Category Archives: Czech fiction

I cannot surrender my soul to any nation state, or to any set of beliefs.

It’s been a little while since my last update. I’ve had holiday (Bologna, always lovely) and started a new job (Cabinet Office, fascinating). Between all that I’ve not really had a lot of spare time.

Even so, with the time off between jobs and my holiday July ended up being a fairly reading-heavy month. Ten books! Some short I admit, some very short in fact, but still, ten!

Here they are.

The Gigolo, by Francoise Sagan and translated by Joanna Kilmartin

This is one of those little Penguin pocket editions – a handful of Sagan shorts. Sagan is always enjoyable and this was no exception.

The title story is about an aging woman’s relationship with her younger lover. He loves her, she pays his rent. It’s a nicely observed little tale about the clash between society’s expectations and private emotions.

The second tale is about a wife who returns home early from a trip to find signs that her seemingly trustworthy husband may be having an affair. There’s a sting in the tale, which I guessed early, but it’s still well written and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

For the past ten years, she had talked about pot plants, gardenias, verandahs and lawns, and for the past ten years David had said nothing in reply.

Lastly there’s a tale about a dying man being comforted by his wife as he thinks about past affairs. I had actually completely forgotten that one and the description comes from Amazon, so probably not the strongest of the three…

Anyway, it’s a fun little collection and perfect for popping into a pocket on a summer’s day.

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

This is the last of Leckie’s space operatic trilogy. I talked about the first two here and here. If you’ve read number two and liked it, you’ll like this. If you haven’t, you probably won’t. I thought it brought it all together pretty well and left the right amount unresolved (I hate overly neat endings).

I don’t know if the trilogy is a future classic – space opera can age badly quite quickly – but I think it at least has potential to be. This is proper old-fashioned widescreen SF, but with a modern feel to it and good characters, setting and story.

The Beautiful Summer, by Cesare Pavese, unknown translator

Penguin doesn’t identify the translator for this as best I can tell, which I think is pretty shabby.

Ginia is a sixteen year-old in Fascist Italy, caught between the fading ties of childhood and the daunting allure of the adult world – or at least what adolescents think is the adult world (more sex, bars and late night conversations; less early alarms, work deadlines and crying children).

She becomes involved through a friend with an artist who the reader can plainly tell just isn’t as in to her as she is to him. Pavese captures brilliantly and with sympathy her conflicting emotions – on one side her desire to do what pleases the artist and to become part of his world; on the other her fear of the consequences and her growing sense of self and of her own life.

I read this while out in Italy and it is pretty much a perfect summer read. Cleanly written and plotted. Nothing happens here that will surprise you but as with Sagan it’s very much about the emotions of the journey rather than the destination.

My only criticism is that I do wonder how much it will stay in memory. Sagan still feels sharp to me, but I don’t have a sense yet whether this will in say a month’s time.

Finally, I’d be very interested to hear the thoughts of any female readers who’ve tried this. It’s written by a man and I think the reviews I’ve read are also by men, but it’s about female experience and I did wonder if it was a slightly anodyne, idealised, version of that experience. There’s none of the intensity or desire one finds in say Duras. Does it get it right?

Grant also wrote about this here, and I think others have too so views and links welcome in the comments.

The Red Tenda of Bologna, by John Berger

This is another pocket Penguin. Here it’s a typically well written sort-of-memoir by John Berger. A short meditation on memory triggered by familiar locations. It’s slight, and honestly I’ve already largely forgotten it, but I do remember enjoying it while reading it. An ice cream of a book – it may not last but it’s enjoyable at the time in the heat.

The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

This is a sort of non-fiction precursor to Szerb’s marvellous Journey by Moonlight. A tired and troubled Szerb holidays in Fascist Italy for what he’s very aware is likely the last time (and I think it really was his last time).

He experiences crowded sites, bad rooms, stultifying heat and the rising tide of fascism about him. It’s slight but the sense that Szerb’s world, the civilised world, is being overrun gives it a certain power and makes it regrettably timely.

I arrived at a bad moment. It was Ferragosto, the 15th of August, and to cap it all there were outdoor games in the Arena for which the whole of Italy had turned up, travelling on spectacularly discounted tickets. In the city you no sooner worked your way past one Italian tourist than you bumped into another. It was like being in Salzburg – a cut-price, petty-bourgeois, Fascist Salzburg.

There’s a lovely coda to it all about the importance of carving out a place for yourself in an increasingly maddened and hostile world. Szerb, a bookish intellectual, saw no place for himself in a Europe dominated by extremists, ultra-nationalists and a rising tide of unreason. So he had to make a place, however fleeting, however fragile.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts

Next up was some distinctly gloomy hard-SF. In this novel a spaceship spirals through the galaxy creating wormholes for a humanity that may long since have gone extinct. Members of the crew are only woken for the more difficult jobs, a handful only each time, and because their ship must travel slower than light that means tens of thousands of years pass between each job.

The ship travels on, now tens of millions of years from its original launch. In all that time nobody’s got in touch, nobody’s said thanks or come home. If humanity still exists it must surely be nothing like the people who launched the mission all those years ago. Utterly transformed; alien.

Some of the crew now want to bring the mission to an end, find some new purpose, but how do you mount a revolt against a permanently awake shipboard AI when the conspirators are separated by millennia of frozen sleep?

I liked this, but it eventually becomes apparent it’s intended to be part of a series, which I hadn’t realised. The result is that it doesn’t really have that satisfying an ending, leaving lots open for the next book. Still, I’ll read that next book and the ideas are interesting.

There are Little Kingdoms, by Kevin Barry

This was, I believe, Barry’s first published short story collection. I’ve previously written about his marvellous City of Bohane here and a bit about his equally marvellous short story collection Dark Lies the Island here.

For me, Kingdoms wasn’t as strong as Island, but then nor should it be – it came earlier and he’s developed as a writer since. Island has a powerful sense of place as you’d expect from Barry, and he persuasively captures the lives of Ireland’s lost and lonely.

Barry’s taste for the occasional grotesquerie shows more here than in Island, where that element is present but used more sparingly and to better effect. The dark humour I’ve grown to expect from Barry shows here and is as enjoyable as ever.

Ultimately though, when I came to write this I realised that every story I remembered clearly came from Island, not Kingdoms. If I hadn’t read Island I suspect this would have blown me away. As it is, it’s clear that I read Barry in the wrong order and for me Island is simply the better collection.

The Weird and the Eerie, by Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher was a cultural commentator who wrote a number of highly regarded essays including his excellent Capitalist Realism. Here he examines what he argues are two different horror traditions, I’ll let you guess what he calls them…

The weird here is horror that comes from the intrusion of the other into the ordinary (I’m simplifying heavily here). It is something present that should be absent, perhaps which shouldn’t be at all.

The eerie by contrast is the absence of that which ought to be there. For example, the sound of a woman crying but heard from an empty room. However, Fisher also cites “failure of absence” as a manifestation of the eerie – something present where nothing should be present, which seems awfully close to the weird on this taxonomy.

The difficulty is that I wasn’t remotely persuaded that these genuinely are two different traditions in horror fiction and film. Rather, this seemed to me a canter through a bunch of books, TV shows and films that Fisher grew up with and loved (and fair enough, I grew up with them and loved them too), and which he then hung a post-hoc critical framework on. I thought many of his examples of one form could easily have been used for the other and the entire distinction felt artificial, and worse, not useful.

Driven, by James Sallis

This is the wholly unnecessary sequel to Drive, in which Driver turns out to be as good at unarmed combat as he is at driving. Years after the first book he finds himself being hunted by professional thugs and hit-men. He effortlessly kills them all with his bare hands and turns the tables to hunt down the hunters. I found it unconvincing and a bit silly.

Childless, by Ignát Hermann and translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick

This novella is part of a series of short classics being published on Kindle. One of the better things about that platform is the ease with which it allows publishers to release books that might not be profitable enough to merit a full hardcopy release.

Here it’s the tale of a successful and happily married banker whose life lacks lacks the one thing he feels would give it meaning – a child. Then he reads a personal letter of his wife’s and everything changes…

That makes it sound potentially rather dark and usually these sorts of stories are, but what’s unusual here is that it’s a story of basically good people who’ve caused pain more through failure to trust than through desire.

Unfortunately, the kindle copy did have a fair few typographical errors, but even so it’s definitely worth a read. David Hebblethwaite wrote about it a bit more here.

The Four Devils, by Herman Bang and translated by Marie Ottillie Heyl

This was my last book of the month and is another of those short classics on Kindle. Here it’s the story of four trapeze artists whose tight-knit world is thrown into a tangle of resentment and desire when one of them begins an affair with a local noblewoman.

It’s well written, deeply physical (as you’d expect given their profession) and has a sense of inevitability as compelling as a trapeze artist’s leap across the void. It costs literally less than a cup of coffee and if the Kindle form factor isn’t a problem for you I strongly recommend it. It also doesn’t have the typographical issues that Childless did. David Hebblethwaite wrote about this too, here.

And that’s it! A packed month in terms of reading and in terms of life too. Hopefully soon I can catch up on what others have been reading and some of the posts I’ve missed over the past few weeks.

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Filed under Barry, Kevin, Berger, John, Czech fiction, Danish fiction, Fisher, Mark, French, Irish fiction, Leckie, Ann, Pavese, Cesare, Sagan, Françoise, Sallis, James, SF, Short stories, Szerb, Antal, Travel writing

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

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