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Hrabal’s two linked novels feature two of the most exuberant and captivating characters I’ve encountered in recent memory. One, the wife of a brewery manager, has the vigor of a AustroHungarian Whitman (if you can imagine that) and the other, the brewery manager’s brother, is a strutting and boasting locals-only Don Quixote. An absolute joy to read.
The Little Town Where Time Stood Still contains two linked narratives by the incomparable Bohumil Hrabal, whom Milan Kundera has described as “Czechoslovakia’s greatest writer.” “Cutting It Short” is set before World War II in a small country town, and it relates the scandalizing escapades of Maryška, the flamboyant wife of Francin, who manages the local brewery. Maryška drinks. She rides a bicycle, letting her long hair fly. She butchers pigs, frolics in blood, and leads on the local butcher. She’s a Madame Bovary without apologies driven to keep up with the new fast-paced mechanized modern world that is obliterating whatever sleepy pieties are left over from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. “The Little Town Where Time Stood Still” is told by Maryška and Francin’s son and concerns the exploits of his Uncle Pepin, who holds his own against the occupying Nazis but succumbs to silence as the new post–World War II Communist order cements its colorless control over daily life. Together, Hrabal’s rousing and outrageous yarns stand as a hilarious and heartbreaking tribute to the always imperiled sweetness of lust, love, and life.
Bohumil Hrabal (1914–1997) was born in Brno, Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. More interested in poetry and the life of the brewery managed by his stepfather than in his studies, Hrabal eventually enrolled in the law faculty at Charles University in Prague. The Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 led to the closing of the universities and Hrabal did not complete his degree until 1946. Not inclined to practice law and unable to find a publisher for his poetry once the Communist Party came to power in 1948, Hrabal held a long series of odd jobs, including notary clerk, warehouseman, railroad worker, insurance agent, traveling salesman, foreman in a foundry, wastepaper recycling center worker, and stagehand. In 1962 he became a full-time writer, but due to government restrictions was obliged to publish much of his work in underground editions or abroad. The motion-picture adaptation of his novella Closely Watched Trains brought Hrabal international recognition, including the 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, but only in 1976 was he “rehabilitated” by the government and permitted to publish select works. By the time of his death—he fell from a fifth-floor window in a Prague hospital, apparently trying to feed the birds—Hrabal was one of the world’s most famous Czech writers and the author of nearly fifty books. Among his other works available in English translation are I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, Harlequin’s Millions, and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (published as an NYRB Classic).
James Naughton (1950–2014) was a translator of Czech literature and poetry and a professor of Czech and Slovak language and literature at Oxford University. In addition to Cutting It Short and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, he translated Hrabal’s Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka.
Joshua Cohen is the author of eight books, including the novels Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, A Heaven of Others, Witz, and, most recently, Book of Numbers. He is a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, and lives in New York City.
“Read the stories. Read the novels. Just read Hrabal.” —John Yargo, The Millions
“Hrabal is a most sophisticated novelist, with a gusting humour and a hushed tenderness of detail.” —Julian Barnes
“Hrabal’s comedy is completely paradoxical. Holding in balance limitless desire and limited satisfaction, it is both rebellious and fatalistic, restless and wise.” —James Wood
“Czechoslovakia’s greatest living writer.” —Milan Kundera
“Hrabal, to my mind, is one of the greatest living European prose writers.” —Philip Roth
“Hrabal combines good humour and hilarity with tenderness and a tragic sense of his country’s history.” —The Observer
“There are pages of queer magic unlike anything currently being done with words.” —The Guardian
“A magnificent author.” —The Independent
Praise for Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (NYRB Classics)
“Dancing Lessons unfurls as a single, sometimes maddening sentence. The gambit works. Something about that slab of wordage carries the eye forward, promising an intensity simply unattainable by your regularly punctuated novel.” —Ed Park, The New York Times Book Review
“What Hrabal has created is an informal history of the indomitable Czech spirit. And perhaps...the human spirit.” —The Times (London)