James Wood on Bohumil Hrabal

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age is a one-sentence book. Just saying.

Here’s Wood:

Like Hasek, Hrabal kept his ear close to the pub table. He sat for hours in his favourite Prague establishment, the Golden Tiger, listening to beer-fed stories foam. Those who knew him recall a man who liked to pass himself off as a beer-drinker rather than a writer, content to sit silently and gather – the community’s generous beggar. Ondrej Danajek wrote a eulogy for Hrabal in 1997, and remembers ‘a very spiritual artist and free-thinker with the ways and looks of a labourer. You were as likely to find him (maybe smiling shyly) in the already slightly drunk crowd at a Third Division football game as overhear him commenting on the game quoting Immanuel Kant or another of his philosophical gods.’

Hrabal, who was born in 1914 in Moravia, started writing poems under the influence of French Surrealism. The poems quickly squared their shoulders and became paragraphs: prose poems, epiphanic jottings, broken anecdotes. The Prague Revue (No. 5) recently printed a number of these early poems, written in the 1940s, and many of them are touched with a characteristic Hrabalian oddity: ‘In the little pub overhanging the river, in a corner by the window, I was reading. You were weeping, I too was weeping and the tubby landlady was weeping.’

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I’m a fan of Hrabal’s work. I’m yet to read Dancing Lessons… though. The knowledge that it’s a one sentence book pushes to the top of my list.


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All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

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