Tuesday, March 26, 2013

ICA talks: Bohumil Hrabal and Julian Barnes, in conversation

Another post from the Institute of Contemporary Arts recordings. This one is from May 17, 1990, with Julian Barnes introducing and conversing (through a translator) with Bohumil Hrabal. The “conversation” is a little disjointed at times because of the need for translation, changes in plans on what to present, and Hrabal’s recent bout with the flu. Even so there are some gems here that I enjoyed. The timing of the conversation was to coincide with the recent release of I Served the King of England into English (my copy of it with a translation by Paul Wilson shows a 1989 copyright date).

If you need more on Hrabal’s life, this entry at the Private Prague Guide gives a good overview of his life. Some notes on the conversation:

In Julian Barnes’ introduction I liked his description of Hrabal’s style as operating “a sort of dancing realism.” I have no idea what it means exactly, but it does seem to capture his style. Barnes also mentions Hrabal’s three-volume autobiography, written from the viewpoint of his wife. Barnes expressed his wish that the autobiography would be translated, to which I can only second it.

Hrabal opens with some anecdotes about his family. It turns out Hrabal descended from a wounded French soldier for whom the local Czech girls provided *really good* care. Hrabal’s father had no intent of marrying his mother. When Hrabal's mother told her father that she was pregnant with Bohumil, he intended to kill her. Hrabal’s grandmother put an end to the conflict in a rational way—she told her husband and daughter that their soup was getting cold. Hrabal uses this and a quote from John Barth to demonstrate that he comes by his style biologically.

Hrabal also attributes failing two years of school due to failed exams to extending his childhood. His favorite books when growing up? He enjoyed reading Dumas. But because he lived in a brewery while growing up, he also enjoyed reading cookbooks. When studying at University he focused on ‘recent’ Russian and American literature. He fell hard for Chekov, later discovering Dostoevsky. On the American side he enjoyed Erskine Cauldwell, Ring Laudner, and William Saroyan. (Make of it what you will, but the confluence of social issues and satire seem to set the right tone for Hrabal’s work.) Hrabal initially focused on poetry, writing for friends or girls he wanted to impress.

Hrabal admits that before World War II his life was comfortable. Once the Germans invaded and interrupted his studies, he became a train dispatcher, which gave him plenty of time to read. He doesn’t hide the fact that after World War II he joined the Communist Party for six months. He does say that he stupidly followed the surrealist artists he admired at the time. During his stint in the party he was named cultural leader for a particular district. He was supposed to open the meetings, but his openings were so bad that after being thanked for his effort he was told his services were no longer needed. After leaving the party he moved to Prague and became a worker in a steel mill.

At this point he was reading more American writers, both their works and personal stories. He loved poets like Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, and Robert Frost. The first short story he wrote was about a girl that delivered snacks and drinks to factory workers. He joined a literary group led by Jiří Kolář, who told Hrabal the group needed a novelist and that would be his role. Since Hrabal's poetry had been completely ignored he focused on prose writing instead. He described one of his latest works (Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka, or, as he called it, Letters to April) the equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting: drippings done in a frantic style.

Despite the disjointed nature at times it’s still a fun listen. In addition, Barnes reads several pages from I Served the King of England (the section that provides the title of the book).

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