Bohumil Hrabal

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Bohumil Hrabal
Bohumil Hrabal 1988 český spisovatel foto Hana Hamplová.jpg
Portrait of Bohumil Hrabal taken in 1988
Born Bohumil František Kylián
(1914-03-28)28 March 1914
Brno, Austria-Hungary
Died 3 February 1997(1997-02-03) (aged 82)
Prague, Czech Republic
Resting place Hradištko
Occupation Writer
Ethnicity Czech
Alma mater Charles University, Prague
Period 1948–1998
Notable works Pábitelé
Ostře sledované vlaky
Slavnosti sněženek
Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále

Bohumil Hrabal (Czech pronunciation: [ˈboɦumɪl ˈɦrabal]; 28 March 1914 – 3 February 1997) was a Czech writer, regarded by many Czechs as one of the best writers of the 20th century.[1]

Life and work[edit]

Hrabal was born in the city 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] Four months after Hrabal's birth World War I started, 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] [1] and Tomáš Kilián (d. 1925, a descendant of a French soldier injured at the battle of Austerlitz, on the outskirts of Brno),[4][5] 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 (b. 1889-d. 5 June 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 Hrabal’s probable biological father, according to Blechová-Kalvodová.

Marie and František married in February 1917, shortly before Bohumil's second birthday. Hrabal's half-brother, Břetislav Josef Hrabal, was born later that year (b. 25 September 1916-d. 30 May 1985); Břetislav (Slávek) is said to have been an excellent raconteur[2] [2]. The family moved in August 1919 to Nymburk, a small town on the banks of the Labe (Elbe), where František Hrabal became the brewery's manager [3]. Both of Hrabal's parents were active in amateur dramatics.

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).[6][7]

In 1920, Hrabal began at the primary school in Nymburk. In September 1925, he spent one year at a grammar school in Brno (now Gymnázium třída Kapitána Jaroše, which was later attended by another famous Czech writer, Milan Kundera). He failed the first year; he later attended a technical secondary school in Nymburk. There too he struggled to concentrate on his studies, despite extra classes given to him by his uncle[2] [4].

In June 1934 Hrabal left school with a certificate that said he could be considered for a place at university on a technical course. Hrabal 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. Four days later, on 7 October 1935, he registered at the Charles University in Prague to study for a law degree. He graduated only in March 1946[8] as Czech universities had been shut down during the Nazi occupation, which began in February 1939.[9] 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 (Ostře sledované vlaky). He worked variously as an insurance agent (1946–1947), a travelling salesman (1947–1949) and a manual labourer alongside the graphic artist Vladimír Boudník in the Kladno steelworks (1949–1952), 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 (1954–1959), before working as a stagehand (1959–1962) at the S. K. Neumann Theatre in Prague (today Divadlo pod Palmovkou).

Hrabal lived in the city from the late 1940s onward, for much of it (1950–1973) at 24 Na Hrázi ul. in Prague - Libeň; it was demolished in the spring of 1988. In 1956, Hrabal married Eliška Plevová ('Pipsi' to Hrabal, and 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.

Bohumil Hrabal in 1985

Hrabal began as a poet, producing a collection of lyrical poetry in 1948 (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.[10] (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 Zprávy spolku českých bibliofilů (Report of the Association of Czech Bibliophiles). It 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 Perlička na dně (Pearl on the Bottom). In the same year, he became a writer by profession. Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé (Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age) followed in 1964 and Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Observed Trains) in 1965.

After the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 Hrabal was banned from publishing.[11] 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 Městečko, kde se zastavil čas [The Little Town Where Time Stood Still] and Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále [I Served the King of England]).

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. Some of the comments indicate editorial insertions (“as a Czech writer I feel connected to the Czech people, with its Socialist past and future [italics added]”). Some young dissidents were incensed by Hrabal's turnaround – some burnt his books and the singer Karel Kryl called him a “whore”.[12] However, Hrabal's statements enabled at least some of his works to reach the broader Czechoslovak readership. Many of his writings, though, continued to be printed only as underground editions abroad, including arguably his most powerful novel Too Loud a Solitude. Hrabal steered clear of political engagement however, and he was not a signatory of Charter 77, a civic iniative and protest against the communist regime drawn up principally by Václav Havel, Jan Patočka, Zdeněk Mlynář, Jiří Hájek, and Pavel Kohout in 1977.

Hrabal's two best-known novels are Closely Observed Trains (Ostře sledované vlaky) (1965) and I Served the King of England (1971), both of which were made into movies by the acclaimed 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 were to collaborate on other film projects, including the long-banned 1969 film Larks on a String.

Hrabal was a great raconteur, much of his story-telling taking place in his favourite pub, U zlatého tygra (At the Golden Tiger) on Husova Street in Prague. 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.


Hrabal died in February 1997 after falling from a window on the fifth floor of the Bulovka Hospital in Prague, attempting to feed pigeons.[13] It was noted, 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 the cemetery next to hospital. His doctor had no doubts about his death being a suicide.[14][15] 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; in fact his works Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (1964) and Vita Nuova (1987) entirely consist 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.

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. The adult human world is revealed as terrifying, and, in the end, perhaps the only sane philosophy is a line delivered in Closely Observed Trains: "You should have stayed home on your arse".[citation needed] His characterisations also can be comic, giving his prose a baroque or mediaeval tinge.

Along with Jaroslav Hašek, Karel Čapek and Milan Kundera — likewise imaginative and amusing satirists — he is considered one of the greatest Czech writers of the 20th century. Author Ewa Mazierska compared his works to Ladislav Grosman's, in that his literary works typically contained the perfect mixture of comedy and tragedy.[16] His works have been translated into 27 languages.


  • 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 dne (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 (secret anti-Communist publishing house)
  • 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, 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
Bohumil Hrabal painted among his beloved cats on the "Hrabal Wall" in Prague
Hrabal's portraits on Postřižinské beers
Hrabal's grave
  • Cutting It Short; The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, London: Abacus, 1993
  • The Death of Mr Baltisberger, translated by Michael Henry Heim, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975
  • Closely Observed 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

Film Adaptations[edit]

  • Fádní odpoledne (Boring Afternoon) (1964 . 14 min), dir. Ivan Passer (from a short story Śnięte afternoon)
  • Perličky gout (Pearls On The Ground) (1965 . 107 min)
  • Smrt Mr. Baltazar (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 Nemec (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) a segment of the film Pearls of the Deep
  • Automat Svět (At the World Cafeteria) (1966), dir. Vera Chytilová (from a short story World Bar) 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 (Junk Shop) (1965, 31 min), dir. Juraj Herz (from a short story Baron Munchhausen)
  • Östra sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains) (1966, 79 min), dir. Jiří Menzel (based on motifs from the novel Closely Watched Trains)
  • Skřivánčí on 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 (Postriziny) (1980, 94 min), dir. Jiří Menzel (based on the novel Postriziny)
  • Morské Miss (completed as Magdaléna Příhodová) (1981) (based on motifs from the chapter Such A Beautiful Mourning of the novel Siren)
  • Slavnosti sněženek (The Snowdrop Festival) (1983, 87 min), dir. Jiri 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)
  • Příliš hlučná samota / Une trop bruyante solitude / Allzu laute Einsamkeit (Too Loud Solitude) (1995, 110 min), dir. Vera Cais (based on motifs from the novel Too Loud Solitude)
  • Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále / Ich habe den König englischen bedient / Obsluhoval som anglického Král / Öfelsége pincer Volta (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, 29.3.2009
  3. ^ a b c, 31.10.2004, reprinted from Právo
  4. ^ “Naivní fuga”, Bohumil Hrabal (Pražská imaginace, 1995)
  5. ^ “Já si vzpomínám jen a jen na slunečné dny”, Bohumil Hrabal (Stanislav Klos, 1998)
  6. ^ Časopis Matice moravská (Matice moravská, 2001)
  7. ^ “Bohuslav Kilian”, by Miroslav Jeřábek, Reflex, 2007, no. 5, pp. 60–63.
  8. ^ A handbook of Czech prose writing, 1940-2005, by B. R. Bradbrook (Sussex Academic Press, 2007)
  9. ^ The Oxford companion to World War II, by Ian Dear, Michael Richard, Daniell Foot
  10. ^ “Očitý svědek (Eye-witness)”, Jiří Kolář (K. Jadrný, 1983)
  11. ^
  12. ^ "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)
  13. ^ "Hrabal zemřel před 15 lety. 'U tygra by měla hořet svíčka'". ČTK. 3 February 2012. Retrieved 6 September 2016. 
  14. ^ Reportéři ČT (31 March 2014). "Ukradená sebevražda pábitele". iVysílání. Czech TV. Retrieved 6 September 2016. 
  15. ^ Hrubý, Dan (26 March 2014). "Lékař, který léčil Bohumila Hrabala: Jsem přesvědčen, že spáchal sebevraždu". Reflex. Retrieved 6 September 2016. 
  16. ^ 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]