Friday 9 January 2015

Bohumil Hrabal – just to say his name lands you plumb and softly in the middle of Europe – has very good titles: Closely Observed Trains, Vacant LotsI Served the King of EnglandToo Loud a Solitude, Total Fears. On a flight to London in November I reread Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. I began just after take-off and managed to time the end of the sentence, which is the whole book, for touch-down in Heathrow. This was so satisfying it felt like an augury. I'd swallowed the Irish Sea in a single sentence. No ill could come of this.

In London I bought Total Fears (published by Twisted Spoon Press in Prague), written as a series of letters to April Gifford, dubbed Dubenka. He needs to be talking out loud to someone, somewhere and she is that person and these pages are the place. His recollections and associations rampage at will through long paragraphs full of ellipses.

He never sent the letters. They were as much for Dubenka as they were for Pipsi, his dead wife, for the familiarity of talking to her, for his own comfort (and safety), and for me, midwinter, on a day of horizontal rain and wind. Wetterkrank. Sick with weather. Mid-Europeans are good with weather and sickness of the soul. Good with extent. Always landed, bordered, wry and fearful, translated from the word Go and, in the mid- to late-twentieth century, about to be crushed by a Bolshevik boot.

Bohumil Hrabal aged 75, thinking and drinking in Prague, London, Glasgow and the Delighted States of America where he gave talks at many universities, living with his twelve cats in the Kersko woods, addressing his Dubenka over in Stanford, California, his dead wife Pipsi, his rush of recollection in the late eighties and early nineties, Total Fears is the hurtling missive of his latter years. Or is that, missile? He feels hurt by his own house, his own bedroom, by the view through the window; the whole world is hurting; he avoids his own image in the mirror; in neither time or space, at the heart of horror and dread, he is cold.
… how many times I've felt like jumping from the fifth floor, from my apartment where every room hurts, but always at the last moment my guardian angel saves me, he pulls me back, just like my Herr Doktor Franz Kafka, who wanted to jump from the fifth floor … just like Malte Laurids Brigge, who also wanted to jump from the fifth floor, he was hurt too by the world in Paris. Brigge was hurt by the whole world as well, just like Rainer Maria Rilke.
Bohumil Hrabal died in 1997 after falling from his hospital window while trying to feed the pigeons.

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