Man, what is it about Europeans and literature? Okay, I know that’s a broad statement, but the old saw about Europeans being more interested in ideas and Americans being more interested in storytelling—well, there’s some truth to that. Quite a lot of truth, in fact.
Notwithstanding the great numbers of Europeans interested in being storytellers first—and forgetting also about Americans like Thomas Pynchon and William Faulkner, who were at least as interested in style as in content—the fact remains that Europe has a much stronger tradition of stylistic experimentation than the States. Look no further than James Joyce and Gunter Grass, Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, or for that matter Georges Perec, whose 1969 300-page novel La Disparition (A Void) famously was composed without any word containing the letter e. It’s tough to see an American audience getting behind such a navel-gazing exercise in style, but in France it was (naturally) a best-seller, and 40-plus years later, it’s still selling well on Amazon.fr.
All of which brings us to Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, a 1964 novel (really?) by Moravian-born Bohumil Hrabel, who wrote in Czech and who, until his death in 1997, was probably best known to Western audiences for his novella Closely Watched Trains, which was adapted for the movies and won the 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. This edition of Dancing Lessons is translated Michael Henry Heim, whose work is smooth and readable. There’s much to find fault with here, but the translation is not one of those things.
Confronting this skimpy book—117 pages—for the first time, the reader immediately notices its structure. Devoid of chapter breaks, section breaks, or even paragraphs, the story turns out to be—is it really be true! Yes!—one single long sentence from start to finish. Oh, those wacky Europeans have done it again!
Such a stark stylistic choice immediately raises the question, “What’s the point?” There is, to be blunt, no good answer for this, other than: “Because if it weren’t just one sentence, it would be unremarkable in every way.” That may seem harsh, but there it is. Hrabel’s book has received praise from Kundera and John Banville, not to mention the much more conventional Louise Erdrich; this edition features a gushing introduction by UK hotshot Adam Thirlwell, so I guess it falls upon PopMatters to announce to the world that this particular Emperor has no clothes.
Nor even a story, really.
Ostensibly the wandering monologue of an old man addressing a group of young women, Dancing Lessons eschews trivialities like plot, cause and effect, or emotional resonance in favor of constantly meandering into asides about the old days under the monarchy (like everything else, the setting is rather vague). There are numerous diverting anecdotes, but if you’re hoping that they’ll accrue into something substantial, you’ll be disappointed; the narrator is far too dotty to stay on any one subject for long. Certain tropes are repeated (religion, heroism), but it’s a stretch to suggest that they accumulate any kind of memorable weight in the reader’s mind.
Because the entire book is only one sentence, it’s tricky to isolate any given quote to illustrate the style—if I quoted an entire sentence, this review would be 117 pages long, ha ha. A couple of extracts, however, serve to illustrate the associative leaps made by Hrabel’s narrator, and may also suggest the frustration in trying to find any sort of solid center to his squishy ramblings. Maybe this gives an idea:
“…one [of the priests] ran off to Canada with his cousin, another converted to the Czechoslovakian Church, a third defied his ban and climbed the fence, fell in love with one of the beauties, and shot himself out of unrequited love, revolver or Browning, it always gets you in the end, we borrowed one when we were boys and shot at the fence like Cono Tolnes…”
If you have diffculty following this associative train, don’t worry: it’s every bit as random in context as it is outside of it.
Or try this:
“…and Budapest! what a place! one street all white with red windows, the next all green with yellow windows, blue streets and gold streets and speckled streets, all through the war they had bread white as buns, their Admiral Horthy ordered the sailors led by Matousek to be executed, he had the poor men blindfolded, there’d been an uprising, or mutiny, as it’s called, for beer, dear ladies, the barley must be nice and clean, you don’t want it sprouting too soon now, do you…”
A more whimsical reader might be better able to tolerate this, but I found it maddening. Perhaps the best way to understand Dancing Lessons is not as a novel but as a poem, in which its vivid imagery and flights of apparently random associations can simply be enjoyed for their surface diversion, without any search for underlying narrative or emotional engagement. That’s probably the most generous way to approach this book. Readers seeking a conventional story will find themselves disappointed.