DECEMBER 2, 2017
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 is a writer and critic based in London, and founding editor of Review 31. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books, 2017).