Friday, June 9, 2017

The Last Bell, by Johannes Urzidil

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Five witty and ironic stories from a European writer not well known to English reading audiences. 

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.

The Last Bell, by Johannes Urzidil. Published by Puskin Press. 9781782272397  RRP: $24.99

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