I laid my whole hand on the chimney rim, for a moment I recovered my breath like a swimming competitor at the end of a race in the pool, and then I pulled myself up with both arms as if out of the water, cast a leg over the rim, caught hold of the lightning conductor and slowly, as if out of syrup, drew up my other leg. I gathered my hair behind me, sat myself down and tossed my hair over my lap. And suddenly a wind rose and my hair slipped out of my hand, and my golden tresses fluttered out ... my hair flamed out like tendrils of weed in a shallow swift stream, I held on to the lightning conductor with one hand and felt as if I was the goddess of the hunt Diana with a lance, my cheeks burned with rapture and I felt that if I did nothing else in this little town but climb up to the top of this chimney, that might not be much, but I could live on the strength of that for numbers of years, maybe even a whole lifetime. (From Cutting It Short)
About twelve years ago I had a massive Hrabal craze and read every novel of his I could lay my hands on but, strangely, while I found this book in a second-hand bookshop some years ago, it has been providing a resting-place for dust until now. I don’t really know why; perhaps if you read a lot of an author’s books in a short space of time you feel rather sated for a while.
Narrated by Maryška, irrepressible, golden-haired wife of ascetic and repressed Francin the brewery manager, Cutting It Short is structured as a series of vivid episodes in her life in a small Czech town between the wars – lighting lamps, butchering pigs, eating cream horns lasciviously in public and climbing factory chimneys. The darker Little Town, ostensibly narrated by her son, covers the Second World War and the rise of socialism and includes a disastrous tattooing experience and a German engineer who makes child-sized furniture in a little room of twigs during the German retreat. Hrabal wrote in the Afterword: ‘I shall try in this text to achieve something I have been contemplating for some years, something which deriving itself from realistic drawing gradually arrives at deformation and finally crosses over into that which is the essence of gestural painting, as practised by Jackson Pollock’. The ‘gestures’ to which Hrabal refers seem to me to be the picaresque form and the exaggerated characters who border on the caricature. Meaning is rarely explicit or single but can be found in the spaces in between, in the similes, the patterns made by episode and character.
Both novellas are dominated by the wild, blustery figure of Uncle Pepin, Francin’s brother, who fought for the Austrians in the First World War and barrels up at the brewery in search of a home and work. Never at a loss for words nor fettered by much regard for truth or accuracy, Pepin always has an answer and an anecdote at the ready and doesn’t seem to notice that he is generally regarded, with affection, as a buffoon. Periodically he has outbursts of rebellion, flounces out and blows all his savings spectacularly on drink and floosies, refusing to come home for weeks on end. One such episode is described in Little Town, when the boy-narrator sees Pepin working in the brewery ice-crusher.
Uncle’s singing and shouting rang out from the crusher, his radiant, irate shouting, only the angry fuming of Uncle Pepin could warm the workers, and especially give them zest for work ... I watched the carts of ice arriving out of the darkness, those great lumps of ice loaded slantwise on the waggons made mountains like the Tatras, the drivers and ice-men were swathed in blankets, with drenched sacking wrapped about with ropes on their feet, some waved their arms in the air and their purple gloves were like the heavy wings of birds which can never fly up in the air, so they waved their arms about at least, to get warm, and Uncle Pepin shouted and sang, ‘A nightingale on the lake shore warbles,’ attacking with his hook the bergs of ice billowing from the side flaps of the waggons, like St George doing battle with the ice dragon ...
The vigour and stunted heroism of the workers is then juxtaposed with Francin, Maryška and their friends dyeing handkerchiefs in the warm kitchen of the boy’s home:
I saw these rags lying on the table cut up into squares, Mum and the head teacher were picking up these rags by the middle and flapping them and then fastening them together with thread, and soaking them in the saucepans on the stove ... And then I saw it, Mum untied those strings and threads, and when she unfurled those rags, they were beautiful as the wings of a butterfly, as a peacock eye, for every rag shimmered with blue and green and red metallic colours ...
The boy is entranced by this, and thinks of going in and joining them, but then, dismissing the beauty, he derides this as a perfect example of an unjust society where workers must exhaust themselves into an early grave while the bourgeoisie play:
I began to smile unpleasantly, as if I had started to understand something quite different from what I saw over here and over there, I practically shook with that sense of another different world, a world which is cut in two like St Martin’s cloak with his sword, but continues nonetheless, adjacent to itself ...
Maryška takes the brilliant rags and sews a costume for Francin:
Dad went off to change, and when he returned he was a harlequin, a black close-fitting beret was added, with a tall ostrich plume, Mum put new black patent leather shoes on him with ... [a] bobble instead of a buckle, and then she also cut out a tiny square from a black band and stuck it on Dad’s face and powdered it with white talcum, till Dad choked ... And everyone marvelled, so did I, at how handsome Dad was, not just handsome but the most handsome of all men ... And Dad struck a pose like a true harlequin, laughed a hearty laugh, for the first time in his life, in spite of being dressed up like a clown in the circus, he recognised himself, he found his true self.
Then everyone sets to work making costumes:
and the sewing machine went on humming away, while out there behind the ice store the bucket hoist hummed away relaxed and free, not a single fragment of ice was being carried up any more ... And I too relaxed and felt free, my tension vanished, I empathised so much with the machine that today I had embodied it for the whole afternoon ...
The ice workers have finished, Pepin rushes off to dance with prostitutes and drink and the boy goes home to bed:
as if to fulfil my wish the door opened itself and I gazed out from under the quilt, out of the darkness into the lit-up series of rooms, and saw how hour after hour more and more pairs of cambric trousers and sleeves and long jackets flowed off the sewing machine beneath Mum’s fingers, I saw the men’s nimble hands indefatigably sewing on black bobbles ... and towards midnight I saw how there was no end to the cumulative enthusiasm of the company ... And I felt old, I suddenly had the feeling I was terribly old, much older than my mother’s companions, they were like little children, sewing dresses for their dolls ...
The chapter ends with everyone dressed up and powdered as harlequins, and ready to rehearse a scene for the Sokol association’s masked ball.
I’ve quoted this at length partly because it’s hard to stop quoting Hrabal once you’ve started and partly so you can see how possible interpretations of what is happening are constantly shifting. There is a brutal beauty to Pepin’s work and set beside it the sewing of harlequin costumes seems at first effete, the two sections of society isolated from each other and in a tense opposition; then, as Francin is transformed into something beautiful, so is his wife’s act of clothing him is shown as magical, transcendent. The boy seems to feel that the violence of the ice-breakers hints at a barely suppressed rage which could be directed against the middle classes, warm in their lodgings, but when the machine stops all threats are dissipated in exuberant drinking and dancing in the town’s bars. When the boy goes to bed his door opens as if enchanted so that he can peek at the costume-making like a mortal spying on fairies or the audience at the theatre, but all at once the spell is broken, he feels old and cut off from them. The harlequins they become are no longer their true selves, as Francin had been earlier, they are only dolls, artificial. But these are just the meanings the boy tries to fix on what he sees; responding to something, he knows not what, he tries to articulate it but when he pins down what he observes it continues generating, changing, opening itself to new meanings. Even his image of St Martin’s cloak is complicated – the cloth is divided but only so that a soldier can share what he has with a beggar – through division community is created. Other episodes reflect or echo parts of this one, further modifying how we might read it.
This fluidity of meaning, along with Uncle Pepin’s tall tales, seem to me to be Hrabal’s response to the constrains of Czech society pre-1989, a mechanism by which he can distance himself from what he writes and perhaps avoid too much accountability (you may see that in it but I intended it as this) yet at the same time assert the power of fiction which allows so much richness of interpretation, so much exaggeration and wonder – and pleasure too.
Time is a central motif to the novellas. The present is always being measured against the past. In Cutting It Short modernity shows itself in the short – shortened skirts, shortened tails for animals, shortened legs for furniture, shortened hairstyles for women – and Maryška embraces that enthusiastically. But if the habits of the past are stultifying, change brings loss, most poignantly for Mutzek the dog who has his tail cruelly trimmed, but to a lesser extent for the furniture, now comically damaged, and Maryška, whose glorious, wayward hair formed part of her identity. Uncle Pepin, out of place in the little town with his bombast and reminiscences of life in the Austrian army, is a relic of the past out of tune with these inter-war years; after socialism has swept the nation and Francin is thrown out of his job, Pepin dwindles down to nothing while the previously taciturn Francin, himself now out of tune with the times, starts to bellow and posture as his brother once did. Little Town ends with Francin contemplating the cemetery, which has been destroyed under the new regime, monuments torn up, trees hacked, the names of people he once knew obliterated. Francin feels ‘contentment’ – he finally understands that his time is past and that he cannot be part of the new. The Little Town Where Time Stood Still receives its name in part because it is a memory and time does stand still in memory, but also, as Hrabal describes, because the sundering of the past from the present in Czechoslovakia was so complete that for the older people it was as if time did stand still while another time full of other people began which was almost a separate physical location.
There is so much to these two novellas, joyous and grotesque; the long sentences and paragraphs, which recall an oral narrative, can be hard to read but the reader is well rewarded. I am now anxious to find my copy of Too Loud A Solitude, my first and favourite Hrabal novel; if anyone is reading this and hasn’t been entirely put off by my lumpen analysis then Too Loud is a fabulous place to start with Hrabal’s work.
(Photograph of an older Hrabal from here. The photograph of the young Hrabal, above, is uncredited)