In-House Weddings by Bohumil Hrabal

"Two days on a bender and
the cash gone..."
There’s a term in Czech, coined to encapsulate Bohumil Hrabal’s particular headlong rush through sentences and ideas, skipping over syntax and playing with somewhat surreal juxtaposed ideas and images. In and of itself it is a beautiful word – Hrabalovština. According to Adam Thirlwell*, Hrabal preferred the term ‘palavering’ – talking unnecessarily and at length, or prolonged and tedious fuss or discussion. I suspect that’s just Hrabal’s way of dismissing his own work with typical wry modesty. In another of his books, Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age, this palavering style is taken to the extreme, the author using digression and repetition to basically write one novel-length sentence. Playful is my preferred description, and in In-House Weddings, volume one of three fictionalised biographies** of the writer, you come across multiple digressive compound conjunctions where you’d expect some stronger punctuation and the words simply tumble over each other, clause after clause raining down on you like water over a weir, and you find yourself a little swept up in the flow, interesting given the Doctor’s fascination with water – a little taste perhaps:
He ran down the steps again to the river and scooped handfuls of water and lashed them into his face, but even that didn’t do, he tugged off his shirt with his wet hands and splashed his chest all over with water, and when he came back up, he held the wet shirt in his wet hands and let water run down his waist and splatter and wet his pants.
The pedant in me is screaming, but the breathlessness of the sentences is addictive. They swoop through emotions, Eliška smiling one second, dizzy and nauseous the next, as when she goes to visit the Doctor at his paper recycling operation and meets his colleague who describes the horrors of animal transport because as a writer the Doctor needed to hear these things, the horrors. When they walk along the rivers, she takes in the sweep up and down of the landscape, amazed by the beauty of the things she never took the time to notice, snapped back to the present by the Doctor rushing ahead, or skipping down to the waters’ edge to splash himself, and cross that she decided to go with him, only for the water in his eyelashes to bring her back to happiness. She delights in the Doctor’s nostalgia for the places of his youth but is disgusted by the ruinous present, seeming very upset by visiting the brewery in which he worked but at which he could only see things as they were when he was there. She empathises with a beautiful woman at the gate of his family home who sadly congratulates them on their up-coming wedding, happy that she can cause such sadness in another woman but recognising the sadness in herself, a melancholy that almost drove her to suicide before she met the Doctor in his run-down courtyard. The constant danger of death-by-falling-plaster which crashes down into the courtyard from the crumbling walls is a comfort, a reminder of her new-found happiness. The characters are typical European archetypes, although drawn from real life and some real literary figures in places, and could be seen in the films of Jiří Menzel and Emir Kusturica, especially the wise fool, into which type Hrabal casts himself. Comedy and tragedy, gentle fun and genocide are constant companions, and the London Review of Books say as much in the review quoted on NU Press’ website
Hrabal's comedy, then, is complexly paradoxical. Holding in balance limitless desire and limited satisfaction, it is both rebellious and fatalistic, restless and wise...  It is a comedy of blockage, of displacement, entrapment, cancellation... Hrabal, in Freud's terms, is a great humorist.  And a great writer.
In terms of his available works in English, I still much prefer Too Loud A Solitude, and Closely Observed Trains but in this really rather delightful novel are all of the seeds of the narratives from both, clearly plucked from his own life experiences. I can’t think of another writer whose books I enjoy on as many levels, and if only he’d travelled past his Bohemian horizons, I’d be willing to bet his works would be as ubiquitous as those of his more widely distributed European contemporaries.

*Miss Herbert, Vintage, 2009
**The others being Gaps and Vita Nuova, both available from Northwestern University Press, for now at least

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