Thursday, 27 July 2017

Review: 'The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil, trans. by David Burnett

I have related the reason for this blog's name before, but somehow Pushkin Press continues to give me reasons to do so over and over again. So, I named this blog A Universe in Words because for me reading has always been about learning, discovering and exploring. I grew up reading books in three different languages and this set me on a path of continuously looking for books in other languages, realising there are whole worlds, universes even, out there waiting for me. And thankfully to publishers like Pushkin Press, who work hard to bring previously untranslated works into English, this blog and I can keep going. Which brings me to my latest translated read, The Last Bell, which is a delightful collection of short stories. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/03/2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
The first ever English collection of stories by Johannes Urzidil - a friend of Kafka and an unjustly overlooked writer.
A maid who is unexpectedly bequeathed her wealthy employers' worldly possessions when they flee the country after the Nazi occupation; a loyal bank clerk, who steals a Renaissance portrait of a Spanish noblewoman, and falls into troublesome love with her; a middle-aged travel agent, who is perhaps the least well-travelled man in the city and advises his clients from what he has read in books, anxiously awaiting his looming honeymoon; a widowed villager, whose 'magnetic' twelve-year-old daughter witnesses a disturbing event; and a tiny village thrown into civil war by the disappearance of a freshly baked cheesecake. These stories about the tremendous upheaval which results when the ordinary encounters the unexpected are vividly told, with both humour and humanity.
This is the first ever English publication of these both literally and metaphorically Bohemian tales, by one of the great overlooked writers of the twentieth century.
I am continuously astounded by how Anglocentric my literary worldview occasionally still is. I guess studying English Language and Literature didn't do much to help, but I figured growing up bilingually (neither English) would have done something to change that. But I am still surprised to find there are masters of literature waiting for me in other languages, or waiting in translation, rather. Johannes Urzidil is an author I had never heard of, despite writing in one of my native languages, German. Until the release of The Last Bell, his work had never been translated into English. Bilingual himself, Urzidil was a celebrated Czech writer for whom German was his language, never making the transition to English despite spending his last two decades as an immigrant in the United States. His stories, however, are of Prague, that centre of Bohemia in the early 20th century.  His characters are oddities, are "other" in some way and know it, but they are also irrevocably human. Despite being so clearly rooted in his homeland, Urzidil's stories are globally human and will resonate with their modern readers.

The Last Bell contains five stories, selected by David Burnett from a variety of collections written by Urzidil over time. Burnett himself, in his informative introduction, gets to the very point of what makes these stories so touching and what links them together:
'...these stories illustrate this very point: that no one can act or be in this world, without becoming guilty - a very unmodern, biblical notion in our ideal world of transparency and accountability.'
It might not sound very enticing, but I was fascinated by this concept of, perhaps, "guilt by association" which cropped up in each and every story. The collection's first, and eponymous, story 'The Last Bell' is perhaps the finest example. A Czech maid in Nazi-occupied Prague feels burdened by the things she is given or told by others. Whereas she herself hardly acts, except for once, her very presence in the story's situations makes her complicit, makes her guilty, and she does not know how to deal with the weight of this guilt. In 'The Duchess of Albanera' we see a man who cannot face the unintended consequences of a single, mindless thought, whereas the third story, 'Siegelmann's Journeys' gives us a man very aware of and dreading the consequences he will have to face. The final two stories, 'Borderland', probably my favourite in The Last Bell, and 'Where the Valley Ends', Urzidil himself appears in the stories as an unnamed outsider, an objective observer, who sees the unintended victims of other people's actions and beliefs. Although it is perhaps not the most optimistic of messages, it is a very true one. Perhaps in our world we should all be a little bit more aware that none of us are blameless, that we are all in some way guilty. Perhaps it will make us kinder if we learn this lesson.

Urzidil's writing is surprisingly fluid. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but once Burnett's introduction made me aware of Urzidil's links to Kafka I was slightly concerned. Although Kafka is doubtlessly masterful, he is also highly complex. Urzidil's stories are compact and crafted in a way that gives hints but unravels at its own, perfect, pace. His writing, however, flows easily and evocatively. There are moments of absolute beauty in his stories, phrases that are just so true. Let me give you a little gem:
'History books know nothing about real life, least o all about the life of a woman.'
How true. Urzidil doesn't shy away from the darkness in life, but also lingers in those moments of beauty that life bestows upon us. Especially in 'Borderland' he describes Czech woodlands in such a beautiful way I want to book tickets to Prague right now. Burnett does a wonderful job at translating his work into English, capturing both the preciseness and tentativeness of Urzidil's language. I am incredibly grateful to Pushkin Press for casting light upon another author who deserves to be known. I will definitely be looking for his work in German as well, however.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

Whereas usually I need a break between stories, Urzidil's The Last Bell flowed so easily from one story to the next that I couldn't help but be spellbound until I had finished the collection. His stories are odes to the Prague he left behind, but are also truly human stories. I'd recommend this to fans of short stories and European literature.


  1. Replies
    1. I did really enjoy it, his short stories really do stick with you! Thanks for commenting :) I hope you have an amazing weekend!
      Juli @ A Universe in Words