Excerpted from Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live (Catapult, November 2016).
The text below is an excerpt from my new memoir disguised as a book of individual essays about reading. I hope that it doesn’t need much context, but I will say that there is more to the story of the two people who used to be me and M. At that time, when we were poor and young and stupid, I picked up a book by Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude. I haven’t let it out of my sight since. Hrabal was a magnificent Czech writer of the last century. He’ll make you laugh and cry in the same sentence and then start all over again in the next sentence, and the next, and the next. At the age of eighty-eight, in 1997, I think it was, Hrabal fell, or jumped, out of a fifth-story hospital-room window. Some say he was only trying to feed some bread to the pigeons, but I wonder if he wanted to do both, end his life and feed the hungry pigeons. Somehow this seems perfectly rational to me.
In 1999, M and I took an overnight train to Split, Croatia. On the train was a large group of drunken Russians who partied until dawn. A conductor told us, “Don’t be fooled. Those aren’t Russians, they’re Slovenes.” The rowdiest of them all, by far, the conductor said, are the Slovenes. They’re the ones who started all the trouble in Yugoslavia in the first place.
I must have been reading something on that trip. It might well have been Too Loud a Solitude. I remember giving up on Milan Kundera after discovering the crowded loneliness of Bohumil Hrabal. Czechs say the writer is so idiosyncratic as to be untranslatable. I’ll take what I can get. Because an approximation of the “real” Hrabal has been, for a long time, more than enough for me. That year, I read Too Loud a Solitude compulsively, and still keep it close in order to disappear again into the loopy cadence of his prose and that gone time when M and I were other people who went by the same names. Prague in 1999. We were poor and young and stupid and happy. Let it stand without qualification. The first time I finished Too Loud a Solitude, I was up in Letná Park, and I remember leaping off the bench and running around in circles, holding the book above my head and shouting because I believed I’d experienced some religious illumination. A brief, ninety-eight-page, lightning strike of a novel, the book is about a man named Hanta who has been crushing paper beneath a street in Prague for the last thirty-five years. People throw paper and books, books by the barrelful, down Hanta’s hole in the pavement. Before he crushes them, Hanta reads. The book of Ecclesiastes, the Talmud, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant’s Theory of the Heavens. Kant, who argues that the heavens are not humane, nor is life above or below.
The most precious books he carries home with him. Hanta’s little apartment is wall-to-wall packed with the books he’s been hoarding for thirty-five years.
Even the bathroom has only room enough for me to sit down in: just above the toilet bowl, about five feet off the floor, I have a whole series of shelves, planks piled high to the ceiling, holding over a thousand pounds of books, and one careless roost, one careless rise, one brush with a shelf, and half a ton of books would come tumbling down on me, catching me with my pants down.
Many of the books Hanta reads are either banned or strongly disapproved by the government, and Too Loud a Solitude—which was self-published in a samizdat edition in 1976 and didn’t officially appear until the Velvet Revolution in 1989—is anti-Communist without lifting a finger. The book goes far beyond the politics of its time. Its relevance today is unmistakable. Too Loud a Solitude is an elegy for literacy. It is also about how worship of unfettered technological progress invariably results in a trouncing of the human spirit. And it is about how only individual human memory has the unique power to redeem us. Hrabal would howl at all this grandiosity.
So I should add that, among other things, the book also has a healthy amount of human turds. Because no serious book I know of takes itself less seriously than this one. Hanta is lustful and brainy and spends much of the book drunk as a lord. Down in his cellar beneath the street, Hanta talks to Jesus. He converses with Lao-tzu. And he reads and he reads. He reads drunk, he reads sober. He reads the books he refuses to destroy and, by reading, recalls his life, his lost loves, his favorite uncle, and some famous turds the size of paperweights. He remembers the time he was held up at knifepoint. But the guy wasn’t after his wallet. What he wanted was someone—anyone, for once—to listen to his poetry.
And Hanta remembers the lips of his Roma girlfriend, who disappeared during the war after being taken away by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp.
One evening I came home to find her gone.
Early in the book Hanta quotes the Talmud: “For we are like olives: only when we are crushed do we yield what is best in us.” By the end of the novel, this line, devastatingly, is no longer a metaphor, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Too Loud a Solitude has rescued me from myself more than once. And there have been many times when I’ve wanted to hold strangers at knifepoint myself just to force them to take the book home and read it, slowly, letting each sentence echo in the brain. Call it the novel of my life, the one book, above all the others, that so entangles hope with despair that you can’t tell one from the other. There’s hope in this alone.
I can be by myself because I’m never lonely; I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to me.
In 2015, I went back to Prague for a couple of days. I happened to be in Germany, so I took a train from Munich. I’m not sure what I was looking for, but I went wandering in the neighborhood M and I had lived in sixteen years earlier, Vršovice, off tramline twenty-two. It took me an hour to find that first apartment—hard for me to believe, given how well my feet once knew the route from the tram stop to our door. How do we forget such things? When I finally found Kozacka 21, our landlord’s name was still on a piece of ragged tape next to the buzzer. I could have sworn it was the same piece of tape as when we’d lived there. It seemed like a completely unnecessary miracle. I pressed the button and waited. Nobody answered. I pressed it again. Nothing. I unpeeled the piece of tape—DRAPOL—and slipped it into my pocket.
M is doing okay now. She’s back in the Midwest, living near her family, working again in film, and writing. She’s also doing her best to help other people with similar struggles at a local organization that is constantly under threat of being defunded. Hrabal says the heavens may not be humane, but this doesn’t mean that, sometimes, not all the time, there isn’t compassion and love down here on earth.
I remember waking up at dawn to the rocking of the train. The Slovenes had finally knocked off. We must have been south of Trieste by then. M was still asleep in the upper bunk. The light hadn’t reached her face yet. I climbed the ladder and watched her breathe.
Outside, the fog was so thick it wasn’t fog exactly, more like a curtain of rain that wasn’t falling.