Surrealism

LIBERTY OR LOVE! BY ROBERT DESNOS

There is a photograph of Robert Desnos, taken, in 1930, by Man Ray.* In it, he is surrounded by four people. To his left is the sculptor Andre Lasserre; to his right is André de la Rivière, the actor; while behind him is the surrealist artist Georges Malkine and, although she is often mistaken for a man, his wife Yvette. The heads of Lasserre and de la Rivière are turned upwards, towards the Malkines, who are kissing. Desnos, however, is staring forward, at the camera, with an expression on his face that is almost indescribable. While the two men either side of him appear happy, healthy, and, more to the point, of this world, Desnos has the look of someone, or something, who has not slept for a hundred and fifty years. There is the hint of secret knowledge in his sly smile; and his disinterest in the scene behind, and above, him suggests, at least to me, that he knows more than most about the act of love. It was this photograph, more than my passion for transgressive and surrealistic literature, that inspired me to seek out Desnos’ work and which ultimately led me to Liberty or Love!

How many times, in stormy weather or by the light of the moon, did I get up to contemplate by the gleam of a log-fire, or that of a match, or a glow-worm, those memories of women who had come to my bed, completely naked apart from stockings and high-heeled slippers retained out of respect for my desire.

When La Liberté ou l’amour! was first published it was almost immediately withdrawn due to controversy over the content. It was reissued, following the removal of several offensive passages, a year later. The version that I read, from Atlas Press, which also includes the earlier Mourning for Mourning, is unexpurgated. However, for a modern sensibility, there is nothing in the text that is genuinely shocking. In the first few pages, the narrator – who is obviously a stand-in for Desnos – sniffs some discarded underwear, inhaling the ‘intimate odours’ and wondering, ridiculously, ‘what fabulous whale, of whatever colour, could distil a more fragrant ambergris.’ There are numerous references to sadomasochistic practices, which, on more than one occasion, involve teenage girls; but this doesn’t extend far beyond spanking [although there is the suggestion of rape when one girl is said to be ‘tenderly sodomised.’] Indeed, the most troubling passage in the book is likely to upset your stomach more than your moral equilibrium. This is the Sperm Drinker’s Club, where men gather to sample male and female ejaculate.

As one would perhaps expect of a surrealist novel, and this particular publisher, there is not a great deal of plot and even less in the way of well-developed characters. What there is involves the adventures of Corsair Sanglot and, to a lesser extent, his lover Louise Lame. Yet, in the main, Desnos uses this couple, and the situations into which he drops them, as vehicles to explore his ideas about love. At one point he intrudes upon the action to inform us that: ‘I still believe in the marvellous when it comes to love, I believe in the reality of dreams, I believe in heroines in the night, in beauties of the night, forcing their way into hearts and into beds.’ Which is a lovely, romanticised view, albeit one that is slightly at odds with some of his other statements. For example, when discussing the deeds of Jack the Ripper – who is mentioned numerous times throughout the text – he claims that ‘love is not merely some kind of pleasantry.’ This indicates that for the author it is something to be taken seriously, of course, something dramatic and, considering the link to the Ripper and the previously discussed S&M, potentially violent. I do not believe, however, that he is advocating literal violence, more a violence of feeling or experience. Indeed, later it is written that love  cannot be divorced from ‘a feeling of panic and sacred horror.’

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Love is, however, only one half of the novel’s title, and liberty is, in my opinion, and the author’s, just as important. The book begins with a woman shedding her clothing in public, a woman who is, by virtue of this act, liberating herself. This undressing could be seen in a sexual context, for the man following her, as previously noted, picks up her clothes, and smells her underwear; but I think there is a broader significance. Desnos was, I believe, interested in all forms of freedom, not just sexual freedom. In fact, surrealism, as an artistic movement, was concerned with rejecting conventions, with aesthetic [and moral] liberation. This is born out in the novel under review here, which not only lacks traditional characterisation and plot, but also revels in the unexpected. At one point, for example, Louise dies, only to reappear later. More beguilingly, there is the story of the skinless leopard, which is inspired by Louise’s fur coat, the talking cobblestone, and the mermaid who changes her scales, creating ‘a snowstorm of green and white.’ These episodes are not treated as strange excursions, they are fully integrated into the text, and are accepted by those within it on face value.

Before finishing, it is worth looking at the title one last time. Love or Liberty. In order to get closer to understanding Desnos’ beautiful, yet often confusing, work, one must, I feel, account for that or. The author is suggesting that it is a choice, that it is one or the other, that we cannot have both love and liberty. Indeed, he writes that love is ‘the only valid reason for temporary slavery.’ When in love one does not have absolute freedom, because one’s hopes, one’s desires, one’s happiness, one’s day-to-day life, is tied up with someone else, these things are at least partly dependant upon another. Love means, for me, and this is perhaps why I consider myself incapable of it, vulnerability, it means a voluntary relinquishing of complete control and power over oneself; it means holding out your arms for ‘the gentle handcuffs.’ Indeed, I saw in Liberty or Love! a message to myself: ‘Young convict, it is time to print a number on your calico shirt and fetter your ankle with the heavy ball of your successive loves.’

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THE HEARING TRUMPET BY LEONORA CARRINGTON

It was three years ago that my grandfather walked onto the blade of the sword that old age had, for some time, been holding out to him. If we – his family – were honest with ourselves, we would have had to admit to feeling relieved. None of us had known what to do with him, before death had intervened and took control of the situation, with the great authority that only it is capable of. His behaviour had been increasingly erratic, like that of a young bird learning its trade. Sometimes his mental processes were graceful, even though impossible to follow; at others, reality impinged upon his flights, causing him to stumble. He was a once tough and capable man, who had been reduced to a curio; and I sometimes wondered if, or how often, he was aware of his own failings and, worse still, ours.

“You may not believe in magic but something very strange is happening at this very moment. Your head has dissolved into thin air and I can see the rhododendrons through your stomach. It’s not that you are dead or anything dramatic like that, it is simply that you are fading away and I can’t even remember your name.”

The Hearing Trumpet was published in 1976, when its author, Leonora Carrington, was fifty-nine. It is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that, as she approached her sixtieth year, she would make the concerns and experiences of the elderly, specifically elderly women, the focus of her work. Indeed, it is narrated by Marion Leatherby, who, at ninety-two years old, is put in a care home against her wishes by her son and daughter-in-law. However, the book is much warmer and light-hearted, and strange, than that brief synopsis might suggest. Much of that is due to how engaging and eccentric, and funny, the narrative voice is. Marion writes, for example, of having a little grey beard, which ‘conventional people would find repulsive,’ but which she considers ‘rather gallant.’

While Marion could not, of course, be said to be in the prime of life, she refutes the idea that, at such an advanced age, she is mentally and physically incapable. In fact, she highlights, or accentuates, her abilities. So, yes, she is almost completely deaf, but her sight is ‘still excellent’; and although her skeleton has been bent by rheumatics, it does not prevent her from sweeping her room once a week. Likewise, she may be prone to sudden flights of fancy, but her mind wanders ‘never further than I want.’ What one gets from Marion is, then, a picture of a woman who is totally at ease with who she is, and who is, moreover, less sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of others, which is to say that she is accepting of others and their foibles. All told, she is a likeable and charismatic creation.

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Less likeable, however, is the behaviour of some of those around her. As already noted, her family pack her off to an institution for the senile, without seeking her opinion on the matter. They appear to believe that Marion is at an age, and in a condition, such that she cannot make decisions for herself, an attitude consistent with the idea that being old is a kind of second childhood. In this way, The Hearing Trumpet is, in part, a kind of social commentary or criticism, relating to the perception and treatment of the elderly. This is made clearest when – in the book’s least successful scene, in my opinion – the family discuss Marion, without her being present, or at least without being aware of her presence, in the most disparaging and callous way. She has been, Muriel says, ‘a constant anxiety’ to them. Worse still, Robert, her grandson, declares that she ‘can hardly be classified as a human being.’ She would, he concludes, be better off dead.

“I am never lonely, Galahad. Or rather I never suffer from loneliness. I suffer much from the idea that my loneliness might be taken away from me by a lot of mercilessly well-meaning people.”

Anyone coming to The Hearing Trumpet looking for surrealism such as one finds in Carrington’s paintings would likely be disappointed with the first third of the book. It is, for all its charm, fairly conventional, having more in common with writers like Muriel Spark than Ithell Colquhoun or any of the French novels usually gathered together under that umbrella term. Yet once Marion arrives at the ‘sinister’ Lightsome Hall, the tone of the work changes and it becomes, well, curiouser and curiouser. It is run, first of all, by a couple of religious fanatics, who say things like ‘we seek to follow the inner meaning of Christianity’ and make the residents do strange dances called Movements. Stranger still is the caper involving the winking Abbess, the search for the Holy Grail, and the concluding apocalypse section.

I must say that while I enjoyed the unpredictability, and was particularly engaged by the Abbess’ story, I wasn’t as enthused as I was by the early stages. This may have something to do with not fully understanding, or being all that interested in, the symbolism involved. Certainly, Carrington appeared to want to say something about women, femininity, etc, what with the references to Venus, a Bee Queen, and so on, but I thought she dealt with that more elegantly when Marion imagines herself beautiful, and through the character of Georgina, who, although severely wrinkled, still considers herself attractive and sexually alluring [for which she is mocked]. In any case, The Hearing Trumpet is a fine, and fun, novel, but more than that, it is a comforting one, for, with its gang of rebellious and resourceful pensioners, it makes one feel as though getting old will not be as horrifying as one might think.

LAST NIGHTS OF PARIS BY PHILIPPE SOUPAULT

Over the last twelve months I have become familiar with the night. I have been turned out, with increasing regularity, to flit between darkness and artificial light with erratic, moth-like movements. I have become part of the once-mysterious nocturnal world that previously I only dimly perceived through my bedroom window or through the filter of sleep. Shouts and chants. Screams and laughter. Now it is all at my shoulder, as I stop to lift heavy kisses to my lips on street corners or outside bars. At close quarters, the shadows, like a ripe chrysalis, split, to reveal the true forms inside. The spiders and rats. The murderers and whores. The drunks and drug dealers. This is my audience.

“The night clung to the trees, then, lying in wait in the shadowy spaces or crouching in the long, narrow and somber streets, it seemed to be spy upon us as if we were emerging from some dive. The least noise was a catastrophe, the least breath a great terror. We walked in the eternal mud.”

Philippe Soupault, one of the founders of surrealism, was, it is said, thrown out of the movement for the ‘isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ One of these adventures is Les Derniers Nuits de Paris, or Last Nights of Paris in William Carlos Williams’ translation, which was published in 1928. It begins, after dark of course, with a chance meeting between the narrator and pale-faced Georgette, a local prostitute. As they walk around Paris they come to witness a peculiar, unsettling scene. A shriek is heard. A couple are said to ‘take to their heels.’ Someone commands: ‘Put out the lights.’ A procession. A woman, wearing a ‘smile of suffering’, is manhandled and ends up lying motionless, ‘almost in the gutter.’

If this sounds more like what you would expect from a noirish thriller, than a work of surrealism, what follows strengthens this impression. Consistent with the crime/detective genre, one of the novel’s principle concerns is unravelling the truth of what happened that night, with the narrator acting as chief investigator as he trails, makes contact with, and interviews the main players. Moreover, the pervading atmosphere is appropriately, one might say predictably, gloomy and threatening. The aforementioned scene, for example, takes place at midnight, which is, Soupault writes, ‘the hour of crimes.’ There is also a fair amount of rain, and abundant references to things like the ‘morose facades of nameless shops’ and streets that are ‘dark and full of bad smells’, and so on.

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Yet for me Last Nights of Paris is a counterfeit thriller, in that the resemblance to that genre is superficial only. There is a a mystery, as noted, but for Soupault it is an excuse to explore, or rather it is used as a basis to explore the ideas that form the philosophical and emotional core of the novel. One of these ideas or themes is the nature of chance. Throughout, the narrator bumps into various shady characters, all of whom turn out to be connected to each other and connected to the ‘strange drama’ he is, in a fashion, investigating. These coincidences give ‘the glamour of miracles’ to his existence. Chance can make one feel as though one is at the centre of something extraordinary, rather than something mundane, and yet requires nothing extraordinary from you in return.

Therefore, the reality of, the explanation behind, the events that he has witnessed, or been party to, is really not that important, or is certainly less important than his perception of these events. What I mean by this is that the focus, the goal, of crime fiction is usually to uncover the truth, but here it is to understand how things can become imbued with mystery or significance. Indeed, there is a sense that the narrator has created the mystery himself, that he allows his imagination to conjure, or to wander, as he himself wanders the Paris streets at night. As with the two leads in Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, he sees meaning, imposes meaning, on things, that isn’t necessarily there independent of him, such as the taxi driver who ‘pushed his motor to the limit and seemed to comprehend the importance of his mission.’ Indeed, he admits of himself that the ‘cold, dull realm of actualities, arid and uncultivated as it is, has never tempted me.’

His greatest accomplice in this endeavour to create mystery, and consequently excitement and romance, is the night. Take Georgette as an example. When he sees her in the daytime she is ‘no longer the same.’ She is revealed to be an ‘uninspired woman, commonplace and hardy.’ Only at night is she the ‘queen of mystery’; her charm ‘did not become real until she withdrew from the light and entered obscurity.’ The night, like chance or coincidence, and like Paris too, has the power to transfigure. Night, the ‘eternal mud.’ Night, my quixotic friend, my guardian, my benefactor. Perhaps all that I have seen and heard, and all that we have done together, these last twelve months has been an illusion, but, if so, I am thankful for that, for the days have been so cruel and unwelcoming.

VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS BY VÍTĚZSLAV NEZVAL

Maturation is, of course, an ongoing process; a process that, you might argue, ends only with your death. It is, therefore, difficult, perhaps even absurd, to attempt to pinpoint a moment in your life when you became aware of yourself as a adult. Yet, when I cast into the pool of my memories, I am able to dredge up a number of incidents or experiences, which at the time struck me as pivotal in my development towards becoming a man. My first ejaculation, for example. My seed has adorned the faces, the bellies, the breasts, the backs, and backsides, of various women; it has been swallowed and spat out; it has dried slowly into bedsheets and t-shirts; but none were as significant, as world-shaping, for you are the world, as the afternoon it made its debut, dribbling down my own hand.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Vítězslav Nezval is not, you may be relieved to hear, about masturbation, or not explicitly anyway. It could, however, be described as a sexual coming-of-age story, if you’ll permit me that trite phrase. The girl of the title is seventeen years old, and very early in the novel, on the first day in fact, she feels ‘a thin stream of blood trickling down her ankle.’ She has, of course, started her period, her first period we’re led to believe, an event that, at least for society at large, indicates that she is now no longer a little girl, but a woman. Not everything that follows is as easy to decipher, nor as directly related to menstruation, but it is telling that the action takes place over seven days, which is [the upper end of] the length of time a period can last.

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Also telling is that Valerie is said to feel ‘great dismay’ when she notices the blood, suggesting that she isn’t happy about leaving her childhood behind. It is interesting, in this regard, that the novel’s action is so fantastical, so reminiscent of a certain kind of children’s literature – Alice in Wonderland immediately springs to mind, of course – and of the games and fantasies of children themselves, what with the strange creatures, hidden rooms, magic phials, and so on. These peculiar, often frightening, situations, characters, and objects represent Valerie’s inner turmoil, the sturm and drang of her emotions and the changes occurring in her body. Yet one might also regard them as a product of her imagination, as the girl fighting against the onset of adulthood by retreating into a childish fantasy world, which is, one ought to note, scary, yes, but never genuinely harmful.

In any case, there is much in the novel about the importance of age, and this is often linked to sexual desire or appeal. For example, one of Valerie’s friends, Hedviga, agrees to wed a much older, and richer, man. When Valerie asks her grandmother why he would want to marry a poor girl, her grandmother replies that ‘she’s young. That explains everything.’ The idea is that youth equals sex appeal, that the old man wants her because she is firm and virginal; and so he uses his money to snare, and in turn fuck, this local beauty, who otherwise he would have no chance with. Later, the grandmother bargains away her house in order to be made young again for a week. What Elsa – who, by the way, is only given a christian name once the transformation has taken place – does with this gift is endeavor to seduce, and at times succeeds in seducing, people younger than her real age.

In addition, there are repeated references to Valerie’s own sexual awakening, such as when she attends the instruction of virgins at church. During the service the minister speaks lustily of buds that ‘will burst when the time is ripe’ and ‘uncleft pomegranates’, and his words are said to touch ‘the girl’s very body.’ There is also more than one occasion when she witnesses people copulating, and makes no move to depart, being, in one instance, ‘unable to stop her eyes from feasting on the strange looking crab writhing on the bed.’ Furthermore, there is the suggestion that others can sense her ripeness, her newfound sexual potency. Indeed, one of the people Elsa attempts to seduce is her granddaughter. The Polecat, who at times is said to be Valerie’s father, does likewise. It struck me that the incestuous element of the narrative is a way of indicating how powerful the sexual urge is, in that it can transcend moral boundaries. This is backed up when the minister intends to rape Valerie.

“Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted.”

It is said that, both in style and content, Nezval was paying homage to old gothic serials [and the marvellously silly Pulp genre]. I don’t have much to say on that, in the way of insightful criticism, beyond what I wrote earlier regarding Valerie’s turmoil/retreat into childish fantasy. Yet, even if you dismiss those theories, it is certainly the case that the ‘wonders’ element of the novel is its most immediately appealing feature. Indeed, were I attempting to convince someone to read the book I would, without question, mention the vampire polecat; the plot to steal a boy’s heart and transplant it into another; the hanging, the accusations of witchery, the despairing crowing of a cock, the burial ground, the ghost. In relation to this, Nezval himself wrote in his foreword that his work is ‘bordering on the ridiculous’, and there is, as far as I am concerned, no greater selling point than that.

LES CHANTS DE MALDOROR BY THE COMTE DE LAUTREAMONT

If you have been following my reviews for any length of time you will be aware that there are many things of which I am afraid. Spiders! Fatherhood! Demonic possession! Death! Yet it is increasingly the shark that haunts my mind like he haunts the sea, silently slicing through the darkness until he is upon me, intent on ripping out my throat! He is a ghoul, shaped like a knife-blade. He is swift and agile madness, with the skin of an elephant and teeth like the sharpest shards of glass. How feeble, how ungainly man seems when compared to this creature, how unlike a God.

Given its awesome, horrifying appearance, and its savage power, it is no surprise that Maldoror – the sinister creation of the Comte de Lautréamont, who was himself the alter ego of Isidore-Lucien Ducasse – is an admirer of, and sees himself in, the shark. Indeed, he wishes that he were the son of one and, in Les Chants most [in]famous passage, he actually couples with a female, inspiring the most eyebrow-raising title of any article I’ve ever come across: Shark-shagger. Yet his admiration isn’t limited to these beasts; Maldoror [or the Comte] sings the praises of the louse, the tiger, the ocean, mathematics[!]…anything, it seems, that isn’t human.

Maldoror was, we’re told, once a happy, ’upright’ child, indicating that something [or a combination of things] happened to effect a change in his personality or character. Yet it is also claimed that he felt as though he was ‘born wicked’, and had tried his best to disguise his nature. In any case, one is led to believe – due to the sheer number of rants dedicated to the subject, if nothing else – that an ever intensifying disgust for humanity was at least partly responsible for his subsequent ‘career of evil’. Throughout, Maldoror rails against human weakness of character, hypocrisy, hunger for fame and money, etc.

However, while all that might be enjoyable [especially if, like me, you agree with the sentiments expressed], such misanthropy isn’t unique or even unusual in works of literature. What sets Les Chants apart, what makes them a still thrilling, shocking, and amusing experience, is that Maldoror doesn’t simply hate humanity, he wants to make it suffer, in imaginative, creative ways. My favourite example of this is when he breeds a pit of vicious lice, which he then lets loose upon the unsuspecting public. Moreover, he openly enjoys these activities, so that the book reads like an ode to cruelty and sadism. Children, one assumes because they are representative of innocence and purity, are paid special attention, with Maldoror extolling the pleasures of abusing and then freeing them, so that one is seen as both their torturer and their saviour. He also gleefully admits to wanting to slice off their rosy cheeks with a razor.

“One should let one’s nails grow for a fortnight. O, how sweet it is to drag brutally from his bed a child with no hair on his upper lip and with wide open eyes, make as if to touch his forehead gently with one’s hand and run one’s fingers through his beautiful hair. Then suddenly, when he is least expecting it, to dig one’s long nails into his soft breast, making sure, though, that one does not kill him; for if he died, one would not later be able to contemplate his agonies.”

Before continuing it is necessary to return to that comment, that assertion that Les Chants is funny, especially as a lot of the book’s content is, without question, unpleasant [sadism is, in fact, something that I find particularly abhorrent]. The reason I find Les Chants entertaining, rather than unbearable, is that they are, for the most part, [intentionally] over-the-top, bizarre and vaudeville; and they feature a main character so thoroughly dastardly, such that even the nastiest bits are absurd or almost farcical. The best example of this is when Maldoror is watching a ship sink and delights in the forthcoming annihilation of the crew and passengers. At this stage, the story is engaging, but not necessarily funny. It is when the hero decides to shoot a survivor as he swims towards the shore that the scene is taken into the realm of comedy [although you may argue that what it provokes is the uncomfortable laughter of disbelief].

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[Sedlec Ossuary or bone church, Czech Republic]

There are an abundance of religious references in Les Chants, and God, in particular, is routinely mocked and criticised and doubted. Lautréamont says that God, although powerful, is untrustworthy, and suggests that the creation of heaven, or the bestowing of any kind of eternal reward, is inconsistent with a Being who causes suffering, or is prepared to allow his people to be miserable or wretched, on earth; in one of the most memorable and amusing passages, he imagines God as a kind of blood-thirsty tyrant, sitting on a throne of gold and excrement, wrapped in unclean hospital sheets. Of course, for anyone who wants to offend, who wants to position themselves as anti-establishment, religion is an obvious, necessary target. An author intent on writing filth and getting up people’s noses isn’t really doing his job if he doesn’t blaspheme.

Some critics would have you believe that Maldoror is the Devil, which isn’t the strangest claim, considering how grotesque and seemingly immoral he is. Certainly, there is something of Milton’s charismatic Satan about him; and he does harbour ambitions of overthrowing God and taking his place, indicating that he is no mere mortal. Moreover, there is one quite chilling scene in which he endeavors to tempt a young boy into murdering someone who has wronged him. Yet I prefer not to think of Maldoror as the Devil, as something so easy to digest. To label him thus is almost a kind of comfort. We may not like the Devil, but we do understand him. It is, therefore, far more frightening to think of Maldoror as an ordinary man, although I don’t believe he is that either.

“I am filthy. I am riddled with lice. Hogs, when they look at me, vomit. My skin is encrusted with the scabs and scales of leprosy, and covered with yellow pus.[…] A family of toads has taken up residence in my left armpit and, when one of them moves, it tickles. Mind one of them does not escape and come and scratch the inside of your ear with its mouth; for it would then be able to enter your brain.”

So, what, then, is he? For me, he is a bogyman, a nightmare; he is Nosferatu’s shadow climbing up the wall. One might also call him an outcast, although I’m not sure myself how accurate that is [for you have to want to be part of something to be cast out from it]. He does, however, identify with outcasts, with prostitutes [with whom he claims to have made a pact to ruin families] and hermaphrodites. In any case, what most struck me while I read Les Chants is that Maldoror is essentially a kind of Mr. Hyde, he is the bad in every one of us, the dark side. Indeed, it is said in the text that evil thoughts exist in all men. This theory is given extra weight when you consider that it isn’t always clear who is narrating the book, that while it begins in the manner of someone [the Comte] describing, in the third person, the outrageous acts and character of another man, the majority of it is written as though the one committing these acts is the narrator, almost as though Maldoror has seized control, of the text and of Lautréamont himself.

I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND BY BOHUMIL HRABAL

I have felt a compulsion to write for most of my life, or at least since I was in Junior school. I remember being eight and starting my first novel; I would add a chapter a day, with some help from Paul Williams, a classmate. I call it a compulsion because I don’t appear to be able to stop, regardless of where I am or what I have to hand. I have drawers full of scraps of paper, bus tickets, and post-it notes on which I have scribbled lines or ideas; my mobile phone has more notes stored on it than numbers; the space on my computer is almost entirely taken up with word documents. I don’t like to delete or throw any of this stuff away because, in a way, it is the story of my life, they document, albeit indirectly, who I was at the time of writing. Part of my reason for wanting to review was to be able to bear witness, to keep a record of my experiences. All of these things, if you compiled them, would, I guess, make up a bildungsroman for the modern age.

It was a running joke when I was on Goodreads that my reviews would begin with a lengthy personal anecdote, which I would, eventually, in a wildly tenuous fashion, eventually link to the book at hand. I guess this review is no different. I Served the King of England is also a bildungsroman of sorts. According to the narrator, Ditie, it was written for the same reasons that I write: as a document of his experiences, so that he can have a record of them. Like my writings it is a fragmented narrative, it is a life told in moments, or episodes; it is not a complex, detailed story. I Served the King of England is, in fact, what we call a shaggy-dog story. This is something Hrabal excelled at, at creating faux-naïve, simple-hearted characters that hop, skip, and occasionally stumble from one adventure to the next.

At the beginning of the narrative Ditie is a busboy at a hotel; by the end he is a road-mender. In between he becomes rich and a Nazi-sympathiser. Really, though, none of that is particularly important or engaging. What is great about I Served the King of England is Hrabal’s prose, Ditie’s voice, and, in particular, the often beautiful flights of fancy. Despite some darker moments the tone of the novel is mostly lighthearted, chatty and colloquial, like a more worldly-wise [i.e. base] Walser or less acerbic Celine. However, while Hrabal’s prose is easy to read, is seemingly straightforward, it is quietly, unassumingly sophisticated and sometimes poetic. It’s a really neat trick. Hrabal is what I would call a first-rate prose stylist. His novels are not always engrossing, plot-wise, but they are always brilliantly written, are enjoyable to read if you value craft and wit and insight and memorable lines over an exciting, fast-paced story.

I’ve seen numerous times, in reviews all over the internet, that people often prefer the second half of I Served the King of England, which deals with Ditie’s marriage to a German girl and subsequent involvement with the SS. However, for me, it’s the least successful part of the book. This is not because it is less stylish or less amusing than what came before, but because it is when Hrabal’s weaknesses as a writer are most apparent. Transitions are a problem; they are clunky and too random. Somehow the author has to make us believe that Ditie can go from being a wide-eyed hotel worker to a Nazi sympathiser, and yet Hrabal cannot pull it off. Our narrator just kind of does, without any real, or psychologically sound, justification.

These are, however, minor quibbles; and it is more satisfying to focus on the positive, which is why I will return to those flights of fancy. It is not oft mentioned by others but to my mind Hrabal was a surrealist or, if you prefer, a kind of magical realist. His work is, indeed, closer to Garcia Marquez than to his compatriot Kundera. Early in the novel there is a fight between some gypsies at one of the hotels where Ditie works; it is a random fight, without prelude, in which a great amount of blood is spilled and flesh lopped off. Hrabal describes the glinting of the knives used in the flight as like golden flies flying around the Golden Prague, which is oddly beautiful. There is, too, Ditie’s fetish for adorning the laps and genitals of his lovers with flowers, one of whom, while visiting him at work, pours grenadine over herself and walks out to an accompaniment of sugar-thirsty bees. I loved all of that stuff, and there is a lot more of it, but I won’t ruin the surprises for first-time readers by revealing more of them.

To conclude, then, although I Served the King of England does engage with serious issues, with politics and death, and the meaning of life, its greatest accomplishment is to be itself full of life, to be charming and funny. That is, for me, a more significant statement, is more important than anything Hrabal could have said about Czech life during the war, etc. There’s a character in the novel that has an uncanny ability to know things, to intuit things. Whenever he is asked how he, for example, knows that someone will order a soup just by looking at them, his reply is: because I once served the king of England. Hrabal, too, just seemed to know, to get it, to understand what life is about, what is important, what makes it beautiful or worthwhile; he must have served some pretty high-ranking people himself.