Friday, August 01, 2014

The Galdós Drawings

It's August already? I wish I could say I'm tanned, rested, and ready to post. Unfortunately it feels more like pasty, stressed…but at least wanting to post.

I'll start with a wonderful site I've found regarding drawings by Benito Pérez Galdós. Dr. Michael A. Schnepf at the University of Alabama has a page on The Galdós Drawings. Dr. Schnepf
"has been studying the original manuscripts of Benito Pérez Galdós since 1987." According to The Galdós Drawings page, Galdós said that "Before literarily creating the characters of my works," he tells Carretero, "I draw them in pencil to have them before me as I speak of them." In some cases, the fascinating manuscripts housed in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid and the 'Galeradas' housed in the Casa-Museo Pérez Galdós in the Canary Islands have gone virtually unnoticed for more than a hundred years . Galdós scholars can now see many of these drawings for the first time on this web site.

While the drawings are great, the part I enjoyed the most was the section on the Galeradas, or proofs. They show a combination of corrections, doodles, and many side notes. A wonderful site for anyone interested in Galdós! As Dr. Schnepf put it in his kind reply to some of my questions, "The more people we have talking about Galdis, the better." Indeed!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Posting will return in August…until then...

I'll repeat a favorite non-book post (judging by visits). Since it's the tale-end of cherry season, you'll need to get on top of this to enjoy it during the winter holidays. From the wonderful Fancy Pantry by Helen Witty (New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1986):
A Cordial of Sweet Cherries

After the elements are assembled—the work of 10 minutes—time alone creates this pretty cordial. It requires several months in the jar before it’s ready to enjoy; put everything together in midsummer, and well before the winter holidays the fragrant spirits will be ready to sip.

When the cordial has been drained off and bottled, more sugar and brandy can be added ot the fruit, now awesomely wrinkled, for a second go-round, as described in the recipe.

2 pounds firm-ripe medium-size cherries, dark or light
2 to 4 cups sugar, depending on sweetness desired
1 quart good-quality brandy

  • 1. Rinse and drain the cherries and roll them on a towel to remove as much moisture as possible. Remove the stems.
  • 2. Divide the cherries between two sterilized, dry quart jars (or use a half-gallon glass storage jar with a gasket and a clamped lid, if you prefer),
  • 3. Divide the sugar between the two jars, using 2 cups if you are unsure how sweet you want the cordial to be (more can be added later). Add the brandy, which should cover the cherries and sugar generously. Cover the jars airtight and set them in a cool, preferably dark spot where you will remember to check them regularly.
  • 4. Shake the jars every few days or at least once a week; the sugar will gradually dissolve as the cherry juices join the brandy in the syrup. When all the sugar has dissolved, taste the syrup and decide whether you want to add more sugar; if you do, this is the moment. If sugar is added, continue to shake the jars occasionally until it has all dissolved.
  • 5. Leave the cherries in the brandy for a minimum of 3 months; 5 or 6 months is not too long.
  • 6. Strain the cordial from the cherries and funnel it into clean, dry bottles. Cap or cork them (use new corks only) and store them out of light.
  • 7. If you want to recycle the cherries, add to them half as much sugar and brandy as you used the first time and proceed as before. You may want to leave the cherries in this batch until time to pour the cordial in order to extract all possible flavor.

Anyone that has pitted cherries will recommend wearing an apron, smock, or something to avoid spot-treating

I like the results when I pit the cherries. Plus I use around 3 cups of sugar per batch, but be sure to adjust to your tastes. The picture below shows half-gallon jars (with a clamp closure). I've tried recycling the cherries, but I prefer letting them sit longer for their initial, and only use. Put it in the back of the pantry for five or six months and forget about it until it's ready to be strained at the end of the year!

My 2014 vintage

If interested, please see an earlier blog post on the cherry cordials.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Catching up

I apologize for the unplanned silence. I haven't really felt like reading or posting lately, so maybe a break was what was needed. Since I haven't read much I'll post on what I've recently watched, which was infinitely better.

Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes has a great review of Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest Coen brothers movie now available for viewing at home. I would say I'm one of the few moderate fans of the Coen brothers…some of their works I love, some I'm not so wild about…and this one was a winner for me. The "WTF is that supposed to mean" symbolism that the Coens include in their movies is still there but seems dialed down quite a bit, letting the story naturally unfold. It also includes some of the most rounded characters they've ever presented, even if they are on the screen for a few seconds. Like Trevor I watched the film again soon after finishing it to pick up on things I missed the first time. Read Trevor's review. It's a movie I'm sure I'll watch again soon.

I had been meaning to watch Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game and was finally able to do so. While it's now considered a masterpiece, I found it much darker than any review I've read. The plot is simple—a week-long retreat at a country estate provides plenty of opportunities for tangled relationships of French society's upper crust (and of their servants) to play out to a disastrous end. Renoir liked to say it mirrored the "moral callousness" of the time, but I don't think that's quite right, as reflected by the title. Most of the characters are only callous toward anything that is outside their code of ethics. It's OK to cheat on your wife as long as you follow certain rules, for example. But there is a double-edged sword at play here. While simultaneously criticizing the mores of the time and showing his characters sympathetically, Renoir seems to reinforce the importance of what *should* underlie the rules. For example, the estate gamekeeper Schumacher demonstrates a cartoonish view of honor that reveals no underlying basis other than his feeling that he has been offended. How he reacts to the offense demonstrates he doesn't understand why she should feel that way. He's adrift and the two options reflected in other situations is a nihilistic approach, not caring about what happens, and the exaggerated responses he delivers. It's a brutal reflection of society at the time and I now understand the violent reaction at its release—no one likes seeing such an ugly reflection in the mirror. Very highly recommended. Watch it and you'll see the basis for many other films. I'm looking forward to going back and rediscovering some of the influences on the movie, such as Musset's Les Caprices de Marianne and Beaumarchais' Le Mariage de Figaro.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it the "Dumas summer of the musketeers" for us. Our timing is great since BBC America has just started airing The Musketeers series and (based on the first episode) it's a hit with the boys. The credits are clear that the series is based on the characters from Dumas' novels, so expect a lot of invention and liberty taken with the original. Which is fine with me, especially if the episodes continue to be done as well as the first one. I'm never quite sure why some changes are made from book to screen…why 1630 was chosen instead of the novel's opening in 1626, for example…but as countless other filmmakers have discovered the stories and the characters provide so much opportunity for fun. A few snippets of dialogue:
King Louis XIII (while shooting birds): "There's something about shooting that makes a man feel fully alive."

Queen Anne: "Unlike the birds, I suppose."

King Louis: "They're born to be shot like rabbits…and poets."


Guard: "What do you want?"

Constance: "Fifty sous and I'll take you to heaven."

Guard: "Are you one of those religious nut cases?"

Check your local listings and enjoy.

One of the 'goals' I had this summer was to take the boys to a play, so I took them to see a local performance of City of Angels by Larry Gelbart (book), Cy Coleman (music), and David Zippel (lyrics). The storyline follows an author as he attempts to turn a successful novel into a screenplay. Author and story intertwine as his creation takes on a life of its own, which leads me to reflect once again that everything comes back to Cervantes (with a healthy dose of Unamuno). While the youngest boy was bored by the intermission the oldest enjoyed the whole thing. I thought it a very well done performance of a complicated (staging-wise) production by a local troupe. Who knows…I may even convince them to go to another play this summer!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

This weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal

If you have a chance to pick up a copy of the current Weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal I recommend you do so. The review section has reviews on books about World War I in addition to several essays about the conflict. There's also a review of The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (author of The Leopard), a NYRB Classics collection of three stories recently translated by Stephen Twilley. The stories include the title story of the book, his final work, as well as “Joy and the Law” and "The Blind Kittens."

Two of the stories pick up on parts of The Leopard. Since the review is behind an online paywall I'll only provide a short quote from the final paragraph that looks at "The Blind Kittens," intended to be Lampedusa's second novel. Only the first chapter was completed, which is what is included here. "The Blind Kittens" starts with a nod to The Leopard, with the upstart Batassano closing a deal on the selling off of lands by aristocrats to prop up their dwindling estates. His meteoric rise seems tainted by his acquisition of tainted land.
Here once more is Lampedusa's dry irony; here is his tender gaze at the anachronistic Sicily, its cruelty and provincialism; here is one last shot at the impotence of its shunted-aside ruling class.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Instant viewing: The Three Musketeers (1973) free on Amazon Prime

The boys and I started reading The Three Musketeers last week and we're enjoying it. Looking to see what film versions were available for instant viewing I found 1973's movie directed by Richard Lester and written by George MacDonald Fraser (of Flashman fame). I've always enjoyed Lester's and Fraser's version and the kids love the additional humor in it.

Several Amazon Prime movies I was interested in seeing are no longer available for free viewing, so if you're interested in watching it don't wait too long!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture (Volume 1) by Werner Jaeger – Introduction [bumped, edited]

Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture (Volume 1) by Werner Jaeger (2nd edition), translation by Gilbert Highet (New York: Oxford University Press)

I'm bumping this to the top to keep the posts in this series close together. I know this series won't interest everyone but I find Jaeger's work fascinating.
Every nation which has reached a certain stage of development is instinctively impelled to practice education . Education is the process by which a community preserves and transmits its physical and intellectual character. For the individual passes away, but the type remains. The natural process of transmission from one generation to another ensures the perpetuations of the physical characteristics of animals and men; but men can transmit their social and intellectual nature only by exercising the qualities through which they created it—reason and conscious will. … By deliberate training even the physical nature of the human race can alter, and can acquire a higher range of abilities. But the human mind has infinitely richer potentialities of development. As man becomes increasingly aware of his own powers, he strives by learning more of the two worlds, the world without him and the world within, to create for himself the best kind of life. His peculiar nature, a combination of body and mind, creates special conditions governing the maintenance and transmission of his type, and imposes on him a special set of formative processes, physical and mental, which we denote as a whole by the name of education. Education, as practised by man, is inspired by the same creative and directive vital force which impels every natural species to maintain and preserve its own type; but it is raised to a far higher power by the deliberate effort of human knowledge and will to attain a known end.

From these facts certain general conclusions follow. To begin with, education is not a practice which concerns the individual alone: it is essentially a function of the community. The character of the community is expressed in the individuals who compose it; and for man, … far more than for any animal species, the community is the source of all behaviour. The formative influence of the community on its members is most constantly active in its deliberate endeavour to educate each new generation of individuals so as to make them in its own image. The structure of every society is based on the written or unwritten laws which bind it and its members. Therefore, education in any human community (be it a family, a social class, a profession, or some wider complex such as a race or a state) is the direct expression of its active awareness of a standard.

Now, education keeps pace with the life and growth of the community, and is altered both by changes imposed on it from without and by transformations in its internal structure and intellectual development. And, since the gasis of education is a general consciousness of the values which govern human life, its history is affected by changes in the values current within the community. When these values are stable, education is firmly based; when they are displaced or destroyed, the educational process is weakened until it becomes inoperative. (xiii - xiv)

Forgive me for the lengthy quote but there was no good way to summarize Jaeger’s opening points in his introduction, titled “The Place of the Greeks in the History of Education,” other than to quote him. Now a summary for the rest of the intro...

Under the model the Greeks set up, education formed the basis for paideia, intertwining their values, culture, and community in the process. Jaeger credits the Greeks as creating new principals for communal life that focused on the pursuit of an ideal.

Jaeger’s purpose with the book Paideia was to give an account of Greek culture by looking at paideia’s character and development. As Greek city/states developed, they focused their usage of culture to create a "higher type of man." Education would need to embody and justify this goal. The Greeks looked at the role of the individual and the community and how each formed the other. This outlook was a part of their greater view of nature, where nothing was separate from the rest, each “an element in a living whole.” Within the interlocking nature of individuals and community came the development of the idea of individual freedom. “The variety, spontaneity, versatility, and freedom of individual character” provided “the necessary conditions that allowed the Greek people to develop so rapidly in so many different ways.”

Jaeger spends some time looking at the different arts in Greece and how they progressed, initially focusing only on aesthetic instincts but progressing to incorporate an intellectual component to idealize the subject. “[T]he Greeks always sought for one Law pervading everything, and tried to make their life and thought harmonize with it.” Universal patterns were studied and theories constructed to locate things in their particular place of the whole:

The unique position of Hellenism in the history of education depends on the same peculiar characteristic, the supreme instinct to regard every part as subordinate and relative to an ideal whole—for the Greeks carried that point of view into life as well as art—and also on their philosophical sense of the universal, their perception of the profoundest laws of human nature, and of the standards based on them which govern the spiritual life of the individual and the structure of society.

The Greeks realized that they could shape people as a potter molded clay. “They were the first to recognize that education means deliberately moulding human character in accordance with an idea.” Plato captures this idea, using the metaphor of molding character in the Republic several times. At all times there is a sense of the guiding pattern, the idea or typos, leading to a final product. Everything the Greeks did ultimately focused on man. They developed anthropomorphic gods. They would philosophize on the cosmos in order to explain human problems. Most importantly they would attempt to comprehend the state by understanding man. “Other nations made gods, kings, spirits: the Greeks alone made men.”

Paideia starts from ideals, not from the individual. These ideals were the goal, whether the subject was poetry, art, or philosophy. The ideals were rarely static, instead developing over time. “The Greek mind owes its superior strength to the fact that it was deeply rooted in the life of the community.” The hard part was translating these ideals to an aesthetic form that would serve to educate and benefit the community without impinging on individual freedom.

A conflict between ideals helped produce some of the Greeks' greatest works. From Homer to Plato the duel between individual freedom and responsibility to the community works to develop and define the ideal. Jaeger looks at the development of Greek culture and Greek literature and concludes that their histories coincide with each other—“for Greek literature, in the sense intended by its original creators, was the expression of the process by which the Greek ideal shaped itself.”

Jaeger closes with an acknowledgment of the time he was writing (pre-World War II) and the benefit he hoped would accrue from studying, clear-eyed, the educational method and values of the ancient world:

But at this juncture, when our whole civilization, shaken by an overpowering historical experience, is beginning to examine its own values once again, classical scholarship must once more assess the educational value of the ancient world. That is its last problem, and its own existence will depend on the answer. It can be answered only by historical science, on the basis of historical fact. The duty of classical scholarship, therefore, is not to give a flattering and idealistic description of the Greeks, but to interpret their imperishable educational achievement and the directive impetus which they gave to all subsequent cultural movements, by studying their own intellectual and spiritual nature.

The table of contents on this volume and additional links can be found here.
'In hand and foot and mind built foursquare without a flaw'—these are the words in which a Greek poet of the age of Marathon and Salamis describes the essence of that true virtue which is so hard to acquire. (xxii)

Monday, June 02, 2014

Herodotus Salon recording

On May 14, 2014 Paul Cartledge and James Romm talked about Herodotus and the two new translations of his Histories. It's well worth the hour to listen to the salon sponsored by Reading Odyssey, which can be found here.

I asked about other recent books on Herodotus they have enjoyed and they provided some books that will be added to my to-be-read stack soon in addition to the two new translations by Pamela Mensch and Tom Holland. Don't forget Cartledge's After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars (and his lecture on the book) or Romm's Herodotus in the Hermes Book Series, both wonderful books as well.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture (Volume 1) by Werner Jaeger - Preface [bumped, edited]

Picture from

Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture (Volume 1) by Werner Jaeger (2nd edition), translation by Gilbert Highet (New York: Oxford University Press)

I had planned on posting on Werner Jaeger's monumental work Paideia: the Ideals of Greek Culture last year and didn't get very far before other things came up. I intend to correct that this year, so I'll begin with the initial posts I did publish and will go from there. Postings on the book will be sporadic, like everything else on this blog. The copy I am reading and quoting from is the fourth printing of the 2nd edition, published in 1962.

So what is paideia (the concept)? Before we get to the prefaces Jaeger provides a helpful explanation, both of the word and why he uses it:

Paideia, the title of this work, is not merely a symbolic name, but the only exact designation of the actual historical subject presented in it. Indeed it is a difficult thing to define; like other broad comprehensive concepts (philosophy, for instance, or culture) it refuses to be confined within an abstract formula. Its full content and meaning become clear to us only when we read its history and follow its attempts to realize itself. By using a Greek word for a Greek thing, I intend to imply that it is seen with the eyes, not of modern men, but of the Greeks. It is impossible to avoid bringing in modern expressions like civilization, culture, tradition, literature, or education. But none of them really covers what the Greeks meant by paideia. Each of them is confined to one aspect of it: they cannot take in the same field as the Greek concept unless we employ them all together. Yet the very essence of scholarship and scholarly activity is based on the original unity of all these aspects—the unity which is expressed in the Greek word, not the diversity emphasized and completed by modern developments. The ancients were persuaded that education and culture are not a formal art or an abstract theory, distinct from the objective historical structure of a nation’s spiritual life. They held them to be embodied in literature, which is the real expression of all higher culture. (v)
So why write about or study paideia? Jaeger presents several reasons in his Preface.
  • His study “ treats paideia, the shaping of the Greek character, as a basis for a new study of Hellenism as a whole.” Jaeger said he noticed a lack of explaining “the interaction between the historical process by which their character was formed and the intellectual process by which they constructed their ideal of human personality.” (ix)
  • The subject is important, not just because it hadn’t been done in this manner, “but because I believed that a solution to this important historical and intellectual problem would bring a deeper understanding of the unique education genius which is the secret of the undying influence of Greece on all subsequent ages.” (ix)
  • The book should help “all who seek to rediscover the approach to Greece during our present struggles to maintain our millennial civilization.” (ix) [Jaeger was writing in 1933.]
  • The way we view and understand ancient Greek culture and education affects our understanding of “the humanism of earlier centuries than our own.” (x)
  • “[E]ven to-day, it is impossible to have any educational purpose or knowledge without a thorough and fundamental comprehension of Greek culture.” (x)
  • This approach isn’t meant to “replace history in the traditional sense—the history of events.” This study attempts “to describe history in a way which explains the life of man through the creative literature which represents his ideals.” This study focuses on literature “is our most direct approach to the spiritual life of the past.” (xi)
  • While this study looks at the paideia of the Greeks, Jaeger believes the Greeks themselves are “the paideia of mankind.” (xi)
I’m providing the table of contents from Volume One below so you can see what’s included. I’m including a section at the end of this post for links to Jaeger’s work, which will hopefully grow as my reading continues. As usual, if you have any comments, tips, experience, etc. please feel free to comment!

Introduction: The Place of the Greeks in the History of Education

BOOK ONE: Archaic Greece
1. Nobility and Areté
2. The Culture and Education of the Homeric Nobility
3. Homer the Educator
4. Hesiod: the Peasant’s Life
5. State-Education in Sparta:
       A new cultural pattern: the polis and its types
       Historical tradition and the philosophical idealisation of Sparta
       Tyrtaeus’ call to arête
6. The City-State and Its Ideal of Justice
7. Ionian and Aeolian Poetry: the Individual Shapes his own Personality
8. Solon: Creator of Athenian Political Culture
9. Philosophical Speculation: the Discovery of the World-Order
10. The Aristocracy: Conflict and Transformation:
       The transmission of Theognis’ poems
       The codification of the aristocratic educational tradition
       Pindar, the voice of aristocracy
11. The Cultural Policy of the Tyrants

BOOK TWO: The Mind of Athens
1. The Drama of Aeschylus
2. Sophocles and the Tragic Character
3. The Sophists:
       Their position in the history of culture
       The origins of education theory and the ideal of culture
       Education and the political crisis
4. Euripides and his Age
5. The Comic Poetry of Aristophanes
6. Thucydides: Political Philosopher

Links on Jaeger:
Werner Jaeger’s biography at the Gifford Lectures site

Jaeger’s entry at Wikipedia

Links on Paideia (the book) and paideia (the concept):
Old Ideals for a New World?, a review of Paideia by Borit Karlsson at H-Net Reviews. Karlsson looks at criticisms and ongoing subjects of discussion criticisms of the work and some of the ongoing subjects of discussion. A note on what was lost in the English translation, in particular Jaeger's use of an older style German that "carries within itself the ideals and imaginations--'Bildung'--of nineteenth-century views on knowledge and education as a means to mans growth as a moral and ethical being."

A Microsoft handouts presentation on "Paideia": An Introduction to Ancient Greek Cultural & Educational Concepts by G.D.Albear, M.A., at Eastern Illinois University. Looks to be an extremely helpful overview.

A tribute to Jaeger and Paideia by Clara Claiborne Park. A Reconsideration: Werner Jaeger's Paideia

Dallas Baptist University has quite a bit on the concept of Paideia, with a focus on the tie-in between the Greek concept and the rise of Christianity (a topic Jaeger also wrote about in a work I also hope to cover). There are more posts by them, easy to find browsing through the DBU Paideia College Society.

The Wikipedia entry on paideia

Werner Jaeger
Picture source

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The inventor of the cock-and-bull story?

I had more quotes from the recently released Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of Gab by Bohumil Hrabal that I didn't mention, but I didn't want the post to run too long. I stumbled across a copy of Hrabal's 1966 story collection The Death of Mr. Baltisberger (sometimes titled The World Cafeteria) and I realized the last entry in Rambling on was an introduction to the earlier collection. A passage in the earlier translation struck me as much as it did in the recent release, so I'll provide a short post with the "paragraph" that struck me. Well, paragraph is misleading for a six-page sentence, but you catch my drift. The earlier version was translated as "Handbook for the Apprentice Palaverer" by Michael Henry Heim, but I'll go with the recent version titled "An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of Gab" by David Short in the Karolinum Press edition.
…I'm a corresponding member of the Academy of Rambling-on, a student at the Department of Euphoria, my god is Dionysos, a drunken, sensuous young man, jocundity given human form, my church father is the ironic Socrates, who patiently engages with anybody so as to lead them by the tongue and through language to the very threshold of nescience, my first-born is Jaroslav Hašek, the inventory of the cock-and-bull story and a fertile genius and scribe who added human flesh to the firmament of prose and left writing to others, …

— from Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal
English translation by David Short
Afterword by Václav Kadlec
Illustrations by Jiří Grus
Charles University in Prague, Karolinum Press
ISBN: 978-80-246-2316-0

The end of this paragraph in Heim's translation is "and his human qualities made the others feel uncomfortable with their pens." When I hear cock-and-bull story, though, Laurence Sterne is the first name to come to mind. Heim's translation has a slightly different take—"inventor of the beer-hall story"—that sounds better, but even there I would argue with Hrabal about this. Over a pint in the pub, of course. But then, maybe that's what he intended.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal

Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal
English translation by David Short
Afterword by Václav Kadlec
Illustrations by Jiří Grus
Charles University in Prague, Karolinum Press
ISBN: 978-80-246-2316-0

Dear colleagues and friends,

On the occasion of 100th anniversary of Bohumil Hrabal's birth, we would like to present two new additions to the Fiction Series. The collection of stories entitled Rukověť pábitelského učně (Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab) contains Bohumil Hrabal's 1970s short stories. They are mostly texts written in and inspired by the community in Kersko. Our collection strives to recreate the author's original intentions, and thus presents even the stories left out due to the 1970s censorship.

Both Czech and English language versions are accompanied by Jiří Grus's original illustrations.

(from the Karolinum Press website)

One afternoon I was in a little restaurant/bar listening to a truck driver tell the most wonderful stories. No matter how outlandish or grotesque the tales, he could sell them as having really happened. Like the time he crested a hill in backwoods Arkansas and plowed into a herd of sheep…when you laugh at a man describing how he used a tire tool to pry dead sheep from his wheel wells you know you’re listening to a master storyteller.

I thought of that truck driver—what it takes and what it means to be a master storyteller—as I read these wonderful stories by Bohumil Hrabal. My posts on Hrabal have made it clear how much I enjoy his books, and this collection of short stories may be my favorite yet. The reader is immersed in the sylvan Kersko settlement located in Bohemia, where the forest, cottages, byres, and pubs are populated with memorable people and animals.

And the characters…ah, these creations are wonderful. There’s an old man with wild hair who enjoys watching his goats fight over the window seat of the car when he drives them to pasture. There’s two friends, both paralyzed below the waist, who share an insatiable love for life and beer—one of them permanently keeps a bottle-opener hanging from a string on his wheelchair. There’s a friend with the best intentions in the world repeatedly messing everything up, not to mention frequently missing a turn in the road and wrecking his car. There’s a nun who lovingly deals with her damaged wards. These characters are poignant and surprisingly real, expanding to a third dimension outside of the page.

The stories are funny and often frivolous, but they also take on a serious and bittersweet tone when broken dreams of what might have been come into play. Dark and troubling components, barely lurking beneath the surface, add ambiguity on how to read Hrabal’s stories. I’ll focus on some recurring themes in these stories that highlight that ambiguity.

Hrabal had a reputation for sitting in the pub, closely watching what went on around him and engaging in spirited conversations. The funniest stories in this collection usually involve a pub (or drinking in general) and the narrator’s neighbors and friends. The two paralyzed friends, for example, demonstrate a beautiful testament to true friendship. Friendships take on added dimensions as other components are added, though. Pranks played by friends on each other make the reader question if there is any difference in how they would treat people they despise. The mood swings of a pub owner make one narrator question if the two were really friends, acknowledging he goes through the same swings, treating his own friends the same way at times (although he forgives him during his next "up" swing). The loss of a friend in a story leads to a question of who was going to amuse the pub goers now, as if the value of a friend is solely based on entertainment value.

Entertainment value leads to a side-topic—the role of alcohol in these stories. The narrator of “Lucy and Polly” tells us that

from six o’clock onwards the sole preoccupation of any true man of Kresko and its forests is to spend a pleasant evening over a pint in the pub, and all the banter and chit-chat, the arguments and imbecilities are a brilliant way to unwind from our daily tribulations…”. (229)
Alcohol provides not just a social lubricant or relaxation but a form of entertainment in itself. Pub patrons laugh at each other’s misfortunes on their way home from a night of drinking. In my favorite story, “Beatrice,” the narrator describes children with mental and physical defects as having a “mantle of mercy” around them, shielding them from the horrors of their life. Alcohol provides a similar “mantle of mercy” for many of the characters in these stories as dreams are broken and power is wielded arbitrarily against them. In the extended opening sentence of “An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of Gab,” which takes up almost the whole story, the narrator extols the usefulness of doing silly things like getting drunk “while there’s still plenty of time,” but also hints at the worthlessness of his life that such behavior masks. It’s one of many double-edged swords Hrabal wields in his stories.

The greatest ambiguity, though, comes in the role of storytelling. The collection of stories in this book is a testament and celebration of the art of storytelling. Questions about storytelling’s role in society and its purpose for listeners keep bubbling up in the text. The best storytellers in these stories usually have some sort of damage. In “Fining Salami” the storyteller talks about how great life was until his wife left. The narrator remarks that his stories have been repeated many times, not just to provide comfort but more than likely an escape. Details in stories that should cause shame reveal a type of pride, allowing the teller to share his embarrassment while embellishing what happened. Since many of the stories deal with a distant past, they seem to afford the teller a way to revel in youth again. While the stories offer a wistful look back, they often provide a painful comparison with the present.

The story of the troubled children mentioned in “Beatrice” provides a good example of the ambiguity in Hrabal’s use of storytelling. The narrator lovingly describes the children and their behavior, but he seems to revel in their pitiful situation since it provides a great story. When the narrator asks Sister Beatrice if it would have been better if the children had never been born, she replies “Homer was born blind,” a non sequitur given the dire condition of these kids. Instead of applying her reply to the children, though, the narrator reflects on how Homer continues to live through his stories. Many of these tales highlight characters who similarly seem to want to live on forever through their tales. Since Hrabal saw the state destroy entire printing runs of his books, it’s difficult not to apply this situation to him, too. As the narrator in “Beatrice” reflects, there is a “sacred radiance that irradiates everything” making what happens beautiful and breathtaking, but it is memory and storytelling that makes it last beyond the fleeting moment.

This collection of stories was originally subject to the Czechoslovakian censors. As in his other books, Hrabal’s subversion wavers between subtle jabs and over-the-top farce. The local police commandant, his chest full of medals, makes several appearances in these stories (once as a narrator). The villagers acquiesce to the arbitrary whims of officials and silly laws. I get the feeling that Hrabal isn’t necessarily political, it’s just that his experience with Communists provides so much rich material. There’s not many places you can read a great line like “We guard the substance of socialism against the foe, even if that foe turns out to be a feral cow.” Hrabal turns out to be an equal-opportunity lampooner, though. As Václav Kadlec points out in the Afterword, Hrabal focuses on the materialism of Czechs in his stories. While there is a subtle “West is best” message, providing soft jibes at the centrally guided state, Hrabal also highlights the dark side in consumerism. One narrator’s friend, obsessed with finding bargains, is “in reality a poor wretch who wished not to have to contemplate the pointlessness of not only his life but all life.” That escapism, whether through shopping, storytelling, or alcohol, provides a central theme to these stories.

There’s more in these stories, including echoes of history and meditations on eventual death, for the reader to explore. Thanks to Karolinum Press for putting out another wonderful book (and the University of Chicago Press for distributing it in the U.S.). I think this collection would be an excellent starting point for a reader wanting an introduction to Hrabal's writing. Very highly recommended.

Note: I’m working on getting a copy of Jiří Menzel’s movie version of “The Snowdrop Festival” that has English subtitles. I’ll post on it if I’m successful.

Illustration by Jiří Grus
Picture source

Note: A version of this review is also posted at The Mookse and the Gripes.

Update: There have been plenty of pieces written in celebration of what would have been Hrabal's 100th birthday this year. I'll include a few links from Radio Prague I have enjoyed: