Wearing My Black Trenchcoat to the Embankment of Eternity: On The Gentle Barbarian by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Paul Wilson

I am more than a little bit in love with Bohumil Hrabal and therefore would prefer to be devoted rather than biliously discriminating. I’ll read anything Bohumil writes (on a first-name basis but taking it slow…I’ve not read nearly everything of his yet, hoping to space it out over the course of my life) (and if one day I have drunk the very last sentence he recorded and the last book falls from my hands he will remain in a Prague beer hall in the 1970s that I will not visit, so as to keep him alive and laughing) (guffawing actually—I’m sure he is guffawing, but I forgive him that obnoxious laugh, as I do anyone who is so firmly with me in the laughing-over-crying camp). The feeling of his sentences is closest to Prosecco, but I can’t say Prosecco, have to say beer because his books are beer-full—pitchers and buckets and mugs upon mugs of beer, I get buzzed reading him—he calls his own speedy style “palavering”— ‘I am a corresponding member of the Academy of Palavery,’ he says in an intro to his short stories—but I don’t take that word in English to mean what I think Bohumil means when he says pábení– his fellow Czech writer Josef Škvorecký, in his 1993 intro to The Little Town Where Time Stood Still describes Bohumil’s pábení as “surreal raconteurism,” and that’s nearly it—nearly!

Reading him is getting sad-buzzed, a vicious luxury of sad, wherein the corridors of joblife, all the little ticks of to-do lists, and the many cruelties I’m incriminated in, they all foam up into his “miraculous effervescence of reality”—each mouse, pigeon, cat, cracked roadway, and lost hour embodies Bohumil’s tragic sense of life. In his nonfiction elegy The Gentle Barbarian, his friend Vladmir Boutnik, a graphic artist, is added to the catalog of Bohumil’s creatures and lost things.  The 6 foot 6 inch VB is a child. The worst senses of the word “child” need not be listed. The best ones are limitless, including—the creative impulse in Vladimir is not sequestered to a studio or desk or so-called artistic materials. His ingredients for artmaking are the entirety of the material world. Paint, sure, if his friends will buy it for him, but also mud, broken electrical wire, bodily fluids—especially this last, with which VB seemed to embalm himself to protect his sense of possibility. At one point, he and Bohumil live in adjoining rooms in a building BH calls the Embankment of Eternity, where VB writes in a journal all night and makes semen-soaked paintings by day (“All his graphic works were covered with a gentle layer of sexual viscosity”). Reading the book, whose general atmosphere is so very grungy, my bar of Dial soap becomes, suddenly, the scouring scourge of poetry.

Vladimir worked to drive a rift between his art and the things that might be obstacles to that art—particularly money, beholdenness, sobriety (I know! You’re rolling your eyes). Vladimir (and how easy for him!) never let anything he possessed take on such a weight that he wouldn’t be able to loft it out of a moving train. He gave away money as soon as he got it. Or Bohumil says he did—he very likely did—sometimes. He also held down the same factory job for years and seemed to mostly pay his rent and eat, but these are not details that the young Bohumil Hrabal has need of, oh no! What he requires is for Vladimir to embody the romance—and narcissism and tragedy—of the artistic life. In the book’s preface Bohumil acknowledges that this elegy will not be bound by facts—his last words of the preface are a shout out to the subtitle of Goethe’s autobiography: “Dichtung und Wahrheit. Poetry and truth.” That little conjunction does a lot of work separating the two nouns, which have never truly been well united for my reading tastes. See, I like poetry. (I like lies!) I like how Rodrigo Toscano says he likes his political poems—as in, he doesn’t—instead he asks for “proto-political” ones, “made up of contradictions, not stances.” When I stand directly before the mirror scrutinizing my 47-year-old face, I don’t see a thing…         

Only tilt it!

…Tilt towards poetry, surrealism, absurdism, or Bohumil’s particular effervescence– The Gentle Barbarian is mostly bubbles– tragic, suffering, exalted, aflame– bubbles, all.

Vladimir even threw his wedding ring from a moving train once, at the behest of a poet who found the ring too aesthetically “conventional.” And even though the newly married VB loved his wife and loved that ring, he tossed it out the train window and did not speak of it again. Bohumil says that VB was “a master of horror and unfathomable humility.” He also says that the ring throwing was a creative act. That’s the way I am choosing to see it too. Reactive, vain, hurtful—yes—and creative: a glinting circle flashes in the sunlight for a sec and then is gone…It doesn’t matter what I’ve done with my wedding rings, nor that I’m covered with a gentle layer of sweaty upstandingness, but this morning I spent more than several minutes scrubbing a Bisquick stain from the kitchen floor, laughing at how Vladimir (or at least the Vladimir that Bohumil created for this book) would have instead completed the picture that the stain suggested. (A daddy long legs?) And then I laughed again, thinking how my reading tastes lately are all of a piece: even earlier this morning I was reading Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s story “The Thirteenth Category of Reason” (so named for all who’ve been evicted from Kant’s twelve categories of reason and thus must live “in a lean-to slouched against objective obligatory thinking”) a story whose end pairs quite well with Bisquick drippings:  “...Leonardo was right in saying that one can sometimes learn more from water stains than from the creations of masters.” Yes, and from this Bisquick stain I was learning how very reasonable I sometimes am. How very Adult. It’s an all-out battle to not be bitter sometimes about entropy. So temptingly adult to ignore that it exists. Fix fix fix clean clean save. This house’s gutters are full of holes and should be fixed but then we’d lose the weird icicles.

But not even that! When it comes to my worries about being a creative person, the issue isn’t domestic work or paid work (tho without some money who is writing?), but what badges of civilization I wear too well—gotta become more, not less, barbaric—in the sense of being one who is strange, ignorant of the customs, or simply doesn’t give a fuckall about them. From Kathy Acker’s journal: “You have to be a criminal and a prostitute.” Tape that to the fridge… Done.  …Preschool pickup time used to coincide with the lunchtime AA meeting in my neighborhood. We’d all stand together and wait for the church doors to unlock and let the kids out and let the alcoholics in. Once a newcomer scanned the crowd. Then he approached me to ask about the meeting. That he’d figured me as the AA attendee rather than the preschool parent was, I thought at the time, a good sign. I was outside the parent group, and if I was outside it, then I could write about it (tho I don’t want to!!)—in the same way that it seems as if only people living here who are not totally embraced & enfranchised by America can write well about this country. It might have been my black trench coat, or my lost look. (If it’s a costume I need to feel barbaric then I’m already too civilized!) It’s not about wearing a wedding ring vs tattooing a ring vs no ring. It’s the tossing it that is the creative act. And the barbaric one. 

There’s so much I don’t know about how to be a writer in this world.

Do I like Vladimir? That’s not really a question the book asks of its reader. (He’d fail our purity test.) Vladimir’s wife tells him of a time she was assaulted, and he responds by smearing the walls of their white apartment with creosote, and then with his own blood as he continually bashes his head into the wall—“I wanted her to see I’d do anything for her…”  VB worked in a German factory during the war and saw “dozens of churches reduced to rubble, hundreds of paintings and statues destroyed, libraries burnt to the ground…” Against the entropy that all worlds insist upon, inject your own means of destruction/decay. The catastrophe, says Maurice B, destroys everything, all the while keeping everything intact. That’s my catastrophe for sure. As the waters rise I’ll keep charging higher-ground hotels on my credit card. That’s my intactness, a quality that Vladimir, or least the Vladimir that Bohumil creates here, refuses. VB lets himself be changed by his wife’s assault. On one hand, Dude, she was asking only for you to listen not to dent your skull! On the other hand, please, how can I be more emotionally and—possibly physically?—dented by others’ stories—I want to be. But Bohumil, who lives through first the German and the then Soviet occupations of Prague, whose books were banned by the Communists and then, once in print, burned by those who thought he sold out, says, “One can lay waste only to one’s own territory, which is inside one’s head.” In the rubble of a church, Vladimir and Bohumil spend a night on the altar floor. Vlad’s foot disturbs a hanging lamp, which swings into the moonbeams coming through a hole in the roof and “catches fire in the light.” An old wall tapestry is their blanket and in the morning they see it’s a maimed image of St. Wenceslas, “who loved to drink and talk to animals [and] was stabbed to death by his own brother, for no matter where you are in the world, you will never be forgiven for desiring a life of peace, in thrall to inebriation and therefore the universe.” That’s Bohumil. His ostensible subject is the antics of Vladimir, but really it might be thralldom. Do I like the space that Vladimir’s existence creates for Bohumil Hrabal to develop his worldview? Well, it’s pretty lovely.

After I read this book I wanted to send care packages to my poet and artist friends. The return address would read “Stay Strong Bernadette,” after Mayer’s poem “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica”:

…Be strong Bernadette
Nobody will ever know
I came here for a reason
Perhaps there is a life here
Of not being afraid of your own heart beating…

Each care package would include
  • a copy of The Gentle Barbarian (even tho a few (Kate S, Megan, Steph) would hate it)
  • a piece of paper with a water stain
  • the part about Auxilio Lacouture at the end of Roberto Bolano’s Anthem… She’s in the ice in the Andes (?) but she’s acclimating to the cold. And her little guardian angel looks at her and with a voice “as sad and crystalline as Rimbaud’s poem about the vowels” says, “You’ve become used to it.”
  • the little reminder that Filip Marinovich appended to his Motley email about paying the class fee: “ If you don't have it now, keep showing up anyway. We can find a way, just keep showing up and the money will show up too, in installments, or all at once… It's all about showing up, a very mysterious process I do not entirely understand”
  • —a link to this Mark Baumer video, “What is this parking lot doing on planet earth?” Mark is maybe our time’s gentle barbarian…he’s walking to work and sees that the city has made a new parking lot. Something you and I might judge as meriting a defeated shrug he sees as new and strange and inordinately terrible. “This is the worst day of my life,” he says. When he wails it’s the saddest kind of funny.

—This theoretical care package would have amounted to…?

Something about how formative and freaking necessary my writing friendships have been/are… The space their work creates for my own... A plea to these friends to be there, keep being there (hello from Bohumil’s “unrepeatable present”!). All this cruelty and miraculously don’t be bitter. Don’t get used to it. Be the saddest kind of funny. And keep going—if you’re keeping going at all as a writer, artist, you’re going in the right direction…

To keep going (“If I suffered what else could I do”—Bernadette) is to “revel as much in what did not happen as what did”—to make, and let the making itself outlast any catastrophe—even if you have to flush your poems down the toilet like Auxilio, even if you burn your journal, well “in dust all beauty persists” Bohumil says. It’s the acts, not the things—even when the acts are accidental. Everyone repeats the story of Bohumil’s death when they’re talking about his books. I don’t want to but I will in order to make an argument for my interpretation of it, which was buoyed by this book. He fell from a fifth floor hospital window. Suicide some say. But also he was feeding the pigeons at the time. So accident. But also he was reported to be despondent at the time and had a documented fascination with Rilke’s Malte Laurid Briggs wanting to throw himself from a fifth floor window. But also he loved pigeons and often fed them. Also he was balancing on a pile of books by the hospital window to reach the pigeons. Also several of his friends refute those details, saying there were no pigeons, there was no pile of books, and that the story of his fall was another way to censor him. I don’t disbelieve that and do not generally deny people their suicides but I deny Bohumil’s. The Gentle Barbarian gave me an idea of the position that BH created when young from which to write—a position that takes all the inescapable ruin and death and drudgery of life and speeds it up and makes it light, and nearly funny, and always part of an eternal return. Vladimir makes his graphics from “the debris of the factory floor” and “it’s a short leap from there to the highest impulses of my soul. Ha Ha!”—and that is exactly BH’s oeuvre as I understand it, from debris to the highest impulses of one’s soul, with, sometimes, laughter. And if VB helped birth and shape the writer Bohumil was, I want to think VB also shaped Bohumil’s death. Vladimir dies by autoeroticasphyxiation…Yeah….Bohumil calls Vladimir’s death “an accident of poetic proportions,” and that’s how I see Bohumil’s death too—standing on a pile of books, reaching up to the pigeons, on the site of a lifelong fascination with fifth floor windows and thus a death imbued with questions—open, perpetually…Bohumil didn’t need the last line of his book and neither do I need it here but we both tend toward the romance so here it is: [He] (Vladimir! Bohumil!) “plunged headfirst from the embankment of the present into the heart of eternity.”

Darcie Dennigan is the author of five books, including Madame X (Canarium) and Slater Orchard: An etymology (FC2), and the recipient of the 2020 Howard Foundation Fellowship in Playwriting from Brown University, and the 2019 Anna Rabinowitz Award from the Poetry Society of America for “venturesome, interdisciplinary work.” For Annulet, she serves as a Critic-at-Large.