Bohumil Hrabal Hrabal, Bohumil (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Bohumil Hrabal 1914-1997

Czech novelist, short-story writer, autobiographer, essayist, and poet.

The following entry provides criticism on Hrabal's works from 1989 through 2000. For criticism prior to 1989, see CLC, Volumes 13 and 67.

Hrabal was one of his country's most prominent late-twentieth-century writers. He is known for his comic, surrealistic, and idiosyncratic tales about ordinary people: poor workers, nonconformists, and failures. His most well-known work—Ostře sledované vlaky (1965; Closely Watched Trains)—is considered his most conventional. Although his writings were banned by authorities for a number of years, he exerted an important influence on the development of prose literature in Czechoslovakia.

Biographical Information

Hrabal was born on March 28, 1914, in Brno-Židenice, Moravia, and was raised in a small town on the banks of the Elbe river. He travelled with his stepfather, a brewery agent, and learned to appreciate the vernacular and folkways of the common people, whom he observed and later described in his fiction. He studied law at Charles University in Prague for four years until, in 1939, Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia temporarily closed its universities. During the next several years, Hrabal worked as a lawyer's clerk, a maltster, and a railway worker, and wrote whimsical poetry in his spare time. After the war, Hrabal returned to the university, earning a law degree in 1946. Possibly due to the upheaval caused by Czechoslovakia's change to a communist government in the late 1940s, he didn't practice law, instead becoming a traveling salesman, a factory worker, and then a stagehand at a theater in Prague. He continued to write, transitioning from poetry to prose, and tried to get published. He experienced difficulties because, in this era of frequent censorship, publishers were sometimes reluctant to accept Hrabal's unconventional style, fearing political trouble. In 1969, after the Soviet Army invaded Czechoslovakia in response to the Prague Spring uprising, Hrabal's writings were banned by authorities. He circulated some of his works through an underground network known as samizdat. Following an interview in an official communist newspaper in 1975 in which he remained neutral on the subject of the communist regime, Hrabal became one of the few writers able to publish in his native country during the politically repressive late 1970s and early '80s. Still, until the fall of the Communist Party in 1989, a great deal of his work was expurgated to please government authorities. On February 3, 1997, Hrabal died, falling from a fifth-floor hospital window.

Major Works

Walking a fine line between artistic freedom and government strictures, Hrabal hinted at political criticism without overtly defying the existing order. His works generally dwell on the individual's response to the world and are frequently surrealistic and plotless. Hrabal makes frequent use of long dialogues and monologues and shifts in points of view which suggest tenuous perceptions of reality. Hrabal began writing in the 1930s, and tried to publish his first book—the poetry collection Ztracená ulička—in 1948, but due to political upheavals in Czechoslovakia, this work was not published until 1991. His first short story collection, Perlička na dně, appeared in 1963. Closely Watched Trains, published two years later, became one of Hrabal's best-known novels, partly because of its Academy Award-winning 1966 film adaptation. This story concerns a young guard in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia who loses his life in an attempt to blow up a train. In 1969, Hrabal's works were banned from publication. Some of his most important novels, including Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (1971; I Served the King of England) and Příliš hlučná samota (1977; Too Loud a Solitude,) were first circulated during this time via samizdat. The former novel explores the ways ordinary people attempt to cope with a chaotic world. The latter is an allegory about the power of literature as a civilizing force. Its protagonist, who rescues banned literary works from a government paper recycling center, becomes suicidal when he is moved to a new workplace. Hrabal's Automat Svět (1966; The Death of Mr. Baltisberger) is an experimental collection of short stories based on tales heard in taverns in Prague. In Postřižiny (1974; Cutting It Short), Hrabal creates an allegory based on the changes in Eastern Europe after World War I. In 1986 Hrabal produced several volumes of memoirs: Svatby v domě, Vita Nuova, and Proluky. In these works he reviews portions of his own life and comments extensively on the Czechs' relations with the Germans, whom he blames for the eventual onset of Russian despotism in Central and Eastern Europe. Hrabal's complete works were collected in the multi-volume Sebrané spisy Bohumila Hrabala, published between 1991 and 1997.

Critical Reception

Hrabal's ambivalent attitude toward the communist authorities hurt his reputation both in government circles and with political reformers, the latter of whom were disappointed that he did not join their cause as had other Czech literati such as Václav Havel. The difficulty Hrabal had in getting published at all during the political vicissitudes in Czechoslovakia prevented international critics from seeing most of his works until the mid-1970s. Since 1989, some of his works have became available in English translation. His techniques are often compared to those of James Joyce or William Faulkner, and he has been praised for his attention to detail and for chronicling the idiosyncrasies of everyday people in his homeland. Although a number of critics were put off by Hrabal's characteristic rambling, anecdotal, and allegorical style, others felt that he correctly captured the realities of life in a repressive country. A number of important literary prizes and two critical biographies of Hrabal published in 1993 and 2000 have also brought him more acclaim in the Western literary world.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Perlička na dně (short stories) 1963

Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé [Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age] (novel) 1964

Ostře sledované vlaky [A Close Watch on the Trains; Closely Watched Trains] (novel) 1965

Automat svět [The Death of Mr. Baltisberger] (short stories) 1966

Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále [I Served the King of England] (novel) 1971

Městečko, kde se zastavil čas [The Little Town Where Time Stood Still] (novella) 1974

Postřižiny [Cutting It Short] (novella) 1974

Příliš hlučná samota [Too Loud a Solitude] (novel) 1977

Proluky (memoir) 1986

Svatby v domě (memoir) 1986

Vita nuova (memoir) 1986

Kdo jsem (autobiography) 1989

Listopadový uragán (sketch) 1990

Ztracená ulička (poetry) 1991

Sebrané spisy Bohumila Hrabala. 19 vols. (poetry, short stories, novels, memoirs, and autobiography) 1991-97

Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka (fictional memoir) 1998

Francis King (review date 20 May 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Francis. “In and Out of the Lap of Luxury.” Spectator 262, no. 8393 (20 May 1989): 35.

[In the following review, King examines the plot of I Served the King of England, finding that “everything is extravagantly magnified” rather than realistic.]

At first the hero and narrator of this Czech novel [I Served The King of England] seems to be the cousin-german of the hero and narrator of Thomas Mann's last full-length novel, Felix Krull the Confidence Trickster. But if Mann's Krull is a wolf, relentlessly preying on all those with whom he comes into contact, Hrabal's Ditie is a fox, no less relentlessly ingratiating himself. Krull is characterised, from his earliest years, by a sturdy cynicism; Ditie retains, into middle age, a fragile innocence. The result is that Krull is essentially detestable, Ditie essentially likeable.

Like Krull, Ditie starts work in a hotel. So tiny that the rest of the staff make fun of him, he nonetheless manages, through the twin arts of serving and seduction, to make a way for himself. We are in Prague before the war, and through the resplendent hotels in which Ditie works, so unlike the run-down, utilitarian hotels of Prague today, pass a crowd of rich, powerful men and their sumptuous women, many of them prostitutes. Ditie learns how to foresee the demands, however eccentric or improbable, of these guests, and how to differentiate between those of them who will, if possible, evade paying their bills, and those who will squander money and tip him lavishly. He also learns how to placate his superiors and make allies of his juniors.

His finest moment, during this part of his career, comes when the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, and his vast entourage dine off gold plate, as guests of the then President of Czechoslovakia, in the hotel where he is working. Such is his skill in waiting on the Emperor that, to the jealous fury both of the hotel's owner and its head-waiter, he is decorated with a medal for ‘exemplary service rendered to the Throne’. The culinary chef d'oeuvre of this meal, prepared by the Emperor's own retainers, has been a camel, stuffed with an...

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Barbara Day (essay date 26 August 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Day, Barbara. “Small War in Absurdistan.” Spectator 263, no. 8407 (26 August 1989): 28.

[In the following essay, Day reports on the cultural battles being fought on the Czech stage by numerous “silenced” authors, including—through a stage production of I Served the King of England—Hrabal.]

‘Absurdistan’ is the name many Czechs give to their own country today. For years it has been commonplace to say that the Theatre of the Absurd we know in the West is in Eastern Europe a depiction of everyday life; in Prague nowadays, a fresh layer of dramatic irony is unfolded at every première.

In early spring, the Czech authorities...

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John Banville (review date 14 February 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Banville, John. “Laughter in the Dark.” New York Review of Books 38, no. 14 (14 February 1991): 14-6.

[In the following excerpt from a review of Too Loud a Solitude, Tadeusz Konwicki's New World Avenue and Vicinity, and Péter Esterházy's Helping Verbs of the Heart, Banville discusses the new position of writers in Eastern Europe and praises Hrabal's novel as an allegory of the process of writing.]

Woe betide the writer who finds himself cast as a hero. In the West, where even artists do not take art seriously, we look upon the “dissident” as somehow more authentic than we could ever hope to be, with our word processors and...

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B. R. Bradbrook (review date spring 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bradbrook, B. R. Review of Listopadový uragán and The Death of Mr. Baltisberger, by Bohumil Hrabal. World Literature Today 65, no. 2 (spring 1991): 324-25.

[In the following review, Bradbrook comments favorably on Listopadový uragán—Hrabal's account of the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia—and praises Hrabal's short story collection The Death of Mr. Baltisberger for rejuvenating the beer-house genre.]

Hurricanes are rare in Central Europe, but political events do sweep the region like those merciless storms. Having in mind the “December hurricane,” an 1897 Jewish pogrom in Prague, Bohumil Hrabal uses the title...

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Emily Berens (review date 6 April 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berens, Emily. “Books Do Furnish a Life.” Spectator 266. no. 8491 (6 April 1991): 34.

[In the following review, Berens provides a positive assessment of Too Loud a Solitude, noting its sophisticated and thought-provoking narrative.]

Short, sharp and eccentric, this novel [Too Loud a Solitude], written as a monologue, reconfirms Bohumil Hrabal's reputation. The hapless and slightly ludicrous Hant'a has spent 35 years in a dingy Prague basement compacting paper, as we are told at the start of every chapter. He has, by his own admission, unwittingly absorbed the literature that he has saved from the grasp of his hydraulic press. Books are...

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Miklos Vamos (review date 1 November 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vamos, Miklos. “Our Czech Uncle.” Nation 257, no. 14 (1 November 1993): 508-10.

[In the following review of The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and Cutting It Short, Vamos calls attention to Hrabal's joyous portrayal of everyday Czech life.]

If you want to be happy for a couple of hours, read the novels of Bohumil Hrabal. Novels? I'd better say fairy tales, realistic fairy tales that keep you smiling. In his novellas The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and Cutting It Short (the first title a sequel to the second), you actually get two fairy tales for the price of one—Hrabal promises us a good day.


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Linda Simon (review date December 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, Linda. “Remembrance of Things Past.” World & I 8, no. 12 (December 1993): 327-30.

[In the following review of Cutting It Short and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Simon emphasizes Hrabal's evocation of his fond memories of Czechoslovakia's past.]

Bohumil Hrabal, one of Czechoslovakia's most acclaimed writers, is perhaps best known to American readers as the author of Closely Watched Trains, a novel that, in 1967, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film. More political in theme than many of Hrabal's other works of fiction, the story concerns a young man in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia who is killed when he...

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Mary Hrabik-Samal (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hrabik-Samal, Mary. “Case Study in the Problem of Czech-English Translation with Special Reference to the Works of Bohumil Hrabal.” In Varieties of Czech: Studies in Czech Sociolinguistics, edited by Eva Eckert, pp. 137-42. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993.

[In the following essay, Hrabik-Samal examines the difficulties of sensitively translating works such as Hrabal's from Czech into English.]

“Translating is a form of masochism,” growled my usually mild and understanding spouse as an answer to my question, how to say kulový filek in English. This was the fourth or fifth time that I interrupted his watching of an exciting hockey game to consult him on...

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Susan Miron (review date fall 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Miron, Susan. “Central and East European Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 61 (fall 1994): 643-50.

[In the following excerpt from a review of several Central and Eastern European authors' works, Miron lauds Hrabal's portrayal of World War II-era Czechoslovakia in The Little Town Where Time Stood Still and compliments its translation by James Naughton.]

In Tolstoy's world, no two unhappy families are alike. The same might be said of modern Eastern European writers, each scarred differently from a similar juncture of historical time and geographic space. Yet most have been determined, despite the banning and censorship of their work, and at risk of...

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Peter Z. Schubert (review date autumn 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schubert, Peter Z. Review of Hochzeiten im Hause, by Bohumil Hrabal. World Literature Today 64, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 847-48.

[In the following review, Schubert comments on the German translation of Svatby v domě, noting its autobiographical elements.]

The timing of the publication of Hochzeiten im Hause, the German translation of Svatby v domě (Weddings in the House; see WLT [World Literature Today] 63:I, p. 129), could not be better. While the book was being prepared for distribution, the author added to his collection of honors the most prestigious Czech literary award, the Jaroslav Seifert Prize, precisely for this...

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Sybil S. Steinberg (review date 26 June 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Steinberg, Sybil S. Review of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, by Bohumil Hrabal. Publishers Weekly 242, no. 26 (26 June 1995): 86.

[In the following review, Steinberg offers a positive assessment of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age.]

The unnamed narrator of this comic rant [Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age] proclaims that any book worth its salt is “meant to make you jump out of bed in your underwear and run and beat the author's brains out.” Czech novelist Hrabal (Closely Watched Trains) very nearly fills that peculiar bill in this humorous and breathless affair, which is told in one never-ending sentence—a...

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Amy Boaz (review date July 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Boaz, Amy. Review of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, by Bohumil Hrabal. Library Journal 120, no. 12 (July 1995): 80.

[In the following review, Boaz suggests that Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age is “Rabelaisian,” calling attention to its playful use of vernacular storytelling.]

In this playful, Rabelaisian narrative [Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age] by the prominent Czech writer Hrabal (The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, Pantheon, 1993), a shoemaker, as “sensitive as Mozart and an admirer of the European Renaissance,” unwinds a yarn about his life and loves for the benefit of the “beauties.”...

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Brad Hooper (review date 1 September 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hooper, Brad. Review of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, by Bohumil Hrabal. Booklist 92, no. 1 (1 September 1995): 39.

[In the following review, Hooper suggests that the plotless Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age is not designed for the casual reader.]

Hrabal, one of the foremost contemporary Czech writers, has devised a provocative little novel [Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age] for special readers. In a breathless monologue—in fact, in one unbroken sentence—an old shoemaker spouts off to a captive audience of young women about his life and ideas. From political history (“his son, the crown prince, was forced to...

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Donald L. Nathanson (review date December 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Nathanson, Donald L. Review of Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal. American Journal of Psychiatry 153, no. 12 (December 1996): 1640.

[In the following review, Nathanson provides a positive assessment of Too Loud a Solitude, commenting on its poignancy and psychological insight.]

It feels good to read a novel [Too Loud a Solitude] about a man who loves his work, especially when the writing is transcendently beautiful, the observations are trenchant, and the apparent theme is all of the books from which Western culture has been constructed. Yet the opening sentences, repeated with slight variation as the introduction to five of its eight brief,...

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Siri Hustvedt (review date 3 June 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hustvedt, Siri. “Magic Kingdom: Bohumil Hrabal's Dreamlike Realism.” Village Voice 42, no. 22 (3 June 1997): S30.

[In the following review, Hustvedt provides a positive assessment of I Served the King of England, suggesting that it is Hrabal's best novel.]

Bohumil Hrabal's I Served the King of England is not truly a forgotten book. It has been translated into many languages from its original Czech, including English, and was highly praised upon publication. And yet, traveling around this country last fall performing that grueling ritual known as the book tour, I discovered that the name of this wonderful writer meant nothing to the people in...

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Tomas Pospiszyl with Jen Nessel (essay date 30 June 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pospiszyl, Tomas, and Jen Nessel. “Bohumil Hrabal, 1914-1997.” Nation 264, no. 25 (30 June 1997): 33-4.

[In the following essay, Pospiszyl and Nessel comment on Hrabal's work and the strange circumstances of his death.]

That arcane word “defenestration”—the act of throwing someone out of a window—holds a special place in Czech history, which is famous for two of them: One marked the beginning of the Hussite revolution, the radical people's movement of the Middle Ages; the second, a dumping of Catholic emissaries from the palace windows into a pile of manure, caused the Thirty Years' War. Both were symbolic prologues to tumultuous new periods in...

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F. J. Czerwinski (review date summer 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Czerwinski, F. J. Review of Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka, by Bohumil Hrabal. World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 558.

[In the following review, Czerwinski comments on the barely disguised autobiographical elements of Total Fears and declares Hrabal “genius.”]

Even during his most serious moments, there is an air of flirtation in Bohumil Hrabal's attitude toward his subject matter. Nowhere is it more apparent than in his comments on his wife Pipsi, “who was so long dying that in the end she became a saint.” Each mention of his wife is accompanied by a tender anecdote or an agonizingly complicated metaphor. As she lay dying,...

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Peter Z. Schubert (review date winter 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schubert, Peter Z. Review of Ich dachte an die goldenen Zeiten, by Bohumil Hrabal. World Literature Today 74, no. 1 (winter 2000) 192.

[In the following review of the German translation of Proluky, Schubert discusses Hrabal's previous autobiographical works in translation and describes the content of Ich dachte an die goldenen Zeiten.]

The recently deceased doyen of Czech literature, Bohumil Hrabal, added the Jaroslav Seifert Prize, the most prestigious Czech literary award, to his many honors, for the autobiographical trilogy with the summary title Svatby v domě (Weddings in the House; see WLT [World Literature Today]...

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Pearl Angelika Lee (review date spring 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lee, Pearl Angelika. Review of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, by Bohumil Hrabal. World Literature Today 74, no. 2 (spring 2000): 437-38.

[In the following review, Lee praises Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, commenting on the skill of its translator and on Hrabal's evocation of the ambiance of a bygone era.]

The fact that we are presently reviewing a work which first appeared thirty-six years ago, in 1964 [Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé], should be interpreted as a tribute to not only a great writer but also a great translator of the twentieth century. Readers already familiar with Bohumil Hrabal will...

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