Bohumil Hrabal

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Bohumil Hrabal
Portrait of Bohumil Hrabal taken in 1988 by Hana Hamplová
Portrait of Bohumil Hrabal taken in 1988 by Hana Hamplová
BornBohumil František Kylián
(1914-03-28)28 March 1914
Židenice (now part of Brno), Austria-Hungary
Died3 February 1997(1997-02-03) (aged 82)
Prague, Czech Republic
Resting placeHradištko
Alma materCharles University, Prague
Notable worksPalaverers
Closely Watched Trains
Cutting It Short
Snowdrop Festival
I Served The King of England

Bohumil Hrabal (Czech pronunciation: [ˈboɦumɪl ˈɦrabal]; 28 March 1914 – 3 February 1997) was a Czech writer, often named among the best Czech writers of the 20th century.[1]

Early life[edit]

Hrabal was born in Židenice (suburb of Brno) on 28 March 1914, in what was then the province of Moravia within Austria-Hungary, to an unmarried mother, Marie Božena Kiliánová (1894–1970). According to the organisers of a 2009 Hrabal exhibition in Brno, his biological father was probably Bohumil Blecha (1893–1970), a teacher's son a year older than Marie, who was her friend from the neighbourhood. Marie's parents opposed the idea of their daughter marrying Blecha, as he was about to serve in the Austro-Hungarian Army.[2] World War I started four months after Hrabal's birth, and Blecha was sent to the Italian front, before being invalided out of service.[3] Blecha's daughter, Drahomíra Blechová-Kalvodová, says her father told her when she was 18 that Hrabal was her half-brother. Bohumil and his biological father never met formally, according to Blechová-Kalvodová.[3] Hrabal and Blechová-Kalvodová met twice; a dedication in a picture from 1994 says: "To sister Drahomíra, Hrabal!"[3]

Hrabal was baptised Bohumil František Kilián. Until the age of three, he lived mainly with his grandparents, Kateřina Kiliánová (born Bartlová)(d. 1950)[2][4] and Tomáš Kilián (died 1925), a descendant of a French soldier injured at the Battle of Austerlitz,[5][6] in Brno, while his mother worked in Polná as an assistant book-keeper in the town's brewery. She worked there with her future husband, František Hrabal (1889– 1966); one František Hrabal was listed as Bohumil's godfather when he was baptised on 4 February 1914, but František was also the first name of Bohumil's future step-grandfather, a soft-drinks trader. František Hrabal, Hrabal's stepfather, was a friend of Blecha, Hrabal's probable biological father, according to Blechová-Kalvodová.[citation needed]

Marie and František married in February 1917, shortly before Bohumil's second birthday. Hrabal's half-brother, Břetislav Josef Hrabal (1916–1985), was born later that year; Břetislav, known as Slávek, is said to have been an excellent raconteur.[2][4] The family moved in August 1919 to Nymburk, a town on the banks of the Elbe River, where František Hrabal became the manager of a brewery.[7] Both of Hrabal's parents were active in amateur dramatics.[citation needed]

Hrabal's portraits on Postřižinské beers

Hrabal's uncle was Bohuslav Kilián (1892–1942), a lawyer, journalist and publisher of the cultural magazines Salon and Měsíc. The latter had a German version, Der Monat, that was distributed throughout Europe, but not in Nazi Germany.[8][9]

In 1920, Hrabal started primary school in Nymburk. In September 1925, he spent one year at a grammar school in Brno (now Gymnázium třída Kapitána Jaroše, later attended by Milan Kundera). He failed the first year, and later attended a technical secondary school in Nymburk. There too he struggled to concentrate on his studies, despite extra tutoring from his uncle.[2][4]

Wartime activities and early adulthood[edit]

In June 1934, Hrabal left school with a certificate that said he could be considered for a place at university on a technical course. He took private classes in Latin for a year, passing the state exam in the town of Český Brod with an "adequate" grade on 3 October 1935. On 7 October, he registered at Charles University in Prague to study for a law degree. He graduated only in March 1946,[10] as Czech universities were shut down in 1939 and remained so until the end of Nazi occupation.[11] During the war, he worked as a railway labourer and dispatcher in Kostomlaty, near Nymburk, an experience reflected in one of his best-known works, Closely Observed Trains (Czech: Ostře sledované vlaky). He worked variously as an insurance agent (1946–47), a travelling salesman (1947–49) and a manual labourer alongside the graphic artist Vladimír Boudník in the Kladno steelworks (1949–52), an experience that inspired the "hyper-realist" texts he was writing at the time. After a serious injury, he worked in a recycling mill in the Prague district of Libeň as a paper packer (1954–59), before working as a stagehand (1959–62) at the S. K. Neumann Theatre in Prague (today Divadlo pod Palmovkou).[citation needed]

Bohumil Hrabal painted among his beloved cats on the "Hrabal Wall" in Prague

Hrabal lived in the city from the late 1940s onward, for much of it (1950–73) at 24 Na Hrázi ul. in Prague - Libeň; the house was demolished in 1988. In 1956, Hrabal married Eliška Plevová (known as "Pipsi" to Hrabal, and referred to by that name in some of his works), the 30-year-old daughter of Karel Pleva, procurator and manager of a wood factory in the South Moravian town of Břeclav. In 1965, the couple bought a country cottage in Kersko, near Nymburk; the cottage became home to his numerous cats. Eliška died in 1987.

Early writing career[edit]

Hrabal began as a poet, producing a collection of lyrical poetry in 1948, entitled Ztracená ulička. It was withdrawn from circulation when the communist regime was established. In the early 1950s, Hrabal was a member of an underground literary group run by Jiří Kolář, an artist, poet, critic and central figure in Czechoslovak culture.[12] Another member of the group was the novelist Josef Škvorecký. Hrabal produced stories for the group, but did not seek publication.

Two stories by Hrabal (Hovory lidí) appeared in 1956 as a supplement in the annual Report of the Association of Czech Bibliophiles (Czech: Zprávy spolku českých bibliofilů), which had a print-run of 250. Hrabal's first book was withdrawn a week before publication, in 1959. It was eventually published in 1963, as Pearls of the Deep (Czech: Perlička na dně). In the same year, he became a professional writer. Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Czech: Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé) followed in 1964 and Closely Observed Trains (Czech: Ostře sledované vlaky) in 1965.

Ban from publication and later career[edit]

Bohumil Hrabal in 1985

After the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, Hrabal was banned from publishing.[13] In 1970, two of his books – Domácí úkoly and Poupata – were banned, after they had been printed and bound but before they were distributed. In the following years, he published several of his best known works in samizdat editions (including The Little Town Where Time Stood Still (Czech: Městečko, kde se zastavil čas) and I Served the King of England (Czech: Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále).

In 1975, Hrabal gave an interview to the publication Tvorba in which he made self-critical comments, which enabled some of his work to appear in print, albeit typically in heavily edited form.[14][15] Hrabal's interlocutors were anonymous in the journal, but it was later discovered that the published interview was at least a third version of the text,[15] and that the more explicitly ideological statements were inserted by editors Karel Sýs and Jaromír Pelc according to contemporary party doctrine.[15] One such passage reads " a Czech writer I am connected to the Czech people, with its Socialist past and future".[14]

Some young dissidents were incensed by Hrabal's actions; poet Ivan "Magor" Jirous organised an event on Kampa Island at which his books were burned,[15][16][14] and the singer Karel Kryl called him a "whore".[17] However, his defenders point out that an edited version of a key text, Handbook for the Apprentice Palaverer (Czech: Rukovět̕ pábitelského učně), was published alongside the interview, which ended the ban on publication and permitted his work once again to reach the broader Czechoslovak public.[14][15][18] Ludvík Vaculík, who had published his work in samizdat and would later continue to do so,[19] defended him, saying that the interview demonstrated that Hrabal was a writer of such standing that he could not be suppressed and the regime had had to acknowledge him.[15][18] Additionally, some of his writings continued to be printed only in samizdat and as underground editions abroad,[14] including Too Loud a Solitude (Czech: Přílíš hlučná samota) which circulated in a number of samizdat editions until it was finally published officially in 1989. Hrabal avoided political engagement, and he was not a signatory of the Charter 77 civic initiative against the communist regime in 1977.

Hrabal's two best-known novels are Closely Observed Trains (Czech: Ostře sledované vlaky) (1965) and I Served the King of England (1971), both of which were made into movies by the Czech director Jiří Menzel (in 1966 and 2006, respectively). Hrabal worked closely with Menzel on the script for Closely Observed Trains which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968. The two men became close friends and subsequently collaborated on other film projects, including the long-banned 1969 film Larks on a String.

Hrabal was a noted raconteur,[15][20][18] and much of his story-telling took place in a number of pubs including, most famously, U zlatého tygra (At the Golden Tiger) on Husova Street in Prague.[20] He met the Czech President Václav Havel, the American President Bill Clinton and the US ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright at U zlatého tygra on 11 January 1994.[14][21][15]


Hrabal's grave

Hrabal died in February 1997 after falling from a window on the fifth floor of the Bulovka Hospital in Prague, attempting to feed pigeons.[22] It was noted,[who?] however, that suicides were mentioned in several of his books, and early in the morning on the day of his death he mentioned an "invitation" he received in his dream from a dead poet, who was buried in a cemetery next to the hospital. His doctor had no doubts about his death being a suicide.[23][24] He was buried in his family's crypt in a cemetery in Hradištko. According to his wishes, he was buried in an oak coffin marked with the inscription "Pivovar Polná" (Polná Brewery), the brewery where his mother and stepfather had met.


Hrabal wrote in an expressive, highly visual style. He affected the use of long sentences; his works Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (1964) and Vita Nuova (1987) consist entirely of one single sentence. Political quandaries and the accompanying moral ambiguities are recurrent themes in his works. Many of Hrabal's characters are portrayed as "wise fools" — simpletons with occasional inadvertently profound thoughts — who are also given to coarse humour, lewdness, and a determination to survive and enjoy life despite harsh circumstances they found themselves in.[citation needed]

Much of the impact of Hrabal's writing derives from his juxtaposition of the beauty and cruelty found in everyday life. Vivid depictions of pain human beings casually inflict on animals (as in the scene where families of mice are caught in a paper compactor) symbolise the pervasiveness of cruelty among human beings. His characterisations also can be comic, giving his prose a baroque or mediaeval tinge.[citation needed] He is known for his "comic, slightly surreal tales about poor workers, eccentrics, failures, and nonconformists"; his early stories are about "social misfits and happily disreputable people".[25]

Alongside fellow satirists Jaroslav Hašek, Karel Čapek and Milan Kundera, Hrabal is often described as one of the greatest Czech writers of the 20th century.[citation needed] Author Ewa Mazierska compared his works to Ladislav Grosman's, in that his literary works typically contained a mixture of comedy and tragedy.[26] His works have been translated into 27 languages.[citation needed]


  • It's interesting how young poets think of death while old fogies think of girls. — Bohumil Hrabal in Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age
  • Bohumil Hrabal embodies as no other the fascinating Prague. He couples people's humor to baroque imagination. — Milan Kundera.
  • To spend our days betting on three-legged horses with beautiful names — Bohumil Hrabal


  • Ztracená ulička (A Lost Alley), Nymburk: Hrádek, 1948
  • Perlička na dně (Pearls of the Deep), Prague: CS, 1963.
  • Pábitelé (Palaverers), Prague: MF, 1964.
  • Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé), Prague: CS, 1964.
  • Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains), Prague: CS, 1965.
  • Inzerát na dům, ve kterém už nechci bydlet (An Advertisement for the House I Don't Want to Live in Anymore), Prague: MF, 1965.
  • Automat svět (The World Cafeteria/The Death of Mr Baltisberger), 1966.
  • Toto město je ve společné péči obyvatel (This Town is Jointly Administered by its Inhabitants), Prague: CS, 1967.
  • Morytáty a legendy (Murder Ballads and Other Legends), Prague: CS, 1968.
  • Domácí úkoly (Home Work), Úvahy a rozhovory. Prague: MF, 1970.
  • Poupata (Buds), Prague: MF, 1970, confiscated and burnt by the Communist regime
  • I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále), Prague: Petlice, 1971 (samizdat)
  • Něžný barbar (The Gentle Barbarian), Prague: Petlice, 1973 (secret anti-Communist publishing house); Exile edition: Index, Koeln, 1981.
  • Postřižiny (Cutting It Short), Prague: Petlice, 1974 (secret anti-Communist publishing house)
  • Městečko, kde se zastavil čas (The Little Town Where Time Stood Still), Prague: Petlice, 1974 (secret anti-Communist publishing house); Exile Edition: Comenius, Innsbruck, 1978.
  • Too Loud a Solitude (Příliš hlučná samota), Prague: Ceska expedice 1977 (secret anti-Communist publishing house); Exile edition: Index, Koeln, 1980.
  • Slavnosti sněženek (Snowdrop Festival), Prague: CS, 1978.
  • Krasosmutnění (Joyful Blues/Beautiful Sadness), Prague: CS, 1979.
  • Harlekýnovy milióny (Harlequin's Millions), Prague: CS, 1981.
  • Kluby poezie (Poetry Clubs), Prague: MF, 1981.
  • Domácí úkoly z pilnosti, Prague: CS, 1982.
  • Život bez smokingu (Life Without a Tuxedo), Prague: CS, 1986.
  • Svatby v domě (In-House Weddings), Prague: Pražská imaginace, 1986 (secret anti-Communist publishing house); Exile edition: 68 Publishers, Toronto, 1987.
  • Vita nuova, Prague: Pražská imaginace, 1986 (secret anti-Communist publishing house); Exile edition: 68 Publishers, Toronto, 1987.
  • Proluky (Vacant Lot/Gaps), Prague: Petlice, 1986 (secret anti-Communist publishing house) Exile edition: 68 Publishers, Toronto, 1986.
  • Kličky na kapesníku – Kdo jsem (Knots on a Handkerchief – Who I Am: Interviews), Prague: Pražská imaginace, 1987 (secret anti-Communist publishing house)
Complete works in 19 volumes by Pražská imaginace
  • Totální strachy (Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka), 1990
  • Listopadový uragán (November Hurricane), Prague: Tvorba, 1990.
  • Ponorné říčky (Underground Rivers), Prague: Pražská imaginace, 1991.
  • Růžový kavalír (Pink Cavalier), Prague: Pražská imaginace, 1991.
  • Aurora na mělčině (Aurora on the Sandbank), Prague: Pražská imaginace, 1992.
  • Večerníčky pro Cassia (Cassius's Evening Fairytales), Prague: Pražská imaginace, 1993.
  • Atomová mašina značky Perkeo, sc, Prace, 1991
  • Bambino di Praga; Barvotisky; Krásná Poldi, Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1990
  • Básnění, Prague: Pražská imaginace, 1991
  • Bibliografie dodatky rejstříky, Prague: Pražská imaginace, 1997
  • Buďte tak hodná, vytáhněte rolety: výbor z milostné korespondence, Prague: Triton, 1999
  • Chcete vidět Zlatou Prahu?: výbor z povídek, ed. Jaromír Pelc, Prague: Mladá fronta, 1989
  • Já si vzpomínám jen a jen na slunečné dny, Nymburk: S Klos, 1998

Complete works edition in 19 volumes was published in the 1990s by Pražská imaginace.

Selected English-language editions
  • Closely Watched Trains (novel), translated by Edith Pargeter with a foreword by Josef Škvorecký, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995
  • Cutting It Short, London, 1993
  • The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, London, 1993
  • The Death of Mr Baltisberger, translated by Michael Henry Heim, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975
  • Closely Watched Trains: A Film by Jiří Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal, London: Lorrimer Publishing Ltd, 1971
  • Closely Watched Trains: A Film, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971
  • I Served the King of England, translated by Paul Wilson, New York: Vintage International, 1990
  • Too Loud a Solitude, translated by Michael Henry Heim, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990
  • Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka, translated by James Naughton, Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 1998
  • In-House Weddings, translated by Tony Liman, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007
  • Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp, translated by David Short, Prague: Karolinum Press, Charles University, 2008
  • Vita Nuova: A Novel, translated by Tony Liman, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2010
  • Gaps: A Novel, translated by Tony Liman, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011
  • Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, translated by Michael Henry Heim, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2011
  • Harlequin's Millions, translated by Stacey Knecht, NY: Archipelago Books, 2012
  • Rambling On: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab, translated by David Short, Karolinum Press, Charles University, 2014
  • Why I Write?: The Early Prose from 1945 to 1952, translated by David Short, Karolinum Press, Charles University, 2020
  • The Gentle Barbarian, translated by Paul Wilson, New Directions, 2021

Film adaptations[edit]

  • Fádní odpoledne (Boring Afternoon) (1964, 14 min), dir. Ivan Passer (from a short story "Boring Afternoon")
  • Smrt pana Baltazara (The Death of Mr. Baltazar) (1966), dir. Jiří Menzel (from the short story "The Death of Mr. Baltisbergera") a segment of the film Pearls of the Deep
  • Podvodníci (Cheaters) (1966), dir. Jan Němec (from a short story "Swindlers") a segment of the film Pearls of the Deep
  • Dům radosti (House of Joy) (1966, 22 min), dir. Evald Schorm (from chapter V on the motifs of the novel Bambini di Praga (1947), also a segment of the film Pearls of the Deep
  • Automat Svět (At the World Cafeteria) (1966), dir. Věra Chytilová (from a short story "World Bar"), also a segment of the film Pearls of the Deep
  • Romance (Romance) (1966), dir. Jaromil Jireš (from a short story "Gypsy Romance") a segment of the film Pearls of the Deep
  • Sběrné surovosti / Makabratura (The Junk Shop) (1965, 31 min), dir. Juraj Herz (from a short story "Baron Munchhausen")
  • Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains) (1966, 79 min), dir. Jiří Menzel (based on motifs from the novel Closely Watched Trains)
  • Skřivánci na niti (Larks on a String) (1969, 90 min), dir. Jiří Menzel (from motifs of stories from "Buy A House In Which I Do Not Want To Live")
  • Postřižiny (Cutting It Short or Shortcuts) (1980, 94 min), dir. Jiří Menzel (based on the novel Postřižiny)
  • Mořská Miss (1981), dir. Magdaléna Příhodová (based on motifs from the chapter "Such A Beautiful Mourning" of the novel Siren)
  • Slavnosti sněženek (The Snowdrop Festival) (1983, 87 min), dir. Jiří Menzel (from motifs of stories from "The Snowdrop Festival")
  • Něžný barbar (Tender Barbarian) (1989, 88 min), dir. Petr Koliha (based on the novel Tender Barbarian)
  • Andělské oči (Angel Eyes) (1994, 90 min), dir. Dušan Klein (from the novel by Bambini di Praga (1947)
  • Une trop bruyante solitude (Too Loud Solitude) (1995, 110 min), dir. Vera Cais (based on motifs from the novel Too Loud Solitude)
  • Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (I Served the King of England) (2006, 120 min), dir. Jiří Menzel (based on the novel I Served the King of England)


  1. ^ "Bohumil Hrabal", by James Wood (London Review of Books, Vol. 23 No. 1, 2001)
  2. ^ a b c d “Vítová: Hrabal dostal šest pětek, a v Brně skončil”, Brněnský deník, 29 March 2009
  3. ^ a b c, 31.10.2004, reprinted from Právo
  4. ^ a b c Fasurová, Hana (29 March 2009). "Vítová: Hrabal dostal šest pětek, a v Brně skončil". Brněnský Deník.
  5. ^ “Naivní fuga”, Bohumil Hrabal (Pražská imaginace, 1995)
  6. ^ “Já si vzpomínám jen a jen na slunečné dny”, Bohumil Hrabal (Stanislav Klos, 1998)
  7. ^ "Měšťanský pivovar v Polné - Pivovary.Info".
  8. ^ Časopis Matice moravská (Matice moravská, 2001)
  9. ^ “Bohuslav Kilian”, by Miroslav Jeřábek, Reflex, 2007, no. 5, pp. 60–63.
  10. ^ A handbook of Czech prose writing, 1940-2005, by B. R. Bradbrook (Sussex Academic Press, 2007)
  11. ^ The Oxford companion to World War II, by Ian Dear, Michael Richard, Daniel Foot
  12. ^ “Očitý svědek (Eye-witness)”, Jiří Kolář (K. Jadrný, 1983)
  13. ^ Buchar, Robert (2003-10-24). Czech New Wave Filmmakers in Interviews. ISBN 9780786417209.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Kotyk, Petr; Kotyková, Světlana; Pavlíček, Tomáš (2014). Hlučná samota : sto let Bohumila Hrabala : 1914-2014. Kotyk, Petr, 1963-, Kotyková, Světlana, 1963-, Pavlíček, Tomáš, 1972- (Vydání první ed.). Praha. ISBN 9788020432797. OCLC 885931402.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h Mazal, Tomáš (2004). Spisovatel Bohumil Hrabal (Vyd. 1 ed.). Praha: Torst. ISBN 8072152262. OCLC 56880551.
  16. ^ Nezbeda, Ondřej. "Bohumil Hrabal: V osidlech cenzury". Týdeník Respekt. Retrieved 2018-05-10.
  17. ^ "History of the literary cultures of East-Central Europe: junctures and disjunctures in the 19th and 20th century" By Marcel Cornis-Pope, John Neubauer (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2007)
  18. ^ a b c "Hrabalovo století". Česká televize. 10 May 2018.
  19. ^ "Stránky spisovatele Ludvíka Vaculíka". Rew, Oniin. Retrieved 2018-05-10.CS1 maint: others (link)
  20. ^ a b Mazal, Tomáš (2011). Cesty s Bohumilem Hrabalem (Vyd. 1 ed.). Praha: Academia. ISBN 9788020019240. OCLC 750943943.
  21. ^ "100 Years Of Bohumil Hrabal". RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Retrieved 2018-05-10.
  22. ^ "Hrabal zemřel před 15 lety. 'U tygra by měla hořet svíčka'". ČTK. 3 February 2012. Retrieved 6 September 2016.
  23. ^ Reportéři ČT (31 March 2014). "Ukradená sebevražda pábitele". iVysílání. Czech TV. Retrieved 6 September 2016.
  24. ^ Hrubý, Dan (26 March 2014). "Lékař, který léčil Bohumila Hrabala: Jsem přesvědčen, že spáchal sebevraždu". Reflex. Retrieved 6 September 2016.
  25. ^ Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, Publishers. Springfield, Massachusetts, 1995. Page 3.
  26. ^ Mazierska, Ewa (15 November 2008). Masculinities in Polish, Czech and Slovak Cinema: Black Peters and Men of Marble. Berghahn Books. p. 54. ISBN 978-1-78238-216-4.

External links[edit]