Twelve Days of Messenger’s Blog – Day Four

70df6-tooloudDown to the last four favourite works of 2016. This one from a few years ago, Too Loud A Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal. A few blogs featuring this work recently and a feature film about to be released. Here’s what I wrote back in June:

The amazing publication “Music and Literature” featured celebrated writer Dubravka Ugreśić in their 6th edition and she said, in an interview with Daniel Medin “We should remember here that at least two titles, which have imagined the future of books unforgettably. One of them is a monument to the literary landscape, the novel Too Loud A Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (masterfully translated by Michael Henry Helm). It is the best book about books that I know of.” As regular visitors here would know, it doesn’t take much for me to source a referenced work, especially if it is by an author I have previously read, and with a recommendation that it is “the best book about books” I had no hesitation in reading “Too Loud A Solitude” as soon as a copy arrived in my mailbox.

Our protagonist is Haňt’a, a manual labourer, who has been compacting wastepaper for the last thirty-five years, as the opening of each chapter attests, “For thirty-five years now I have been compacting wastepaper” (actually it is slightly differently worded for each chapter, but the general idea is the same, even though the slight change of words actually alludes to something different each time). His boss sees Haňt’a as a beer swilling imbecile, but Haňt’a has a secret, he has been rescuing great books, reading classics, and he is learned in a vast array of literature.

Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in my like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.

To read Hrabal is also to savour language, to sip on the words, the structure, the knowledge, the illusion. This is a short work, but very much like Haňt’a’s hydraulic press, Hrabal has compacted an awful lot into 98 pages. Working underground, in a police state, all day in a cellar, drinking vast amounts of alcohol and, when he has the time, going to his home, a construction completely filled with books (so much so even tons of books teeter over Haňt’a ‘s bed).  He is even shrinking under the weight of his books, is this a mental burden or a physical one? Horror tales of the manual labour are blended with the celebration of printed works themselves:

Today for the first time I noticed I’d stopped looking out for the mice, the nests, their families. When I throw in blind baby mice, the mother jumps in after them, sticks by them, and shares the fate of my classics and wastepaper. You wouldn’t believe how many mice there are in a cellar like mine, two hundred, five hundred maybe, most of them friendly little creatures born half-blind, but there is one thing we have in common, namely, a vital need for literature with a marked preference for Goethe and Schiller in Morocco bindings.

Chapter four doesn’t open with the “For thirty-five years..” instead jumping straight to an opening scene of blood;

One afternoon the slaughterhouse people brought me a truckload of bloodstained paper and blood-drenched boxes, crate after crate of the stuff, which I couldn’t stand, because it had that sickly sweet smell to it and left me as gory as a butcher’s apron. By way of revenge I piously placed and open Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam into the first bale, a Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller into the second, and, that the word might be made bloody flesh, an Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche into the third. And as I worked, a host, a swarm of those dreadful flesh flies the butchers had brought with them from the slaughterhouse buzzed around my head, attacking my face like a hailstorm.

Later the writers visit Haňt’a in his dreams. “In Praise of Folly” by Erasmus is an essay that is a satirical attack on superstitions and other traditions of European society as well as the Roman Catholic Church, “Don Carlos” by Friedrich Schiller an historical tragedy in five acts that is set in the Spanish Court at Aranjuez and explores the conflict between Don Carlos and this father, King Philip II, and “Ecce Homo” by Friedrich Nietzsche, subtitled “How One Becomes What One Is” a work where Nietzsche offered his own perspective on his work as a philosopher as well as a human being. As previous Hrabal books have explored, through long rambling sentences, he can pack al lot into a short space, here a single paragraph giving a wealth of works to explore, correlations, references, links.

But the inclusion of compacted reference or classic works into bales of wastepaper is not only Haňt’a’s forte, he decorates the bales with reproductions of artworks on the outside, the reality of his disgraceful surroundings and meaningless work, beautified by major works of art, Van Gough, Gauguin. This juxtaposition a feature throughout:

Depressed, burdened with guilt, I made my way down to the cellar and lay on my back in the hollow still warm from the Gypsy girl in the turquoise skirt, I lay there listening to the sounds of the street, the beautiful concrete music of the street, and the dripping and flushing of wastewater that was constantly running through the five-story building above us, to toilet chains being pulled, listening to what was going on below, clearly hearing the far-off flow of wastewater and feces through the sewers, and far beneath the surface – now that the flesh flies’ legions had beat a fast retreat – the keening and mournful squeaking of the two armies of rats battling throughout the sewers of the capital, battling for supremacy over the sewers of Prague. Neither the heavens are humane nor is life above or below – or within me. Bonjour, M. Gauguin!

Bonjour, M. Gauguinan artwork by Paul Gauguin, a work set in the bright outdoors, not in a cellar with the flies, mice, sewers.

As progress, and an efficient communist state, comes into being, the future of conveyor belts holding entire print runs, turning the anonymous books into pulp becomes a reality, the books unceremoniously being “tossed, their naked insides on the belt, and it didn’t matter what page they fell open to, nobody ever looked into them…” With parallels to Nazi Germany and the concentration camps, there is a connection between Haňt’a and the camps but you’ll need to read this yourself to discover it, the section is set to the delivery of Immanuel Kant’s “The Metaphysics of Morals”….

Haňt’a’s favourite book? Seneca’s “On Tranquillity of Mind” – another to explore?

Another masterful work from Hrabal, one I thoroughly enjoyed, a book that, like our protagonist, compacts an awful lot into a short space. Thanks to Dubravka Ugreśić for her recommendation.

 

 

Too Loud A Solitude – Bohumil Hrabal (translated by Michael Henry Heim)

The amazing publication “Music and Literature” featured celebrated writer Dubravka Ugreśić in their 6th edition and she said, in an interview with Daniel Medin “We should remember here that at least two titles, which have imagined the future of books unforgettably. One of them is a monument to the literary landscape, the novel Too Loud A Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (masterfully translated by Michael Henry Helm). It is the best book about books that I know of.” As regular visitors here would know, it doesn’t take much for me to source a referenced work, especially if it is by an author I have previously read, and with a recommendation that it is “the best book about books” I had no hesitation in reading “Too Loud A Solitude” as soon as a copy arrived in my mailbox.
Our protagonist is Haňt’a, a manual labourer, who has been compacting wastepaper for the last thirty-five years, as the opening of each chapter attests, “For thirty-five years now I have been compacting wastepaper” (actually it is slightly differently worded for each chapter, but the general idea is the same, even though the slight change of words actually alludes to something different each time). His boss sees Haňt’a as a beer swilling imbecile, but Haňt’a has a secret, he has been rescuing great books, reading classics, and he is learned in a vast array of literature.
Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in my like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.
To read Hrabal is also to savour language, to sip on the words, the structure, the knowledge, the illusion. This is a short work, but very much like Haňt’a’s hydraulic press, Hrabal has compacted an awful lot into 98 pages. Working underground, in a police state, all day in a cellar, drinking vast amounts of alcohol and, when he has the time, going to his home, a construction completely filled with books (so much so even tons of books teeter over Haňt’a ‘s bed).  He is even shrinking under the weight of his books, is this a mental burden or a physical one? Horror tales of the manual labour are blended with the celebration of printed works themselves:
Today for the first time I noticed I’d stopped looking out for the mice, the nests, their families. When I throw in blind baby mice, the mother jumps in after them, sticks by them, and shares the fate of my classics and wastepaper. You wouldn’t believe how many mice there are in a cellar like mine, two hundred, five hundred maybe, most of them friendly little creatures born half-blind, but there is one thing we have in common, namely, a vital need for literature with a marked preference for Goethe and Schiller in Morocco bindings.
Chapter four doesn’t open with the “For thirty-five years..” instead jumping straight to an opening scene of blood;
One afternoon the slaughterhouse people brought me a truckload of bloodstained paper and blood-drenched boxes, crate after crate of the stuff, which I couldn’t stand, because it had that sickly sweet smell to it and left me as gory as a butcher’s apron. By way of revenge I piously placed and open Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam into the first bale, a Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller into the second, and, that the word might be made bloody flesh, an Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche into the third. And as I worked, a host, a swarm of those dreadful flesh flies the butchers had brought with them from the slaughterhouse buzzed around my head, attacking my face like a hailstorm.
Later the writers visit Haňt’a in his dreams. “In Praise of Folly” by Erasmus is an essay that is a satirical attack on superstitions and other traditions of European society as well as the Roman Catholic Church, “Don Carlos” by Friedrich Schiller an historical tragedy in five acts that is set in the Spanish Court at Aranjuez and explores the conflict between Don Carlos and this father, King Philip II, and “Ecce Homo” by Friedrich Nietzsche, subtitled “How One Becomes What One Is” a work where Nietzsche offered his own perspective on his work as a philosopher as well as a human being. As previous Hrabal books have explored, through long rambling sentences, he can pack al lot into a short space, here a single paragraph giving a wealth of works to explore, correlations, references, links.
But the inclusion of compacted reference or classic works into bales of wastepaper is not only Haňt’a’s forte, he decorates the bales with reproductions of artworks on the outside, the reality of his disgraceful surroundings and meaningless work, beautified by major works of art, Van Gough, Gauguin. This juxtaposition a feature throughout:
Depressed, burdened with guilt, I made my way down to the cellar and lay on my back in the hollow still warm from the Gypsy girl in the turquoise skirt, I lay there listening to the sounds of the street, the beautiful concrete music of the street, and the dripping and flushing of wastewater that was constantly running through the five-story building above us, to toilet chains being pulled, listening to what was going on below, clearly hearing the far-off flow of wastewater and feces through the sewers, and far beneath the surface – now that the flesh flies’ legions had beat a fast retreat – the keening and mournful squeaking of the two armies of rats battling throughout the sewers of the capital, battling for supremacy over the sewers of Prague. Neither the heavens are humane nor is life above or below – or within me. Bonjour, M. Gauguin!
Bonjour, M. Gauguinan artwork by Paul Gauguin, a work set in the bright outdoors, not in a cellar with the flies, mice, sewers.
As progress, and an efficient communist state, comes into being, the future of conveyor belts holding entire print runs, turning the anonymous books into pulp becomes a reality, the books unceremoniously being “tossed, their naked insides on the belt, and it didn’t matter what page they fell open to, nobody ever looked into them…” With parallels to Nazi Germany and the concentration camps, there is a connection between Haňt’a and the camps but you’ll need to read this yourself to discover it, the section is set to the delivery of Immanuel Kant’s “The Metaphysics of Morals”….
Haňt’a’s favourite book? Seneca’s “On Tranquillity of Mind” – another to explore?
Another masterful work from Hrabal, one I thoroughly enjoyed, a book that, like our protagonist, compacts an awful lot into a short space. Thanks to Dubravka Ugreśić for her recommendation.

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The Festival Of Insignificance – Milan Kundera (translated by Linda Asher)

After a fourteen/fifteen year hiatus Milan Kundera, now aged 86, has returned. His last published novel was “L’Ignorance” (‘Ignorance”) in 2000 and therefore the arrival of “La fête de l’insignifiance” (“The Festival Of Insignificance”) meant a trip to the bookshop was in order. Many readers would be aware of his best-selling novel “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being” (“Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí”), from mid 1980’s, written in Czech before he switched to French.
Kundera is a meditator on the melancholy; his works are generally filled with little gems that you have to sort from the worthless deposits that surround them. And his latest very slim work is no different. However when you have limited alluvium the gems are hardly worth recovering, the effort is too great for too small a reward. My edition runs to 115 pages, the font is larger than usual, there are many blank pages between the seven parts so in total we are possibly looking at 50-60 pages of text.
In Enrique Vila-Matas’ “The Illogic Of Kassel” (translated by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom) we have the concept of McGuffin’s, a red-herring in the text that keeps you reading, a trap, something to hook the reader in, a devise which has little to do with the plot, but allows the story to advance. “The Festival of Insignificance” is full of McGuffins.
Part one of our work is called “Introducing the heroes” and opens with Alain meditating on the navel, as young girls walk around Paris with a “naked navel between trousers belted very low and a T-shirt cut very short.” A book that is going to contemplate the navel? Be warned… of course this section introduces us to the dramatis personae, a group of friends, acquaintances who at some stage will also contemplate insignificance.
Part two “the Marionette Theatre” gives us the story of Stalin relaying his tale of shooting 24 partridges, it is a joke, but Khrushchev treats it with distain – Stalin is lying:
After a moment Charles said: “Time moves on. Because of time, first we’re alive – which is to say: indicted and convicted. Then we die, and for a few more years we live on in the people who knew us, but very soon there’s another change; the dead become the old dead, no one remembers them any longer and they vanish into the void; only a few of them, very, very rare ones, leave their names behind in people’s memories, but, lacking any authentic witness now, any actual recollection, they become marionettes. Friends, I am fascinated by that story Khrushchev tells in his memoirs. And I cannot shake off the urge to draw on it and invent a play for the marionette theatre.”
As our story builds momentum you suddenly find the story cut off by what seem trivial events, are these ticks, will the whole come into focus before our book is done?  One of Stalin’s advisers, Kalinin, suffers from an enlarged prostrate, causing him to be unable to hold his pee, part of Stalin’s humour included lengthy dissertations to amuse himself on Kalinin’s discomfort. We then learn of this association through the bizarre naming of a city Kaliningrad.
To hell with the so-called great men whose names adorn our streets. They all became famous through their ambitions, their vanity, their lies, their cruelty. Kalinin is the only one whose name will live on in memory of an ordeal that every human being has experienced, in memory of a desperate battle that brought misery on no one but himself.
Our book is peppered with insignificant events, which are then debated, for example Alain is bumped by a rude woman walking in the opposite direction, he apologises:
“Feeling guilty or not feeling guilty – I think that’s the whole issue. Life is a struggle of all against all. It’s a known fact. But how does that struggle work in a society that’s more or less civilized? People can’t just attack each other the minute they see them. SO instead they try to cast the shame of culpability on the other. The one who managed to make the other one guilty will win. The one who confesses his crime will lose. You’re walking along the street, lost in thought. Along comes a girl, walking straight ahead as if she were the only person in the world, looking neither left nor right. You jostle one another. And there it is, the moment of truth: Who’s going to bawl out the other person, and who’s going to apologize? It’s a classic situation: Actually, each of them is both the jostled and the jostler. And yet some people always – immediately, spontaneously – consider themselves the jostlers, thus in the wrong. And others always – immediately, spontaneously – consider themselves the jostled ones, therefore in the right, quick to accuse the other and get him punished. What about you – in that situation, would you apologize or accuse?”
The impossibility/insignificance of language is also explored, through a character Caliban, named after the “savage” in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, he is actually an actor who to remain aloof, has created his own language, he becomes an actor without an audience. Using this invented “Pakistani” he ends up in conversation with a Portuguese maid, of course the concept is just absurd.
I have just reviewed Enrique’s Vila-Matas’ “Bartleby & Co.” (translated by Johnathan Dunne), where the ‘literature of the No” is explored in a book with no text, a novel of footnotes. And to delve straight into this book I suddenly found myself with a number of references to this literature of the No:
…the greatness of this very great poet who, out of his humble veneration of poetry, had vowed never to write a single line.
“You understand, my play for marionettes, it’s just a game, a crazy idea, I’m not writing it, I’m just imagining it,”

This is a small work, a limited work, an insignificant work, but isn’t that the point? Reality, existence aren’t they insignificant?

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