Laughter in the Dark

New World Avenue and Vicinity

by Tadeusz Konwicki, translated by Walter Arndt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 212 pp., $24.95

Too Loud a Solitude

by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 98 pp., $16.95

Helping Verbs of the Heart

by Péter Esterházy, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Grove Weidenfeld, 111 pp., $15.95

Woe betide the writer who finds himself cast as a hero. In the West, where even artists do not take art seriously, we look upon the “dissident” as somehow more authentic than we could ever hope to be, with our word processors and benevolent editors and Guggenheim Foundations. The dissident, of course, is always someone who dissents elsewhere, “over there,” behind the Curtain or the Wall or under Table Mountain. Compared to them, to these brave ones, our rebels seem like noisy children drumming their fists and refusing to be good. How can we be serious, we ask, how can we be truly grown-up, without the burden of political oppression, without a great cause to which we might lend our singing voices? So it is that at times when it was fashionable to be of the soft left, for instance in the Thirties and the Sixties, we paid fealty to figures such as Solzhenitsyn—a brave, perhaps even a great man, but no lover of liberal causes.

And rarely do we wonder what it is like to be regarded always as a dissident—that is, as a dissident first and an artist second. Anyone who has been to any country in what we used to call Eastern Europe1 will have heard that groan of mingled boredom and resentment when the talk turned to the matter of politics and art: I am sick of being a protester, the writer will cry, I want to write and think about the private world, not the public. And why not? As Kierkegaard has pointed out, there is no such thing as an epic theme; Homer was not great because he had for a subject the Trojan War—on the contrary, it is because Homer was great that this local squabble has taken on the proportions of an epic.

Now that the Wall has fallen and the Curtain has been drawn back, perhaps the writer in Eastern Europe will be allowed, along with other freedoms, the freedom to be discontent not because he is politically downtrodden, but because love fails and hope flags and death awaits him—in a word, because he is human.

The books considered here span a geographical arc from the Baltic down into the heart of Mitteleuropa, yet all three share a remarkably similar tone. It is the tone one might detect in the outpatients’ department of a run-down hospital, in the waiting room of some anonymous state bureaucratic institution, in a food queue stretching a hundred meters back from the shop door along a snow-swept pavement. There is despair and desperation in it, an impatience that keeps spilling over into rage, and also a kind of throwaway hilarity that precludes self-pity. These are strong, impressive, sly, and, dare one say it, entertaining voices: there is something wonderfully bracing in the spectacle of a writer indulging in a monumental grouse.

Tadeusz Konwicki is one of Poland’s leading intellectuals (though even as I say it I can hear him emit a derisive snort). He is a novelist, a playwright, and a filmmaker—he has filmed Czeslaw Milosz’s novel, The Issa Valley; a Costa-Gavras film of his own extraordinary 1979 novel, A Minor Apocalypse has been completed. He was born in Wilno, now Vilnius, in Lithuania. After the war he moved to Warsaw, and settled in New World Avenue, where he still lives.

New World is the name of a street in Warsaw. Every old city has a New World. There came a time when it got too tight in the towns that were choked by defensive bastions, and one fine day, life swept over those walls, and across the moats, and into the free spaces of meadows, coppices, and brooks. This is how new worlds arose. Including the new world beyond the ocean.

New World Avenue is an extremely difficult book to classify or describe. It is composed of brief sections that seem to ramble off at will in whatever direction the writer’s fancy takes him. Snatches of autobiography jostle with polemical tirades, mock philosophy, fantastical speculations, fictional asides. I wish I could say that I can detect a form beneath the apparent formlessness, but I cannot. I hasten to emphasize, however, that this failure does not trouble me. The book is hugely stimulating, hugely enjoyable; it is funny.

Clues abound to the author’s methods and intentions (“It is with a heavy heart that I get down to writing yet another book that nobody needs”). He declares at the outset that this time, instead of publishing underground, he will circumvent the state censor by addressing the book directly to him: “Of my own free will I submit to the loving embrace of the noble agency which presides on Mysia Street in Warsaw.” That gentleman of the blue pencil—who passed the book for publication substantially as Konwicki wrote it—must have been startled indeed:

The specter of Communism circles over Europe and over Warsaw, which is at the very center of Europe. The specter of Communism gazes at midnight or before dawn into the window of my dwelling, where I snivel quietly as a mouse (do mice snivel?). A repulsive specter, baring its teeth in a sardonic grin.

This, it should be said, is an uncharacteristic outburst; for the most part Konwicki’s attitude to communism is the weary ruefulness of, I suspect, an apostate.

Konwicki’s novel A Minor Apocalypse2 opens (“Here comes the end of the world”) with a marvelous, bravura passage describing the author’s waking up on a momentous morning (“I woke at the gloomy hour at which autumn’s hopeless days begin,”) and New World Avenue, too, is full of drowsiness, of half-awakenings at dawn, of afternoon torpors, so that the entire book may be read as a kind of hypnogogic fantasy. This allows the author much freedom and the luxury of a broad canvas. The cat Ivan has earlier been in Konwicki’s books, and across these pages he pads again, softly but proprietorially.

The cat lies sprawled on my remains. At times a shudder of something like a spasm runs over him; suddenly he will give a tiny moan, then shake a paw as if to flick off something that has stubbornly stuck to his warm, soft, black little pads. The cat Ivan is dreaming.

Old friends and old enemies are remembered, tributes are paid, scores are settled (the film director Andrzej Wajda comes in yet again for a brief, tight-lipped drubbing). And so it rambles on. However, amid the seeming untidiness the clues that help to explain the fragmented form accumulate:

I don’t write the truth. I write half-truths of a sort, curlicues, periphrases, concealments by silence, utterances of spurious candor, pretended openness. I produce all this fearful literary noise, foam whipped up on the river of facts, a vast fog in which we blunder with outstretched hands.

The point is that I invested considerable effort into making my [books]…uneven. I sweated bullets over the loosely tessellated, nonchalant, if you will, construction of these brochures. What I was looking for was farrago, turmoil, cacophony.

What I haven’t produced for a long time is the kind of writing everybody likes: Let’s have a lot of action, make them love each other, make it all end happily. I understand the reader, I even sympathize with his tastes, but am not in a position to indulge him anymore. I have been demoralized, driven in another direction, where I don’t have to take undue account of the predilections of my benefactors. If I had been pushed at the outset into a naturalistic mode of narration, the “slice of life” business in the true manner of the nineteenth-century novel, who knows but that I might now have palaces and motor yachts waiting the year round for my appearance at the port of the Grand Duchy of Monaco.

Lukacs might not approve of such sentiments, but I do.

In many ways this book is much simpler than would appear from my account of it. There are direct and very moving passages, such as the final, imaginary jumbo-jet trip to Australia, which is at once mundane and celestial, fantastic and realistic: “The plane soars through space like a flying cathedral.” Delayed at Frankfurt, Konwicki watches in dreamy fright as a pair of Gastarbeiter poke with a screwdriver at the innards of one of the engines of the waiting jumbo jet. When the cathedral is airborne at last, the author finds himself seated beside a pretty young actress called Ingrid, who is not at all impressed with this “nobody from Poland” until, like the humble hero in a fairy-tale, he is summoned to the cockpit to sit in the captain’s seat and even take the controls for a while. The captain, of course, like practically everyone else in the book, hails from Konwicki’s native Wilno. The jet sails across the equator and champagne is served; the Southern Cross hoves into view. When Konwicki returns to his seat, Ingrid, who has now become Ingryda, looks at him “the way girls sometimes looked at me years ago.”

I gaze at that girl. Scandinavian or Anglo-American, a little wistfully, for she is paling, fading, as it were, into the grayness of this airplane of dubious reality, while the growl of the engines which those Turks had poked about in with screwdrivers also becomes quieter and more remote. From somewhere in the distance comes the gay jingle of a bell hung from the shaft yoke of a little horse, shaggy with rime, briskly pulling a sleigh along a well-beaten track through stands of thin forest awash in a tremendous flood of moonlight.

The plane, it seems, has turned into a time machine, flying steadily backward through the years to the lost land of childhood.

Konwicki is unashamedly a humanist, firmly on the side of life; such a position is neither as common nor as simple as it may seem. There is a wonderful description of the bringing back to life by a doctor and a team of nurses of a young man who has suffered a terrible heart attack:

I dissolved in tears like an old woman as I gazed at a bar of sunlight on the opposite wall…. I had seen many dreadful things in my life, a good deal of tragedy and death. But this was the first time I had witnessed resurrection.

The force of the emotion in such passages is earned by the tough-mindedness surrounding them. Konwicki is a kind of common-sense existentialist, skeptical, humorous, and doggedly candid. I can pay him no higher compliment than to say that New World Avenue reminded me again and again of the Diary of his great fellow countryman, Witold Gombrowicz.

Incidentally, the book is illustrated by the author’s own childish squiggly drawings, which are charmingly awful.

Once upon a time novelists, especially American novelists, liked to list on the backs of their books the various jobs—lumberjack, soda jerk, chucker-out at a brothel, etc.—they had held in the days before success and creative-writing fellowships came their way. Such a list was the sign of a hard apprenticeship served in the real world, the badge of manliness—of authenticity. Yet when we read on the back flap of Too Loud a Solitude that Bohumil Hrabal, having been conferred with a degree in law, “worked as a stagehand, postman, clerk, and baler of waste paper,” we are fired with indignation.

The circumstances, of course, are different. It is unlikely that Hrabal willingly took all of these jobs. We know from recent history, and indeed from novels (in The Unbearable Lightness of Being the brain surgeon is compelled to become a window cleaner), how these things are, or were, in the East. It is a bitter irony that in a so-called socialist state such as Czechoslovakia, work was used by the authorities as a means of punishing and humiliating a fractious intelligentia.

Bohumil Hrabal was born in 1914. He is the author of the novel Closely Watched Trains, which may be better remembered for the fine film that was based on it.3 I Served the King of England, a sort of updated Felix Krull, appeared in English last year. A translation of a censored version of Too Loud a Solitude was published in the US in 1986; now, in this excellent version by Michael Henry Heim, we have the full text. The book is easier to follow than New World Avenue, yet also more mysterious. The protagonist, Haňtá, has, as he tells us repeatedly, at the opening of almost every chapter, been a compacter of waste paper for thirty-five years. A whole culture, it seems, has come and gone between the grinding jaws of his hydraulic press.

I see heaven-sent horns of plenty in the form of bags, crates, and boxes raining down their old paper, withered flower-shop stalks, wholesalers’ wrappings, out-of-date theater programs, ice-cream wrappers, sheets of paint-spattered wallpaper, piles of moist, bloody paper from the butchers’, razor-sharp rejects from photographers’ studios, insides of office wastepaper baskets, typewriter ribbons included, bouquets from birthdays and namedays long past.

This is indeed Franz Kafka’s Prague.

Along with the city’s detritus there falls into Haňtá’s basement a flood of books, books of all kinds.

In the flow of old paper the spine of a rare book will occasionally shine forth, and if for a moment I turn away, dazzled, I always turn back in time to rescue it, and after wiping it off on my apron, opening it wide, and breathing in its print, I glue my eyes to the text and read out the first sentence like a Homeric prophecy….

As we would expect, therefore, Haňtá’s story is peppered with quotations from the mighty dead: “My education has been so unwitting I can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books….” So it is that Kant and Hegel, Jesus and Lao-tse pop up on every other page. The method is not as heavy-handed as it might have been, thanks mainly to Hrabal’s refusal to take it all too seriously—or too solemnly, at least. The book is funny, in its desperate, knockabout way. Along with Haňtá’s incessant reading goes excessive swilling of beer, and the tone throughout is at once strident and woozy, so that the reader has the impression of being trapped in that basement room as the press grinds and the drunken operator rummages through the tatters of a ruined culture.

Hrabal did his stint as a dissident in the black days of the 1950s and 1960s. There is detectable in the frantic, breakneck pace of Too Loud a Solitude a sense of the predicament of a man caught between two worlds, between light and dark, the street and the basement, speech and silence. Toward the close of the book the public world invades his lair:

That morning when I got to work, who should I find in the courtyard but two of the Socialist Labor youngsters in their orange gloves, nipple-high blue overalls, suspenders, green turtlenecks, and yellow baseball caps, as if on the way to a game. My boss took them triumphantly down to my cellar and showed them my press, and in no time flat they had covered my table with a sheet of clean paper for their milk and made themselves at home, while I just stood there humiliated, stressed and strained, knowing all at once, knowing body and soul, that I’d never be able to adapt….

Haňtá is to be relieved of his job and sent to the Melantrich Printing Works, where “I, who couldn’t live without the prospect of rescuing a beautiful book from the odious waste, I would be compacting immaculate, inhumanly clean paper!” The prospect is too terrible, too arid, and he determines that instead of going to Melantrich he will follow the example of Seneca and Socrates “and here, in my press, in my cellar, choose my own fall, which is ascension.”

A corner of the book is lodged under a rib, I groan, fated to leave the ultimate truth on a rack of my own making, folded in upon myself like a child’s pocket knife….

However, despite these hints of a great theme lurking beneath the surface of Haňtá’s story, Too Loud a Solitude seems to me chiefly an allegory, conscious or not, of the writing life. Haňtá in his dark pit compacting the world’s words into manageable bales, his head buzzed about by flies and sonorous phrases, is a splendid and oddly convincing picture of the literary artist frantically at work.

I pushed my twin beds together and rigged a kind of canopy of planks over them, ceiling high, for the two additional tons of books I’ve carried home over the years, and when I fall asleep I’ve got all those books weighing down on me like a two-ton nightmare.

Yes indeed.

If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.” So says Hrabal’s bibliomane. Péter Esterházy would seem to agree:

No matter what a book is about, it should radiate a kind of lightness, a reminder that a work of art is never something given, taken for granted, but rather a combination of demand and gift.

This declaration comes from the highly ambiguous foreword to the even more ambiguous text of Helping Verbs of the Heart. I must say I do not see much here that could be described as lightness, unless the word is understood to refer not to luminescence but to airiness, for there is a sort of flimsy quality in the tone, which is unexpectedly effective.

The book proceeds at two levels. Each page, bordered in heavy black, carries at the top a relatively straight-forward narrative, and at the bottom, in capital letters, a gnomic comment or fragment of quotation (“GOD BLEW GOLD ONTO MY HEART,” “HELPING VERBS MAY EXPRESS NEGATION”). The story, such as it is, deals with the death of the narrator’s mother. He, along with his father, sister, and brother, gather for the funeral. There are the tensions usual on such occasions, but there is also a sort of surreal breeziness about it all: “My sister immediately threw her arms around me—’What do you say, old buddy, old boy!’—and squeezed me long and hard.”

At the core of the book there lies a stoic doctrine, a kind of mournful amor fati:

With a superior smile the doctor gave his empty cigarette holder another twist. “What is life? Let me tell you. When you’re born, you have three and only three lives to choose from: go to the right and the wolves will eat you; go to the left you’ll eat the wolves; go straight ahead, you’ll eat yourself.” I made no reply. “The only thing that consoles us in our misery is amusement. Amusement distracts us and leads us imperceptibly to death. There is no balm for death, misery, or ignorance. If we are to have a happy life, we must find a way not to think of them.”…”I don’t understand, I don’t understand, I don’t understand!” I cried. “Calm down,” he said. “Everybody and everybody’s everybody dies.” And he laid a light, cool hand on my forehead.

As the book progresses, the narrative shifts almost imperceptibly out of the voice of the son and into that of the mother, who speaks of her life and his death: “I dreamed I kissed you on your deathbed, my boy,” and through the swirling fog and cannon-smoke of her fevered ramblings we catch glimpses of a land in turmoil:

The town crier told us, “I hereby inform you” that we were about to see Hungary’s history, “the tear-stained yet glorious pages of our orphaned homeland”—the Siege of Eger straight ahead, the Rout of Mohács to the left, the Cumin Invasion and Pecheneg Uprising to the south, and Genghis Khan’s Great Offensive to the right. At last the boy dragged me to a small square we danced to wild rock music.

(Esterházy employs the italic mode with the same seeming arbitrariness as Thomas Bernhard.)

The final dozen or so pages are a simple and very moving account of the son helping the old woman, in her last illness, to get to and from the hospital lavatory.

I scramble down. I kiss her hands.

I’m going to die,” my mother says.

Ah…,” I answer.

I’m afraid, my boy.”

I can seen I’ve rumpled the sheet badly.

The End.

Péter Esterházy was born in 1950, scion of the famous family which in the eighteenth century numbered Haydn among its servants. He has a reputation as one of the best and most daring of Hungary’s younger novelists. Helping Verbs of the Heart is the first of his books to be translated into English. It is a puzzling, and at times an infuriating work which, despite its determinedly playful, nonchalant air, stays in the mind long after one has finished reading it. I know of few novels (one thinks of Peter Handke’s trilogy, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams) which communicate so poignantly the grief and confusion, as well as that strange, febrile euphoria, which attend the loss of a parent.

Nietzsche remarked that dancing in chains is the highest art; now that the chains of Eastern Europe’s writers have been, not removed, but loosened, what will be the likely effect? One hopes that the ferocity and dark gaiety which is evident in the work of these three writers will not be abraded away. In their hands (and in those of other Eastern European writers) the novel has evolved into a form capable of poetic seriousness, which few writers in the West even attempt in these postmodern times. Here is Konwicki:

I would honestly prefer to crush rock on a highway, though, than to write standard, regular novels. Those novels revolt me like carrion. And even if I made myself sit down and start grinding away at this feudal toil which is so dear to readers good and bad, smart and dull, naive and sophisticated, and even if I did violence to myself, my hands would refuse to serve me, and all of a sudden my heart would burst.

It is a clean and cleansing wind that blows from the east.

  1. 1

    A Hungarian friend of mine, tired of hearing me use this term with unthinking certitude, asked impatiently: Where, do you think, does Eastern Europe begin?—Moscow? Budapest? Prague? Berlin? Vienna? Paris?

  2. 2

    A Minor Apocalypse (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983).

  3. 3

    The book has recently been reissued by Northwestern University Press.