Bo­hemian slant from a Czech mas­ter

Mal­colm Forbes finds much de­light in the first English trans­la­tion of Jo­hannes Urzidil’s col­lec­tion of short stories set in Prague

The National - News - The Review - - Fiction - Mal­colm Forbes is a free­lance re­viewer based in Ed­in­burgh.

Jo­hannes Urzidil’s The Last Bell car­ries the sub­ti­tle “Bo­hemian Stories”, mak­ing it, like Gio­vanni Verga’s Lit­tle Nov­els of Si­cily, Isaac Ba­bel’s Tales of Odessa and Leo Tol­stoy’s Se­bastopol Sketches, a col­lec­tion of short fic­tion about peo­ple and place – or, more specif­i­cally, re­gion and res­i­dents. Con­tain­ing five finely crafted stories set in Prague, the coun­try­side and lit­tle towns where time stands still, Urzidil presents Bo­hemian realms fraught with chaos and fore­bod­ing, and strik­ing, tragi­comic char­ac­ters.

In the An­glo­phone world, Urzidil (1896-1970) re­mains an un­known quan­tity. Born in Prague to a Ger­man fa­ther and a Jewish mother, he mixed with mem­bers of the “Prager Kreis” (Prague Cir­cle) in­clud­ing Franz Kafka, Franz Wer­fel and Max Brod, worked at the Ger­man em­bassy, and pro­duced poetry, fic­tion and es­says. When Hitler in­vaded and the Gestapo closed in he fled his home­land. While in ex­ile in Amer­ica he pro­duced some of his most suc­cess­ful work, much of it with a Bo­hemian back­drop.

The stories in The Last Bell – pub­lished for the first time in English and neatly trans­lated by David Bur­nett – pro­vide a taste of Urzidil’s tal­ents. The strangest, slip­peri­est story, The Duchess of Al­banera, is ded­i­cated to Brod, and feels like an at­tempt to walk in Kafka’s shoes. Wen­zel Schaschek, a Prague bank clerk, com­mit­ted bach­e­lor and crea­ture of habit, takes a break from talk­ing to the usual inan­i­mate ob­jects that fill his reg­i­mented days and hum­drum ex­is­tence – fur­ni­ture, flow­ers, food – and en­ters into an in­tense two-way con­ver­sa­tion about women, beauty and mur­der with the love of his life – a paint­ing he stole from the State Gallery three days pre­vi­ously.

Less far out yet fur­ther afield, Siegel­mann’s Jour­neys takes us away from the city and into a ru­ral town, where a travel agent who has never trav­elled at­tempts to woo a fel­low lonely soul by re­hash­ing and re­liv­ing his cus­tomers’ ex­otic ad­ven­tures and ex­pe­ri­ences. “I don’t lie,” he as­sures him­self, prior to wreck­ing his re­la­tion­ship. “I merely choose a con­vinc­ing form for re­al­ity and truth.”

Siegel­mann’s sto­ry­telling con­sists of tem­per­ing “the fan­tas­tic with the or­di­nary”. His cre­ator em­ploys a sim­i­lar tech­nique in Border­land, a som­brely beau­ti­ful tale about a spe­cial, “mag­netic” 12-year-old girl. The story deftly ex­plores two meet­ing points – the junc­ture be­tween the ever yday and the out­landish and the forested fron­tier di­vid­ing Bo­hemia and Aus­tria.

Urzidil bows out with Where the Val­ley Ends, an­other wood­land story, and an­other that re­volves around the con­se­quences of a theft – on this oc­ca­sion not a paint­ing but a cheesecake.

But it is the tit­u­lar tale that starts the pro­ceed­ings that steals the show. The Last Bell has a cap­ti­vat­ing pro­tag­o­nist in feisty, un­flap­pable maid­ser­vant Marška. When her em­ploy­ers (“the Mis­ter” and his Jewish “Mis­sus”) are forced to up and leave with only two small suit­cases, she is left with their Prague apart­ment, their money and be­long­ings. She in­vites her younger sis­ter to stay, ig­nores all the clocks (“We don’t need hours or time”) and set­tles into her new role as “wo­man of pri­vate means”.

When the girls at­tract the at­ten­tion of two Nazi of­fi­cers, their lives sharply change. De­spite their ad­mir­ers’ flat­tery, Marška re­mains scep­ti­cal: “Maybe they haven’t mur­dered any­one yet, but it’s bet­ter to call them mur­der­ers right from the start so you don’t have to cor­rect your­self later.” And in­deed she doesn’t. Urzidil mod­u­lates his tone and sub­li­mates his hero­ine’s an­tics as he leads to a de­noue­ment in which Marška wit­nesses the full might and cru­elty of the city’s “uni­formed in­vaders”. Un­like Schaschek – who af­ter stealing his paint­ing un­wit­tingly un­leashes calamity and warps two iden­ti­ties – mak­ing one man “guilty-in­no­cent”, the other “in­no­cent-guilty” – Marška finds her­self faced with the choice, or the chal­lenge, of tak­ing con­trol and avert­ing dis­as­ter by sav­ing a Jewish life.

This re­mark­able, mul­ti­fac­eted story show­cases var­i­ous Czech styles. A pub brawl and other ram­bunc­tious high-jinks are redo­lent of the es­capades of Jaroslav Hašek’s good sol­dier Švejk; the more ab­surd vi­o­lence (the sis­ters’ fa­ther is crushed by a ma­nure cart), darker hu­mour and skewed wis­dom is as po­tent as that mag­icked up by Bo­hu­mil Hra­bal; while the pock­ets of real hor­ror, par­tic­u­larly the round-ups of Marška’s Jewish neigh­bours, have the same emo­tional clout as those that punc­tu­ate Jirí Weil’s Nazi-oc­cu­pied nov­els.

Ul­ti­mately, though, this minia­ture mas­ter­piece and the other four stories come to us in one voice, that of an in­ex­pli­ca­bly over­looked Czech mas­ter who is only now find­ing an English-speak­ing au­di­ence. Credit is due to Pushkin Press for re­dis­cov­er­ing Urzidil. With luck, there will be more stories to tell.

From page 16 Now I’ve gone and done it. A ren­dezvous with an in­vader: I’ll be a dis­grace to ev­ery­one with char­ac­ter

Imagno / Getty Im­ages

Born in Prague to a Ger­man fa­ther and a Jewish mother, Czech au­thor Jo­hannes Urzidil pro­duced his most suc­cess­ful work while in ex­ile in Amer­ica.

The Last Bell Jo­hannes Urzidil Pushkin Press Dh54

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