Dan Vitale is a regular contributor to Three Percent—a program sponsored in party through a grant from NYSCA—and has written a number of thoughtful, interesting reviews for us.
Bohumil Hrabal is one of the all-time great writers. Closely Watched Trains, I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, all absolutely spectacular. It’s great that Northwestern has been publishing this “autobiographical trilogy,” which sounds both playful and captivating. The lack of commas and periods in this volume brings to mind the one-sentence Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, which is effing brilliant and will soon be available from NYRB.
Anyway, here’s a bit about 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.
Click here to read the full review.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .