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Bohumil Hrabal: I Served the King of England

I read Hrabal many years ago in a small-press English language edition of Total Fears, portraying the wandering mind of an aging writer and what might be most accurately termed his tulpa, a female correspondent that he monologues to and rhapsodizes over. I haven’t been as thrilled with the Czech literature I’ve read as with much of the Hungarian and Serbo-Croatian work that oft en dealt in similar socio-political issues. (One very significant exception is Ludvik Vaculik.) And so I never got around to reading much of Hrabal’s other work, until I was reminded of him by James Wood in one of the articles in The Irresponsible Self. Wood gives a good overview of Hrabal’s spirit, but there are some things in I Served the King of England, specifically in his treatment of the historical material, that Wood doesn’t mention.

First, his verbal style. The book reads fantastically well in English, and I can’t believe it’s all translator Paul Wilson’s doing. Hrabal writes in a breezy, propulsive way, tossing off curious images even as he keeps things going quite quickly. The style supports big events and little ones nearly equally, and the blending of them (very important in this novel) comes off a lot more seamlessly than it does in, for example, a Jonathan Franzen or Don DeLillo novel, where the pressures of larger concerns pull the reader away from the characters.

But the structure helps as well: I Served the King of England is about a very short waiter named Ditie, who holds jobs at a couple hotels before getting involved with a blond Nazi after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, then moving on to start his own hotel (built out of a blacksmith shop in an abandoned quarry) before losing it to Communism and spending time in a minimum-security (absolute minimum) prison for millionaires.

Those are the bare bones of the plot. Like Grass’s The Tin Drum, it portrays the skewed, sometimes myopic perspective of someone who doesn’t feel fully human because of their shortness, but the incidental details are less horrific and surreal than they are comical and short-sighted. Ditie is looking up at those around him, literally and figuratively, and pushed down by a headwaiter who claims expertise because he once “served the king of England.” (Ditie later serves the Emperor of Ethiopia and comes to attribute all his skills to it.) And a very long time is spent in the restaurants before the Nazi invasion. The novel is half over and all that has happened is that Ditie has gotten a series of slightly better waitering jobs, had some farcical encounters with perfectionist waiters and, of course, the Emperor of Ethiopia. The “historical” events are all relegated to the last half of the novel, and there is little indication in the first half that they are coming.

And indeed, when they do come, Ditie only sees them through his perspective, which, unlike Oskar’s in The Tin Drum, is that of a man inside history, not a child outside of it. When Ditie meets the Nazi girl:

She was attractively dressed, and to get on the good side of her and show her how grateful I was that she spoke German with me I said it was awful what the Czechs were doing to those poor German students, that I’d seen with my own eyes on Narodni how they pulled the white socks and brown shirts off two German students. And she told me that I spoke the truth, that Prague was part of the old German Empire and the Germans had an inalienable right to walk about the city dressed according to their own customs.

He quickly gets an in with the Germans and soon enough faces his old master headwaiter, now as an important customer, and tells him, “You may have served the King of England but it hasn’t done you any good.” He leaves his wife and child (who end up being the subjects of an experiment to see what sort of Aryan baby could be made with a Czech) after suffering a crisis of conscience over the horrors of the war. Yet Hrabal never pulls back enough to see anything beyond Ditie’s eyes, and the book reads as one of the most immanent stories of life around the war. It is farcical and unrealistic, but the remote backdrop of history, kept carefully in check, quietly undermines the position that the history is known as it has been written. Ditie remains half-unknowing and half-happy, and his experiences are shaped more by the odd fraction of life that he experiences than by any larger world outcomes. Against the backdrop of the war, this is alternately amusing (allowing the reader to condescend to Ditie) and horrific; the vividness of the first half takes on as much narrative weight as the second, which is Hrabal’s achievement.

When, much later, he ends up doing manual labor in a gamekeeper’s lodge in a forest, he has lost everything and feels happier for it. He does not treasure his successful days of past, but nor does he quite regret them, and he makes no excuses nor asks for any forgiveness, remaining too happy to be just a waiter and servant. It is, Hrabal implies, how he can live. Ditie shrugs metaphorically at the end, with relief rather than indifference. The story, with the structure of a tall tale and the scenery of historical horror, does not give a moral or a resolution. It is affirming, but it requires that all the good and bad be affirmed together.

Thomas Frank: What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Is there anything left to say about this book? Maybe not, but I wanted to try to provide some context for the book, both in Frank’s own background and his historical precedents.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? is less a study than a memoir and a polemic smashed together. It’s not just a memoir the middle chapter, where he describes how he was a strident, Randian Republican as a teenager who turned into a liberal in college, but throughout the book. The first big tipoff comes early on, when he salutes the amazing Embarrassment for no real reason other than that they were from Kansas, then quotes “Sex Drive” (I think I would have picked “Wellsville”). They deserve every word of praise, but they don’t fit with the book: the Embarrassment were one hell of an anomaly. But Frank quotes them because he loves them, and the book is a disguised memoir of his childhood and adolescence. It’s not a polemic, it’s a travelogue.

And it works better as one, because when he’s dissecting the Great Plains, he overstates his case. Much of the evidence given is in the form of people he’s run into in his life, people he interviews on the street. I have no question they’re as bad as he paints them, but he paints in very broad strokes. He identifies large, abstract trends, such as white male resentment against minorities, and uses them to characterize Kansas and environs in toto.

Frank goes out of his way to paint Kansans as non-racists and non-fundamentalists. I believe him on this point, since Brown v. Board was provoked in Kansas precisely because the schools were “separate but equal.” Frank then argues for a chiefly economic (but also social) form of resentment that keeps Republicans in power.

That was what Frank’s childhood told him. Frank was raised a Republican of the libertarian Ayn Randian sort, but not as a social conservative or as a Christian. And this informs his take on so-called red America: Republicans are campaigning economically, not socially. So most of his arguments rely on Republicans’ anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-welfare state strategies.

The problem is that he paints this argument as exclusive and total. Frank does not talk about the South, and the economic view is clearly not true in the South. The South is deeply Republican at this point, but it is not reflective of any shift of views on Southerners part; in 1994, Southerners finally got over their resentment of the Republicans enough to realize that the ultra-conservative Democrats they had been electing had not been doing them any good.

Yet further west, things are less clear. Frank explains away the election of Kansas’s Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius as a trivial side effect of a fight between two sects of Republicans, moderate and ultra-conservative. Fine, but why has Montana been trending Democratic lately?

The answer is pluralism. The Republicans do not use anything close to a unified, monolithic strategy. They have built a tenuous coalition of voters by appealing to every voter they can scrape up in whatever way they can, which is why Bush could not have managed more than a narrow victory. American conservatism, as it stands today, is such a weird amalgam (compare it to Israel, England, etc.) that it seems unlikely to be an endemic phenomenon. It’s arisen through careful planning, and does not exist as a monolithically native sensibility. That’s why a uniting figure like Bush or Reagan is so important.

But in the face of a Bush win and a poisoned administration doing a power-grab, it’s tempting to see the end of the nation at hand, driven by 50% of the populace. None of the trends Frank mentions explains anywhere close to 50% of the nation. Each of them, from anti-regulatory capitalists to religious fundamentalists to angry white men, make up a 5-10% segment of the population amidst the great unwashed masses.

People like Paul Weyrich and Donald Wildmon have made careers out of blowing up these conservative population to appear larger than they really are, from the original “Emerging Republican Majority” to the “moral majority” onwards. And they have tricks up their sleeves to convince the media and other suckers that they wield great power, like mailing many identical copies of decency complaints to the FCC. I worry that Frank may help their cause by painting Kansas as having a single sensibility that is hostile to the better instincts of people. And he drastically undersells the more situational aspects of the last election, described expertly by Mark Danner in How Bush Really Won:

The fact was that though President Bush was personally popular, many of his major policies were not. The problem for the Bush campaign was how to turn attention away from policies voters didn’t like–particularly the President’s decisions on Iraq and his conduct of the war there–toward policies they approved of&#x97particularly his conduct of “the war on terror” (into which Iraq would be “folded”)&#x97and toward his personal qualities.

None of this is to say that Frank isn’t right about how Kansas and other states have gradually shifted from economic populism to libertarian corporatism in response to right-wing agitprop. But that’s not Frank’s ultimate message, though. He has an agenda to push: he wants the Democrats to embrace class warfare and become anti-corporate.

Yet to advocate an anti-corporate policy as a political platform based on these observations seems unjustified, simplistic, and insufficient. Frank constructs a narrative that appeals to the compelling and partially accurate prejudices of his target readership–the liberal intelligentsia–but just like those who trumpeted the narrative “moral values” as the deciding factor in the election, Frank exaggerates. The weakness in this approach becomes apparent when Frank goes after Ann Coulter. Now, Ann Coulter is truly horrible, but her constituency is not large enough for her to be an exemplar of a trend. She is more a product of the right-wing think tank machine, designed to put guests on political talk shows, than she is a popular phenomenon (as Rush Limbaugh distressingly is). But because her views are insane and frightening even by Limbaugh’s standards, Frank can alienate readers further from Kansans by quoting her.

Frank’s aggressive tactics become most clear at the very end of the book, where Frank turns prophet of doom:

Behold the political alignment that Kansas is pioneering for us all. The corporate world–for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness–blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skechers flout the Man; bigoted churchgoing moms don’t tolerate their daughters’ cool liberated friends; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading “FCUK” snicker at the suits who just don’t get it. It’s meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge…Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars’ taxes.

As a social system, the backlash works The two adversaries feed off of each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one.

It was the corporations the whole time! Note how government falls out of the equation, reduced the role of a puppet of the big corporations’ huge plot to advance capitalism and screw the proletariat. And it is mass culture that is the culprit.

The chief antecedent for this mode of thinking is Thorstein Veblen, who attacked the products of luxury culture and its consumers in The Theory of the Leisure Class and coined the term “conspicuous consumption” for the demonstrative decadence of these people. Veblen’s dour, astringent philosophy left hardly anything untouched: one would have to be an ascetic to avoid the pollution of the culture industry. (In this, he also anticipated the sociological work of Erving Goffman, who paints society as a system in which we have no choice but to take on socially constricted, prescribed roles.) With Veblen, and with Frank, the economic origin and intent of a product is the indicator of its moral worth.

The journal Frank edits, The Baffler, I read in college. I haven’t read it for years, but a look at the contents doesn’t reveal much change. It focused nearly exclusively on cultural capitalism. It excoriated every cultural movement that came down the line (Edge City, Donna Tartt, Wired, etc) as a meaningless product of consumerist culture. That which was acceptable–Steve Albini, John Cassavetes, Weldon Kees– were those that were aggressively, polemically independent, but also curiously middlebrow, as though intellectual pursuit for its own sake was not valid, only that which served the greater struggle against corporatism.

I used to find these views terribly compelling, and I’m not sorry they’re out there. But people looking for a book on “Red America” get something quite different with Frank’s book: an emotional travelogue through his childhood and adolescence that ends with the angry cry of a detractor to tear it all down. I don’t think it’s a useful approach; cultural crap tailored to the lowest common denominator has always existed and will always exist, and the liberal struggle can accommodate it. And I no longer wish to sign on with cultural critics that seem eager to shred all that is corporate, because I’ll go down with it. To quote the Embarrassment:

A self-proclaimed master for my education You said it was for my own good Then lit up the matches I gave you And aimed at the ground where I stood

I wasn’t your student, I thought you were crazy. I wasn’t your student, I thought you were crazy.

The Embarrassment, “Careen”

Just kidding, Dr. Frank, but the Embarrassment were a great band.

Precision and Translation

The Complete Review links to an OpenDemocracy article bemoaning the lack of attention towards translated work. Although it’s true that there are classics out there deserving of translation (I’d really like to read Stanislaw Lem’s Summa Technologie some day), I have to wonder if the small percentage of translated books relative to others in the U.S. is really due to a specifically American dislike of translated work, rather than the sheer amount of American books that are produced. There is a European holism that produces a lot of German-French exchanges, as well as even more double translations from some obscure language (in addition to Albanian and Hungarian, Polish seems to count here for Gombrowicz as well as Lem) to French to English. But even that wouldn’t fully account for what the article describes.

Dilday is dismissive towards the academy, but it is the university that institutionalizes a real bias against translated literature. In the most prestigious universities, you study “English,” or else “comparative literature” in the original languages. There are very few opportunities to read translated literature; they are usually in cultural history classes, or else pet projects of professors that wouldn’t attract enough students otherwise. I don’t know if this attitude is present in most other countries, though I know it is England.

There are problems. There was a British imprint called “Quartet Encounters” that went out of business around the time when I was visiting the Strand in Manhattan often. Faced with a battery of obscure European novels, often in the less popular languages, I picked one or two up each time I was there. The list now doesn’t seem as imposing as it did then, but the eclecticism is admirable: for a subset, consider Martin Hansen, Ismail Kadare, Par Lagerkvist, Boris Vian, D.R. Popescu, Stig Dagerman, and Stanislaw Witkiewicz (I still wish I’d bought Insatiability, unreadable as it is). With matte covers, tasteful abstract cover art, there was a certain weight to the presentation, but the translations were, on the whole, pretty bad, pet projects of Englishmen or maybe student work.

(A good tip-off is whenever translators punt the problem of the familiar vs. polite second-person by using “thee” and “you”, respectively. The most egregious example I can think of is George Szirtes’ translation of Deszo Kosztolanyi’s Anna Edes, where a lothario seduces a woman by saying:

“I love you. Only you. I love thee.” Having addressed her formally so far, he whispered the last pronoun…'”Thee, thee. Say it. Thee. You say it too. Say it to me. Thee…thee…”

To be fair, Szirtes seemed to do an amazing job on The Melancholy of Resistance.)

But to echo Borges, what is lost is often miniscule compared to what is preserved. What you lose, however, is the authority to know exactly what was said, and what’s left is the uncertainty that one turn of phrase may or may not have a hidden resonance, that a language-specific idiom could not possibly communicate the same thing as whatever is in the original. The Quartet Encounters translations made this obvious, which in one sense was helpful. I had to treat them on the level of the abstract ideas, characters, and plots communicated imprecisely, not the specifics of the language. With few exceptions, I was not able to do this at university, and I appreciated the bald awkwardness of many of the translations, which pushed me away from the particulars of the words.

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