Hrabal, Bohumil

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HRABAL, Bohumil

Nationality: Czech. Born: near Brno, 28 March 1914. Education: Grammar school and at Charles University, Prague, law degree 1946. Career: Worked as lawyer's clerk, railwayman, salesman, steel worker in Kladno foundries, laborer, stage hand and extra; writer from early 1960s. Awards: Gottwald state prize, 1968; Artist of Merit, 1989. Died: 1997.


Short Stories

Hovory lidí [People's Conversations]. 1956.

Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokroč ilé [Dancing Lesson for the Advanced and the Elderly]. 1964.

Ostře sledované vlaky (novella). 1965; as A Close Watch on the Trains, 1968; as Closely Watched Trains, 1968.

Automat svět. 1966; as The Death of Mr. Baltisberger, 1975.

Morytáty a legendy [Fair Ditties and Legends]. 1968.

Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (novella). 1971; as Jak jsem obsluhoval anglického krále, 1980; as I Served the King of England, 1989.

Příliš hlučná samota (novella). 1976; as Too Loud a Solitude, 1990.

Hovory lidí (selection). 1984.

Vita nuova: kartinky [Vita nuova: Episodes]. 1987.


Perlička na dně [A Pearl at the Bottom]. 1963.

Pábitelé [Palaverers]. 1964.

Inzerát na dum, ve kterém uz nechci bydlet [Advertising a House IDon't Want to Live In Anymore]. 1965.

Postřiziny [The Haircut]. 1970; as Cutting It Short, 1992.

Sklenice grenadýny [A Glass of Grenadine]. 197-?.

Nězný barbar [Tender Barbarian]. 1973.

Krasosmutnění [Lovely Wistfulness]. 1977.

Mestecko ve kterém se zastavil čas [The Town Where Time StoodStill]. 1978.

Tři teskné grotesky, 1944-1953 [Three Melancholy Grosteques]. 1979.

Každý den zázrak [A Miracle Every Day]. 1979.

Kluby poezie [The Poetry Club]. 1981.

Harlekýnovy milióny [The Harlequin's Millions]. 1981.

Poupata [Burgeoning]. 1982(?).

Svatby v Domě [Weddings in the House]. 1984.

Proluky [Vacant Sites]. 1986.

Můj svět [My World]. 1988.

Kouzelná flétna [Magic Flute]. 1990.


Closely Watched Trains (translation of screenplay), with Jiří Menzel.1971; as Closely Observed Trains, 1971.


Fádní odpoledne (A Boring Afternoon), with Ivan Passer, 1965; Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains; Closely Observed Trains), with Jiří Menzel, 1967; Postřiřiny [The Haircut], 1980; Nězný barbar (Tender Barbarian), from his own novel, with Václav Nyvlt, 1989.


Bambino di Praga. 1978; with Barvotisky and Krásná Poldi, 1991.

Chcete vidět zlatou Prahu? výbor z povídek. 1989.

Ztracena ulička. 1991.


Toto město je ve společné péč i obyvatel [This Town Is in the Joint Care of All Its Inhabitants]. 1967.

Slavnosti snězenek [Celebration of Snowdrops]. 1978.

Domaci ukoly z pilnosti [Voluntary Homework] (miscellany). 1982.

Zivot bez smokingu [Life Without a Dinner Jacket]. 1986.

Prazská ironie [Prague Irony]. 1986.

Zivotopis trochu jinak [A Biography Done Differently]. 1986.

Ponorné řičky [The Subterranean Dreams]. 1990.

Kličky na kapesniku: román-interview [Knots in a Handkerchief]. 1990.

Schizofrenické evangelium, 1949-1952 [Schizophrenic Gospel]. 1990.

Slavná Vantochova legenda. 1991.

Editor, Výbor z české prózy [Selected Czech Prose]. 1967.


Critical Studies:

" The Haircutting and I Waited on the King of England: Two Recent Works by Hrabal" by George Gibian, in Czech Literature Since 1956: A Symposium edited by William E. Harkins and Paul I. Trensky, 1980; This Side of Reality: Modern Czech Writing edited by Alexandra Büchler, 1996.

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Bohumil Hrabal is probably the most popular contemporary Czech novelist and short story writer. His earliest work, written in the 1940s and 1950s and for political reasons not published until the early 1960s, is heavily influenced by dadaism and surrealism. Hrabal typically used the artistic collage, montage, or assemblage—cutting out details from everyday reality, changing their established order, and assembling them in new connections. The effect of the collage results from the confrontation of contrasting meanings. In Hrabal's stories it is the simple, unmediated record of events and objects that affects us immediately and influences our imagination. Just as in the real world, there are contrasts: beauty with ugliness, brutality with gentleness, life with death. Their common poetic aspects become clear if we place banality into an unusual place—this is the basis of the device of the collage, which stresses the principles of play and chance, and which is essentially poetic.

Hrabal's early stories, some of which can be found in The Death of Mr. Baltisberger, the English translation of Automat svět, express the life philosophy of pábení (commonly but not entirely adequately translated as "palavering"). This is a word coined by Hrabal himself to describe the narrations of his simple and common characters. Their actions are sometimes eccentric, grotesque, hilarious. Their speech is that of the pub—crude, sometimes vulgar, full of slang. The stories they tell are exaggerated tall-stories. But Hrabal's humor is not crude; it is very sensitive and poetic. The grotesque atmosphere has its gentleness and emotionality. Pábení is a philosophy of life oscillating between plebeian roughness and surrealistic sensitivity. The main theme is the miracle of everyday reality.

Hrabal has a great admiration for the beauty of the world and its common people. He talks of "the common people that sift reality through the diamond eye of fantasy." ("The Diamond Eye" is also the title of one of Hrabal's stories.) Although Hrabal pretends to be only "the recorder and cutter of conversations" overheard in a pub or on the street, he is, in reality, the poet of urban periphery. Urban folklore is filtered through the author's own experience. Many of his stories are autobiographical or based on real-life characters ("Angel Eyes," "Prague Nativity," "Romance").

At the beginning of a long series of "palaverers" is "Little Eman," who entertains the Prague suburb of Libeň in pubs, cafeterias, and on the street—a very autobiographical type. The peak of Hrabal's achievement is Uncle Pepin, based on the author's real-life Moravian uncle of the same name who, with the help of his stories, overcomes the handicap of his existence and position. In the story "The Death of Mr. Baltisberger" we hear his palavering bragging in juxtaposition to the image of the dying race driver Baltisberger, by means of which Hrabal creates a stronger impression on the reader's imagination.

Abroad Hrabal is probably best known for his short novel Ostře sledované vlaky (A Close Watch on the Trains). This is obviously because of the great success of the Academy Award-winning movie Closely Watched Trains, directed by the Czech director J. Menzel. (From the 1960s Hrabal's stories and novels have tempted Czech directors, who with more or less success have adapted some of his work for television or the film screen.) Contextualized by a whole wave of World War II novels in 1960s Czech literature, this short novel offsets the traditional theme of the fight against the Nazis by the very intimate problems of the adolescent Miloš Hrma. His personal tragedy ironically emphasizes the tragedy of the more general historical events, and vice versa. Another part of the narrative is the mock-heroic and parodic description of the idyllic life on a railroad station in a small town at the end of the war. The narrative technique is again based on the intertwining of all plot lines.

Hrabal wrote another short novel, Obsluhoval jsem anglického Krále (I Served the King of England), in the summer of 1971, but it was not published until 1982. This text moves into levels of symbolism, allegory, and myths. The theme is the most natural of all human emotions, the desire for love and happiness. The narrator is a waiter of small stature, suffering from an inferiority complex. His aim in life is to get revenge on those that have hurt him. In his eyes power is equated with money, and so this becomes his obsession. The emptiness of this view of life is disclosed from the outside, by paradoxical historical events. He marries a Nazi woman and this makes him a collaborator. By chance, however, he participates in the underground resistance movement. Finally he sees through the falseness of his life goals. He gains money, but he gives it all up and ends in an international camp with other "former" millionaires. In the end he shuts himself off from the world in the mountains.

Hrabal changed his narrative technique in I Served the King of England from the collage to a continuous narrative. The compositional device is that of the monologue, the free flow of speech held together by lyrical association.

Hrabal's next work Příliš hlučná samota (Too Loud a Solitude) is another short novel that again introduces a new narrative situation to Hrabal's work. The protagonist Haňta works at a scrap paper salvage center; amidst the dirt and dust he comments on the decline of culture and education. Hrabal uses the monologist form of confession and philosophical meditation. The impressions of the narrator are then commented upon by the author. The aim is not to discover the miracle of everyday reality with the help of eccentric imagination and surprising confrontations (as is the case in his short stories), or to render the sheer delight of storytelling (apparent in I Served the King of England), but to disclose the mysteries of life and its deepest paradoxes. In its melancholic mood this fiction differs from the previous ones.

The political climate in postwar Czechoslovakia was not friendly toward Hrabal's artistic efforts. His first works were suspect, published 20 years after they were written. In the 1960s, when political restrictions were loosened, Hrabal published his previous and new work in quick succession and was promoted to the status of a "living classic." Because of Hrabal's political stance in the Prague Spring of 1968, he fell into political disfavor again and was allowed to publish only after 1975—with great restrictions from the censorship. Hrabal frequently rewrote his stories and some were adapted by the editors. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989 the official attitude to Hrabal's work has changed again: the literary authorities have embarked on the project of publishing his collected works; they aim to reprint all his work including the original manuscript versions. Throughout all the political changes Hrabal has remained greatly popular with the reading public, which cherishes him as a national writer.

—Soňa Nováková