Skip to main content

Tales From Two Pockets by Karel Čapek

Here is a quick but predictable disclaimer before we begin – this is another book which guilt has led me to select to read over other more contemporary and “exciting” works, more recently purchased or enthused over. In addition, it wasn’t even the first Čapek book I picked up due to this niggling neglectfulness*. How does this fit with the coincidence-guided intertextual flow of text selection premise, the “cause and effect” effect? you might ask.

Shut up! I might say.

Awesomeness? Czech!
Equally predictably, next comes the contextual bit, where you get to see how well researched these reviews are and I get to feel smug that I actually cribbed it all from one online encyclopaedia or other. Čapek is a Czech writer of immense talent, one of two equally gifted brothers, writing in whatever country the Czech Republic used to be between 1900 and 1938 (Bohemia? Czechoslovakia?). Luckily for him, as a resident of the Nazi-annexed Sudetenland, he died of pneumonia before the naughty Gestapo, who I understand might have considered him a serious public nuisance, found him. His brother Josef wasn’t so lucky**. We, however, are very lucky in that Catbird Press have championed his writing in English and have made available a near complete backlist for your perusal, something I suggest you consider strongly (see postscript).

Within this collection are 48 stories, 47 of which he wrote over the course of one year (1929) with one earlier one chucked in for good measure, published weekly as a newspaper serial; in two parts (pocket one and pocket two one would guess) they explore the crime fiction genre. Explore? I should probably say deconstruct, as the author deftly breaks any and all rules one might come up with to define the writing of the traditional mystery narrative. In part one, the author investigates the various devices of the genre, playing with the accepted role of the detective as moral compass, leaving riddles unsolved and exploring luck and habit as valid detection methods. Characters are often muddy, complex people, but might also be two-dimensional caricatures of themselves, and all are treated to a bleakly humanist satire-wash that later bleeds through the work of authors like Vonnegut, an advocate of the Catbird Press list himself. Some tales are overtly, giggly, humorous, whilst some are funny in a strange, sad, inevitably fatalist manner. All are differently brilliant, without a particularly weak offering amongst them. In some ways it reminded me of Novels in Three Lines by Felix Fénéon, Parisian anarchist and anonymous crime reporter for Le Matin, whose mini crime stories published without by-line were keenly anticipated much lauded, and which were collected posthumously and are often read as prose poetry poetry or micro-fiction.

In other ways, as pre-empted by the introduction***, it felt very much like an artistic study, something the author committed to paper (a bit like Raymond Queneau’s most famous work) in order to prepare himself for a novel-length work. In any case, I loved them all, annoying my wife by interjecting snippets into conversation without any preamble****.

In the second part, a Chaucerian tale-telling session at a local Bohemian pub (probably), a series of prominent doctors, lawyers, policeman, shopkeepers and other, less prominent men of society take turns relating tales of justice and injustice, of crime and punishment. Surreal in parts, filled with faulty logic and often with corners singed by pathos, they provide a further study for the author in his exploration of narrative and context, and lead us, one believes, to the works considered central to this period of his literary life – An Ordinary Life, Hordubal, and Meteor, collected into the Three Novels tome mentioned below.

I trust it was also the introduction to the collection in which I read that Čapek is considered a cubist writer, playfully shifting the perspective of the accepted mystery story. I also seem to recall that this collection is even more astounding given the fact that there was no mystery tradition in Czech writing at the time – no-one was even writing crime novels – but that inspiration could be found in the G.K. Chesterton mysteries that Čapek devoured. Frankly, I should probably not read the introductions to books until after I’ve finished them so as not to blot my copy book before I’ve even begun*****. Nonetheless, I hope I’m a sufficiently aware reader that I would have picked up the wonderfulness of this collection without someone having told me it was wonderful first. And if you choose to read only one collection of mystery stories by a dead Czech writer this year, make it this one. You will not regret it.


* I’d gone for Three Novels also from Catbird Press, but in the introduction, it pointed me to these tales as a fitting starting point for Čapek’s burgeoning philosophical discourse.

** Josef Čapek died a resident of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945.

*** If it wasn’t the introduction, then I’ve stolen someone’s opinion without giving them due credit. Apologies if you ever happen to come across this review and fee outraged at this blatant theft, but I’m an inherently lazy person so this footnote will have to do.

**** My favourite way to annoy the missus.

***** cf: The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne of which I have only ever read the introduction, and after which it has sat, going slightly fluffy with grey fur, on my bedside table for the best part of five years…


P.S. I trust that while you were waiting for me to finish reading and then reviewing this novel, you did indeed patronise the website of Catbird Press, which deserves lots of browsing and purchasing there from. If not, do so immediately. Thanks.

Comments

How's about that then?

The Headmaster's Wife by T. C. Greene

I bought this on the recommendation of someone whose opinion I respect if not always agree with, and also as it was an Amazon daily deal I felt that 99p or whatever it cost was not too much to risk. I have become a little narrow in the field of what I choose to read and welcomed the digression offered. Subsequently, I feel a little hoodwinked. 
T.C. Greene’s previous book, Mirror Lake is one of those books that, as a former bookseller, I knew was there, would expect it to be propping up the centre of a table of multi-buy contemporary fiction, but had absolutely no desire to read whatsoever. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I disagree, given the time and effort spent by designers and publishers to ensure that any given book looks as similar as possible to the best-seller in any given genre. Mirror Lake enjoyed my ignorant prejudice for a good many months for this very reason. Of course, until I’d bought The Headmaster’s Wife I had no idea that the two Greenes were o…

Metaliterature - what meaning to have is this for meaning?

Not a review this time, more of a curiosity. It seems I'm receiving lots of hits from Russia (Здравствуйте России!) from people searching for the definition of "metaliterature". As such, it is something of a bespoke word, created to fit a need and probably not yet recognized outside literary theory / criticism circles (Merriam-Webster Online certainly don't like it). I was wondering what they typed in to end up here, so, for fun (it's not fun, sorry) I thought I'd bung it in Google Translate and see what came out. As it turns out, one needs a little hyphen for the rather ponderous machine to understand it, and even then only does half the job (meta seems to be meta in any language). 
Incidentally, below is, ironically, a Google Chrome Thesaurus definition* of "meta":

met·a Adjective/ˈmetə/
(of a creative work) Referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referentialInterestingly (not interesting, sorry) it says this for the full term, t…

And The Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave

Someone told me this novel, now nearly thirty years old (holy crap), Nick Cave's first and, possibly, his best, began life as a screenplay when he was still touring with The Birthday Present. That seems equally plausible and implausible. It is a wildly cinematic novel, narrated in flashback by the hermetic mute boy Euchrid Eucrow, who slithered into the world as one of a pair of damaged twins, the only one who survives the neglect of their first day on earth, and is vividly, viscerally visual. But it's also complicated, wildly imaginative, and at heart, finds a safer and more permanent berth in the gently revered world of literature than in the ever-changing and perfidious zeitgeist of cinema.

The story goes that Euchrid, after throwing himself into a bog into which he slowly sinks as he narrates his tale (to whom? and how?), was born, mute and unloved, into a truly Southern Gothic existence, mother a moonshine drunk, father a mean, bitter animal trapper, his community a severe…

A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

Often, intertextual inertia must give way to old promises and the making good thereof. In the case of Chester Himes, who I’d rescued from the clearance bin in Waterstone’s Cardiff before the summer, the paying of deserved respect was long overdue. I have a very soft spot for genre fiction, particularly when the content is framed quite so elegantly as that of Chester Himes’ Harlem cycle. Apologists justifiably present him as the Black American literary complement to white contemporaries and genre luminaries Chandler and Hammett, and from a personal perspective, his marriage of svelte prose and acute observation is as pleasing on the eye as anything from either author or other renowned pulp novelists like John D MacDonald. To my mind, Himes is particularly tasty bubble-gum for the brain. Of the verisimilitude of his characters I cannot comment. Harlem in the forties and fifties is as far removed from Cardiff in the ‘teens as I can possibly imagine (I sell myself short of course, but you g…