The Best Book You’ve Never Read: ‘Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age’

Gabe Habash -- February 12th, 2014

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In 1997, a man fell from the fifth floor of the Bulovka hospital in Prague. He was, said witnesses, trying to feed the pigeons on his window sill when the table he was standing on slipped out from under him. The man was 82-year-old Bohumil Hrabal, called “one of the greatest living European prose writers” by Philip Roth and “Czechoslovakia’s greatest living writer” by Milan Kundera.

This is not an attempt to convince you that an author loved by a long list of writers and critics¹ is proof of his greatness. This is an attempt to get your to read Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age because it might be the funniest book you haven’t read.

The first thing you should know about this book, and what it’s most famous for, is that it’s a single sentence. The text is entirely made up of a 70-year-old man’s monologue delivered to six sunbathing young ladies. It is only his speech for 117 pages–there’s nothing in the book other than what comes out of the old man’s mouth. And while this may sound tedious or narratively flimsy, let me tell you, it’s not.

Books that are voice-driven are, of course, dependent on the strength of the voice. Think about the best character-narrators you’ve read: maybe it’s Scout or Holden Caulfield or Humbert Humbert. Our favorite narrators have voices that we, as readers, have a desire to keep consuming; their words are as addictive as M&Ms. There’s a powerlessness, a relinquishing, involved when you read a great first-person book, when you fall head over heels–simply through the hypnotic rhythm of the narrator’s words, you choose to give up your own agency in untangling events for yourself and sort-of smittenly accept the narrator’s. The narrator, simply by virtue of his/her voice, gets you to listen.

Here a quick side note seems necessary in order to break down the question: What is “narrative voice”? Broken down more simply, a narrative voice to me consists of two things: 1. the narrator’s choice of what he/she observes 2. the diction. Taken together, narrative voice is what the narrator sees and how he/she chooses to describe it.

The old man narrator of Dancing Lessons not only has a totally beguiling narrative voice, he happens to be persistently funny. His voice is some delightfully weird mixture of Molly Bloom and Ferdinand Bardamu, and he wants to tell his audience about his whole life, about everything–the book gets so exuberantly ahead of itself that it doesn’t even end in a complete sentence.

I’m going to keep the number of excerpted passages to a minimum, but allow me a large representative passage here, a chunk of monologue that hits all the points of what makes Dancing Lessons‘s narrator so outrageously memorable:

, baking is as much of an art as shoemaking, my brother Adolf was a trained baker, you slide the shovel into the oven like it’s a billiard cue, and if the inspector catches you licking your fingers when you’re making rolls you’ll get a bop on the beezer, and every time a baker does number one he’s got to wash his hands, while a shoemaker can pick his nose all day if he likes, a butcher has to watch himself as well, we had one in our platoon by the name of Kocourek, Miroslav Kocourek, and this Kocourek had a bandaged finger, and one day he was stuffing liverwursts and the bandage disappeared into one of them, and because chances were an enlisted man would get the one with the bandage he forgot about it, but guess what, young ladies, it was the doctor! that’s right, he was on his third liverwurst, and the minute he cut into it he recognized his handiwork and puked and Kocourek was sent to the front, but did he die there? no, he turned hero and won all kinds of medals, I spent some time pushing goats tied together in a wheelbarrow to the butcher’s and one day two little kids gamboled along next to me and the goats kept licking my hands, and when I stopped in a field to rest, the kids started licking my hands, and I wept bitter tears, what was I doing with a butcher? me, an admirer of the European Renaissance, besides, my stomach was all tied up in knots and it was a miracle I hadn’t ripped myself open with the paring knife, so I switched from shoemaking to brewing and trained as a maltster and set off on a tour of Hungary, oh what a brewery they have in Sopron! bright red

There a number of things going on here. Micro-level, the passage showcases Hrabal’s humor tactics. The narrator is crude and horny, and the book is full with low-brow humor: “the European Renaissance” is a substitute term for sex, sometimes even substituted as a verb (at one point he says the emperor was “doing the European Renaissance with the Schratt lady”). He has a knack for dispensing humorous anecdotes that barely have enough time to anecdote before he’s off in a new direction. The anecdotes are often ironic, rambunctious and slapstick, and worst-case scenario (one circus set piece involves a hand blown off from a grenade and the path it takes), and his lessons are some of the most quotable passages I’ve ever read². The passage also shows the narrator’s tendency toward grandeur: here “he turned hero” refers to a hero in battle, though more often it’s in relation to sexual conquests (“Come into the water and I’ll give you a kiss, so in I went–neck deep, clothes and all–and got my prize, a hero once more, back on land I had to wring out more portraitthan my clothes”). On a larger scale, Hrabal drops in a dozen or so addresses to the “young ladies.” I laughed every single time. Every few pages you remember what’s actually happening here: an old man is having a one-sided conversation with six “young ladies” who are just sitting there. It’s a one-dimensional premise, but in 117 pages, it is never not funny.

As a whole, the passage (as well as the rest of the book) is saturated with an almost mythic storytelling tone, not unlike the best Southern storytellers (Dancing Lessons‘s narrator calls to mind the wacky narrators of Barry Hannah), one where “the point” is lost or buried at best. Hrabal is not at all interested in storytelling as a means to an end (again, the book ends mid-sentence), but as storytelling itself, and storytelling as a means of conveyance to further storytelling (Dancing Lessons is an infinite treadmill–it’s fun to think about when in time, past the end of the novel, the narrator actually stops talking or what would cause him to stop).

In Hrabal’s hands, the use of storytelling for the purpose of more storytelling is itself funny. The above passage transitions from baking to the butcher anecdote to existential philosophizing to brewing. Sometimes the transitions are so tenuous there’s a giddy thrill just in seeing the highwire narrative act Hrabal pulls off: one two-page chunk, as the narrator tells it, starts with a sexton leaving his post in order to drink some creme de menthe at the local pub, coming back to the church and getting beaten in front of the churchgoers by the priest, an aside about dreams of having cucumbers poured over your head, and somehow ending up with the story of a baker “freezing to death somewhere.” Make no mistake, by the end of this short book you will be dialed-up and breathless, and the temptation to flip back and drop back into the narrator’s story at any random point is a strong one, because really? That’s all I get to hear? We were just getting warmed up.

But it also becomes obvious during its course that Dancing Lessons is not simply “a funny book.” James Wood and Adam Thirlwell, among others, have written about the place of Hrabal’s humor in his work as a whole. Thirlwell, in his introduction to the NYRB edition of Dancing Lessons, says: “But although his tone possesses a certain levity [...] what remains, in the end, is sadness.” Indeed, the humor of Dancing Lessons is Hrabal’s foot in the door, it’s a starting point and a transition and “the point” and so much more, it’s his way to get you to read about the more important things he has to say, about, for instance, the place of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in his nation’s history. It’s also his way to the darker parts of human life: that existential philosophizing in the above passage, in which he rests in a field while the goats lick his hands, crying and thinking of what he’s doing in his misplaced life, we only arrive at that point through Hrabal’s humor.

And then, because the man in charge of the story is always in hurry, we’re swept away from that field, just like that, and we’re ready to see where he drops us next.

¹Hrabal was/is also admired by Julian Barnes, Louise Erdrich, John Banville. Outstanding critical pieces have been written on Hrabal, including by James Wood here and novelist/essayist Adam Thirlwell (online piece here, but for the really meaty stuff check out Thirlwell’s introduction in Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age from New York Review Books). I could keep going, but I’ll stop there since an attempt to list out Hrabal’s admirers and praises would become too long and unwieldy.

²A sampling of some other great lessons/philosophy bits/aphorisms: “Rich ladies are always romantic”; “Though any young lady will tell you you might as well be buried alive if the man in your life has a faulty fandangle”; “I mean, people don’t like hearing it, because Christ wanted us to love our neighbors, he wanted discipline, not love on the sofa”; “What counts is doing something that didn’t exist before”; “Why will no one see that progress may be good for making people people”; “By the way, young ladies, Javanese cinnamon is better than Ceylonese”; “People still don’t understand, but that’s because the smart ones die and stupid ones get born in their place”; “So you see, young ladies, people are still unenlightened and inclined to tragedy”; “Nobody dies at home anymore, the minute you start to fade, up pulls an ambulance and off you go to die behind a screen, all by yourself, relatives don’t care anymore, even money’s lost its charm”; “The world is a beautiful place, don’t you think? not because it is but because I see it that way”

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