The Last Bell: Johannes Urzidil

★★★★

Johannes Urzidil was one of the most celebrated Czech writers of the 20th century. Although he spent his last twenty years as an emigre in the United States, he never made the switch to writing in English. His works continued to be published in Europe in German (one of his two mother tongues) and his works were infused with the sensibility of his homeland. Despite his importance in European literature, his works have only rarely been translated into English. Pushkin Press have rectified this omission with a collection of Urzidil’s short stories, none of which have formerly been published in English, and translated now by David Burnett. Lively, moving and gently absurd, these stories focus on outsiders, people whose encounters with ordinary life and emotions leave them thwarted and unmasked as precisely the strange creatures that they are.

Generally speaking, these characters are aware that they’re different and it niggles at them. Of the book’s five stories (which are presented in reverse chronological order), the first three follow characters whose efforts to fit in don’t work out quite as they expect. In ‘The Last Bell’, published in Zurich in 1968, a woman’s newfound wealth is complicated by her efforts to appear ‘to the manner born’. In ‘The Duchess of Albanera’, published in Zurich in 1966, a man seeks love and company in the wrong place, with unforeseen consequences. In ‘Siegelmann’s Journeys’, published in Munich in 1962, another man tries to hide his unadventurous lifestyle with flights of fantasy. The final two stories, ‘Borderland’ and ‘Where the Valley Ends’, both published in Munich in 1956, are told from the perspective of visitors to the community. In both cases, the narrator meets outsider figures who are innocent but find themselves in a world which has no place for them. Throughout the book, there’s a sense of disconnection, a frustration. Our lives seem perfectly rational to us, so why does the world insist that we change to fit its pattern?

Initially it’s tempting to laugh at the people in the first three stories: pompous, snobbish Marška, whose wonderfully-pitched monologues sum up the indignation of a woman who thinks she deserves better from the world; or prickly Schaschek, whose sense of routine is so ingrained that his local delicatessen can predict his order based on the day of the week, and who has conversations with inanimate objects; or Siegelmann (to a lesser extent, perhaps), whose fear of travel is so ironic in a travel agent. But wait a moment. Although Urzidil obviously wants to show us that these people are faintly ridiculous, it goes deeper than that. All three of them (and maybe those in the other two stories) are prompted by deep loneliness. In an effort to join a club, to experience the things that everyone else does, they try to change themselves. But to what extend do they succeed? Perhaps those in the first three stories don’t quite get there. And maybe that’s a blessing in disguise. As we see in another of the stories, becoming just like everyone else means giving up our selves:

In what way does a person die? When his heart stops beating; that’s probably the most familiar way. Or by becoming like everyone else. Many people die like that and no one is aware of it, many times they themselves don’t notice, their whole so-called lives long; only very late does it sometimes dawn on them for a split second, but they brush it off like a speck of dust from their clothing. When you have the choice you don’t even know it, and by the time you know it you no longer have the choice. This is how it normally works.

Urdizil isn’t a heavy writer. He’s much lighter and more amusing than I was expecting, but of course there are dark undercurrents to his work (he was a friend of Kafka). These are rarely explicitly connected to the Second World War – only Marška’s story shows us the world of Nazi-occupied Prague – but one can’t help noticing that all the stories deal with exclusion and foreignness, even within one’s own community. And Urzidil shows compassion and sympathy for these oddballs, these people existing on the edge. Presumably this is all bound up with his own experiences as someone who never quite belonged – an emigre who wrote in a language which wasn’t that of his adopted country; a man who could never quite unpick himself from his native country; a stranger in a strange land. His stories shimmer with a sense of transience, a sense of everything trembling on the brink before passing away. It’s hard not to see these stories, written after the Second World War, as an elegy for a Bohemia and a world which had ceased to be.

Bravo to Pushkin Press for rescuing yet another sparkling Central European writer from Anglophone obscurity, and for introducing us to his succinct, sensitive stories. I hope there’ll be much more Urzidil to come.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review

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