The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil
Translated from the German by David Burnett
The second of the lovely Pushkin Collection volumes which was released on 2nd March is a fascinating collection of long short stories by German Bohemian author Johannes Urzidil, and it’s just as good as “The Hideout” was. Urzidil is another somewhat under-translated author; born in Prague before it was part of Czechoslovakia, he was part of the Prague Circle and a friend of Kafka and Max Brod. Urzidil fled the country in 1939 when the Nazis invaded and was initially helped to Britain by the author Bryher, before eventually settling in the USA. He continued to write and earned many awards for his writing.
Translator David Burnett (who also provides an informative introduction) has chosen to collect a group of stories from Urzidil’s oeuvre which were published in the 1950s and 1960s, and the first (the title one, The Last Bell) is stunning. It’s narrated by Marska, maidservant to the Mister and Missus, and as the story opens her employers have fled overnight, leaving Marska with their flat and all their money. Marska is afraid and excited by the situation in equal measure, but decides to enjoy the sudden windfall. However, she makes the mistake of inviting her wild half-sister Joska to stay with her, mainly so she can lord it over her; but this begins to misfire when the girls make the acquaintance of some of the occupying Germans. With a Nazi boyfriend, Joska starts to take control of the situation; Marska, by contrast, retains much of her humanity and attempts to warn some neighbours of the danger they’re in. As things go out of control, Marska is forced into dramatic action…
The second story in the volume, The Duchess of Albanera, is a very different piece of work. Set in pre-Czechoslovakian times, it tells the story of a lonely bank clerk who falls in love with a painting. Living alone and set in his ways, a chance encounter with the portrait of the Duchess leads to him grabbing and stealing it in a sudden act of madness. Chance favours him and he isn’t spotted; and back at his flat he has conversations with Duchess in the painting who, it transpires, is a bit of a Lucrezia Borgia. It’s a fascinating story, which ruminates on love and loneliness, how people really are, and the effect our actions can have on others.
Next up is Spiegelmann’s Journey, a story of a travel agent who’s never travelled; yet the stories of journeys he constructs are more real than any trip he plans for others. Unfortunately his tall tales captivate a lonely woman, but when they travel on the only journey he ever takes, to his home town, the truth will out. Is it significant, in a story published in 1962, that the only trip he has ever made is between the city and his home town of Birkenau? Probably it is, although the dream-like, allusive nature of Urzidil’s writing often defies simple classification and it could be coincidence. Certainly, the rural, idyllic Birkenau presented here is not what you would normally associate with the name.
The old clerk was the true soul of the office. He knew the porous boundaries of the law, he was familiar with the injustices of the justice system as well as the justice of injustice. Tiny paragraphs pulsed in his veins instead of blood corpuscles. He constructed his boss’s pleas in such a way that the state prosecutors, no matter how sound their arguments, feared for their reputation if Dr. Umtausch took on the defence.
The final two stories in the collection, Borderland and Where the Valley Ends take place in rural settings, beautifully evoked by the author. The former tells the story of Otti, a child of nature living with her father near the woods; she seems to have an almost mystical link to the elements around her, able to tame plants and animals, as well as predict events and divine emotions. However, her passage into adulthood will destroy this, and it is a change in her life with which she’s unable to cope. And “Valley” is a quirky look at a feud that breaks out between two halves of a settlement divided by a river, which is triggered by the theft of a cheesecake; the disagreement leads to outright conflict and murder and shows how small happenings can lead to cataclysmic events. In both of these works, Urzidil references the great Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, whom he’d already written about earlier in his career.
The stories make fantastic reading in more ways that one; unreal elements creep into most of them, and they often have the dreamlike quality of a fairytale or fable. The later works in the collection might seem on the surface quite different to the earlier ones (particularly the title story) but they all share a common theme in that they focus on the misfit or the outsider. In “The Last Bell”, Marska is not part of the society being created by the invaders; she is an outsider because of her upbringing (where she and Joska suffered early abuse from an ‘uncle’) and unlike her half-sister, she sets herself apart from the Nazis in her attempts to help others. Schaschek the bank clerk is a loner – let’s face it, not many of us sit down and have reciprocated conversations with characters in paintings! – and his lack of interpersonal skills makes him happier with that relationship than a real one. Similarly, Spiegelmann is a fantasist, painting pictures of impossible journeys; it’s only when he’s faced with the reality that his journeys cannot exist that his world breaks down. Otti likewise is unable to deal with growing up and losing her ‘powers’; living a normal life in the normal world is beyond her. And Alois, the ‘village idiot’ in the final story, is the cause of the conflict that eventually wipes out a rural way of life. These latter stories in particular paint a world before the hell of WW2 overtook Urzidil’s part of Europe and there is an underlying threat in all of them from barbarian invaders.
So another powerful book from Pushkin Press and another wonderful new author that I’ve discovered. Apparently Urzidil only wrote one novel, preferring the shorter form (of which he was obviously a master); he also wrote essays and monographs, as well as translating works from Czech and English into German (including works by H.D., companion of his rescuer Bryher). Hopefully more of his work will make it into the English language because on the strength of the stories here, it will certainly be worth reading!
(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)