July 27, 2015
2015 Daphne Awards
Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal
The first thing to address when talking about Dancing Lessons For The Advanced in Age, a thing that is in its way trivial to the whole endeavor and yet also the very essence of the book’s modus operandi, and ultimately the first thing you should consider when deciding if you want to read this book, is the fact that Bohumil Hrabal wrote Dancing Lessons For The Advanced in Age as one long, never actually completed sentence, an old man’s rambling monologue. Trivial because the sentence is just the form, and form does not matter as much as content, and because if we imagine some cruel editor going in after the fact and replacing spliced commas with periods, capitalizing where appropriate, and then adding an author’s note at the beginning or end of the text which says something like, “And then at last the speaker inhaled and took a drink, stopping the stream of stories and sayings for the first time,” it’s not totally clear that the final impression would be any different. But it’s also the essence of the story, both because an author exercising this gambit is by intention making it the essence of the story, and also because the narrator’s speech does suit the half pause, the constant connection of things that have no right to be connected, and by the time I reached the last 20 pages (out of 117, not so incredibly long!), the momentum did overcome me and any remaining resistance I felt to the form. If you’re the sort of person who breaks out in hives when contemplating overtly modernist works, if Jose Saramago or William Faulkner cue night terrors, you should probably avoid this book. Anyone with a zeal for prescribed anarchy, though, may enjoy this.
Hrabal’s narrator is an old man. A product of the late Hapsburg Empire, he has been a soldier, a shoemaker, a brewer, and, per his self-admission, a proud and regularly practicing bachelor. The novel is the recollection of his life, given to a group of young ladies -– and whenever the narrator mentions ladies in the plural, he may be referring to ladies of the profession, though he only directly mentions brothels a few times. Not meant to be a straight chronological retelling, the story proceeds from ‘the days of the monarchy’ to the relatively mute backdrop of Czech-led communism (the book being published 4 years before the Prague Spring of ’68), and stuffs details and asides into every corner.
And what a life he’s led! A life full of suicides and executions; of ladies and romancing and the European Renaissance; of the poet Bondy, Anna Nováková’s dream book, and Batista’s book of sexual hygiene; of severed hands that fly through the air to give authority figures a slap; and of the narrator being the hero. For example:
'anyway, the Jewish beauty sitting and waiting for the first Saturday star to come out blushed bright red and whispered to me, I’m not as pure as I might be either, so I was a hero once more, I went with an embezzler’s daughter too, not many men can claim that,'
'one was caught misappropriating funds and, as was the fashion in those days, put a Browning to his head, only the ruling class used Brownings for the purpose,”'
'but as our late mayor used to say when he came into the bar to see whether the beauties there had beautiful calves, Anyone can get it for money, it takes a real virtuoso like you to pull it off free of charge, so I went at it like the officers, Men, Lieutenant Hovorka used to say, you’ve got to go about it with kid gloves, think of it more like sharpening a pencil than thrusting a bayonet,'
The spirit of the novel is one of lewd digression. The narrator is crude but charming, and maybe most of all, pitiable. One can imagine the ladies sitting there and laughing politely, tittering, and rolling their eyes in succession as he draws himself to his next boast. One hears the lament for the lost Hapsburg Empire; not in a political way, but in a nostalgic, ‘the way things used to be’ way. When the narrator was young and spry and could hope for more. “Mr Batista’s book says a twenty-year-old beauty gives any healthy young man a charge though she’s no more use to an old man than an overcoat is to a corpse,” he says towards the end. Which leads him to recall an officer cussing out a soldier with a bloody overcoat, naturally.
Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age is an atypical novel, but not one without peer. Modernist names like those above come to mind, but also Central or Eastern European livewires like Venedikt Erofeev and Witold Gombrowicz. The book is also something like a sequel to The Good Soldier Svejk, as if Svejk had returned to the bar 40 years after the war and affirmed that yes, he was in on the joke, or at least he thought he was, which leads to an even bigger, sadder joke.
Dancing Lessons for the Advanced Age is an incomplete sentence, 117 pages long. Once caught in Hrabal’s slipstream, I found it to be entertaining and transporting, evoking an awful, lovely world now lost. I was also relieved when, at last, the narrator took a breath.
by Daniel Shvartsman
July 16, 2015
2015 Daphne Awards
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr.
Here in the USA it’s not often that we read a novel, or see a movie, whose plot does not come with a silver lining. Whether it’s the popular culture or simply our own ethos, we generally expect at least a semi-sweet, if not storybook ending. That is why Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby, Jr. a true literary masterpiece, can be a difficult book to read.
Selby, who passed away in 2004, ultimately achieved his happy ending as a successful writer despite facing a myriad of issues including lifelong health problems due to TB. His writing, however, is not filled with silver linings. Instead, his beautiful and haunting prose captures the lives and despair of a specific population, in a specific era, without trying to provide an upside to the reader. The despair in Last Exit to Brooklyn, I have to admit, was hard to take at times until I realized what a treasure the book was. As I made my way through the connected stories, I realized that this work was truly akin to a fantastic piece of art. And art is not necessarily meant to make us happy; it is meant to open our eyes and inspire us to think. Through vivid images and a unique writing style, Selby sets up interlocking scenes that captivate and leave lasting impressions rivaling the most lauded paintings at MOMA and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Last Exit to Brooklyn was one of the most pivotal literary works of the 20th century not only for its honest portrayal of pockets of poverty and despair, but because of Selby’s artistic approach to writing. It is clear that Selby viewed the open page as a blank canvas, and letters as his paint. It is said he used a “/” instead of a contraction, spelling a word like “can’t” as “can/t,” because it was an easier thing to do while typing long manuscripts. Nevertheless the “/” definitely helps give his writing a hard edge, which is interesting for a tactic first employed for mere convenience. Selby is also masterful in creating visuals with lasting impact, such as the one at the very end of the book’s section titled “Strike,” which leaves a man broken and bloodied and hanging luridly from a billboard. Last Exit to Brooklyn’s stream of consciousness writing is also at its best in “The Queen is Dead,” which gathers momentum as the page wraps in lines from Edgar Allen Poe and the sweet sound of Italian Opera to bring the story (figuratively and literally) to its climax.
Ultimately, there are many reasons to read -- and praise -- Last Exit to Brooklyn. It’s a history lesson about what certain parts of Brooklyn used to be like in the 1960s. Selby’s open portrayal of sex, violence, and drug-use in Last Exit to Brooklyn was groundbreaking and enabled future writers to create wonderful works of literature without fear of rebuke. Still, the most important thing that Last Exit to Brooklyn and Selby achieved was creating a new brand of storytelling. Sometimes it makes more sense to break the commonly accepted rules of grammar to communicate your point to the reader. Sometimes it makes sense to create unbearably dark moments that make the reader turn from the page. After all, Last Exit to Brooklyn is a rare work that can take us into the extremes of darkness while enabling us to see a kind of beauty we can rarely see in the light of a silver lining.
by Beth Mellow