Johannes Urzidil - these stories illustrate this very point: that no one can act or be in this world, without becoming guilty - a very unmodern, biblical notion in our ideal world of transparency and accountability
Johannes Urzidil, The Last Bell, Trans. by David Burnett, Pushkin Press, 2017.
A maid who is unexpectedly left her wealthy employers' worldly possessions, when they flee the country after the Nazi occupation; a loyal bank clerk, who steals a Renaissance portrait of a Spanish noblewoman, and falls into troublesome love with her; a middle-aged travel agent, who is perhaps the least well-travelled man in the city and advises his clients from what he has read in books, anxiously awaits his looming honeymoon; a widowed villager, whose 'magnetic' (or perhaps 'crazy') twelve-year-old daughter witnesses a disturbing event; and a tiny village thrown into civil war by the disappearance of a freshly baked cheesecake - these stories about the tremendous upheaval which results when the ordinary encounters the unexpected are vividly told, with both humour and humanity. This is the first ever English publication of these both literally and metaphorically enchanting Bohemian tales, by one of the great overlooked writers of the twentieth century.
This is the long-overdue English-language debut by a contemporary of Kafka’s—though it might make more sense to consider Urzidil a counterpoint to his fellow Bohemian, for his stories confront the Jewish-Czech identity that Kafka was content to dissolve in allegory. Kafka’s first book was one of the few items in Urzidil’s suitcase when he fled Nazi-occupied Europe for New York, and there’s an echo of Urzidil’s flight in the title story, in which a servant inherits her masters’ fortune after they are forced to flee the Germans, only to learn that wealth amounts to little in a city of fear. “The Duchess of Albanera” concerns a pompous bank clerk turned thief who hides a stolen Bronzino portrait in his apartment, where it speaks to him of the difference between an image and its likeness. In “Siegelmann’s Journeys,” this collection’s clear masterpiece, a lonely travel agent who’s never left home fabricates his adventures abroad to impress an equally lonely spinster; he realizes only after they are married that a honeymoon is out of the question, as “the Venice of his dreams and its fantastic topographies would be overpowered and annihilated by reality.” Generally, the more allegorical stories are the weaker ones: “Borderland” succeeds as tragic tale of a touched and unusual child who defies the adult world at all costs, but “Where the Valley Ends,” about two villages split by a valley and the “idiotic son” who roams between them, reveals the shortcomings of this otherwise ingenious writer. - Publishers Weekly
IN “Siegelman’s Journeys,” one of five short stories by the Czech-German author Johannes Urzidil (1896–1970) collected in The Last Bell, the eponymous protagonist is a travel writer who has never left his nondescript provincial hometown. He woos a lover by impressing her with fictitious anecdotes about his wanderings, embellished with details gleaned from various travel books. When he finally admits to having made it all up, she leaves him. The story’s setting effects a peculiar cognitive dissonance: the nondescript provincial hometown in question is none other than Birkenau — a name synonymous with infamy but deployed in his story, set prior to World War II, as a byword for obscurity. “Siegelman’s Journeys” is also noteworthy for its inversion of the author’s own circumstances: Urzidil, who migrated to the United States in 1941 in the wake of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, wrote these stories in New York but set them in early-to-mid-20th-century Bohemia. His life was defined by itinerancy, yet he preferred to write about the world he left behind.
“The Duchess of Albanera” tells of a bank clerk named Wenzel Schaschek who swipes a famous portrait from a museum in a moment of kleptomaniac opportunism (“The sudden impulse acting in harmony with nature…”). He takes it home and talks to it, and gets spooked when it starts talking back. The Duchess goads him about the pointlessness of the crime he has committed, and his naïveté in thinking of her as an “incomparable pinnacle of radiant womanhood”: “Do you really think I’m sweet, innocent and devoted? Hardly. I’m selfish and depraved.” Duly unnerved, he returns the painting to its rightful place, but it’s too late: the theft had set off a chain of events culminating in the deaths of two people. The security guard responsible for the painting has lost his job and suffered a breakdown, as a result of which he stopped visiting his mentally ill daughter, who then committed suicide; her mother, in turn, has died from grief. This plunges Wenzel into a Dostoyevskian meditation on contingency: “there was no one he could talk to about the outlandishness, the insolvability and unbearableness of his fate.” As with the hapless Siegelman, we witness a man of modest status trying to transcend his circumstances through the power of his fantasies, and coming unstuck.
Probably the strangest story in this volume is “Borderland,” which concerns a precocious orphan girl whose powers of clairvoyance and weird harmony with nature — she tames wild birds, fishes, and hares — are connected in some obscure way to the premature death of her mother. One day, she sees a young couple embracing in a field and begins to sob uncontrollably; from then on her powers begin to wane. The story ends on an unhappy note as her father compels her, against her wishes, to join a convent. The rustic setting is reprised in “Where the Valley Ends,” which is about a feud between communities on either side of a rural river. On one level it’s a farce — the initial quarrel starts with the theft of some cheese and culminates in the death of a cow — but its allegorical connotations are hard to ignore: “Where the Valley Ends,” like “Borderland,” was originally published in 1956, a mere decade or so after the end of World War II. “[T]he mightiest life force,” remarks Urzidil’s narrator in passing, “is always rapid forgetfulness, that most assiduous reviver of error and evil.”
Urzidil gently lampoons the blockheaded stubbornness of the warring peasants, but the conclusion of the story reveals his sympathy toward their erstwhile way of life. The land on which they had depended turns into a barren wasteland when the soil, as if in revolt against their shenanigans, becomes overrun with poisonous weeds. We are given to understand that the natural order of things has been unsettled by the irruption into their halcyon world of capital-p politics. A forester reports to the narrator that “[t]he people are obsessed with politics now. It was never like that before. Are you for it or against it? That’s all you ever hear now.” There are echoes in this tale of Flaubert’s customary denunciations, a century earlier, of what he liked to call the “stupidity” that proliferates when faddish political zeal overrides intelligent cooperation. Given Urzidil’s postwar vantage point, the story reads like an indictment of the toxicity of humanity in the 20th century.
Though raised as a Catholic, Urzidil was ousted from his job at the German Embassy in Prague by the Nazis for being a “half-Jew” (halbjude). He fled Czechoslovakia in 1939, going first to Britain and then to the United States. Of the five stories in this collection, only the title story deals directly with Nazi rule. Set in occupied Czechoslovakia, “The Last Bell” tells of a maid whose Jewish employers have been deported. She helps herself to their apartment and money with cheerful nonchalance: “Nobody’s a saint,” she declares, “and what fun is anything without a little swindle.” Eager to convince in her new guise as a wealthy woman, she lectures her sister on the importance of airs and graces, encouraging her to haughtily dismiss any food that is placed before her as “nothing special”: “If you can’t get into the habit of that, you’ll never amount to much in this world.” Her complacency is punished as her sister, who is sleeping with German soldiers, fleeces her in turn. It’s an oddly slapstick treatment as Holocaust fictions go — there is even a barroom punch-up at one point — and yet, in its own way, it accesses a kernel of truth: the base, thieving impulse that turned so many normal people into willing accomplices in mass murder.
“The Last Bell” lacks the throwback charm of the other four stories, but shares their blend of wisdom and sharp sardonicism. For all their sagaciousness, though, it is in the moments of fleeting whimsy that these tales come to life. “Siegelman’s Journeys” includes an amusing description of an über-officious legal clerk (“Tiny paragraphs pulsed in his veins instead of blood corpuscles”), while “Where the Valley Ends” features a memorable character called Alois, a village idiot who laughs uproariously when he is sad. At one point in “The Duchess of Albanera,” Wenzel finds himself talking to food: “[he] freed the […] sour pickle from its soggy wrapper, laid it on a plate and told it to wait.” (That story is inexplicably prefaced by a list of its characters such as might appear in a play.)
Urzidil published only one novel in his lifetime, 1959’s The Great Hallelujah; his better-known works include the short story collection Prague Triptych (1960) and several nonfiction books on cultural history. We have Pushkin Press to thank for bringing these previously untranslated stories to an Anglophone readership. The text comes with an introduction by its translator, David Burnett, which helpfully situates the stories in their historical context. Burnett observes that Urzidil stubbornly resists classification: “was he a Jewish writer or a German one, an Austrian or an American? Or simply a ‘writer in exile,’ a representative of the vast Exilliteratur that resulted from the tragedy of twentieth-century European history?” His literary style is similarly difficult to pin down — these fictions are flickeringly redolent of Gogol, and also contain elements of magic realism and modernism. This intriguing heterogeneity, arising out of the author’s position at the intersection of disparate demographic and literary traditions, makes The Last Bell not only a compelling read but also a valuable literary artifact. - Houman Barekat https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/tiny-paragraphs-pulsed-in-his-veins-on-johannes-urzidils-the-last-bell#!
The narrator of “Where the Valley Ends,” one of the five stories in The Last Bell (Pushkin Press) the first book of Johannes Urzidil’s fiction to appear in English, says he was once advised to “read the poet in his land.” This, he continues, is “a correct though not always practical piece of advice, if you don’t want to limit yourself to writers from those few countries you happen to have access to in the course of a relatively brief life.” Consciously reversing the idea that foreign writers are “rescued” when translated into English, Urzidil’s translator David Burnett writes in his introduction that it is “the English-speaking world,” lacking Urzidil until now, that has been “sadly overlooked.” But how should we read a writer whose land is no longer on the map?
Johannes Urzidil was born in 1896 in Prague, then the second-largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and before that capital of the historical region of Bohemia. He wrote in German, and was fluent in Czech; he knew and admired Kafka; for fifteen years, he worked for the German Embassy in Prague, by then the capital of Czechoslovakia. In 1939 the Nazis invaded, and the half-Jewish Urzidil and his wife, the poet Gertrude Thieberger, escaped Prague and wound up in New York. Over thirty years in the United States, Urzidil turned to writing stories set in a Bohemia of his invention: a realm of anecdote and “Arcadian valleys.” America, in these stories, is a myth—and the war is always coming.
After the 1940s, Urzidil’s original audience (German-speaking, Czech-residing, often Jewish) no longer existed. It had fled, been killed, or—in the case of ethnic Germans—been stripped of Czechoslovakian citizenship. It’s significant, then, that writing from Queens for publishers in Zurich and Munich, Urzidil populated his stories with characters who remain in place. In “The Last Bell,” housemaid Marška belongs to a broad caricature of provincialism: she is what happens when the bourgeoisie abandons Prague to the servants and the occupying army. Marška sends back a haut goût dish because “it stinks, don’t lecture me about hoe goo,” while her fellow maid Ella refuses to accompany a departing fiancé: “To America? Me? You want me to live with savages?”
The story’s folksy humor, however, is offset by a grim realism. Ella requires the services of a retired abortionist, and Marška’s attempt to warn her landlord about his impending arrest, which she has inadvertently brought about, is a failure. “That’s very kind of you,” the man tells her, “but I really don’t need anyone’s help.” Writing from the safety of 1968, Urzidil knows this to be untrue. But the easy pathos shades into Urzidil’s main, more complex theme of collective responsibility. Neither staying in place nor leaving seems to guarantee salvation of body or soul.
The literary critic Pascale Casanova, mapping national literatures within international networks in The World Republic of Letters, proposes that folktales comprise “the first quantifiable resource of a nascent literature.” Urzidil, like Kafka, began writing in the minority language of a nascent nation-state. But the stories of The Last Bell, all written after the war, belong to a literature that is posthumous rather than nascent. Instead of fairy-tale plots, Urzidil’s narration incorporates the shortest forms of folklore—the anecdote and the adage. It’s also informed by the European literary tradition: Urzidil as a man of letters is resolutely cosmopolitan.
In the 1966 story “The Duchess of Albanera,” a Renaissance portrait has the magical ability to speak, and discourses on the varieties of love. Unlike Nabokov’s 1924 story “La Veneziana,” in which a painting’s magic depends on the talent of the forger—the artist, the writer, the enchanter—for Urzidil, it remains a passive property of the art object itself. This device allows Urzidil to work in Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and the Borgias, but ultimately the Duchess becomes a source of commonsensical advice for a commitment-averse bank clerk, who nabs her from the city museum: “Some fool stole the Duchess of Albanera because he didn’t have the guts to approach the baker’s daughter around the corner. Now he thinks he’s got something. But all he’s got is his own foolishness…” The theft has catastrophic consequences for a bystander, and thus the action of the plot becomes another pretext for Urzidil’s continued musings on responsibility and guilt.
Urzidil’s adagios exist alongside inventories of Bohemian nature and culture that were lost in the war. These are recitations from memory, and in memoriam: lists of the stocked delicatessens, the beers, the clubs, and the birds of Bohemia; descriptions of its valleys and forests, full of “berries, mushrooms, fallen wood, grass”; and of wandering narrators who often reference the 19th-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter. In “Borderland,” a young girl who may be Stifter’s distant descendant maintains a mystical connection with the woods, while a neighbor who spent his working life in America becomes a mirror image of the writer in exile: “He didn’t have a proper profession. He lived on his savings, and his main occupation was doling out advice: ‘In America we turn the keys in our doors to the right and not to the left.’” The story “Siegelmann’s Journeys,” also about the dangers of self-seclusion, features a travel agent who never travels, but woos his fiancé with fabulous stories of fabricated trips. For their honeymoon, he takes her to a small nearby town, where his father was born. The town is called Birkenau.
In the Pushkin Press catalog, Urzidil keeps company with Bruno Schulz, Stefan Zweig, Isaac Babel, and Teffi—writers who wrote in Polish, German, and Russian, and have in common their great displacements in the wars and revolutions of the 20th century. For a writer fortunate enough to make it to Queens, the displacement is no less dire. Where are his readers? Whom should he address? The Bohemia he imagines comes to us not as an atlas but a small, charming, and private album. Burnett writes that Urzidil, trying to make a living in America, took up leatherworking. He bound a friend’s volumes of Rabelais so thoroughly that the books could not be opened again. - Elina Alter
Sebastopol Sketches, a collection of short fiction about people and place – or, more specifically, region and residents. Containing five finely crafted stories set in Prague, the countryside and little towns where time stands still, Urzidil presents Bohemian realms fraught with chaos and foreboding, and striking, tragicomic characters.
In the Anglophone world, Urzidil (1896-1970) remains an unknown quantity. Born in Prague to a German father and a Jewish mother, he mixed with members of the “Prager Kreis” (Prague Circle) including Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel and Max Brod, worked at the German embassy, and produced poetry, fiction and essays. When Hitler invaded and the Gestapo closed in he fled his homeland. While in exile in America he produced some of his most successful work, much of it with a Bohemian backdrop.
The stories in The Last Bell – published for the first time in English and neatly translated by David Burnett – provide a taste of Urzidil’s talents. The strangest, slipperiest story, The Duchess of Albanera, is dedicated to Brod, and feels like an attempt to walk in Kafka’s shoes. Wenzel Schaschek, a Prague bank clerk, committed bachelor and creature of habit, takes a break from talking to the usual inanimate objects that fill his regimented days and humdrum existence – furniture, flowers, food – and enters into an intense two-way conversation about women, beauty and murder with the love of his life – a painting he stole from the State Gallery three days previously.
Less far out yet further afield, Siegelmann’s Journeys takes us away from the city and into a rural town, where a travel agent who has never travelled attempts to woo a fellow lonely soul by rehashing and reliving his customers’ exotic adventures and experiences. “I don’t lie,” he assures himself, prior to wrecking his relationship. “I merely choose a convincing form for reality and truth.”
Siegelmann’s storytelling consists of tempering “the fantastic with the ordinary”. His creator employs a similar technique in Borderland, a sombrely beautiful tale about a special, “magnetic” 12-year-old girl. The story deftly explores two meeting points – the juncture between the everyday and the outlandish and the forested frontier dividing Bohemia and Austria.
Urzidil bows out with Where the Valley Ends, another woodland story, and another that revolves around the consequences of a theft – on this occasion not a painting but a cheesecake.
But it is the titular tale that starts the proceedings that steals the show. The Last Bell has a captivating protagonist in feisty, unflappable maidservant Marška. When her employers (“the Mister” and his Jewish “Missus”) are forced to up and leave with only two small suitcases, she is left with their Prague apartment, their money and belongings. She invites her younger sister to stay, ignores all the clocks (“We don’t need hours or time”) and settles into her new role as “woman of private means”.
When the girls attract the attention of two Nazi officers, their lives sharply change. Despite their admirers’ flattery, Marška remains sceptical: “Maybe they haven’t murdered anyone yet, but it’s better to call them murderers right from the start so you don’t have to correct yourself later.” And indeed she doesn’t. Urzidil modulates his tone and sublimates his heroine’s antics as he leads to a denouement in which Marška witnesses the full might and cruelty of the city’s “uniformed invaders”. Unlike Schaschek – who after stealing his painting unwittingly unleashes calamity and warps two identities – making one man “guilty-innocent”, the other “innocent-guilty” – Marška finds herself faced with the choice, or the challenge, of taking control and averting disaster by saving a Jewish life.
This remarkable, multifaceted story showcases various Czech styles. A pub brawl and other rambunctious high-jinks are redolent of the escapades of Jaroslav Hašek’s good soldier Švejk; the more absurd violence (the sisters’ father is crushed by a manure cart), darker humour and skewed wisdom is as potent as that magicked up by Bohumil Hrabal; while the pockets of real horror, particularly the round-ups of Marška’s Jewish neighbours, have the same emotional clout as those that punctuate Jirí Weil’s Nazi-occupied novels.
Ultimately, though, this miniature masterpiece and the other four stories come to us in one voice, that of an inexplicably overlooked Czech master who is only now finding an English-speaking audience. Credit is due to Pushkin Press for rediscovering Urzidil. With luck, there will be more stories to tell.
- Malcolm Forbes https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/book-review-the-last-bell-has-a-bohemian-slant-from-a-czech-master-1.53675
During World War II, a generation of great German writers including Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt, and Bertolt Brecht became exiles, fleeing abroad * to escape the Nazis. So many left, in fact, that “Exilliteratur” became its own genre, shaped by intellectuals writing about a rapidly mutating Germany from afar. But after the war, these writers still had homelands they could return to. For the exiled German-Bohemian writer Johannes Urzidil, his relationship with his birthplace was more complicated: His Bohemia was, in many ways, destroyed by World War II.
Urzidil, who died in 1970 and spent the last three decades of his life in America, once wrote, “My homeland is my writing”—a not entirely metaphorical idea that encapsulates his literary career. Shortly after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia at the dawn of World War II, the Jewish Urzidil fled his birth city of Prague, formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Though it became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Bohemia was an ethnically diverse region with a complex past—one that would inform Urzidil’s work long after he settled in America in 1941.
This week, five of Urzidil’s Bohemian tales have been published stateside for the first time, in English, as the collection The Last Bell. And like so much of his work, these stories all center—sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly—on a single question: How can a writer reclaim and find meaning in a homeland that no longer really exists? Urzidil’s stories reflect his feelings about Bohemia’s knotty history, as well as the encroaching forces of nationalism and communism that transformed the region in the 20th century.
But Urzidil’s work also offers a deeply moving look into the mind and heart of a man trying to both preserve his memories of home and contend with the cruel political realities shaping it. As Gerhard Trapp, a scholar who knew Urzidil personally and wrote the first published study of his work, told me, the writer and his work were “identical” in that both wanted to “restore humanity after World War I and II.” Urzidil’s Bohemia is a microcosm of the 20th century’s promise and failings, and his fiction shows readers what can be gleaned from such tragedy.
Urzidil was born in Prague in 1896 at a time when Bohemia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This land of many ethnicities centered on two languages, German and Czech, but Urzidil ascribed to “Bohemism,” or the belief that a single identity united the region’s many peoples. This was not a popular notion: Czech and German nationalism had been competing there since the mid-19th century, and the two groups often lived in isolation from one another.
Before the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I, Czech speakers experienced discrimination; for centuries, they had been denied influence in government and fought for their language to be officially recognized. After 1918, when the area became part of the newly formed Czechoslovakia, over two million Bohemian Germans became foreigners overnight, reversing the previous dynamic. But Urzidil rejected this Czech-versus-German dichotomy and would defend, in print, whoever was considered the region’s minority at the time.
Prague itself, however, had a unique and delicate sense of cohesion. Peter Demetz, a Sterling Emeritus Professor of German at Yale University, grew up in Urzidil’s fabled Prague and knew the writer well. Demetz described to me how Prague’s different communities “lived together and worked together and ate together and loved together ... it was almost charming.”
Urzidil was better known as a poet and journalist in Prague than as a fiction writer. He was on the periphery of Franz Kafka’s “Prague Circle,” a group of German-Jewish intellectuals who would regularly meet to discuss their work. When Urzidil spoke at Kafka’s funeral memorial in 1924, he did it, as the German literature scholar Valentina Sardelli told me, on behalf of a younger generation of German-Jewish writers.
In 1938, the Nazis divided Bohemia, claiming part of it for Germany, and the following year, Urzidil and his wife managed to flee. After the war, the newly established Czechoslovakian government expelled most of the area’s German-speaking population in retaliation. By the middle of the century, Urzidil’s Bohemia was no more—but, by then, the author had settled in a new home: America.
* * *Effectively exiled and watching the dissolution of his homeland from abroad, Urzidil channeled his feelings of alienation and loss into his work. “Urzidil ... decided to take this multinational homeland with him, to turn himself into his homeland and continue to copiously draw from it the ferment of his life and his art,” Claudio Magris, an emeritus professor of modern German literature at the University of Trieste, said. The stories in The Last Bell, which was translated and compiled by David Burnett, show how Urzidil began building his own Bohemia as the real one was radically transformed.
In one of the collection’s stories, “Siegelmann’s Journeys,” the titular travel agent has never left Prague. But he is able to describe foreign lands in such vivid detail that he convinces the woman he is courting that he’s well-traveled. When the couple discusses taking a trip to Venice together, Siegelmann becomes “panic-stricken by the possibility that the Venice of his dreams ... would be overpowered and annihilated by reality.” As the story’s narrator continues, “who would have sacrificed his genuine, higher, and magical Venice to a naturalist version, a sham being propagated as reality”?
It’s hard not to see a parallel between Siegelmann’s fears for his imagined Venice and Urzidil’s for his fictionalized Bohemia. Urzidil himself never returned to Prague after World War II. In the 1950s and ’60s, he would visit the Bavarian or Austrian-Czech borders and stare over into the Bohemian forest. He could have easily crossed that border and was, in fact, invited to do so many times. But, as Burnett told me: “His entire literary production rested on conjuring up this lost world of German-Jewish-Czech Bohemia ... The disappointment and disenchantment of this new reality [of Czech communism] would have simply been too great. And his writing probably would have changed had the memories of his old homeland mixed with new impressions.”
Still, Urzidil’s work is no sentimental paean to a lost place. In the story “Where the Valley Ends,” a small village is split by a stream, which divides the inhabitants into “left-bankers” and “right-bankers.” The basis of their opposing identities is comically slight but follows the formula of nationalism—the same nationalism that plagued Bohemia and, later, Europe as a whole. One group for instance, “claimed to be the older original inhabitants” of the village. Eventually, a stolen cheesecake rips the village apart. The story then turns into an essay-like mediation on the origins, and self-perpetuating nature, of conflict. Why the people were initially divided, the narrator cannot say. But once they were, “the stream could no longer flow ... It had to acquire a meaning: here left, there right!” And “because a war is quickly divorced from its immediate causes,” says the narrator, “[it] acquires a life and momentum of its own.”
* * *For better or for worse, language and national identity were intertwined for Urzidil. After settling in America, he engaged with the culture of his adopted home “much more than most of the other German exile writers,” Johann told me. Urzidil came to have a perfectly functional grasp of English. He read American writers voraciously—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman—and published essays on them in German. He translated the American poet H.D. into his native tongue. However, he never published creatively in English.
Part of Urzidil’s dedication to the German language was practical: He was simply a better, more intuitive writer, in his mother tongue. But for him writing in German was also, as Burnett told me, “a kind of moral obligation.” After World War II, Urzidil wrote that exiled authors such as himself “had the responsibility to keep the German language humane, unadulterated, and more ethical than it possibly could have been on the language’s true native soil, where its organic growth was interrupted or trampled underfoot by politics.”
The Nazis were very precise about their language, and how the two relate is a popular area of academic study. Victor Klemperer, in his 1947 classic Language of the Third Reich, goes as far as to claim that “the language of Nazism” is the ideology’s “breeding ground.” And so Urzidil, in his own words, “professed [his] undying loyalty” to the German language “in the darkest and most dubious hours of Germanness itself.”
Postwar Germany and Austria struggled with their own cultural and linguistic heritages; the region was, as Burnett put it, “a highly politicized and experimental literary landscape.” But Urzidil bears none of these contemporary trappings, a fact often attributed to his living in exile. He is seen as following in the more traditional footsteps of Goethe, the giant of German letters, whom he adored. (When visiting somewhere new, Urzidil said he always asked two questions: “What is the water here like? And what is the relationship of this place to Goethe?”) Yet, as Demetz pointed out, Urzidil’s stories often drift between fiction and essay—and this mingling of mediums is itself a very modern idea. Even formally, Urzidil brings together what is usually separated.
Unity despite conflict or difference is a common theme in Urzidil’s work. At the close of “Siegelman’s Journeys,” the protagonist compares a Bohemian rock structure to various waterfalls (the many “laughing waters,” or “Minnehahas”) throughout the U.S.: “I’m finally in America,” Siegelmann says. “Nothing is far away.” Somewhat jokingly, Urzidil draws a parallel between Bohemia and America, both of which he loved for their multiculturalism. But the comparison is also timely for today’s readers: Nationalism is on the rise across Europe, and much of the world, once more. Urzidil—who is said to have coined the term “hinternational,” literally meaning “behind nations,” though sometimes translated as “beyond nations”—offers a stark warning against tribalism for those willing to listen.
There are, of course, tensions between Urzidil’s dedication to a specific homeland and language, and his love of multiculturalism. These tensions of identity still persist in many countries today. But his writing demonstrates how one man navigated them, and how it is possible to love a place—for all its complications—without needing to exclude others from it.
As in his fiction, Urzidil was also welcoming in person. When receiving guests, Urzidil would, according to Demetz, open the kitchen window of his Queens apartment, from which you could see a bit of the ocean, and reference Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: “Bohemia. A desert country near the sea.” In Urzidil’s new home, the water was a little reminder of the one he left behind. But while Shakespeare’s Bohemia is a total fiction (it’s not a desert), Urzidil’s remembered county is a blend of the fact and the fantasy that make up memory. His writing questions what it is to be a human and to remember. And what it means to love your homeland when extreme “patriotism” is precisely why it is gone. - James Reith https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/04/the-fictional-country-you-build-when-your-homeland-vanishes/524118/
A maid who is unexpectedly bequeathed her wealthy employers' worldly possessions when they flee the country after the Nazi occupation; a loyal bank clerk, who steals a Renaissance portrait of a Spanish noblewoman, and falls into troublesome love with her; a middle-aged travel agent, who is perhaps the least well-travelled man in the city and advises his clients from what he has read in books, anxiously awaiting his looming honeymoon; a widowed villager, whose 'magnetic' twelve-year-old daughter witnesses a disturbing event; and a tiny village thrown into civil war by the disappearance of a freshly baked cheesecake. These stories about the tremendous upheaval which results when the ordinary encounters the unexpected are vividly told, with both humour and humanity.
This is the first ever English publication of these both literally and metaphorically Bohemian tales, by one of the great overlooked writers of the twentieth century.
I am continuously astounded by how Anglocentric my literary worldview occasionally still is. I guess studying English Language and Literature didn't do much to help, but I figured growing up bilingually (neither English) would have done something to change that. But I am still surprised to find there are masters of literature waiting for me in other languages, or waiting in translation, rather. Johannes Urzidil is an author I had never heard of, despite writing in one of my native languages, German. Until the release of The Last Bell, his work had never been translated into English. Bilingual himself, Urzidil was a celebrated Czech writer for whom German was his language, never making the transition to English despite spending his last two decades as an immigrant in the United States. His stories, however, are of Prague, that centre of Bohemia in the early 20th century. His characters are oddities, are "other" in some way and know it, but they are also irrevocably human. Despite being so clearly rooted in his homeland, Urzidil's stories are globally human and will resonate with their modern readers.
The Last Bell contains five stories, selected by David Burnett from a variety of collections written by Urzidil over time. Burnett himself, in his informative introduction, gets to the very point of what makes these stories so touching and what links them together:
'...these stories illustrate this very point: that no one can act or be in this world, without becoming guilty - a very unmodern, biblical notion in our ideal world of transparency and accountability.'
It might not sound very enticing, but I was fascinated by this concept of, perhaps, "guilt by association" which cropped up in each and every story. The collection's first, and eponymous, story 'The Last Bell' is perhaps the finest example. A Czech maid in Nazi-occupied Prague feels burdened by the things she is given or told by others. Whereas she herself hardly acts, except for once, her very presence in the story's situations makes her complicit, makes her guilty, and she does not know how to deal with the weight of this guilt. In 'The Duchess of Albanera' we see a man who cannot face the unintended consequences of a single, mindless thought, whereas the third story, 'Siegelmann's Journeys' gives us a man very aware of and dreading the consequences he will have to face. The final two stories, 'Borderland', probably my favourite in The Last Bell, and 'Where the Valley Ends', Urzidil himself appears in the stories as an unnamed outsider, an objective observer, who sees the unintended victims of other people's actions and beliefs. Although it is perhaps not the most optimistic of messages, it is a very true one. Perhaps in our world we should all be a little bit more aware that none of us are blameless, that we are all in some way guilty. Perhaps it will make us kinder if we learn this lesson.
Urzidil's writing is surprisingly fluid. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but once Burnett's introduction made me aware of Urzidil's links to Kafka I was slightly concerned. Although Kafka is doubtlessly masterful, he is also highly complex. Urzidil's stories are compact and crafted in a way that gives hints but unravels at its own, perfect, pace. His writing, however, flows easily and evocatively. There are moments of absolute beauty in his stories, phrases that are just so true. Let me give you a little gem:
'History books know nothing about real life, least o all about the life of a woman.'
How true. Urzidil doesn't shy away from the darkness in life, but also lingers in those moments of beauty that life bestows upon us. Especially in 'Borderland' he describes Czech woodlands in such a beautiful way I want to book tickets to Prague right now. Burnett does a wonderful job at translating his work into English, capturing both the preciseness and tentativeness of Urzidil's language. I am incredibly grateful to Pushkin Press for casting light upon another author who deserves to be known. I will definitely be looking for his work in German as well, however. - Juli Witte http://universeinwords.blogspot.hr/2017/07/review-last-bell-by-johannes-urzidil.html
Johannes Urzidil (1896 - 1970) was a German-Czech writer, poet and historian. Franz Kafka was a part of his intellectual circle of friends. Urzidil fled Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 for England, finally settling down in America. The five short stories in The Last Bell were written during the 1950s and 60s.
All the stories in this collection, though written in exile, reflect Urzidil's Bohemian heritage. The title story is set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. A housemaid in her early thirties, Marska, is suddenly given all of her employer's posessions. "Mister and Missus," as the brassy maid refers to them, have had to flee the Nazis. This leaves the housemaid discombobulated. Is this turn of events good fortune, or does it presage disaster to come?
In "The Duchess of Albanera" a boring bank clerk who leads a very regimented life does something mad on the spur of the moment. On a visit to the State Gallery, he steals the famous portrait of the Duchess of Albanera. He keeps the modestly sized painting at home, but people start to notice strange behaviour on the bank clerk's behalf.
The third story, "Seigelemann's Journeys", concerns a travel agent who has remained curiously stationary in life. When one of his clients falls in love with him, he fabricates all sorts of stories about his great travels, trying to make up for an embarrassing lack of adventure.
"Borderland", a story that stands in contrast to all the rest for its ethereal atmosphere, is about a 12-year-old girl who has a special gift for apphrending the secrets of nature.
The final story, "Where the Valley Ends", is an anatomy of a civil war that erupts in a small village over the disappearance of a cheesecake. As the narrator makes clear, humans can't help bickering and quarrelling over small matters, turning these petty gripes into grand political machinations.
Most of the stories in this collection are comic in tone and nimbly written. Urzidil writes in a neat prose that grasps the reader's attention right from the first page. The theme of the stories is how humans delude themselves in trying to impose order on rolling, chaotic, real world events. When the housemaid in "The Last Bell" has a sudden good stroke of fortune in receiving a gift of so much money, she decides she will live it up and live like a queen. But things soon go off the rails. In "Where the Valley Ends," the narrator scoffs at how humans attribute good luck to their own personal prowess:
"...everyone whom fate has favoured just a little fancies that he's capable of doing and understanding more than others."
This is an eminently enjoyable collection of stories from a little known writer, brought vividly to life in this recent translation by David Burnett for Pushkin Press. A small literary gem. - Chris Saliba http://northmelbournebooks.blogspot.hr/2017/06/the-last-bell-by-johannes-urzidil.html
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. - https://theidlewoman.net/2017/02/25/the-last-bell-johannes-urzidil/
Johannes Urzidil was a German language historian, poet, novelist, and short story writer. He was born in Prague in 1896, he died in Rome in 1970, while on a speaking tour. He was friends with Kafka. Highly educated, from 1922 to 1933 he worked for the German Embassy in Prague, as advisor in the press section. In 1933 when the Nazis took over Czehoslovakia, he was fired from his job because his mother was Jewish, his father a Bohemian German. Like so many other writers, his roots were dervived from The Austro-Hungarian Empire. After being briefly detained he wisely emigrated to England, along with his wife, herself a poet (pictured in my collage). In 1941 they moved to The United States, settling in The Queens area of New York City. He stayed there the rest of his life. He developed basic fluency in English and read, among others, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, and Hawthorne. He wrote about them in German, he felt he had much higher skills in that language and wanted to do what he could to preserve what he saw as the destroyed Cultural heritage of the old Empire, especially that of Bohemian Germans, largely driven out of Czehoslovakia after the war.
The lead story in the collection, which Burnett assembled from several sources, “The Last Bell” is set in Prague around 1933, just as Nazi troops began to occupy the city. Our main character is a maid, or maybe we should say was a maid. She worked for years for a Jewish couple, they treated her decently, she tells us her Master, her terms, never made advances on her, as was evidently common. When we meet her she is seeing them off at the Prague train station. She is crying, decent employers are hard to find. They have decided to leave the country, they give her ten thousand marks, a huge sum for her, they can take no cash out of the country, tell her the rent is paid on their apartment for the next six monthes. All they ask is that she tell no one they have left. Of course she is initially discombobulated, but she soon begins to relish her new wealth. In an hilarious scene, she goes to a fancy resturant, orders a dish she has obviously never had before and whose French name she butchers, you can imagine the waiter sneering. Then, to prove she is “high class” she sends the dish back,claiming it smells “funny”, not realizing it is perfect. Then she orders apple strudel and sends it back also.
She is initially made just a little uneasy by the uniformed Germans but everyone says only the Jews have to worry. She invites her younger sister to come stay with her, so she will have someone to lord it over, now that she fancies herself rich. Time goes by and both of the single but experienced young women find German boyfriends. A terrible fight does break out between the sisters and two “black uniformed” Germans, they have learned enough now to both fear the Germans and use their connections to intimidate others. The younger sister ends up in jail for three weeks but still stays involved with her German Gestapo boyfriend whom she fought with. As we knew they would , terrible things happen, slowly what is happening to Prague begins to sink in for the older sister. When the six months of free rent runs out, the Jewish landlord, who lives in the building, fearing the women’s boyfriends tells her not to worry about the rent.
There are lots small touches help make this story a delight. The lead character, her sisters, the Germans are all perfectly done.
I have left the ending unspoiled. This is a truly great story.
I hope to get to all of the four remaining stories this month. - Mel u