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.
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.
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.
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.