Bohumil Hrabal, without a doubt my favourite Czech writer, wrote in a style that is often referred to as palaver — a weaving together of ideas without the formality of stopping for breath, without coming to a decisive conclusion, but drawing the reader in nonetheless and propelling them forward through the rambling narrative. Often, he'd loop back to pick up a thread he'd previously left off; the overall sensation is of being invited in, allowed to eavesdrop on his thoughts, however seemingly rambling: never pointlessly rambling.
He wrote wonderful letters to April Gifford, who he nicknamed Dubenka because it is the Czech word for the month of April. These letters (collected as Total the Fears: Letters to Dubenka) are some of the most beautiful letters I have ever read: crafted pieces, certainly, but revealing in old age his frailty, his fears, and those balancing acts he lived with daily: loneliness and the need for meaningful contact with another, his alcoholism, that urge for communication which fuelled his creativity. All of this he poured out in that meticulously casual style of his, staggering like a drunk man through the pages of his letters. But never wavering! In the novel, Cutting it Short, Uncle Pepin (based on Hrabal's real uncle) is a great palaverer who ad-libs his stories ceaselessly, offering a local history of world crises.
So if you believe life has a purpose, that it is directed towards a greater goal, then you might find Hrabal's toing and froing pointless. If, like Saint Augustine, for example, you think the purpose of narrative is to order the past and bring it into a contained story, a delineated series of logical events pointing towards some greater harmony, then perhaps this cleverly wrought rambling is not for you. But I no longer believe life is a journey with a purposeful destination. Sometimes, when crisis hits, we crumble; all our meaningful plans lie in ruins around us. Covid-19 has surely taught us that the world cares not a jot for us, though it sustains us, or sustains some of us: those humans who left their prints at Happisburgh 900, 000 years ago were, as we are, confronted with a world that could take or leave whether they were alive or dead. But like them, we keep going — moving ahead, getting on, propelling ourselves forward into the unknown — and we do this because it's a habit we are born with and are rarely disabused of while ageing. Until such moments when the usual way of things is upset; then, what do we do? We take refuge in nostalgia — the tracks we've left behind which show that, at the very least, we were here.
Not so long ago I was in hospital and was not improving, though I tried to stay in control of the uncontrollable, telling myself I would have to adjust. The doctor told me I was resilient. He looked at the copy of Nabakov's Pale Fire which I'd laid down on the blue hospital blanket and asked: "Have you ever read Speak, Memory?" I hadn't. But later, when Lockdown started and Nostalgia became such a frequent factor of daily online life, I decided to give it a shot. And what I was just saying about Happisburgh and those humans has its echo there, when Nabakov tells us of a young man who finds footage of his family taken before his birth:
"...looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged — the same house, the same people — and then realised that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence." (in Nabakov, Speak, Memory, pg.5)
Our inclination is to focus on the non-existence that will come, after we have lived. Lockdown has given us plenty of time to focus on that! But there was a time when others close to us existed and we did not. In a similar vein, Georges Simenon wrote:
"As for us, we only know the second half of the generation that precedes us and the first half of the one that follows us." (Simenon, When I was Old, pg.46)
We pad out the present in all its routine dullness with nostalgia and kitten-like expectation. When our lives are in hiatus, we seek meaningful existence in the past. It is the elderly and those with underlying conditions who are most at risk from Covid-19. We know this. The point is made again and again. The world cares not a jot whether we live or not. To keep going, we have to adjust. Life has become limited and contacts that once gave us the means to manifest ourselves, to develop an identity (for better or for worse), have been cut off from us. So we blog. Or we post on social media. Or we write letters. Or, perhaps, we do all of these things, as I find myself doing to occupy my time and keep thoughts of death at a manageable level. For some people — some elderly, some with disabilities, some with anxiety or shyness, the lonely — life under Lockdown may seem no different to any other time. I am reaching out to you now.
I am reaching out to you now and what I say may not be of much consequence. Clish. The Scots National Dictionary defines clish as 'to repeat an idle story' and in Gaelic the word clis means agile or nimble: the fir-chlis (the agile, the sprightly, the kittenish men) is the word for the aurora borealis. Hrabal called it pábení which translator Josef Škvorecký rendered palaver. So long as you are able to keep up the ceaseless prattle, all is well. We tell stories about ourselves. It helps define who we are: for us and for others. I guess Hrabal saw in April Gifford a much-needed contact with the outside world, the world of (as Simenon called it) the first half that would inevitably follow him: Dubenka gave him that chance to continue to realise his identity. In fact, she is never fully April Gifford: in a sense, it is not April who is the recipient of the letters but Hrabal's creation Dubenka. In Hrabal's hands, the letter becomes a mix of entertainment, his own eulogy, an attempt at setting things straight in a world where things cannot be set straight. Would the clipped, matter-of-fact delivery typical of many emails ever allow such a development of ideas, such an expression of self? Perhaps. I don't rule it out. But the contact that these letters give us, first of all with the author, then with ourselves, is wonderfully teasing and playful, full of possible lies and certain half-truths. And every now and then, he introduces a story that seems just another piece of idle talk:
" — and there in Budeč in the dome of the rotunda, rest the mouldered, mouldering bones of hundreds of generations of doves, who, whenever they sense their time has come, fly into the dome to die, several whole centuries of them are there, down beneath nothing but humus, guano, layer upon layer of generations of doves in that rounded dome, rising up from the pluperfect tense via the imperfect to the dove feathers and bones of the year that's just past..." (Translated by James Naughton, pg.23).
He tells us this as if it is a comment on the impersonal nature of death, as if we are all consigned to becoming just another layer in the rotunda. But after further wandering through several pages he returns to this story, again picking up the thread, adding another strand to complete his picture: his belief that one of those doves was his wife Pipsi. And he tells us:
"My little dove flew up from the rock...And now I know, Dubenka, that she flew off over Sokolníky, across the river, to that place where the doves have flown to die for centuries — to the dome of the rotunda...to where Wenceslas would ride out to visit his grandmother Ludmila, later strangled with a long white scarf...And Dubenka, who knows how this 21st of August may yet end?" (Total the Fears: Letters to Dubenka. Translated by James Naughton. Pg.31).