“Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” by Bohumil Hrabal, A Raucous NYRB Classic

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” by Bohumil Hrabal (1964) – 117 pages

Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim

  In order to give a good picture of a writer’s style, I usually like to quote a sentence or two from the book I’m discussing.  However, I won’t be doing that in this case, because the entire book, all 117 pages, is just one sentence.  Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal has been called one of the greatest of European writers by Philip Roth and Milan Kundera, no slouches at writing themselves.   “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” is another in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics series.     

 Hrabal was an admirer of James Joyce, and Joyce’s most famous technique was the ‘stream of consciousness’.  This technique is where the writer simulates the workings of an individual’s mind. When we are thinking about things, we rarely come to a full stop, we just go from one subject to another somewhat related subject to an entirely something else, so there is no room for a period or full stop in ‘stream of consciousness’.  Many, many pages of Joyce’s Ulysses are devoted to this method.  What Hrabal does in “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” is not exactly ‘stream of consciousness’ but what Hrabal himself called ‘palavering’.  This is when the main character is talking to someone, probably one of his beautiful ladies, and he is doing all the talking.  Hrabal did a lot of ‘palavering’ himself, telling stories in his favorite pub.   

 So what does this man who is advanced in age talk about?  Beautiful ladies, old military feats and maneuvers, romantic trysts, paintings, violent acts especially suicides, drinking exploits, and women.

    “…, It’s interesting how young poets think of death while old fogies think of girls,…”

 I would call Bohumil Hrabal a Primitive.  After graduating from college, he worked at many odd jobs for many years, writing  in his spare time.  After the Communist crackdown in Czechoslovakia in 1968, he was prohibited from publishing, and two of his books were banned  It wasn’t until 1976 that he was again allowed to publish, and his novels were edited by the Communist censors who would actually add pro-Communist phrases to his work (‘editorial insertions’).   “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age” was written before the Communist crackdown, so it does not have this censorship problem.   

 I still want to give you a sample.  For obvious reasons I won’t quote the entire sentence, but here is a part of that sentence which is the book. 

    “,… and when she asked me what I wanted for it I said I wanted her to go for a walk with me, and she laughed and asked why, and I told her my hygiene manual said that a person suffering from heat prostration – she suffered from heat prostration – should rub lukewarm water directly on the exposed chest, and she said, Oh you men and 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 a 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,…”

 So there are a lot of references to a world of different things which is fun. One of the difficulties with an entire book consisting of only one sentence is that there is no convenient stopping point.  I usually stopped at the first comma after I turned the page.  But then there is the difficulty of taking up where I left off.  This bothered me at first, not being able to pick up what was happening where I left off, but then I thought it was sort of like waking up in the morning and your mind is completely somewhere else. 

 If you are in the mood for something different and off the beaten path, you might like “Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age”. It is a quick read, and I did enjoy the book.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Oh I love Hrabal! I’ve not read this one yet though. I’ve read Closely Watched Trains and Too Loud a Solitude, both quite good in their own ways.

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  2. Hi Stefanie,
    Those two books you mentioned do sound interesting. I think they both have been made into movies. ‘Dancing Lessons’, being a 117-page sentence which is a monologue of one guy, is essentially plotless, albeit fun. It would be interesting to see how Hrabal handles a plot.

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  3. I checked this one out of the library a few weeks ago, started reading it, and had to set it aside. It’s the second book by Hrabal I’ve had to set aside like this and I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t that the circumstances don’t allow me to read his books, but rather some issue I might have with his writing. Your review makes me want to give Dancing Lessons another shot. It would seem I’ll just have to clear my afternoon and give it my undivided attention…

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    • Hi Biblibio,
      I can see where women might be turned off by his raunchy attitude. I have been wondering if I should have mentioned that. I don’t have any idea if that was your reason for quitting or not. That’s why I call Hrabal a ‘primitive’; he certainly does not have the refined sensibilities of a Henry James.

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