Posts Tagged ‘David Nobbs’

Grand Tour #9 – Czech Republic. Closely Observed Trains / Bohumil Hrabal

April 29, 2017

The best known work of the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal is probably his short novel of 1965 Closely Observed Trains (sometimes Closely Watched Trains, Ostře sledované vlaky in the original Czech) – best known probably because of Jiří Menzel’s acclaimed film adaptation, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968. I’ve been meaning to watch the film for about 20 years, but haven’t got around to it yet. The book, though, I have read, in the translation by Edith Pargeter, herself best known for writing medieval murder mysteries under the name of Ellis Peters.

It’s a blackly comic portrait of life at a rural railway station in early 1945, told from the perspective of young Miloš, a graduate trainee railwayman who returns to work after three months’ sick leave following a suicide attempt. The other main players are the blustering station-master Lánský, more interested in his pigeons than his work (‘They pecked at his cheeks, but so tenderly, as though they’d been his little children’), and the dispatcher Hubička, who is in trouble with the authorities for stamping the bottom of his inamorata Virginia with official railway stamps. Bureaucracy and sex, it’s a lethal combination. It made me think of Gavin Ewart’s silly poem about office life.

Sex suppressed will go berserk,
But it keeps us all alive.
It’s a wonderful change from wives and work
And it ends at half past five.

The presence of lively Hubička, the embodiment of sexual freedom, seems to promise adventure for Miloš, whose suicide attempt was the result of what David Nobbs would have described as an amorous disappointment. The sex comedy is quite broad, the most farcical scene involving Miloš forcing himself on Lánský’s wife, who protests she’s going through ‘the change’. There are hints that she might have liked to accept him otherwise, Lánský himself not being a great proponent of sex. ‘The curse of this erotic century!’ he fulminates. ‘Everything’s saturated with sex, nothing but sex and erotic stimulants!’ (Of course, this may be a front.)

Hrabal’s comic writing has a great economy. Lánský is a case in point, his character distilled into small descriptions. From this alone you can tell what kind of man he is.

He combed his hair carefully so as to smooth it from the left side over his bald patch to the right side, and again from his right ear over the bald patch to the left side. But sometimes when he walked out on to the open platform without due care, and there was a wind blowing, it blew the strands apart, and stood both wings of his hair on end like a Gothic arch.

See also what might be my favourite sentence of the book.

‘Sit down,’ he invited me, and as he rose from his table a leaf of the palm laid itself on his head.

But despite the comic interludes and daydreams, I felt that the predominant tone of the book was one of pity. In his unpreparedness for the brutalities of war, Miloš might be any one of us, and the brutalities are not ignored. The book opens with a German plane crashing. While the locals steal the wings for metal, Miloš goes to inspect the fuselage, finding the body of the pilot. Trains arrive carrying people wounded by the bombing of nearby Dresden. There are bombing raids, dead horses, cattle rotting alive, and gutted train carriages streaked with blood. I didn’t think of The Catcher in the Rye often, but this passage where Miloš remembers his stay in hospital shows a sense of pity at the fragility of human beings that he shares with Holden Caulfield.

I was sad that day, because lying next to me was a fifteen-year-old girl. She’d found in the cupboard a present her parents had bought for her, it was a pair of felt boots, and she couldn’t resist putting them on and going off to Prague in them, but there among the rocks by Satalice this train she was in collided with another passenger train, and the seats were rammed together in such a way that the girl’s feet were crushed. When she came out of the anaesthetic she was all the time crying: Put my boots in the cupboard, please, my boots …

Even amid the pity and tragedy, there is beauty. There is a spellbinding description of Miloš returning home from hospital to discover that the frost has been so hard that the rooks and crows in the wood near his house have frozen on the branches in their sleep.

I stamped the sole of my shoe against the trunk of a tree, that time, and out of the boughs and branches showered hoar-frost and dead birds; several of them brushed my shoulders, but they were so light that it was only as if an empty beret had fallen on me.

The chief of the mail train that carries the wounded of Dresden utters the phrase that becomes the motto of the book: ‘Sollten Sie am Arsch zu Hause sitzen.’ (‘You should have sat at home on your arse.’) As a portrait of the futility of war, it’s a minor entry in the literary canon, but a poignant one. As a comparison I’d recommend Josef Škvorecký’s less farcical novel The Cowards, which I wrote about several years ago here.

Grand Tour #5 – Belgium. Cheese / Willem Elsschot

March 25, 2017

In nature, tragedy resides in the things that actually happen. In art it is more a matter of style than of what happens. A herring can be depicted tragically, even though there is nothing intrinsically tragic about such a creature. On the other hand it is not sufficient to say ‘My poor father is dead’ to achieve a tragic effect.

The words of Belgian writer Willem Elsschot (1882-1960) in the preface to his 1933 novel Cheese (Kaas), which I read in the translation by Paul Vincent. I could have picked one of any number of fine Belgian novels, I’m sure, but who can turn down the opportunity of reading the book that, according to the blurb on the back, ‘marks Edam’s great moment in world literature’? Not me.

cheese

Elsschot doesn’t achieve tragedy through saying ‘My father is dead’, but the book does open with its protagonist, Frans Laarmans, relating the death of his mother, who, having peeled her life’s share of potatoes, gives up the ghost. I thought it might be a nod to Camus (‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’), but it turns out that L’Étranger wasn’t written until 1942, so presumably Camus was inspired by Elsschot. At his mother’s funeral Laarmans, a lowly clerk, meets the mysterious Mr Van Schoonbeke (‘the cause of all the trouble’, according to the cast list at the front of the book), and before too long he finds himself in possession of 20 tons of Edam that he has to shift somehow.

Laarmans, who has never sold anything in his life, is not an obvious candidate for such a job. He begins by scoping out the cheese world.

I stopped outside a cheese shop to admire the window display. In the bright light of a host of bulbs lay cheeses of all shapes, sizes and origins, next to and on top of each other. They had converged on this spot from all our neighbouring countries.

Huge Gruyères as big as millstones served as a base, and on top of them were Cheshires, Goudas, Edams and numerous varieties of cheese that were entirely unknown to me, some of the largest with bellies slit open and innards exposed. The Roqueforts and Gorgonzolas lewdly flaunted their mould, and a squadron of Camemberts let their pus ooze out freely.

An odour of decay wafted from the shop, but this decreased after I had stood there for a while.

I didn’t want to give way to the stink, and would only leave when I thought the time had come. A businessman must be as tough as a polar explorer.

‘Go ahead and stink all you want,’ I said defiantly. If I’d had a whip I’d have set about them.

Laarmans is a fun character. Some compare him to Walter Mitty or Charles Pooter. In his moments of hubris and dramatic self-pity (‘My battery is empty. I have bled dry.’) I thought of Adrian Mole. At any rate, he is a fool, and sympathetic primarily for that reason. During the hours when he should be out there making business contacts, he is focusing instead on working out what to call his company so he can start ordering his headed stationery. He plans the layout of his office in mundane detail.

An austere, plain background without flowers or anything, with nothing else hanging up except a tear-off calendar and, for instance, a map of the Dutch cheese area.

The Dutch cheese area! I hope David Nobbs knew this book. The image came into my head of Reggie Perrin drawing the outlines of a waste paper basket and Joan’s handbag on Tony and David’s sales maps.

Planning is not Laarmans’ forte. He is out when the deliveryman calls, and because the message is garbled he is briefly in the position of having lost 20 tons of Edam sight unseen. In order to be able to concentrate on his cheese work he takes three months’ feigned sick leave from his paid job, without realising that if he wants to maintain the façade of being ill he will have to be constantly on his guard for colleagues if he ever leaves his house. His resolution to sell his cheeses only in boxes of 27 restricts his marketplace.

The farce builds steadily. Laarmans is astonished to be elected Vice-President of the Association of Belgian Cheese Merchants. In an important budget meeting with the association’s Director-General, feeling drastically underqualified, he stands up, apparently on the verge of coming clean, but the D-G takes his stand as a bargaining tactic and grants him more money. The decaying smell of cheese infects his life. He comes to realise he will never ‘vanquish the cheese dragon’.

The word Kafkaesque is bandied about more than most in literary discussions, but it may be appropriate here. Who is the shady presence (the eminence cheese, if you will) behind Laarmans’ bizarre new career? The friends of Van Schoonbeke, who appear periodically, are an interesting phenomenon. They appear to be successful businessmen, and to begin with Laarmans feels out of place in their presence. They talk of swanky eating establishments, and the only comparable place Laarmans can think of to mention is a restaurant a friend of his visited in Dunkirk that, one of the others witheringly points out, has since been turned into a cinema. As Van Schoonbeke begins to talk up Laarmans’ prestige, he feels more comfortable, eventually becoming the life and soul of the party. Once the cheese dream is up, he continues to spend time with these people. Is there a hint that they may all be former protégés of Van Schoonbeke now fallen on hard times?

That a crisis eventually comes to Laarmans isn’t a surprise; what does surprise, perhaps, is that when it happens it is more moving than it is comical.

I stand there for a moment and a great feeling of acceptance fills my whole being. It’s as if I’m being tucked up in bed by a loving hand.

But I have to go to the kitchen.

My wife is standing there doing nothing and looking into our back garden.

I go to her and take her in my arms. And as my first tears fall on her weathered face, I see that she is crying too.

Another poignant detail is that in the early days of his new enterprise Laarmans laments the death of his mother because she would have been proud to see him as a success; by the end he realises it is a blessing she cannot see what a failure he has become.

The line dividing tragedy from comedy is one Elsschot treads with skill. Paul Vincent’s fine introduction notes Elsschot’s gloomy response to the news that a producer wanted to put the book on stage: ‘I’m afraid he’ll play it for laughs.’ Vincent does an excellent job of translating the deadpan humour, so that there are moments when you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. Generally the former. It’d make a fine film.

I’ve been on the Reblochon recently. Good stuff.

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