In her monthly column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
Right, Hrabal with one of his cats (courtesy of New Directions)
“If you want to write, keep cats,” Aldous Huxley famously said. As I read Bohumil Hrabal’s haunting but strange slip of a memoir, All My Cats, I wondered if the Czech writer would have agreed with him. Hrabal’s book was originally published in 1986, as Autičko—which translates as “the Little Car,” the nickname Hrabal gave first to his Renault 5, a small white car with ginger-colored seat covers. He later gave the same name to one of his cats, a kitten with “white socks and a white bib, and the rest of it had a tabby pattern, but in ginger.” The volume has only recently been translated into English, excellently so by Paul Wilson. Do not be fooled by the cuteness of the book’s original title, though. In it, we encounter a cat lover trapped in a hell of his own making, driven to the brink of madness.
Hrabal, who was born in 1914 in Morovia, began writing poetry in the forties, and by the following decade switched to prose. Little of what he was writing made it into print—instead he read his work aloud at meetings of an underground literary group, attended by the novelist Josef Skvorecky and run by the poet Jiri Kolar. Some of Hrabal’s stories appeared in samizdat editions, but his first officially published work, Lark on a String, was withdrawn in 1959, a week before it was due to be released; his formally inventive style regarded as the antithesis of the realist works glorified by the Communist regime. (It eventually appeared, four years later, as Pearl on the Bottom.) In the early sixties, Hrabal’s émigré friends helped distribute his work abroad, where it found a success that allowed him to write full time. He’d worked, before then, as a railway laborer, an insurance agent, a traveling salesman, a laborer at a steelworks, a compactor of wastepaper at a trash plant, and a theater stagehand. Those odd jobs inspired certain of his novels, such as Closely Observed Trains, a story about a Czech railway worker who defies his Nazi oppressors, and Too Loud a Solitude, in which the narrator builds his own library from books he’s salvaged, as Hrabal did during his time at the trash plant. The publication, in 1963, of Pearl on the Bottom launched Hrabal’s career properly in Czechoslovakia. This was followed, only a year later, by Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age—a book that, like Lucy Ellmann’s recently lauded Ducks, Newburyport, unfurls in a single, rambling sentence—and the year after that by Closely Observed Trains, which further cemented Hrabal’s success when it was adapted into a movie. Directed by Jiří Menzel, Ostře sledované vlaky won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and remains today one of the popular works of the Czech New Wave.