#1976club – focusing on some previous reads!


As is usual during our Reading Weeks, I always like to focus on volumes I’ve read in the past – either pre-blog or during the life of the Ramblings. Although I’m sure there are more than these few which I’ve encountered before, above are a few titles.

“To Loud A Solitude” by Bohumil Hrabal was a dark story I read back in 2018,and I found much of value in it, despite the harsh treatment of books, commenting “There are probably many allusions I missed and commentary on the state of Prague or living under Soviet rule that I didn’t pick up on, but that didn’t detract from the sheer impact of the storytelling or the dramatic, if perhaps inevitable, ending… Reading a book about the destruction of books and the written word is perhaps an odd choice for someone like me who loves them both; but we should never forget how fragile and vulnerable books are, yet how important they can be as weapons against tyranny, and how we need to protect them.” Still agree with that…


Sasha Sokolov’s “A School for Fools” was a book I encountered back in 2016. It’s not always an easy read, but a fascinating one. I said at the time “I’d be lying if I said “A School for Fools” was a light or easy read, because it isn’t. It’s a complex, brilliantly structured exploration of any number of themes, and I think best read in as few sessions as possible. I spent a couple of days in its company and absolutely loved it, despite its intricacies. Sokolov has created a way of writing and a world of his own, a pair of remarkably unreliable narrators and a portrait of life on the margins in Soviet society – a gripping and essential book.”

Finally, there’s “Definitely Maybe” by the remarkable Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which I loved to bits in 2014. It was my first encounter with their work, a wonderfully clever mix of science fiction and quite obvious Soviet satire of which I remarked, “How this book got published is something of a miracle, as the analogies do seem to stare the reader in the face. The crushing weight of both Nature and the Soviet state are obvious, but it is the human condition that is so tragically portrayed – the decisions that have to be made in extreme circumstances and the effect they have on the human psyche.” 

As for pre-blog reads, I do have some titles which have lurked in the stacks for decades….

The Solzhenitsyns were both purchased in the 1970s, in fact possibly 1976; I was having a huge phase of reading his work at the time, and I still rate him after all these years. “Lenin in Zurich”, a fragment from a larger work, was one of my favourites… As for Virginia, “Moments of Being” was acquire during my first phase of reading her in the early 1980s. I had to have everything I could find by her, and one day will do a complete re-read!

There are of course other books I’ve read from 1976 – two titles which spring to mind are “A Stitch in Time” by Penelope Lively and “Interview with the Vampire” by Anne Rice, both of which I think may still be in the house somewhere – in fact, I wouldn’t have minded re-reading either of these too, had I been able to dig them out, but it was not to be…

Anyway, those are some of my previous reads from 1976 – what titles have you read from the year, and are you planning to revisit any of them??? ;D

“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop…”


Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
Translated by Michael Henry Heim

It’s ironic, really, that having been faced with so many BIG books on the current TBR, I should have swerved aside and read two very slim volumes one after the other…. I’ve read Hrabal before (“Closely Observed Trains”) and so when I saw this one in the charity shop and read the blurb I really had to pick it up. “Solitude” is an even shorter work than “Death at Intervals”, clocking in at just 98 pages. However, where the latter ended on an emotional yet positive note, “Solitude” is a more sombre book with a much bleaker conclusion and which takes in dark themes on its journey.

The book is narrated by a man called Hant’a; for thirty-five years he has worked compacting waste paper and books into pulp, bailing them up and sending them off to be processed. Within the repressive regime in which he lives, it isn’t clear if this is censorship or just a way of dealing with the amount of old paper and detritus which hangs around in the city; however, Hant’a has rescued myriad books over the years, works of literature and philosophy, and these have made their way home to his little flat where they threaten to take over completely. Hmmmm – familiar scenario, that….

…because when I start reading I’m somewhere completely different, I’m in the text, it’s amazing. I have to admit I’ve been dreaming, dreaming in a land of great beauty, I’ve been to the very heart of truth. Ten times a day, every day, I wonder at having wandered so far, and then, alienated from myself, a stranger to myself, I go home, walking the streets silently and in deep meditation, passing trams and cars and pedestrians in a cloud of books, the books I found that day and am carrying home in my briefcase.

Hant’a’s boss calls him a beer-soaked idiot, and he certainly does drink – it’s his coping mechanism, but despite this he’s absorbed much from his readings and applies his philosophical leanings to his life as much as he can. As we follow him through the daily round of life he thinks back to the past, to his youth, the love of his life (a strange, nameless Gypsy girl) and the mysteries and meanings of life. However, as the narrative progresses it soon becomes clear that Hant’a is an anachronism; his ancient, one-man compressor is out of synch with modernity, and the coming of the shiny new world and leading-edge machinery is too much for him.

Hant’a is the ultimate unreliable narrator and this is compounded by lack of clarity about what is his original thought and what comes from the books he’s read, piecemeal. The narrative becomes increasingly hallucinatory and disjointed as the book goes on, blurring the lines between reality and drunken fantasy. There are repeated and recurring phrases, and also recurring themes; shit turning up in inappropriate places and times, for one, presumably signifying the general crappiness of human life and how, no matter how we try to dress things up, it all turns to waste. The sewers feature regularly, with two sets of rats undertaking a subterranean war beneath the city. Then there is the disjuncture between Hant’a’s love of books and his destruction of them, which he treats as an art form (perhaps as a way of coping with that destruction). And it was interesting how the dealing with waste paper was very different in the new plant than with the way Hant’a was required to deal with the stuff. He would be processing anything from old classic libraries to blood soaked butchers’ paper. However, the shiny new factory was a modern sanitised place which no doubt represented the modern restrictive regime, as whole runs of books were being pulped, presumably for subversive content of some sort.

… they just went on working, pulling covers off books and tossing the bristling, horrified pages on the conveyor belt with the utmost calm and indifference, with no feeling for what the book might mean, no thought that somebody had to write the book, somebody had to edit it, somebody had to design it, somebody had to set it, somebody had to proofread it, somebody had to make the corrections, somebody had to read the galley proofs, and somebody had to check the page proofs, print the book, and somebody had to pack the books into boxes, and somebody had to do the accounts, and somebody had to decide the book was unfit to read, and somebody had to order it pulped, and somebody had to put all the books in storage, and somebody had to load them onto the truck, and somebody had to drive the truck here, where workers wearing orange and baby-blue gloves tore out the books’ innards and tossed them onto the conveyor belt…..

The city the book is set in is presumably Prague (I don’t think this is ever stated) and I guess that the regime is the Soviet one. Certainly, the modern workers in the new paper processing plant, drinking milk and planning their state funded holidays, certainly sound like Soviet shock workers. But the context and setting is never explicit, rather implicit, spreading over a long period of time (that oft-repeated thirty-five years) and covering one particularly shocking incident during what is presumably WW2: the point where Hant’a’s love is carted off to a concentration camp by the authorities in a heartbreaking paragraph. He revenges himself on Nazi literature, pulping it with abandon and commenting “The heavens are not humane, but I’d forgotten compassion and love.”

The book is strung with quotes from and references to the literature Hant’a has absorbed randomly from the books he’s saved. There are probably many allusions I missed and commentary on the state of Prague or living under Soviet rule that I didn’t pick up on, but that didn’t detract from the sheer impact of the storytelling or the dramatic, if perhaps inevitable, ending. This is a book that’s as moving in its way as “Death..” was, yet it’s one I can’t love in the same way because of its incredible sadness. Reading a book about the destruction of books and the written word is perhaps an odd choice for someone like me who loves them both; but we should never forget how fragile and vulnerable books are, yet how important they can be as weapons against tyranny, and how we need to protect them. Hrabal is a powerful author, a master of economy, and yet capable of some beautifully flowing prose sentences. Quite how he manages to say so much in such a short book is hard to really appreciate, which may be a measure of just how good a writer Hrabal is. Highly recommended, if you can cope with the darkness and the awful treatment of beautiful books…

Tragedy – or comedy – or a bit of both?


Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Sometimes a book slips onto your wishlist and you really can’t recall why and where it came from – well, I often find that to be the case, anyway! “Closely Observed Trains” is a case in point, and I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift from my lovely Virago Secret Santa (Cushla) last Christmas. A novella of just over 90 pages, I thought it would be the ideal read after the length of “How To Quiet a Vampire” (which did take a little commitment), although its short length is perhaps a little deceptive, as it’s another book with plenty to say…

closely Wikipedia says of author Bohumil Hrabal (28 March 1914 – 3 February 1997) simply that he was “a Czech writer, regarded by many Czechs as one of the best writers of the 20th century.” The site also says that “During the war, he worked as railway labourer and dispatcher in Kostomlaty, near Nymburk, an experience reflected in one of his best-known works (Closely Observed Trains)” – so it seems as though Hrabal was drawing from his life for parts of this book (but not all….)

The book is set in German-occupied Czechoslovakia (or as the back cover describes it, “a small but strategic railway station in Bohemia”) and the year is 1945. German troops are travelling to the front regularly, and wounded and dying men are being brought back. However, the narrator, a young man called Milos, is concerned with other matters. There is the possible promotion of the station master; the scandal caused by fellow Dispatcher Hubicka who’s been using the station’s official stamps on unmentionable parts of the telegraphist (well, ok, on her bottom….); and there is Milos’s desire to lose his own innocence, something he’s failed to do so far. However, Milos has a darker side; as the story progresses, we find that he’s survived a recent attempted suicide. And there is an ammunition train passing through the station soon, which may be the subject of a sabotage attempt – though by whom is not clear…

I’ve seen this novella described as a tragicomedy (and what an odd term that is!); certainly both elements are present in the narrative. The station master is very funny, pompously strutting around with pigeons on his shoulder and showing off the new uniform he’ll wear when promoted; and the whole saga of Hubicka and the stamps is very silly! But on balance the darkness wins; death is never far away, and Milos narrowly misses execution by the Germans when a scarred officer spots the marks on Milos’ wrists from his suicide attempt and senses a fellow victim. Hrabal pulls no punches in his description of the horrors of war, with the wounded returning from the front being described with cold clarity. There is a theme running through the book of cruelty and suffering: the wounded in the train trucks could be equated with the animals being transported in cramped and horrible conditions, and the reader is left in no doubt about the harshness and stupidity of war.


You could, I suppose, consider the book as a snapshot of life under German occupation at a particularly difficult time of the war, and certainly the book shows the absurdity and brutality of that particular situation, as well as the various strategies that the characters employ to survive. However, the undertow of bleakness, the sadness of so many of the characters involved and the darkness of the ending left me thinking again of what a mess human beings can make of their lives and the world around them. “Closely Observed Trains” packs a lot of moving and thought-provoking events into its short length and certainly keeps you thinking about the pointlessness of conflict for a long time afterwards.

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