One of the most prominent Czech writers of the last half of the twentieth century, Bohumil Hrabal (HRUHB-uhl) was widely celebrated for his comic, surrealistic narratives of ordinary people struggling to survive. Born in Brünn, Moravia, Austria-Hungary (now Brno, Czech Republic), to Francin and Maryška Hrabal, he grew up in Nymburk, where his father worked as a brewery agent. After school and during vacations, Hrabal rode with his father on a motorcycle to taverns throughout the region. These childhood experiences gave him a lifelong love of taverns as well as wide experience with common people and with vernacular speech.
Hrabal entered Charles University in Prague in 1934, but the closing of all Czechoslovakian universities by the Nazis interrupted his studies. During World War II, he worked as a clerk in a notary’s office, a train dispatcher, an insurance agent, and a salesman. Although he eventually earned a law degree, Hrabal never practiced law, continuing to work instead at various occupations. In 1949, he was employed at the steel works of Klodno, where he remained until a serious accident. After a stint as a paper salvage worker, he became a stagehand and a stage extra at the S. K. Neumann Theater in Prague.
Although Hrabal began writing poetry and prose in the late 1930’s, he believed that it was necessary, following the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia after World War II, to keep his works hidden rather than seek publication. He did share his works with others, however, particularly in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, when he met with such writers as Josef Škvorecký and Jiří Kolář. In 1956, the same year in which he married Eliška Plevová, Hrabal had his first work published, two short stories in a limited private edition. With the Khrushchevite thaw reaching Czechoslovakia, Hrabal also had a volume of stories accepted for publication. The printer took so long getting his book ready, however, that the political climate shifted again, and Hrabal’s work was withdrawn only a few days prior to publication.
Hrabal had to wait until 1963, when governmental regulations eased again, to publish his first volume, a collection of stories entitled Perlička na dnê (pearl at the bottom). The work was an immediate success, and with communist dogma being increasingly ignored, Hrabal published five other works of fiction by 1968, most of them written much earlier. His novella Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age is an old man’s story of his life told in a single, unfinished sentence. Closely Watched Trains, his most conventional novel, chronicles the life of a young railway man who is killed in an attempt to blow up a German ammunition train. Though his work evoked mixed reactions, Hrabal’s reputation as a writer of the people grew rapidly, and he became a national hero.
In the West, Hrabal first became known primarily through the 1967 film Closely Watched Trains, based on his novel. Hrabal coauthored the screenplay with director Jiří Menzel, and the film won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film of 1967. Both the novel and the screenplay were subsequently translated into English.
In 1968, the Soviet army crushed the liberalization movement in Czechoslovakia, and Hrabal’s publication difficulties resumed. Although his works were apolitical, he was associated with the reform movement and was caught in the Soviet suppression. In 1970, copies of two newly printed books by Hrabal were destroyed, and he was placed under the publication ban that affected most Czechoslovakian writers. Although unable to publish, Hrabal entered another creative period, and his works began to circulate in typescript or in samsidat (the underground system). Hrabal continued to experience pressure from the government and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1975, Tvorba, the official Communist Party newspaper, published an interview in which Hrabal took a neutral position toward communist ideology and expressed support for the new authorities. Some fellow artists believed that Hrabal had compromised to get his works in print; he was one of the few authors allowed to publish.
Hrabal’s popularity remained high, as evidenced by a complete sellout of Cutting It Short on the day it was published in 1976. (The novel had previously been circulated on a small scale in 1970.) Hrabal still faced publication problems, however, and in 1981, Škvorecký bemoaned the fact that Hrabal’s best manuscripts remained in his desk drawer. Hrabal’s difficulties with censorship are also evident in a comparison of his officially published works in the late 1970’s and the 1980’s with typed copies that circulated or were published in the West. Following the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989, Hrabal’s highly acclaimed Too Loud a Solitude and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, written and circulated in the late 1970’s, were officially published in the Czech Republic and soon thereafter translated into English. Many of Hrabal’s earlier works were republished in their original versions. He died in 1997, just short of his eighty-third birthday.
Though caught in a political whirlwind much of his life, Hrabal remained apolitical, more concerned with individuals than ideologies. Consequently, his work has a universality that has attracted readers throughout the world.