Our book today is Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, a 1964 novel by Bohumil Hrabal translated into English in 1995 by Michael Henry Heim. Hrabal is of course a great master of wry comic prose, and Heim must be doing justice to the original Czech, because several lines and passages in Dancing Lessons are laugh-out-loud funny.

The setting – at least, as much of it as Hrabal troubles to create – is fairly nebulous: an old man, something of a dandy in his younger days, tells an endless stream of stories to a group of sunbathing young ladies. We never hear the ladies speak – the entire book is a monologue – and the stories are a luminous mush of memory, anecdote, and history. Their presentation is never anything less than engaging, but they emphatically make no sense. And to emphasize the style of geriatric storytelling that Hrabal means to both venerate and satirize, Dancing Lessons is one extremely long sentence, with one stunningly inappropriate vista opening directly onto another. More so than in most of Hrabal’s previous novels, sex is present here – our old narrator likes recalling his pleasures:

… one day I was walking along minding my own business when I noticed a Jewish beauty with a nose like train hook sitting on the border between two fields, waiting for the first Saturday star to come out, and because she had no panties on I had one eye glued to the spot where Goethe liked to look before he sat down to write his poems, and I went over and introduced myself and we immediately struck up an intimate conversation …

In addition to having a very digressive mind, the narrator has a very literary one – the little text abounds in references and allusions, all delivered with the author’s knowing, playful wink:

… and she said, Oh you young men with your one-track minds! the world is a beautiful place, don’t you think? not because it is but because I see it that way, the way Pushkin saw it in that movie, poor Pushkin, to die in a duel, and so young, his last poems gushing from the bullet hole in his head, I could tell from the picture that HE admired the European Renaissance too, he had fantastic muttonchops, you know, the whiskers our own Franz Joseph wore, and Strauss the composer …

This is a very short book, rendered all the shorter by the headlong rush of the prose, and although it can be pressed into service as some kind of lesson on the garrulity of unreliable narrators, what it really wants to do is entertain you for an hour by simulating the experience of listening to a charming old man who’s full of sheep-dip. Hrabal’s novelistic aims are often far simpler than he’s given credit, and nowhere is that more in evidence than this brisk little entertainment of a book.

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue