All Roads Lead Home

Are novels and memoirs simply different paths to the same destination?

All Roads Lead Home

“For thirty-five years I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story.” So begins Bohumil Hrabal’s slim “novel,” Too Loud a Solitude (translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim). Or is it a memoir of the author’s lost intellectual freedom, buried under communism’s oppressive bulldozer?

And does it matter?

What novelist doesn’t summon memory, and what memoirist isn’t writing fiction? Hurtling through the 21st century, we not only see the lines between memoir and fiction blurring, we applaud the muddling.

Under a hundred pages, Too Loud a Solitude brims with protagonist Hraňtá’s opinions about his — or is it Hrabal’s? — favorite art and literature. He tells us on page one: “When I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol.”

The hero is a paper compactor with an insatiable passion for the life of the mind. You don’t have to inhabit the ivory tower to conclude that he’s a vehicle for unspooling the author’s artistic memory, including his opinions on works by iconic artists from Rembrandt to Pollock, and on the teachings of major religious figures, Jesus among them.

Hrabal, best known by English readers for Closely Watched Trains, self-published Too Loud a Solitude in 1976, when he was in his sixties. The metaphor behind his seemingly bumbling protagonist was too threatening to Czech censors — liberating books and the ideas they contain from the compactor’s crush.

“In a sense, I am both artist and audience,” the hero says, quoting Hegel and Lao-tzu with the same ease that he knocks back beers, although he loathes drunkards. I drink “so that what I read will prevent me from falling into everlasting sleep,” he says. In other words, to save himself. More than a few writers and readers are tethered to that lifeboat.

There’s a bit of plot in Too Loud a Solitude, including some street life and pub scenes, but it’s all in service to the primacy of ideas. Toward the end, Hraňtá loses his job. The hydraulic press he’s operated for 35 years is brushed aside by the gigantic press in Bubny, run by “Socialist Labor youngsters in their orange gloves, nipple-high blue overalls, suspenders, green turtlenecks, and yellow baseball caps.”

Hraňtá bemoans the loss: “I was in the same position as the monks who, when they learned that Copernicus had discovered a new set of cosmic laws and that the earth was no longer the center of the universe, committed mass suicide.” In this book, life’s banalities swim side by side with life’s tragedies.

Sometimes, authors find subjects too painful to be written as memoir. Salman Rushdie titled Joseph Anton a “novel.” Although written in the third person, the book memorializes the darkest period in Rushdie’s life, his years under the fatwa, or death sentence, imposed by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. So, too, with Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, his searing recounting of the death of his young wife early in their marriage.

It turns out that, in addition to books and ideas, the hero of Too Loud a Solitude loves women. The one Hraňtá remembers best is a Gypsy girl whose name he never learned or can’t quite remember. He sees her in the final moment, stretches out his hand, and, in the book’s concluding line, “read[s] the large, childlike letters: ILONKA. Yes, that was her name.”

At last, he says her name. A key, perhaps, to novel versus memoir: I suspect it’s more about the naming than the form.

Martha Anne Toll is a writer whose work has appeared on NPR and in the Millions. She is a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books and is executive director of the Butler Family Fund, a nationwide philanthropy focused on ending homelessness and the death penalty.


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