Bohumil Hrabal: Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlak (1965) Literature and War Readalong March 2017

Published in 1965, Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlaky, was one of the author’s greatest successes and has even been made into a movie. Hrabal wrote a first version of this book, which was more radical but had no chance of getting published. While this second version still contains a lot of what was unacceptable in Czechoslovakia at the time – the depiction of unheroic death and sex – by the time it was published, the public was ready and embraced Hrabal’s irreverent tale, in which sex ultimately leads to a young man’s demise.

Closely Observed Trains tells the story of a young man, Milos Hrama, who is an apprentice at a train station. Milos is back at work after three months of sick leave. He tried to kill himself after failing in bed with his girlfriend. He’s still a virgin and afraid that if he has a second chance with his girlfriend, the result will be the same.

It’s the end of the war and the Germans are slowly being defeated. But still trains from and to the Eastern front arrive at the small but strategically important station. Trains that transport wounded soldiers, maimed cattle, animals on their way to the slaughterhouse. Some of this is described quite graphically. I even had to put dow the book a few times.

The little station has been the scene of a scandal. One of the employees, dispatcher Hubicka, used the official stamps and applied them to the naked bottom of a beautiful telegraphist. The story has made the rounds and people come to have a look at the audacious Hubicka. Many are scandalised, but many more admire him for his gutsy behaviour. The station master pretends he’s shocked, but he’s too involved with his own life to really care. He’s busy climbing the social ladder, licking asses, caring for his beloved pigeons, and shouting at people.

All this fascinates Milos whose over sexed imagination is combined with the fear of failing again in the future. In many comic scenes he tries to talk about his fears to different people.

The sexual aspects of the novel are in many instances hilarious, but the book is still very serious. Some of the humour is used to ridicule collaborators and the Germans themselves aren’t spared. There’s no empathy for the enemy. Towards the end, when Dresden is bombed, one of the character’s laconic comment to a wounded German soldier, “You should have stayed home, shouldn’t you?”, is quoted again.

The most striking aspect of the book is that it combines scenes of horror and humour and in doing so achieves a distortion that gives the story an absurd feel. It’s as if the war wasn’t taken seriously, not because the people don’t get how serious it is but as an act of defiance. It’s as if the characters were saying to the Germans—you may think you defeated us – think again – you failed because we refuse to take you and your war seriously.

I enjoyed reading this book a great deal. It reminded me of some Czech movies I’ve seen during a Czech movie festival. Many of them used the same type of humour. It’s a mix of the absurd and the burlesque. Exaggerations, tall tales. At times this humour is close to slapstick but always stops right before turning into this cruder humour. It’s the behaviour, the attitude of the people that’s funny. They aren’t goofs, they are eccentrics.

I expected a lot from this slim novel and am happy to say – I wasn’t disappointed.


Other Reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

Marina Sofia (findingtimetowrite)


Closely Observed Trains is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the French WWII memoir La douleur  – The War by Marguerite Duras. Discussion starts on Friday 28 April, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

On Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)

I finished Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne two weeks ago, but am still not sure how to write about it. My reaction to it was very strong; it even gave me nightmares. I wonder if I can do it justice as there’s so much to discuss. It’s excellent and multifaceted and has a lot to say about religion, spinsterhood, family duty, shattered dreams and the woes of being an unattractive woman.

It’s peculiar that after having written two reviews about women who were punished for being too beautiful (Asking For It and Little Deaths), I’m now writing about a book in which the main character suffers, among other things, from being unattractive. Clearly, it’s hard to be a woman.

Judith Hearne is a 40-something spinster who has lived a rather dull and lonely life. Out of a sense of family duty and fuelled by her religious beliefs, she has cared for an ailing aunt until her death. The aunt in question was a rather formidable person and Judith lived under her thumb. Caring for her took up all of Judith’s time. It made it impossible to find love and friendship and now, at 40, she thinks it’s over. Even in her youth she wasn’t good-looking and sadly, age hasn’t made her look interesting. Not yet.

Here’s what she thinks about herself:

She watched the glass, a plain woman, changing all to the delightful illusion of beauty. There was still time: for her ugliness was destined to bloom late, hidden first by the unformed gawkiness of youth, budding to plainness in young womanhood and now flowering to slow maturity in her early forties, it still awaited the subtle garishness which only decay could bring to fruition: a garishness which, when arrived at, would preclude all efforts at the mirror game.

At the beginning of the novel, Judith Hearne has just moved into new lodgings in a shabby boarding house in Belfast. Here’s how the novel begins:

The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodging was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantel piece of whatever bed-sitting-room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. And as she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bed-springs, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.

After she has found a place for her aunt’s picture, she needs to find another one for the Sacred Heart. This beginning shows exactly what kind of person Judith Hearne is. She’s poor and single and the two only things that give her solace are the memory of her aunt and her religion. And a few possessions of value like a watch and pretty shoes with buttons that look like winking eyes.

Judith Hearne is a piano teacher with only a few pupils left. One of the reasons she’s losing pupils is only discovered later in the novel—when things get too stressful, she drinks. Her good education and valuable belongings, catch the eye of one of the other boarders, Mr Madden, the brother of her landlady. Unfortunately, poor Judith thinks he’s really interested. She knows her time is running out and seeing how kind Mr Madden is with her and how he likes to talk to her, gives her hope.

And maybe, although it was a thing you could hardly bear to think about, like death or your last judgment, maybe he would be the last one ever and he would walk away now and it would only be a question of waiting for it all to end and hoping for better things in the next world. But that was silly, it was never too late.

It soon becomes clear that Mr Madden is looking for a business partner, not for a wife. He’s returned from America where he has lived for a long time. According to Miss Hearne, he’s more American than Irish. He lacks manners and dresses differently. If she was honest to herself and not so desperate, she would have to admit that he’s not her type.

Being single might not have been as bad for Judith Hearne if she had friends and family but she doesn’t. There’s only one family she calls her friends, the O’Neill’s. Judith pays them a visit every Sunday. It’s the highlight of her week. She tells herself that they are like family, that the O’Neill kids are like her grandchildren. And she’s sure that they look forward to seeing her too, after all, she goes there well prepared.

For it was important to have things to tell which interested your friends. And Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she often felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift. Because, when you were a single girl, you had to find interesting things to talk about. Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about. Besides which, their husbands often told them interesting stories. But a single girl was in a different position. People simply didn’t want to hear how she managed things like accommodation and budgets. She had to find other subjects and other subjects were mostly other people. So people she knew, people she had heard of, people she saw in the street, people she had read about, they all had to be collected and gone through like a basket of sewing so that the most interesting bits about them could be picked out and fitted together to make conversation.

Brian Moore uses stream-of-consciousness and various points of view to give us an insight into most of his characters thinking. That’s why we know that nobody in this novel thinks kindly about Judith Hearne. Seeing the O’Neill’s before Judith’s arrival on one Sunday is enlightening. Moore is brilliant at unmasking his characters’ feelings and thoughts and knowing what they think and comparing it to what she thinks they think is chilling.

Before moving into this boarding house, Judith Hearne isn’t happy but once things go wrong with Mr Madden, she heads for a crisis. A crisis that unhinges her, because she pretty much loses everything including her faith. The end of the novel, which I won’t describe, tells us how she moves on, after having lost her faith and her illusions.

Different readers will find different things interesting in this book. As someone who was born into a Catholic family, I found the religious aspects especially perturbing.

Just before starting the book, I saw the title of an article about the pope saying he thought it was better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Christian. I couldn’t help but think of this while reading The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a book that is, among other things, very much about just that – religious hypocrisy.

Being rejected by a man, is painful but being let down by her religion and its representative, a priest, is far worse for Judith Hearne.

It’s not often that a title is so well-chosen or that it does double duty like in the case of Moore’s eponymous title. Yes, the book is about loneliness, and it’s about the last hope to find love. But it’s also a description of utter despair and suffering and that’s alluded to in the title as well. After all, “passion” is also a reference to the “passion of the Christ” or his final suffering and martyrdom. We find in this book the same doubts, the same “why have you forsaken me feeling”, only Judith Hearne, being human, has another fate awaiting her.

Before ending, I’d like to say a few words about confession. There’s a heartbreaking scene in this novel, in which Judith Hearne goes to confession. She goes to confess her sin – drinking – but also because she hopes for spiritual help. The scene reminded me of one of Frank O’Connor’s amazing short stories First Confession.

This is a bit of a hodgepodge review and I’m sorry for that. It’s an excellent novel but it reminded me of so much, that it was hard to write about it coherently and I didn’t want to turn this into a memoir piece, telling you all about me and why I left the church. Maybe I’ll do that in another post some day.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an excellent novel because Moore is astute. The characters are brilliantly drawn and explored. We see all of their foibles which, at times, is quite funny. The ending however was heartbreaking.

This post is a contribution to  Cathy’s and Raging Fluff’s Reading Ireland Month



Little Deaths by Emma Flint (2017)

Emma Flint’s debut novel Little Deaths is among the novels on the Baileys Prize Long List 2017. The Baileys list is one of only a few prize lists I’m interested in. Usually I read three to four of the novels on the list. I hadn’t heard of Emma Flint’s book before seeing the list and it immediately caught my attention.

Set in 1965, in New York, it tells the story of Ruth Malone whose two children, Cindy and Frankie, disappear and are found dead a few days later. The book begins with Ruth’s voice. She’s in prison, thinking back. This is the only part written in present tense, from then on the book stays in past tense and is told by Ruth and Peter Wonicke, a journalist.

We know from the beginning that Ruth is found guilty of the murder of her children but we will only find out at the end how that happend and whether she did it. In a way it’s not even that important because this book isn’t as much about whether Ruth is guilty or not as it is about the vilification of women.

Ruth Malone is glamorous. She loves to dress up, uses make-up, is separated from her husband, has affairs and lovers. She dresses provocatively, loves sex, and drinks too much. Not the way the other women in the neighbourhood behave. Definitely not the way the policemen’s wives behave. Everybody seems to have an idea of how a woman and especially a wife and mother has to be and that definitely hasn’t anything to do with the way Ruth conducts herself.

What follows is less an inquiry than a witch hunt. A witch hunt that leads to a trial. People – the neighbours, the police, the press – want Ruth to be found guilty. They want her punished for her life style and would do anything to break her and see her in prison.

I guess it’s easy to understand that this was an upsetting book. Two children are dead but what people really seem to be interested in is seeing their mother behind bars, just because she’s different. It made me think of the last book I reviewed here, Asking For It. While the two books are very different, they have one thing in common – women are punished for their behaviour.

I think it was a good idea to tell large parts of the story from the point of view of a journalist. Like everyone else, Wonicke wants Ruth to be guilty at first because that would make a great story. He writes a few short pieces about her and they all make her look suspicious. Why would a mother whose children have disappeared bother to dress up and put on make up? Why would she buy a new dress after finding out her kids were murdered? And since sex sells, Wonicke emphasises that she’s  very attractive. Ultimately though, Wonicke is a good guy and after a while he realizes that he doesn’t help finding the culprit. On the contrary, he helps clouding people’s judgement and enforces their belief in Ruth’s guilt.

By the time he realises what he’s done, it’s already too late. Not because of his articles but because the police and the neighbours have seen to many things they consider suspicious and because Ruth is withdrawn and haughty. People expect her to be broken, to stay in, but she goes out, drinks, and has sex like before.

Wonicke falls for her and swears he will help her find the perpetrator. Thanks to his sympathetic look, the reader interprets Ruth differently.

He felt like he was seeing her in a different light today. However this played out—whether Devlin made an arrest or not, whether they got a conviction or not—how could this ever end for her? Surely she’d never be the same woman again. She’d never be able to sit in the sun for the sheer pleasure of it, or walk into a store and pick out a dress just because it was pretty. No one would ever be able to look at her and not remember.

Ruth’s story is inspired by a true crime – the Alice Crimmins case. I didn’t know that when I bought the book. I found out when I started reading because Emma Flint mentions in the bio section that she’s always loved true crime. I then skimmed the acknowledgement section where she mentions which case inspired her. I’m not so keen on books inspired by true crimes because I can’t stop wondering how much is really true.

While it’s not a depressing book, it’s extremely upsetting. To think that something like this happened. For some reasons it made me think of the poet Anne Sexton. Ruth stands for all of those women, like Anne Sexton, who didn’t have a lot of choices. Who got married and had kids and felt trapped. It’s never said but Ruth’s behaviour lets us assume that there’s at least a masked depression underneath it all.

I liked this book a lot. I wish I hadn’t read it so quickly because it has many amazing passages. The writing is so strong. It’s definitely more literary than crime. The focus is on the way Ruth is hunted, not so much on whether or not she did it. Highly recommended.

Louise O’Neill: Asking For It (2015)

They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.

What a book! I finished it a while ago but I’m still stunned. Sometimes you read a book and the topic shocks you. Then you read a book and the topic and your reaction shock you. This is what happened when I read Louise O’Neill’s brilliant novel Asking For It.

Asking For It is set in a small Irish town where everyone knows everyone. Eighteen-year-old Emma O’Donovan is the local beauty and most popular girl. There’s hardly a boy who can resist her and many girls want to be her friend. She loves to party, drinks, takes drugs and hooks up with random boys. You could say she’s pretty wild. One evening, like so often, she does drugs and has casual sex with a guy and then things get out of hands. The next afternoon, her parents find her asleep on the verandah with a serious sunburn and no idea what happened before and after she passed out. She’ll find out soon enough. Because someone filmed it and posted it on Facebook. Now she’s not popular anymore, she’s just a slut.

Emma’s first reaction is to suck it up and forget all about it but people tell her she has to report what happened as rape. From the moment, the word is said and charges are made, things go even further downhill for Emma. The ending was a real shocker but realistic.

It’s a sad and sobering story and the way it is told is so powerful and eye-opening because of Louise O’Neill’s choice of main protagonist. If Emma was just a beautiful, wild girl, it wouldn’t have had such an impact on me. I would have felt sorry for her and sided with her but Emma isn’t a likable character. On the contrary. She’s possibly the most obnoxious character I’ve ever come across. She’s narcissistic and has to be the center of attention all the time. She loves to steal other girls’ boyfriends or seduce the boys they fancy. She’s also jealous and downright nasty, mean, and offensive. Since she’s the first person narrator we get to know her very well. She’s a real piece of work.

At first I didn’t understand O’Neill’s choice of character but when I noticed my reaction, I got it. I’m ashamed to admit but my first thought was – she really had it coming. That gave me pause and I had to ask myself “seriously – because she’s unlikable she deserved what happened?” and that’s when I had to say – no, of course not. Nobody deserves something like this. And nobody is asking for it. And that’s when I began to admire Louise O’Neill’s choice because it shows what an explosive topic this is. What horrible reactions victims might have to face. It’s easy to feel empathy with a likable girl – wild or quiet – but obnoxious girls like Emma deserve understanding and support as well. Emma is a 21st century girl. In some ways she’s maybe an exaggeration, but in many other ways she’s not. Many teenage girls drink, party, do drugs, and have casual sex but that doesn’t mean they are asking for being abused and raped. And they certainly don’t deserve it.

Asking For It looks at important aspects of the discussion around rape. Just because a girl/boy, woman/man was drunk or unconscious that doesn’t mean it’s not rape. Dressing in a provocative way, doesn’t mean someone wants to be touched  . . . It’s appalling that these things still need to be said. The idea that they are punished for behaving the wrong way is so deep-rooted that some women don’t even dare calling what happened to them rape. The book also shows how easily society turns against the victim.

Asking For It is powerful. The writing is strong and tight. Emma’s voice is so distinct, I could still hear her after I finished the book. The bragging Emma and the one that was shamed and humiliated. Sadly, Asking For It is an important book. We need books like this. They raise awareness, offer food for thought and topics for discussions. Documentaries like The Hunting Ground show all too well how real “rape culture” is.

The review is my first contribution to  Cathy’s and Raging Fluff’s Reading Ireland Month

Literature and War Readalong March 2017: Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlak by Bohumil Hrabal


Bohumil Hrabal, who is said to be the most important Czech writer of the 20th century, was born in 1914 in the city of Brno, then still part of Austria Hungary. He died in 1997 under somewhat mysterious circumstances. He fell from a window, feeding pigeons. Because he mentions suicide in several of his books, many believe he jumped deliberately.

Closely Observed Trains is possibly his most famous novel. It’s very short, just under 100 pages. It has been made into a movie.

Hrabal is famous for his use of very long sentences and expressive style.

Here are the first sentences:

By this year, the year “forty-five”, the Germans had already lost command of the air-space over our little town. Over the whole region, in fact, and for that matter, the whole country, the dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains in the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

March, Friday 31

Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlaky by Bohumil Hrabal, 96 pages, Czech Republic 1965, WWII

For gauche young apprentice Milos Hrma, life at the small but strategic railway station in Bohemia in 1945 is full of complex preoccupations. There is the exacting business of dispatching German troop trains to and from the toppling Eastern front; the problem of ridding himself of his burdensome innocence; and the awesome scandal of Dispatcher Hubicka’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the telegraphist’s anatomy. Beside these, Milos’s part in the plan for the ammunition train seems a simple affair.


The discussion starts on Friday, 31 March 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.