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In-House Weddings

In-House Weddings

by Bohumil Hrabal, Tony Liman (Translator)

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Inspired by “Mrs. Tolstoy and Mrs. Dostoevsky, whose biographies about their husbands have now been published in Prague,” Bohumil Hrabal decided to produce his own autobiographical work, ostensibly fiction, from his wife’s point of view.  He would write, he said, “not a putdown about myself, but a little bit of how it all was, that


Inspired by “Mrs. Tolstoy and Mrs. Dostoevsky, whose biographies about their husbands have now been published in Prague,” Bohumil Hrabal decided to produce his own autobiographical work, ostensibly fiction, from his wife’s point of view.  He would write, he said, “not a putdown about myself, but a little bit of how it all was, that marriage of ours, with myself as a jewel and adornment of our life together.”
            The task, taken up by such a rogue comic talent, could be nothing other than strangely delightful; and in In-House Weddings, the first of the trilogy that Hrabal produced, we meet the author through the eyes of his wife Eliska.  She narrates his life from his upbringing in Nymburk through his work as a dispatcher in a train station and then in a scrap paper plant, his first publication, his trouble with the authorities, and his association with notable artists and authors such as Jiri Kolar, Vladimir Boudnik, and Arnost Lustig.  Hrabal’s bohemian life was itself a source of great interest to the Czech public; transmuted here, it is even more compelling, a wry portrait of artistic life in postwar Eastern Europe and a telling reflection on how such a life might be recast in the light of literary brilliance.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Hrabal's comedy, then, is complexly paradoxical. Holding in balance limitless desire and limited satisfaction, it is both rebellious and fatalistic, restless and wise. . ..  It is a comedy of blockage, of displacement, entrapment, cancellation. . .. Hrabal, in Freud's terms, is a great humorist.  And a great writer." —London Review of Books

"Anyone familiar with the dark and obliquely humorous imagination of Mr. Hrabal . . . will know that he could no more bear the predictability of . . . a formula than he could stomach the inane conformism demanded by a socialist bureaucracy. . . [His book] is an irresistibly eccentric romp, quick with the heart's life and about as schematic as a drunken night on the town. . . . Mr. Hrabal's is a cry of expiring humanism." —New York Times

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Writings from an Unbound Europe Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt


Copyright © 1987

Bohumil Hrabal Estate, Zurich, Switzerland
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2430-1

Chapter One THE BUILDING I WAS LOOKING FOR WAS QUITE FINE-OUT IN FRONT of its main entrance stood a gas lamppost; the sidewalk, once checkered, had most certainly been torn up ages ago and most recently filled in again. The gas lamp was already lit, so I was able to decipher the house number correctly: twenty-four. When I stepped inside, the hallway smelled of the cold and spilled wine. The walls were damp, peeling like puff pastry. When I walked through the hallway, out into the small courtyard, I had to jump back. A blonde in violet panties and bra was splashing bucketfuls of water around the yard, up as high as the windows, then brushing the water away into the gutter. She was in a sweat, scowling, focused on her work. Again she took a bucket of water, a bucket into which the water gushed from an open tap, hung the empty bucket on the brass tap, and again splashed water onto the cement yard. I said, "Is Miss Liza home?"

"She's not, but ask the doctor, he's washing floors, too, you see we need to keep it clean here, the whole building walks past my windows, and I'm a neat woman!" So said the saturnine blonde, and perhaps in an effort to prove what she said, she collided with my shoulder in pushing by into the hallway to flick the switch on in her room, and I could actually see her place was unbelievably clean: a polished stove and a polished wardrobe, atop which lay an ostrich-feather fan, and under the window was a plushly upholstered couch decorated with velvet pillows, and a table laid with a tablecloth, in the center of which glowed a vase full of artificial flowers, wild poppies.

I shrugged my shoulders, waded down the long puddle toward the stairway, and took six steps to the next courtyard, on the right spread a long shed, buried up to its windows in dirt that had been dropped there once to create an upper courtyard. Along the blanked-out windows I set out toward a one-story building, next to the ground floor a balcony, silhouetted, decorated with cast-iron railings; an adjoining structure's wall rose over the shed into the sky, nothing but this tall wall, a wall with peeling plaster, a gigantic windowless wall, so vast it dwarfed the building with the balcony and lighted windows. To the left was a stand for beating carpets on, then an open door to the laundry, through which detergent and dirty water stank. And drawn by a light on the ground floor, the cold glow of a droplight, I kept on going. And while it was pleasant in the small courtyard, a draft of air so cold came from an open ground-floor window that it made me shiver. I stood around for a while, Should I go in, should I not go in? Should I ask, or should I merely leave? Down in the lower courtyard I could hear the blonde splash another bucket onto the cement, then I heard the sound of water rising in the gush from the open tap into the bucket; I stood at the dirt pile by the wire-mesh window, that blanked-out window of the long shed above, where the high wall rose to the sky, out of the dirt pile grew two stalks of ivy which crept along wires strung across the courtyard, and tendrils fell from the branches of wild, creeping ivy, upturning halfway to the ground, those tendrils touched me lightly, and I mustered my courage and stepped up to the window.

There on the ground knelt a man with a scrub brush, scrubbing the floor. Not kneeling, but prone on all fours, scrubbing the floor, focused, dreamy, and quiet, now he straightened up and gazed with pleasure at another piece of scrubbed wooden floor. In the corner was a stove, a cast-iron stove with a roaring fire and a big pot of boiling water. I stood near the window, there was a candelabra unscrewed from an old piano with a board nailed underneath, and on it sat a huge asparagus, its branches dangling right to the floor, touching two mirrors that leaned against the window wall. In the corner of the room stood a brass art nouveau bed on brass castors. The rest of the furniture was outside, chairs and a table, and an oval stool, on which rested a split tree stump that probably had a beehive inside.

And the man dug the brush into the water again and continued focusing on scrubbing the floor, the scrub brush scratched and the droplight lit the way. And again down in the lower courtyard I heard the loud splash of water hitting cement, then someone on the second floor opened a door, light flew out into the yard and snapped off again as someone upstairs closed the door. I heard steps come down the winding stairs, quickly, I squeezed in behind the bathroom door, mortified that the one descending the stairs was coming to use this very bathroom, because in this building anything could be, but I relaxed only when the person coming down the stairs kept on going to the lower courtyard. I came out of the bathroom and heard the blonde splash another bucket of water, apparently, right under the feet of the person who'd just come down from the second floor, because he let out a horrible yell, and then I heard nothing but curses, one finer than the next, like the blonde had been in wait all night for the very moment when she could let fly at this person who'd stepped in the way of her bucket.

"I'm a neat woman, sure as hell a stickler for clean! Goddamn building, damn all the tenants and their guests! Goddamn home weddings!" griped the woman, got up in violet bra and panties. And I screwed up my courage, scared stiff the person who'd just come down from the second floor would have to go up again, and I heard, practically right under me, under the courtyard, way down in the depths of the cellar, someone shoveling coal, dropped down dully, off the shovel into a metal bucket.

"Doctor," I said, coughing, "do you hear me? Doctor, you wouldn't happen to know when Miss Liza and her husband are due back?"

And yes, the man I'd spoken to kept a hold on the scrub brush, and now he was tossing it into the bucket and starting to wipe down the floor with a rinsed rag.

I leaned against the two mirrors between the windows and saw the man had blue eyes. He wiped the sweat from his brow and then told me with a smile, Miss Liza went across the water, she'd be back soon, and if I wanted I could wait at his place, he'd put a chair next to the stove for me.

And then he straightened up heavily, and when his head glinted in the lamplight, I saw he didn't have much hair. Now he was spreading newspapers around so he could get to the door without messing up his floor, and I got the feeling he was a soccer player who'd given up playing a long time ago. He offered me his hand and led me over to the stove and then slapped himself on the forehead, walked back out over the newspapers, and back in with a chair. I sat down and it was nice, I'd started to get cold, and the stove gave off a pleasant heat. The doctor picked up the bucket easily, carried it out into the courtyard, I heard him pour the dirty water into the gutter, but the gutter wouldn't drain, it burbled, choked, drained slow, only to suddenly swig down everything the bucket had poured into it, in one gulp. Almost like the gutter had breathed a sigh of relief. And the man whom I'd called doctor, who'd accepted being called doctor, poured hot water into the bucket, then went out into the hallway to fill it the rest of the way with water from the tap. Then other steps echoed through the courtyard. I heard them stop, and I felt someone look into the room, I heard a bucket set down against the courtyard tiles, but then whoever it was picked it up and continued on their way, up the stairs to the second floor, where they let out a gasp, a sigh of relief, just like the little gutter that had hemmed and hawed and suddenly with a horrible sound slurped that entire bucket of grime.

"According to your tone of voice, you're from Moravia," the doctor said, kneeling down again, then he dropped to the floor on all fours and continued to scrub with his brush, sopping up the dirt with his rag, rinsing it off in the bucket.

"I am," I said.

"Remember, anything worth anything in Prague is from Moravia, I'm from Moravia, too ... But look out! Everything that's classy about me comes from a small Czech town," he said laughing, inspected his floor with pleasure, and continued, "but I had to break from my small town, because I couldn't bear being at home anymore. One day I took a good look and threw up my hands. I hadn't even noticed I'd been the dandy for so long, that I'd been walking around in handsome made-in-Prague clothes for so long, walking around for so long in these fine shoes, bought at Poldi Gutman's, choosing handsome ties for so long to match the even more handsome shirts I bought up in Príkopy, wearing these hats bought at Cekan's and little deerskin gloves for ever so long, too. I threw up my hands because I saw I was living with my parents and my brother Bret'a in a palace and that I had my own beautiful library in the den, but, in short, had done nothing so far to deserve it, living it up like the French emperor, so I fled that beautiful apartment in the brewery, shamefaced, and didn't stop till I got here, to this downstairs room, a former smithy, a room that had nothing, that I had to paint myself, fix up, find my own furniture for, so everything I have in here is mine, bought with cash I earned myself up at Kladno, in the Poldinka Steel Mill, in its beautiful head of smoke, ringlets seared with stars ... And so I'm a fellow crowned with stars."

"And is that why you're washing the floor?" I asked, laughing.

"You know, that's exactly why. If you aspire to be stylistically pure, you must focus," the doctor said, and he held the rag dripping dirt and continued, rapt, "I want to have no more than anybody else, I want to get closer to everybody else by working, or by trying to live and work exactly as they do, that's exactly why this thing I'm doing right now is my poetic, my poetry, which makes me free, at least I believe makes me free. That's why I walked out on my library, on my brown-velvet-covered writing desk, walked out on the tile stove our maid kept stoked, walked out on the home-cooked meals Momma made for me and the cellar full of Daddy's beer and wine."

I raised my eyes, brightening at a memory, "Yes, I come from an eleven roomer, too, in fact, we had two maids and I had a nanny and Daddy had a Studebaker, his own chauffeur, and a cellar full of choice French wine and boxes of Irish and Scotch whisky, and my bedroom was Louis XIV, and Daddy had this English-style den, one whole wall of pleated drapes, Sèvres vases in every corner, walls full of Dutch originals, because Daddy traveled the world buying wood, because he was a court adviser, and Mom had a boudoir ..."

The doctor splashed water onto the last scrap of dirty floor with his scrub brush and interrupted me, "And your villa, that apartment of yours, you left that of your own accord? Ran away from home?"

"No," I said, taken aback, "you know perfectly well yourself what it was like at the war's end ... I was sixteen years old when they took me off to the camp, but not just me, even my parents. I didn't know where my brother Karli was, where my sister Wutzi was, only after I was in the camp did I get the news Karli'd been wounded near Stalingrad, he took it in the chin. Wutzi made off after her husband to somewhere in Holland, and my little brother Heini was just a boy, so they sent us to work at the brickyard, and so even I was to blame for the Germans losing the war effort, me, who was sixteen years old."

He straightened up, shrugged his shoulders, sighed, then said, "Awful, but even the innocent suffer for a war lost. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, which was what was paid in the Old Testament, in this war, thanks to the cruelty of an all-out war, a new phrase was coined ... For one eye, two eyes, for one tooth, the full jaw, ach! Do you see that? I'm done." He got up and gestured triumphantly at his wood floor, which smelled of soap and water.

Then I went out into the courtyard. On the second floor of the building opposite, where Liza was supposed to live, it was still dark, save on the ground floor, where a light shone out from the apartment of the saturnine blonde.

Then I helped the doctor lift his table into his clean room, then his chairs, we brought in the split tree stump with the beehive, and then we laid the tablecloth and the doctor brought out a glass yogurt tub that held three carnations, the doctor pulled down the droplight, took some newspaper and folded it around the wire for a shade that spotlighted just the white tablecloth and the beaming carnations, and then the doctor set a big pitcher down on the table, poured four pints of beer into it, and offered me a drink ...

So I sat with a strange one, who sat across from me not looking directly at me, but sort of looking at me askance, off to one side, but I felt the sole reason he wasn't looking at me directly was actually kind of like a horse, to get a better look at me. And the beer was good, the stove roared because the doctor kept adding old, split-up boards.

"Beautiful here, isn't it?" said the doctor proudly. "Can you blame me? Sundays I go out to visit my mom, my parents, but coming back on the train, soon as I get off, I run back from the station as fast as I can and just let out a sigh of relief once I unlock my door, turn the light on, and I'm home again, once I get the fire here in the stove going, put a fresh flower into a glass, open a book on my white tablecloth, once I've brought myself a fresh pitcher of beer over from Vanista's across the street, can you blame me?"

Through the open door came an alto voice. "Doctor, I've brought you something you'll smack your lips over today!" I jumped-there at the window stood the saturnine blonde-even the doctor gave a start, for there, from the waist up, she stood in her violet bra, arms raised, happily holding up a plate and a little steaming saucepan.

The doctor took the plate and the little saucepan and breathed it in, delighted.

"Oh, magnat magyar goulash, rump steak goulash-we'll have that right now. How'd you know I had nothing in, Mrs. Beranová? And 'specially since we're famished!"

And the neat blonde smiled and turned around, her massive neck threatening to burst, and she pushed aside the shoots of creeping vine, her shoes clicked across the little courtyard, and then, the sound of her footsteps slowed on the stairs down to her room.

"Who's that?" I said, gasping.

The doctor held a loaf of bread, but held it in such a weird way, sawing at the bread with a dull knife like it was something he wanted to say, so that he opted to set the bread and the knife down and said, "That lady was a waitress in Hamburg as a young woman, a waitress for twenty years, that's why she's so neat. Now she works as a dishwasher at the Golden Goose, they say they've never seen a neater woman, that's why they give her those little pots for all her fancy men. At the Golden Goose she washes dishes, all night here she washes down the courtyard and cleans her furniture, and she even washes those artificial flowers of hers. She's probably in love with me; that's why when she brings me a little pot, I don't know what to say, I'm embarrassed and shy."

"You still get shy?" I raised my eyes.


Copyright © 1987 by Bohumil Hrabal Estate, Zurich, Switzerland. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bohumil Hrabal (1914–1997) is viewed by many as the quintessential Czech novelist of the post-war period. Best known in the English-speaking world through the film adaptations of his novels Closely Watched Trains (Northwestern, 1995), Too Loud a Solitude (Harvest, 1992), and I Served the King of England (Vintage, 1990), Hrabal is the author of many works of fiction. He fell to his death in 1997 while feeding pigeons from a hospital window.
Tony Liman was born in Czechoslovakia in 1966 and grew up in Toronto, Canada. He received his MFA from the University of British Columbia. He is a writer and translator and his fiction has appeared in several Canadian literary journals. Liman lives in Vancouver, Canada.

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