Vita Nuova

Vita Nuova is the second volume in a trilogy of autobiographical novels based on Bohumil Hrabal’s courtship of and marriage to Eliška Plevová (nicknamed Pipsi) and the first decade or so of his fame as one of Czechoslovakia’s most beloved writers. Originally published in samizdat in Prague in 1986, not long before Plevová’s death, and then in Toronto by Josef Škvorecký’s Czech-language 68 Publishers, the trilogy plays fast and loose with the concepts of both autobiography and the novel, reflecting each in a kind of narrative funhouse mirror: the books are narrated not by Hrabal nor a fictional stand-in but by Pipsi. That is, they are an act of creative ventriloquism by a novelist imagining that his wife had written three memoirs about their life together.

The first volume, In-House Weddings (translated, like Vita Nuova, by Tony Liman and available from Northwestern), is set during the late 1950s in the Prague district of Libeň, and covers the relatively short period between the couple’s first meeting in the courtyard of the building where Hrabal lives alone in a small flat, and their eventual wedding celebration in the same courtyard. Vita Nuova, which covers the first several years of the marriage, picks up the story shortly thereafter but with a sudden, startling change in Pipsi’s narrative voice, perhaps to reflect the “new life” indicated by the novel’s title. (The Italian is an homage to La Vita Nuova, Dante’s collection of annotated poems about courtly love, but the content of Hrabal’s book seems otherwise unconnected to Dante’s.) The relatively conventional paragraphs of In-House Weddings, though frequently made up of long and sometimes comma-spliced sentences, have given way to a series of pages-long paragraphs whose sentences, oddly, lack commas and periods but not initial capitals (although questions and exclamations are properly end-punctuated). A preface to the book acknowledges a stylistic debt to Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but (at least in translation) Hrabal’s prose is less disciplined and poetic than Joyce’s. After a chapter or two, the reader learns to rely on the capitals as the primary sign that one sentence has ended and another has begun, and the absence of periods becomes only the memory of an odd quirk that is never fully justified by the narrative.

Marriage has seemingly changed not just Pipsi’s writing style but her personality. In the first volume, she is strong but also forgiving and somewhat naïve. Ethnically German, hailing from a well-to-do family in the Czech region of Moravia, a survivor of racially-motivated persecution and forced labor during World War II, and most recently having been abandoned by an unfaithful fiancé, Pipsi is enamored of Hrabal and mostly indulgent toward his vices of procrastination and drink (though also quietly dismayed by them). In Vita Nuova she has suddenly become much flintier and more opinionated, much more open in her displeasures and dissatisfactions; as with the change in prose style, it is difficult to tell if Hrabal intends the contrast deliberately or has not exercised enough care in presenting the complexities of Pipsi’s character. At times we seem meant to pity her; at others she seems as extravagantly fuming a witness to her husband’s hapless misadventures as Margaret Dumont’s characters were to Groucho Marx’s shenanigans.

There are many misadventures here, most of them of a domestic nature. The most entertaining involve Hrabal’s attempts at home improvement, aided by his diminutive friend Pepíček Sviatek. Even seen through Pipsi’s judgmental eyes, a slapstick scene in which Hrabal and Pepíček take apart and clean a soot-clogged stovepipe is a match for anything in a Laurel and Hardy short.

But sometimes Pipsi cannot contain herself, and lets fly with an outburst that would have been unimaginable coming from her in volume 1:

And now [Hrabal’s love-struck artist friend] Vladimir took the near-empty buckets and spun them in the air and whisked the last of the tar against the wall and then he cried out and collapsed in a heap and just lay there moaning like he’d fallen off a cliff And [Vladimir’s lover] Tekla leaned over him and clasped her hands and covered her eyes and my husband took a long draft from the pitcher and then passed it to Jirka and as they drank their eyes never left Vladimir who now sat up and raised that beautiful head of his and then he got to his feet and ran straight at the tar-wet wall onto which he’d poured out his very soul and he struck it headfirst but that wasn’t enough for him so he began to head-butt the wall like a ram and rivulets of blood flowed down around his eyes and Vladimir stood there and drove his head into the wall again and again and Tekla ran into the hallway and into the kitchen in tears implored Jirka and my husband to help and when they ran in Vladimir was already collapsed at the foot of the wall [. . .] unconscious and Jirka and my husband lifted his limp body and carried it into the hallway and Jirka brought a pail of water and knelt down and gently washed Vladimir’s face and his forehead . . . And that was all I could stand and I screamed at Tekla at the top of my lungs . . . Are you crazy you’re all out of your minds! For God’s sake what kind of crap are you trying to pull? And I turned on my husband and yelled in his face And you! How can you stand by and watch your friend like this!

For the most part, however, Pipsi takes a sympathetic view of her husband and his travails, especially when it comes to his writing. (Hrabal at this time had published only a book of poems, and was working intermittently on the stories that would later appear in the collection Pearls of the Deep.) She offers on more than one occasion to support them both on the income from her job as a server in a hotel restaurant so that he can quit his own job at a paper-recycling plant and concentrate full-time on his writing, but he consistently refuses. Still, even at her most generous, Pipsi is forced to treat the childlike Hrabal with something like tough love, though leavened with genuine concern and affection for his idler’s ways:

In vain I told my husband to drop everything to forget about going to work to concentrate on his writing in vain I told him to let me worry about the money but I guess my husband wasn’t quite ready yet for the solitude for the grit required to confront himself every day and work on his own writing [. . .] my husband got into this habit of settling down to write just before I got home from work he hammered away at the [typewriter] and when I came home he pretended to just be hitting his stride but oh well he’d have to pack it in now that I was home and pack it in he did because I had just about enough already I was sick of the standard excuse that he couldn’t write when I was at home [. . .] it was the same old tired excuse that I always countered with . . . Forget the job I’ll look after you . . . And my husband always pretended not to hear and when I laughed and stared him down he always averted his eyes and for the rest of the night wouldn’t utter a word [. . .] but with those oft-repeated words of mine I forced him to withstand that look to withstand and comprehend the full import of those words . . . Forget the job I’ll look after you . . . and somehow those words gave me strength I looked at my own reflection in the mirror and what I saw was a woman a waitress a cashier a fair woman who’d been brought back from the brink by her husband and now that I offered to look after him he was terrified that perhaps I was right perhaps he didn’t have the stuff to be alone to get down to writing all those things he went on about to others . . .

Although the Hrabal portrayed in Vita Nuova bears very little hint of his future status in Czech literature (this transformation will likely be described in the third volume of the trilogy, Vacant Lots, due out later this year from Northwestern in Liman’s translation), Hrabal the author of Pipsi’s “memoirs,” looking back on himself from the vantage of a quarter-century, has masterminded a ferocious and fascinating tangle of narrative perspectives. Toward the end of the book, we get this from Pipsi:

he was scared of mirrors he never wanted to look into a mirror but ultimately he always convinced himself that perhaps his face had improved that maybe he wasn’t as badly off as what he just saw in the mirror And then he looked at himself again at first just a guilty little glance and then he zeroed in and stared and as usual was alarmed by what he saw . . . How did he see himself?

It’s a good question: just whose opinions of Hrabal are we getting here? Hrabal the character’s? Hrabal the author’s? Or Pipsi the narrator’s? It’s impossible to know for sure. Whatever the answer, Vita Nuova gives us the opportunity to peer into Hrabal’s funhouse mirror, deep within which, without a doubt, is a grateful tribute to a long-suffering but loving spouse.

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