Introduction

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Hrabal, Bohumil 1914–

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A Czech novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter, Hrabal uses elements of surrealism to present ordinary people surviving extraordinary events. His humor is frequently undercut by the undercurrent of impending tragedy. Hrabal collaborated with director Jiří Menzel on the screenplay for Closely Watched Trains, which was adapted from his novel Ostře sledované vlaky.

John Simon

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[The film Closely Watched Trains] is a comic view of Czech resistance to the Nazis in which a bumbling youth tragicomically comes of age in sex and war. A dispatcher trainee at a puny railroad station, he has troubles with his work that stem from greater troubles with lovemaking, which terrifies him. The figures that surround him, notably the ambitious but inept stationmaster and a fly-specked Don Juan of a train dispatcher, are, like himself, drawn with a humor so sweeping that it would hurtle into satire or caricature were it not for the intense joviality and humaneness that inform it. Tenderness mitigates the farcical, a certain seriousness gives an edge to the laughter…. (p. 279)

I wish I had more space to expatiate about this superb film (I have not even mentioned as yet the fine screenplay by Bohumil Hrabal)…. The best thing about Closely Watched Trains is that it impresses one as unique, indebted ultimately only to its individual genius. (p. 280)

John Simon, in his Movies Into Film: Film Criticism 1967–1970 (copyright © 1971 by John Simon; used by permission of The Dial Press), Dial, 1971.

Phoebe-Lou Adams

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[In The Death of Mr. Baltisberger] short stories combine exuberant, exaggerative humor with an incongruous attention to realistic detail. The mixture is effective for the author's purpose, which is to draw attention to the ways in which ordinary people survive exasperating circumstances. Since Mr. Hrabal is a lively, intelligent, interesting writer, he remains largely unpublished in his native Czechoslovakia. (p. 122)

Phoebe-Lou Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), February, 1975.

["The Death of Mr. Baltisberger" contains fourteen] harmless bagatelles from the Czech author of the novella for the film "Closely Watched Trains," all devoid of any compellingness, direction or humanity. Hrabal seems to share the Czech proclivity for simplistic political satire feebly expressed through surrealistically metaphorical plots—heavy-handed allegories on the insanity and incompetence of bureaucracy which get their entire motivation from the dialectic incongruity of pompousness and mediocrity. These are stories without compassion, without conviction, and unfortunately, because of the perpetual fog of fey symbolism, without meaning. (p. cxliv)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 4 (Autumn, 1975).

Thomas Lask

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Bohumil Hrabal … [has] a splendid ear for the trivia, the ephemera that make up so much of our discourse. The conversation at a bar, at a family picnic, even on a lover's walk reveals a design essentially patternless and, when juxtaposed to events of some weight or significance, results in a series of weird, grotesque tales. It is precisely the contrasts in ["The Death of Mr. Baltisberger," a] collection of stories, that hold the elements together….

The key to Hrabal is that though the details are always realistic, the uses he puts them to are not.

The range, in these stories at least, is not wide, and a certain monotony begins to set in. But Hrabal shows an offbeat, original mind, a fey imagination and a sure hand in constructing his tales. I would be curious to see what the rest of his output is like. (p. 46)

Thomas Lask, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 5, 1975.

Igor HäJek

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IGOR HÄJEK

Hrabal has his own particular way of looking at or reading the world, of exposing aspects of character or reality one hadn't thought of. It is a quasi-surrealist method, in which everything depends on an extraordinary angle of perception. It has its dangers: it consumes an inordinate amount of personal experience; its disjointed nature makes the development of a synthetic outlook or philosophy difficult (but it helps to avoid ideology); it generates an intoxication with words and images; and the inflexible originality it imposes, similar to that of a Sunday painter, may become too familiar for the reader and a self-perpetuating mould for the author.

A conventional strait-jacket does not suit Hrabal, however. Even A Close Watch on the Trains, his most conventional book, is really a series of picturesque episodes arranged in the shape of a novel….

In Postriziny, too, he seems to have set himself a task not quite germane to his talent. The book, to which he refers only as "a text", is written in memory and celebration of his late mother, father and uncle: its eleven chapters describe the things they got up to while living in a brewery where his father was manager. The anecdotes dating from the 1920s and obviously handed down by family tradition rather than remembered were not quite zany enough by Hrabal's standards and needed embellishment. At the same time, respect for his parents has prevented the author from giving full rein to his prating. The result of the compromise is that the tone is tenderly evocative, as befits the occasion, although from time to time the strange juxtapositions seem to do no more than stretch a slight and static tale.

Perhaps we have been spoilt by Hrabal and it may be unfair to expect him to go on providing new sensations at a prodigious rate. The very fact that the book provokes argument and criticism places it high above the boring mediocrity of most contemporary Czech writing….

The most authentic Hrabal available in English is contained in The Death of Mr Baltisberger, a book of short stories…. In this early collection … the weaknesses of Hrabal's method are avoided with bravura and its untamed originality is displayed to full advantage. Everyday drabness lights up into exceptional situations, beer talk is endowed with profound wisdom, and literature miraculously reintegrates neglected little eccentrics and outcasts into the mainstream of life. The concise form precludes spillage or thinning of content. In these stories Hrabal is as strong, sparkling and invigorating as Pilsner Urquell. Postřižiny is just a very good local brew.

Igor Häjek, "Brewing Up," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 20, 1977, p. 632.

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Hrabal, Bohumil (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)