means to be a faithful translation) it flows smoothly and I’d consider her name on other books a definite bonus.

On a final note, I’ve mentioned before on this blog writers whose lives were cut short by the Nazis, Zweig is another of them. He and his wife committed suicide in 1942, despairing as did so many others that the Europe they loved was being lost to barbarism. Pushkin Press has brought writers back into the light who we could easily have lost in the English speaking world, and I continue to be grateful that they do so.

Burning Secret

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Bell, Anthea (translator), Central European fiction, German, Novellas, Zweig, Stefan

if they had fooled the green huntsman once…

The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf

The Black Spider is a Swiss-German novella first published in 1842. Today, it’s published by Oneworld Classics and effectively translated by H.M. Waidson, who also writes a useful (and spoiler free) introduction. It was, apparently, one of Thomas Mann’s favourite works, though sadly it’s not also one of mine.

The locations in Spider are real places, ones that would be familiar to many of its original readers. The story by contrast is a mix of parable, myth and folklore. The book opens in the then present day, on the morning of a christening, a family of rich Swiss peasants preparing for celebration and feasting secure in the knowledge of their piety, good neighbourship and solid work ethic. The opening paragraphs show a scene of bucolic near-paradise:

THE SUN ROSE OVER THE HILLS, shone with clear majesty down into a friendly, narrow valley and awakened to joyful consiousness the beings who are created to enjoy the sunlight of their life. From the sun-gilt forest’s edge the thrush burst forth in her morning song, while between sparkling flowers in dew-laden grass the yearning quail could be heard joining in with its love-song; above dark pine tops eager crows were performing their nuptial dance or cawing delicate cradle songs over the thorny beds of their fledgeless young.

In the middle of the sun-drenched hillside nature had placed a fertile, sheltered, level piece of ground; here stood a fine house, stately and shining, surrounded by a splendid orchard, where a few tall apple trees were still displaying there finery of late blossom; the luxuriant grass, which was watered by the fountain near the house, was in part still standing, though some of it had already found its way to the fodder store. About the house there lay a Sunday brightness which was not of the type that can be produced on a Saturday evening in the half-light with a few sweeps of the broom, but which rather testified to a valuable heritage of traditional cleanliness which has to be cherished daily, like a family’s reputation, tarnished as this may become in one single hour by marks that remain, like bloodstains, indelible from generation to generation, making a mockery of all attempts to whitewash them.

Despite that last and ominous note regarding the possibillity of tarnish, this is a vision of temporal loveliness. God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world. From there, we go to the preparations for the christening, the good natured banter between the locals, lingering descriptions of the fine table laid out for guests, these are people who live solid, sensible and godfearing lives and they are rewarded by their god accordingly.

All this is a framing device, for the house has one curious feature, an ancient black post which sits oddly with the otherwise pristine design. A grandfather explains its provenance, with a chilling tale that forms the heart of the book.

Centuries past, when the Teutonic knights ruled the territory, an indifferent lord was working the peasantry into penury. As harvest time approached, he decided he wanted a shady grove in which to walk on the hot summer days, and so ordered the peasants to move a grove of beech trees from the valley to his mountain keep – roots and all. The task is near impossible, and even if it can be completed it can only be achieved by letting the harvest rot in the fields and so means sure starvation for the villagers.

After hearing his demands, the villagers return to their homes, but on the way sit down despairing in the road and cry out about their plight. They are heard, and a green huntsman appears and enquires as to the cause of their sorrow:

A red feather was swaying on his bold cap, a little red beard blazed in his dark face, and a mouth opened between his hooked nose and pointed chin, almost invisible like a cavern beneath overhanging rocks, and uttered the question ‘What’s the matter, good people, that you are sitting and moaning like this, as if to force the rocks out of the earth and the branches down from the trees?’ Twice he asked thus, and twice he received no answer.

Then the green huntsman’s dark face became even darker and his little red beard became even redder, so that it seemed to be crackling and sparkling like pine wood on fire; his mouth pursed itself sharply like an arrow and then opened to ask quite pleasingly and gently: ‘But good people, what use is it your sitting and moaning there? …’

The villagers ultimately ask for his aid, and ask what he requires in return.

Then the green huntsman showed a cunning face; his little beard crackled, and his eyes gleamed at them like snakes’ eyes, and a hideous laugh came from the two corners of his mouth as he opened his lips and said, ‘ as I was saying, I don’t ask for much, nothing more than an unbaptised child.’

The villagers of course refuse, but nothing goes right for them from that point. They make no progress moving and planting the trees, everything goes wrong. Only one among them, a foreign woman named Christine brought to the region by one farmer to be his wife, is willing to have any truck with the green huntsman (whose true identity they understand all too well). Finally, on a night when a storm cracks overhead with unusual force, they collectively decide to follow Christine’s advice and take the bargain, calculating that they can always renege on their side of it later. The next day:

The morning was beautiful and bright, thunder and lightning and witchcraft had vanished, the axes struck twice as sharply as before, the soil was friable and every beech tree fell straight, just as one would like it; none of the carts broke, the cattle were amenable and strong and the men protected from all accidents as if by an invisible hand.

Indeed, the only seeming downside is that the carts become peculiarly heavy when taken past the church and the men and animals filled with an inexplicable fear.

There’s a definite issue of gender politics in this book, Christine is a domineering wife, prideful and headstrong. Her husband doesn’t control her, and rather than assuming her place of wifely support she intrudes on the men’s deliberations and sways their judgement. Disaster ensues. I don’t think I’m being oversensitive in seeing in the book a suggestion that it simply isn’t a woman’s place to take decisions that men ought to be taking, and that no good can come from her rebelliion against the natural order of things.

The grove is swift erected, but when time comes to hand over a baby the villagers do not live up to their end of the bargain, instead they ensure that the child is quickly baptised and so beyond the devil’s power (and it then promptly dies, which the book informs us means god has protected it from the possibility of later sin). From there, things go wrong again, with a black spider growing literally out of Christine’s cheek and laying devastation upon them, all those it touches swelling black with poison and dying in agony. The villagers have mocked the devil, and he will not lightly be mocked.

This section is the most effective in the book. There is a chilling sense of horror as the spider grows from Christine’s face and causes her increasing pain as the villagers seek to outwit the devil. Then, the spider born and intent on their destruction, each villager begins considering whether their life is not perhaps more important than some neighbour’s next newborn. Instead of turning to god, they turn to further selfishness, and so long as they do so the spider’s reign continues uninterrupted:

Thus it was that the spider was now here, now there, now nowhere, now down in the valley, now up on the hills; it hissed through the grass, fell from the roof or sprang up from the ground. When people were sitting over the midday meal of porridge, it would appear gloating at the far end of the table, and before they had time to scatter in terror the spider had run over all their hands and was sitting on the head of the father of the family, staring over the table at the blackening hands. It would fall upon people’s faces at night, it would encounter them in the forest or descend upon them in the cattle shed. No one could avoid it, for it was nowhere and everywhere; no one could screen himself from it while he was awake, and when he was asleep there was no protection. When someone thought himself to be safest, in the open air or in a treetop, then fire would crawl up his back, and the spider’s fiery feet could be felt in his neck as it stared over his shoulder. It spared neither infant in the cradle nor the old man on his deathbed; it was a plague more deadly than any that had been known before, and it was a form of death more terrible than any that had previously been experienced, and what was still more terrible than the death agony was the nameless fear of the spider which was everywhere and nowhere and which would suddenly be fixing its death-dealing stare on someone when he fancied he was most secure.

The spider afflicts peasants in their fields and homes, knights in the castle, pallbearers taking the dead to funeral, it is a pestilence that sweeps the village bringing horrible and unpredictable death and it’s as clear a metaphor for bubonic plague as ever I’ve seen.

Eventually, a pious mother traps the spider, giving her own life in the process. A virtuous woman, she is not afraid to die so that her child might live. Again, there’s a touch of gender politics to the story. The spider lies imprisoned and time passes, but generations later the villagers again grow prideful and vain and forget their god, the spider is once more unleashed and the horror renews. This time too, the fault is a woman’s. Another foreign wife, married to a man who dare not stand up to her nor to his browbeating mother who chose the wife for him. Once again, women have stepped out from the authority of men, and plague, terror and death is the consequence.

And that’s where I struggle a bit. The contemporary framing device shows people who live in memory of god and with piety informing all their lives, but for all that they seemed a bit smug about it. They are confident of their standing with god and secure in the knowledge that they are saved, perhaps it’s the remnants of my own Catholic upbringing which make me uncomfortable with that. Frankly, they could use being a bit less sure of themselves.

For me as a modern reader, another problem is the fact that much of what happens is the fault of uppity women who don’t know their place. That’s, well, perhaps not a point of view I feel wholly able to subscribe to. And the theology of it all I find rather troubling, this Swiss god after all allows children and elderly folk who surely played no part in the decision to deal with the devil to pay for the sins of others, there’s a sense of collective judgement that I struggle to square with my own conceptions of what’s right.

The Black Spider is essentially a Christian morality tale. It’s an enjoyable read in large part, particularly (and isn’t this always true?) the parts where the devil is running rampant either in person or through his servant, the spider. But, the point of the book for me was to contrast what it means to live in the light of god, and what it means not to, and given I don’t consider myself a Christian or indeed religious at all that’s a message that’s slightly lost on me.

All that said, I would recommend The Black Spider for any prosperous nineteenth Century Swiss readers, who wish to remind themselves to be thankful for their many blessings, and though I can’t speak to this with accuracy I suspect it might make quite a good thanksgiving tale for American readers who in that season would like to read a story about the importance of being thankful for good fortune and (if they’re religious) who they owe that good fortune to.

Update 11/11/13: Since I wrote this a new translation of The Black Spider has been issued by NYRB Classics. There are reviews of it at themookseandthegripes here and at His Futile Preoccupations here. Stu of winstonsdadsblog has also recently written a review but of the same translation as the one I reviewed above. Stu’s translation is here.

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Filed under Central European fiction, Gotthelf, Jeremias, Horror, Novellas, Swiss fiction

Dying

Dying, by Arthur Schnitzler

I’ve read two Arthur Schnitzler’s now, first his 1924 novella Fraülein Else and now his earlier 1895 novella Dying. Having read both, I’ve become something of a fan.

I wrote up Fraülein Else here, it is an extraordinary novella that pulls off the difficult trick of being written entirely in the form of a teenage girl’s stream of consciousness when she is faced with a terrible dilemma. It’s a remarkable book. Dying, written 29 years earlier, for me doesn’t have quite the sheer wow factor Fraülein Else did (which was partly a result of the sheer technical skill that later work showed), but it too is remarkable.

Dying is the story of two lovers, Felix and Marie, both young and both passionate about each other. As it opens, Marie is meeting Felix for the evening and finds him distracted and upset, he reveals that he has been diagnosed as having less than a year to live, that he will in fact be dead by next Spring. Marie, devastated, swears to die with him, a promise that will become less romantic and more burdensome as the year continues. Will she keep to her promise, will he hold her to it? Those questions add drama throughout, but the real tension comes from the ebb and flow of emotions, the strains Felix’s approaching death puts upon them, the sheer horror of their situation.

Here, Felix tries to get Marie to understand his news, the reality of his situation:

“I know it’s hard to believe, darling. At this moment I don’t believe it myself. It’s hard to grasp, isn’t it? Just think, here I am walking along beside you, speaking words out loud, words that you can hear, and in a year I’ll be lying cold in the ground, perhaps already rotting away.”
“Stop it, stop it!”
“And you’ll look as you do now. Just as you look now, perhaps still a little pale from weeping, but then another evening will come, and many more, and summer and autumn and winter, and another spring – and then I’ll have been dead and cold for a year – what’s the matter?”
She was weeping bitterly. Her tears ran over her cheeks and down her throat.
A despairing smile passed over his face, and he whispered through his teeth, hoarsely, harshly, “I’m sorry.”

At the outset, Felix sets out to be stoical, resigned, philosophical about his fate. He intends to leave a will that will be a “quiet, smiling farewell to the world over which he had triumphed.” Triumphed, because he believes that by the end he will have learned to despise it, to have become detached, to accept the inevitable with an equanimity which the common run of man never achieves.

At the outset, of course, death is still a year away and his health still good.

As the novella continues, Marie tries to bolster Felix’s spirits, and to deny the facts of the situation. She looks desperately for each of his better days, hailing it as the start of a recovery and downplaying the days where he is weaker. She seizes on any sign of hope. Felix himself tries to disdain hope, to face up to the facts, but even so fear smuggles hope in however much he knows it no longer has any place in his life.

Much of the novella deals in the play of the pair’s emotions: Marie’s desire to sacrifice herself to ensuring Felix’s survival, her fears for him, her growing concern that he may hold her to her promise and her own shame that she might not wish to be held to it, her increasing wish to just go outside and live; Felix’s desire to die with pride and dignity, to die in accordance with his sense of himself as a sophisticated and cultured man, his increasing dependence on Marie, his jealousy of her continuing health, his growing resentment of how much he must rely on her and most of all his raw anger that she will outlive him so that her mere presence becomes a constant reminder of his own extinction. Felix’s attitude to death changes as it comes nearer, it is one thing to be phlegmatic when oblivion is yet a year away, as it grows closer however the terror becomes overwhelming:

“I’ll tell you straight out, people falsify the psychology of the dying, because all the great figures of world history of whose deaths we know anything felt duty-bound to put on an act for posterity. And what about me? What am I doing? If I talk calmly to you about all kinds of things that are no longer anything to do with me, what exactly am I doing?”

“I too feel in duty bound to pretend, whereas in reality I’m prey to a boundless, raging fear of a kind that healthy people can’t imagine. They’re all afraid, and that includes the heroes and the philosophers, only they make the best play-actors.”

Part of the sheer power of this novella is its portrait of the fear of death. Not just the natural and general fear that most of us have as a matter of course, few of us want to die. Rather, Schnitzler shows the specific yet inchoate fear of death held by those for whom it is no longer an abstract, no longer something to happen on some distant future day, those for whom it is now to come within the foreseeable future.

Also powerful is the increasing hopelessness Felix feels, the pointlessness. Felix is a writer, but why write when he will likely never finish what he is writing? Why read the news, when he will not be there to see how it turns out? As he comes to question, if you are dying, why do anything at all?

As time continues, everything becomes a mockery: an evening concert is a reminder that those attending will continue while Felix will not; an evening stroll is filled with crowds of the oblivious living: and as Felix’s health declines Marie of course remains a vibrant and healthy young woman, with her own desires however she may try to suppress them:

I shan’t of course speak to how it resolves, to what choices are made at the end or their outcomes, but it is no spoiler to say that as time continues the pair go through the full gamut of emotion, including of course for Marie the (to her) shameful desire to live again, to go out and dance and see crowds and not to spend her days ministering at a sickbed. At the same time, Marie is sick with grief, worn down literally by care:

She felt miserable, unutterably miserable. She would have liked to shed tears, but her emotion had something dry and withered about it. There was no comfort to be found anywhere, even in her own pain. And she envied him, for the tears flowing down his cheeks.

The novella captures brilliantly the guilt and conflict Marie feels, because she does love Felix, she does genuinely want to care for him, but it is a terrible burden and part of her cannot help but wish to have her life back, preferably with him but if that cannot be then without:

If only it were over! Yes, over! She no longer shrank from the idea, and those treacherous words that made hypocritical pity out of the most dreadful wish of all came to her mind. “If only he were at peace!”

Dying deals in issues which are genuinely painful. Felix and Marie’s predicament is a ghastly one, made all the worse for its credibility. It is in that sense not an easy read, though in quite another sense it is an effortless read being beautifully written and, in the Pushkin Press edition I enjoyed, being ably translated by Anthea Bell.

Dying has also been the subject of excellent writeups by John Self of the Asylum here and by Lizzy Siddal of Lizzy’s Literary Life here. Lizzy also wrote up Fraulein Else at that same link. Lizzy criticises Dying for “a tendency to melodrama in some places”, which is probably fair though I think it’s only a slight flaw. She notes too though that it is never maudlin, a point I firmly agree with.

For me, Dying was a remarkable work by a novelist with genuine insight into some of the most painful emotions any human being might ever have to experience, the loss of a loved one, the shame and guilt when love is not enough to make things better, our fear of letting each other down, our fear of losing each other, the anger and pettiness that gets between us, the horror of death, the unthinking joy of life.

Dying is a novel about a terminally ill Nineteenth century Viennese man, put like that it sounds a fairly unappealing read. Pushkin Press have though, as they’ve had with other titles, my thanks for putting this back into print as it’s a work that for all the specificity of its setting and characters is human and universal. I look forward to buying and reading more of Schnitzler’s work, and of his contemporaries, and I’m delighted that Pushkin Press is bringing these writers to our attention.

Dying

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Filed under 19th Century, Austro-Hungarian fiction, Bell, Anthea (translator), Central European fiction, German, Modernist fiction, Novellas, Personal canon, Schnitzler, Arthur

Jarmila

Ernst Weiss committed suicide in 1940 as German troops entered Paris, as Joseph Roth said in his extraordinary essay “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind” (in which he specifically cited Weiss by name), another writer “burned by Germany”. Weiss, a friend of Stefan Zweig, was part of the flowering of late Austro-Hungarian literature that produced so much beauty in the first half of the last century. Beauty that the Nazis sought to destroy, silencing in the process a whole generation of writers.

Or so they hoped. In the English speaking world however, thanks in large part to the efforts of Pushkin Press, these writers are being returned to us and with them a literature which is as fine an example of what the written word is capable of as can be imagined.

Jarmila is a posthumously published novella, written by Ernst Weiss in 1937, and is a masterpiece of concision and style. Published in Germany in 1998, it is brought to us by Pushkin Press in a translation by Rebecca Morrison and Petra Howard-Wuerz which comes with a fascinating (and also translated) afterword by Peter Engel which sheds much light on the circumstances of the novella’s creation. The afterword also illuminates where one element of the novella is necessarily lost in translation – in German, the word for feather is apparently the same as the word for a spring, a fact that would lend some additional subtlety of symbolism to the German that the English cannot capture. It is an excellent translation, in an imprint fully up to Pushkin’s usual high standards, and a pleasure to hold and to read.

All that said, what is Jarmila? In short, it is a melodrama, a tale of how a village watchmaker falls in love with the beautiful young wife of a rich but elderly feather merchant, of their affair and of its consequences. Coupled with this is a framing device in which a businessman who has come to Prague to purchase “thirty tons of average grade Bohemian apples” carries with him a faulty watch that he bought at the last minute, having accidentally left his own at home. The watch acts as introduction to the watchmaker, now a toymaker, and so as a mechanism through which the narrator hears the story of the watchmaker and of Jarmila herself.

Jarmila, a woman with “Breasts like Bohemian apples”, is first described plucking a goose for its feathers:

She clenched the thrashing goose between her firm young thighs with her skirts stretched tight and tore at it.

For the goose, read the watchmaker-cum-toymaker, a handsome young man, but poor. He loves Jarmila, engages in a passionate affair with her meeting her in the barn in which the merchant grades his goose feathers, fathers a child on her and urges her to leave the merchant and come with him to New York.

Jarmila will have none of it, as becomes quickly clear, she is all too happy enjoying passion with the watchmaker and fortune and position with her cuckolded husband. The watchmaker loves Jarmila, but it is far from clear if she loves anyone at all. She is, essentially, evil. A creature of beauty, but not of compassion, intent on her own best interests, utterly selfish (I did say it was a melodrama).

The watchmaker’s campaign to win Jarmila away from her husband, to win the right to raise his own son, and the husband’s retaliation, form the meat of the plot. The plot, however, is not the point.

Instead, the point in Jarmila is the structure of the tale itself. Jarmila is an essentially fractal work, with each part of it containing in miniature the whole. Elements occur and recur, the watch is faulty because its spring is broken, a theme which manifests more than once in the novella. Jarmila is married to a feather dealer, feathers (like springs) act as a motif through the entire work, the toymaker rips the feathers of the chest of a toy bird just as Jarmila plucks the feathers of geese and just as she rips the heart out of the watchmaker. Everything is significant, no remark lacks connection to the broader story.

Put another way, and to coin an observation I sincerely doubt is original in respect of this tale, Jarmila is constructed as if it were a watch mechanism itself. It is intricately detailed, every part is fitted precisely to every other. Every part functions in conjunction with every other. Nothing in its structure is accidental, everything is subject to the minutest craftsmanship. The central element of the tale, the broken watch, is a symbol of the tale itself.

Weiss’s prose is a pleasure to read, light yet dense, it is easy to race through the novella but reflection reveals layer after layer of interconnected symbolism, much of which I have chosen not to touch on here as to do so would result in a a blog entry longer than the work itself. Like many of the best novellas, it unpacks in the mind after completion, significance becoming apparent in what at first appeared to be mere incident. It is a work I look forward to rereading, as having read the whole I will be in a much better position to appreciate the individual elements as they arise.

Not everything, however, is weighted in symbol. Sometimes Weiss simply shows us his gift for description and indulges his own love for a country he was at the time of writing permanently himself an exile from (and it is no accident that a sense of doom, of the impossibility of escape and the impermeability of borders suffuses the novella). Here, our unnamed narrator buys his dinner on arrival in Prague, in a passage that is almost a love letter to the city’s cuisine:

I sat down in an empty corner and ordered beer and Prague ham. I planned to leave the following day – but not before having sampled the ham. I couldn’t make myself understood to the waitress. The toy trader, who’d been watching this whole time with his uneven, steely-grey eyes, came to my aid; his German was not without flaws, but fluent. There was a choice of ham dishes on the menu served raw or smoked, warm or cold, with horse-radish or gherkins, cooked in wine or with noodles baked in the oven, or even as an omelette filling, with macaroni, or garnished with pickles, and so on. I wasn’t really hungry and ordered without paying attention. In fact, I rather would have liked to invited the toy trader to join me for a glass of beer. There were three kinds, the first a light, wheat colour, then a brown one, the last thick, heavy, and almost black. When I was young wet-nurses were given black beer like this to increase their milk flow. Was it sweet, or rather bitter like English stout? Who could I ask?

But soon after, the narrator comments on the toymaker’s hands, which themselves then become another recurring element, another fragment in which the whole is reflected. In a work this tightly structured, we are rarely far away from greater meaning.

Jarmila succeeds because of the sheer skill of its craftsmanship, it doesn’t matter that the tale itself is trite, indeed it would be a distraction were it not. The point is an inescapable clockwork mechanism, which unwinds towards its conclusion with bleakly inevitable precision, beautifully and unerringly. Jarmila is a work by a writer at the peak of his talents, it amply deserved publication and although it is a tragedy it did not receive such in Weiss’s lifetime, Pushkin Press has my thanks for seeing that it did in mine.

Jarmila

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, Czech fiction, German, Novellas, Weiss, Ernst

The air is like champagne

Fraülein Else, by Arthur Schnitzler

Fraülein Else is a 1924 novella by Austro-Hungarian author Arthur Schnitzler, now perhaps most famous for writing the work that would eventually become Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

But let’s not hold that against him (actually, I think highly of Eyes Wide Shut, but popular opinion has I think moved against me on that one), Fraülein Else is a complex psychological novella written almost entirely in the form of the stream of consciousness of a young woman of respectable family staying with her aunt at a fashionable spa. In just over a hundred pages (and small pages at that) it manages to be as gripping as many thrillers, while having much to say about sexuality, the brutal realities underpinning polite society and loss of innocence (or worse, realisation that innocence was only ever a comfortable illusion).

I read the excellent F.H. Lyon translation of Fraülein Else, published by Pushkin Press. For those unfamiliar with them, Pushkin Press is a publisher of literary fiction with particular strengths in European literature (especially, from what I have seen, mitteleuropean literature). My wife, Emma, has read a number of works published by Pushkin Press and the general quality of their choices is very high. The books are published on a smaller than usual format, clearly printed on high quality paper, and although paperback with slightly stiffish card covers. Physically, they are very attractive, easy to hold and a pleasure to read. Even if ebooks do become the norm, there will I think always be a place for books as well produced as the Pushkin range.

Going back to Fraülein Else, the essence of the story is a simple one. Else is a young woman of good but not aristocratic Viennese family, her father is a lawyer and a successful one, she is on holiday with her aunt and attractive cousin at a spa when she receives a telegram from her mother, informing her that her father faces ruin and that only 30,000 gulden can save him. Her father has already approached all those who have lent him money in the past, all that is left therefore is for Else to approach family acquaintance Herr von Dorsday who is also on holiday at the spa and ask him for the money.

We soon learn that Else’s family is not as good as it appears, her father has embezzled trust funds and this is not his first brush with possible ruin, he has needed saving before. Else has holes in her stockings that she hopes will not be noticed and, although it is clear until now she has avoided thinking too much on the subject, the telegram leaves her unable to avoid the truth that her family is not so respectable after all.

Else approaches Herr von Dorsday. In return for the money he requires that she pay an improper price. For the course of an evening Else thinks on whether or not to pay that price, and on what her alternatives may be.

And that, in its most simplistic essence, is the book. It is the stream of consciousness of a young woman, forced by family exigency to consider matters she would prefer not to and exposed to the truth that even in polite society the good manners on show merely conceal the reality that everything still has its price. Else’s innocence is lost merely by the fact of the request from her mother to approach Herr von Dorsday, his request simply cements her understanding of the crude nature of the world she inhabits, a world that until then had seemed much prettier.

The drama of the novel comes from Else’s consideration of what to do, for much of it I was genuinely uncertain how events would play out and there is a real tension as one watches her thoughts flow to acquiescence, to rebellion, to escapist fantasy, to acquiescence again and so on. More powerful though is the character of Else herself, beautifully realised (as it must be, for the novel to work at all). Schnitzel shows Else’s initial innocence, its later resurgence as she dreams of ways out of her dilemma, he shows too her new understanding of her world – which seems always to have been present but heretofore unacknowledged, her despair and her savage hope. Schnitzel paints a subtle and wholly persuasive psychological portrait which made me empathise with Else and be fascinated by her situation.

Because it’s essentially an unbroken stream of consciousness (though far easier to read than that suggests), it’s difficult to pull out particularly representative quotes. I’ve tried, with the following two passages, to give some sense though of Else’s internal monologue and the style of the work. In this first excerpt she has received the telegram and is considering how to approach Herr von Dorsday:

I must turn on the light. It’s getting chilly. Shut the window. Blind down? No need. There’s no one standing on the mountain over there with a telescope. Worse luck … ‘I’ve just had a letter, Herr von Dorsday’ … Perhaps it’ll be better to do it after dinner. One is in a lighter mood then. Dorsday will be too … I might drink a glass of wine first. But I should certainly enjoy my dinner more if I finished the whole business first. Pudding à la merveille, fromage et fruits divers. But what if Herr von Dorsday should say no? Or if he’s downright impudent? Oh no; no one has ever been impudent to me. Well, Lieutenant Brandel was, but he didn’t mean any harm. I’ve got a bit thinner again. It suits me … The twilight stares in. It stares in like a ghost – like a hundred ghosts. Ghosts are rising out of my meadow. How far off is Vienna? How long have I been away? How alone I am! I haven’t a girl friend, nor a man friend. Where are they all? Whom shall I marry? Who would marry a swindler’s daughter? …

In this second excerpt, Else is returning to the hotel after thinking matters over for some time:

He’s waiting. Herr von Dorsday is waiting. No, I won’t see him. I can’t see him any more. I won’t see anyone any more. I won’t go back to the hotel, I won’t go home. I won’t go to Vienna, I won’t go to anybody, to anyone at all, not to Father, not to Mother, not to Rudi, not to Fred, not to Bertha, not to Aunt Irene! She’s the best of them, she’d understand everything. But I’ve nothing more to do with her or with anybody else. If I were a magician, I’d be in quite another part of the world. On some splendid ship in the Mediterranean, but not alone. With Paul, perhaps. Yes, I can imagine that quite easily. Or I’d live in a villa by the sea and we’d lie on the marble steps that run down into the water, and he’d hold me tight in his arms and bite my lips, as Alfred did at the piano two years ago, the impudent wretch. No, I’d lie alone on the marble steps by the sea and wait. And at last a man would come, or several men, and I’d choose one, and the others whom I’d rejected would throw themselves into the sea in despair. Or they’d have to be patient and wait til next day. Oh, what a delicious life it would be!

Part of what impresses me here, is how easily Schnitzel captures Else’s immaturity, her flights of childish fancy, but intercuts them with her dawning realisation of her actual situation. Schnitzel is also excellent in a number of passages in bringing out Else’s own burgeoning sexuality, suppressed by societal dictat but by virtue of this situation brought (only part unwillingly) to the forefront of her mind.

Other characters in the work are seen largely through Else’s eyes, the few times Else speaks to someone during the evening it is presented in italics and rarely are the words of the conversation on their own very revealing. Despite this, Schnitzler manages to capture Else’s aunt’s concern for propriety, Herr von Dorsday’s self-interest,self-regard and essential hypocricy, the tension between Cissy Mohr – possible lover to Else’s cousin Paul – and Else herself. We see only through Else’s eyes, and she does not appear a particularly unreliable narrator, but because suddenly she sees much so too do we and the work is full of small psychological truths.

An irony with Fraülein Else, compared to other works I have written about here, is in one sense I have relatively little to say about it. It is well written, shows great insight and is both an enjoyable and rewarding read. Pushkin Press have, once again, brought to English readers a novelist whose works might otherwise go ignored, and certainly without them I wouldn’t have read this particular work. The plot however is so simple, the essential dilemma faced by Else so easily grasped, the truth of her society so depressingly familiar, that it is hard to write at length about it. I am left then saying that this is a fine piece of Austro-Hungarian literature of a sort too little now recognised, and that I am extremely grateful to Pushkin Press for publishing this translation and giving me access to it.

Fraülein Else (also available directly from the publisher here). I note that John Self over at Asylum has written up a different Arthur Schnitzel here, which may also be of interest.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, German, Modernist fiction, Novellas, Personal canon, Schnitzler, Arthur

Closely Observed Trains

Closely Observed Trains, also known as Closely Watched Trains, is a 1965 novella by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal. It is his most famous work, in large part due to an extremely successful (I understand, I’ve not yet seen it) 1966 Czech film adaptation of the work. I read Closely Observed Trains in the Abacus edition, translated by Edith Pargeter.

Closely Observed Trains tells the story of Miloš Hrma, a young railway junior dispatcher and signalman returning to work at a minor but strategically important Czech railway station. Miloš has been away for three months, recuperating from a suicide attempt, and is warmly welcomed back by Station Master Lánský and Dispatcher Hubička. The year is 1945, the Germans have lost command of the air-space over the town, but it remains an important rail hub for them and certain key transport trains are nominated by the German high command for “close surveillance” to ensure that they are not delayed by signals failures or problems on the lines.

The novella opens with a short history of Miloš’s family, his great-grandfather who received a pension for injuries received in 1848 and spent his days mocking those who had to work, his grandfather who became a hypnotist and was the only man in town to resist the German advance (and using only the powers of his mind). The tone set is darkly comic, the great-grandfather routinely beaten by those he laughs at, the hypnotist seeing only limited success against the German tanks. These early elements are classically picaresque, but with bleak consequences.

Miloš himself has many worries, he is a virgin and his most recent attempt to change that fact ended in disaster. His friend and to an extent hero, dispatcher Hubička, is to face disciplinary charges following a shocking incident in which this (apparently typically Hrabalian) amorous rogue used all the station’s official stamps on the telegraphist’s backside, and action may be taken against a munitions train marked for “close surveillance”. Miloš is an innocent, a slightly hapless individual, whose confusion about love, affection for those around him and dislike of the suffocating nature of the town he has grown up in marks him as a fairly typical adolescent. Much of the novel then is an account of his misadventures and the comic nature of those around him. Here he tells the stationmaster of an incident in Hubička’s past at another station, where Hubička and a female passenger had sex on the station-master’s couch and tore it in the process:

‘They’d torn the couch!’ wailed the station-master. ‘Ripped the station-master’s couch in half! That is what comes of it when there’s nothing above folks any more! Neither God nor myth, neither allegory nor symbol … We’re on our own now in this world, so everything’s allowed. But not for me! For me there is a God! But for that grunting pig nothing exists but pork, dumplings and cabbage …’

I thought this a tremendous passage, the indignation, the move from an incident as small as a torn couch to the death of God and the birth of the permissive society is a piece of great comic writing. The station-master is absurd in the gravity he places on this small event, which to him is a challenge to the very order of existence itself.

As the novella proceeds, the tone continues to move between the comic and the tragic. A train pulls in, Miloš is ordered on to it at gunpoint, having committed some offence in the eyes of the S.S.:

The engine shook, the planes of snow receded, gleaming, into the distance, thawing snow, ticking away steadily with all its prismatic crystals. In a ditch lay three dead horses, just as the Germans had thrown them out of the wagons in the night. They simply opened the doors and threw out the corpses. Now they lay in the ditch beside the permanent way, legs stretched stiffly towards the sky like columns on which depended the invisible portal of heaven. Engineer Honzík looked at me, and his eyes were full of grief and anger because it was in his section that this close-surveillance transport had been delayed. And it was certainly I who was to blame, so it was only justice that these S.S. men had forced me aboard the engine, and were all the time waiting and wanting to be allowed to place the muzzles of their pistols to the nape of my neck, give the signal, press the trigger and dispatch the bullets into me, and then open the little door …

Death is always close in this novel, at its opening with the crash of a German fighter, with the station-master’s wife’s cruel way of killing livestock so as best to preserve their flavour, in the troop transport left near the station which has been destroyed by partisans, the humorous is never far away from the fatal. Similarly, Miloš is horrified by the sight of trains carrying animals for slaughter, the Germans packing them in for greater efficiency at the cost of terrible suffering on the part of the pigs and cows affected:

I jumped up on the rim of a wagon and looked down into it. And all those cattle were down with strangles, several of them were lying there dead; from one cow’s rump hung a dead and rotting calf … everywhere nothing but terrible pairs of eyes silently reproaching, tortured eyes over which I wrung my hands. A whole train-load of the reproachful eyes of cattle.

I hardly need draw attention to the associations German cattle trucks bring to mind.

So then, black comedy, life in all its backside-stamping glory next to dead animals and the destroyed remnants of German planes and trains. We learn why Miloš attempted suicide, we see his attempts to lose his virginity, we hear him describe the station-master’s hobby of breeding pigeons and that same man’s unlikely dream of one day becoming an Inspector of State Railways, life continues even in wartime.

Hrabal also addresses, gently and quietly though still powerfully, issues of resistance and collaboration. Station-master Lánský has no love of the Germans, but he does not resist them, he simply gets on with his job. Dispatcher Hubička is less compliant, others however openly support the Germans even to the point of changing their names to make them less Czech:

First of all Councillor Zednicek spread out his pocket map of Europe, so that he could use it as an introduction, and expound the military situation of the German armies. When he unfolded the map, holes appeared in it. This was because Councillor Zednicek carried this map in his pocket so persistently that he had worn it out at the folded corners. But every one of those holes was as big as Switzerland. Zednicek favoured us with his interpretation of the situation in the Carpathians, where von Mansfield’s Fifth Army was engaged, the army in which Zednicek’s son Bretislav was also fighting, but on the map the Fifth Army was still stuck fast in one of the worn-away holes; it was a week now since it had got into it, and it still hadn’t managed to climb out of the kettle, so Zednicek’s son was fighting away somewhere in that hole. Just like his father, Bretislav Zednicek didn’t know the German language properly, and had recommended himself to the Germans by excising the Czech accents from his names.

The Councillor goes on to explain how the German army is winning on various fronts, and to speak of life in the protectorate. Again though the fatal and the comic sit side by side, the son lost in a hole in a map, an image both ludicrous and tragic.

In terms of plot, given this is only a 91 page work, I intend to say nothing further. Closely Observed Trains is easily read, the style is immediate and the language not at all difficult to follow. I did note one possible translation error early on (either that or an error in the editing) when certain rail tracks are said to run West to East and certain others by contrast West to East (it seems evident the second group should have been described as running East to West). In general though, the ease with which I read the book and the degree to which I found it both very funny and absolutely horrible speaks to Edith Pargeter’s abilities as a translator and the result of her work is never stilted or awkward (not really surprising, Edith Pargeter was better known as Ellis Peters).

Closely Observed Trains is a work of light comedy, matched to terrible events and appalling consequences. It has huge compassion for its characters, and shows life as something both precious and all too easily lost. It is an immensely accessible work, and as such although it is my first Hrabal it will not be my last.

On a final aside, Bohumil Hrabal famously spent most of his days drinking and writing in a Prague pivnice (pub) called U Zlatého Tygra. On my first trip to Prague, long before I had heard of Hrabal, I ate there as it remains a fairly famous establishment to this day. It’s an atmospheric place, with good food and excellent local beer. However, the staff were spectacularly unfriendly, as indeed were the patrons, despite Prague generally being a fairly friendly town (apparently Tygra is well known for this). I mention it so that if you find yourself in Prague armed with a copy of a work by Hrabal, you can go to his favourite pub and eat and drink where he did, though with perhaps less welcome than he received.

Closely Observed Trains

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Filed under Central European fiction, Czech fiction, Hrabal, Bohumil