Monday, August 3, 2009

Too Loud a Solitude

It's one of the saddest images I've seen, and it's hidden in a book on interior design that I could no longer name, much less track down. It shows a kitchen adorned with shelves of old leather-bound books, beautiful in a patrician and deeply incongruous way - surely the last place you'd want to keep old, valuable volumes is the room in which you fry stuff. But of course the shelves aren't real shelves, just shallow indentations in the wooden panelling, and the books aren't real books, just rows of old spines ripped from Eastern European libraries sold by the metre to some American without a sense of taste or shame, and then glued onto the panelling (the spines, not the American).

I was never able to recover that picture, but thanks to a powerful combination of the Internet and friends I'm able to point you to a couple of lesser examples of this troubling phenomenon: Books by the Yard (h/t Jolisa), whose target clientele comprises people whose 'bookcase or study could use a boost in the books department', and the wonderful replica book panels of The Manor Bindery (h/t Paul) good for a variety of uses, such as decorating the interior of an elevator or even filling a bookcase.

Sitting at the intersection between house porn and the crumbling of civilisation, the kitchen-cum-library fashioned from the former pride of the Eastern bloc goes well beyond the generic and time-honoured practice of decorating with books, though, and is altogether more apocalyptic. Italians have some experience of their culture being ransacked or sold off, but I struggle to think of historical examples that match that particular ignominy of having one’s book collections literally taken apart for the purposes of adorning somebody else’s walls. Even the firebombing of the National Library in Sarajevo had an overtly criminal and memoricidal intent that seems refreshingly above board in comparison.

Czechoslovakian author Bohumil Hrabal wrote Too Loud a Solitude - which happens to be a book about a chap whose job it is to destroy books - in the early nineteen-seventies, at a time when his publishing privileges had been revoked. It has, I think, one of the best opening sentences in literature:
For thirty-five years I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story.
It is also a book about books, not only in the sense of carriers of knowledge and culture but also, and inextricably, in the sense of material objects with a weight, a feel, an odour, a cycle of production and demise. Hrabal wallows indeed with much comic glee in describing the putrid smell and appearance of moulding books (‘a dull, grey-beige mass with the consistency of stale bread’), the colonies of pests that thrive in warehouses where old putrefying paper is kept, the swarms of flesh flies that, unable to resist the lure of the blood from the day’s delivery of used butcher’s paper, stick to the pages of Rilke and Novalis until they too are crushed to death.

The operator of the wastepaper press, Haňt'a, is a sort of book gnome, a drunk, imbued unwittingly, or so he claims, with the contents of those volumes, his work, his obsession. Unable to regard books as mere waste products, things that were always lifeless, he has developed loving and elaborate funeral rites, and packs them for their last voyage into bales that contain just the right mix of German philosophy and Czech poetry or reproductions of impressionist paintings. The odd volume he saves and takes home to a small apartment that he has converted - yes, the kitchen too - into a makeshift library, a perilously unstable cathedral of shelves always in danger of falling and crushing him in his sleep. Think the Capuchin Crypt, but with books - here’s an artist’s impression from an exhibition inspired by the novel:

What a thing, a house of made of books. If it came to that, wouldn’t you want to choose the titles, insist that, say, Plato or Voltaire or Marx rather than Goethe or that leech Wordsworth be used for the foundations and the load-bearing walls?)

But I digress. Haňt'a loves books but what horrifies him is not the thought of having to destroy them - on the contrary, he dreams for his retirement of buying off the press and continuing the work in his garden - but rather the attitude of the new crews, who do so efficiently and dispassionately, without intelligence nor conscience.
For thirty-five years I’d lived with, lived through, a daily Sisyphus complex, the kind so beautifully described for me by Messrs. Sartre and Camus, especially the latter: the more bales driven out of my courtyard, the more wastepaper filled my cellar, whereas the Brigade of Socialist Labour at Bubny was always on schedule. Now they were back at work, nicely tanned, […] 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, print the book, and somebody had to bind the book, and somebody had to pack the books into boxes, and somebody had to do the accounts, and somebody had to decide that 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 book’s innards and tossed them onto the conveyor belt, which silently, inexorably jerked the bristling pages off to the gigantic press to turn them into bales, which went on to the paper mill to become innocent, white, immaculately letter-free paper, which eventually would be made into other, new, books. (pp. 68-69)
A book is an object, but an object like no other, and Haňt'a’s loving and self-appointed caretakership is a tribute to that. But suddenly his job too is brutally recycled, transformed, stripped of all extraneous meaning, and he is dispatched to a printing press to make bales of blank paper. ‘I, who couldn’t live without the prospect of rescuing a beautiful book from the odious waste, I would be compacting immaculately, inhumanly clean paper!’ (p. 79) In the interest of not giving away the ending I shall refrain from telling you how Haňt'a responds to this horrifying prospect, except to say it involves one last trip to his beloved subterranean press, there to lie amongst his beloved rejects one final time.

Hrabal's grave in the village of Hradištko. Image credit.
Wait, I did give it away, didn’t I? No matter. Hrabal himself left us enigmatically at the age of 82 when he fall from a fifth-floor window of the Bulovka Hospital whilst feeding some pigeons. He, who had written many times of suicides jumping off the fifth floor of buildings. Make of that what you will, and also of Haňt'a’s little story, written with an understandable surplus of bitterness but also more than a little joy and humour by an author who might have regarded himself as just that, a man in a hole with a shovel, a waste citizen, or a furtive presence in the undergrounds of Prague (mostly a cellar and the sewers, though, nothing too romantic).

Then came 1989 and the publication of those of his works that were still banned in Czechoslovakia, later even a film adaptation of Too Loud a Solitude (in which he starred, already an octogenarian, as 'man with trolley'), nearly three decades after Jiří Menzel’s brilliant Closely Watched Trains. Another adaptation is in the works, this time with puppetry and animation, and you can follow its somewhat uncertain status here. Oh, and there is a graphic novel, too.

I take all this persistent interest to mean that this little novel, timely in spite or perhaps thanks to its forcibly delayed publication, has hit a raw nerve in this, the twilight of the age of print. Perhaps it bears a sense that the book really is a building block, a piece of cultural masonry, and that we need to understand how it fits in our architectures of knowledge before (whilst?) we dismantle them and rebuild them.

Ready to turn into an immaculately, inhumanly blank page at the touch of a button.
We’re going to hear a lot over the next decade, as most assuredly we have already begun to, from TED speakers and tech gurus about outdated business models and necessary ways forward, and why the printed book is an obstacle to the spread of knowledge, an accident of history that needs to make way for the new. They’ll call it perhaps the power of publishing without publishers, and there will be some truth and some value in their ideas. But as a mental exercise, and to get the sceptical juices flowing and memory in its proper gear, I think I shall always pause for a second and mentally replace their garb with the orange uniforms and baby-blue gloves of the Brigade of Socialist Labour at Bubny.
Gone were the days of small joys, of finds, of books thrown away by mistake: these people represented a new way of thinking. Even if each of the workers took home one book from each printing as payment in kind, it wouldn't be the same, it would still be the end of us, the old guard, because we were all educated unwittingly.

Bohumil Hrabal. Too Loud a Solitude (tr. Michael Henry Heim). London, Abacus, 1993.
James Wood. ‘Bohumil Hrabal’.
The London Review of Books, 4 January 2001.
Mats Larsson. ‘Bohumil Hrabal - the Close Watcher of Trains’ (trans. Kathryn Boyer). The Art Bin.

There is a gallery of sorts for this post, here. Some extended quotations and a couple more images.