Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia

“That was typical: if I had stood in the door and asked her about Toyen or Sartre or the history of Christianity, she wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. I ask her about a lamp—and she almost bursts a blood vessel.”
--Michal Viewegh, Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia

The other night I finally finished reading that rather short novel, Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia. I had first heard of it back in August 2004 (which I realize I can no longer refer to as “last summer”) when our intensive Czech course featured an afternoon chat with its author. While I felt it was pretty much impossible to say anything very intelligent to an author whose work I had only just learned of and certainly not read, and therefore said little or nothing in either Czech or English all afternoon, I had to admit that Viewegh did a good job of carrying off an entire afternoon of Being An Author, and in fact managed it nearly all in English since most of the students were not advanced enough to follow it had it been in Czech. (I was in the advanced class, but as its least advanced member.) Since he admitted that, like the narrator in Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia, he had formerly been a teacher, I daresay he learned some of his speaking and audience-entertaining skills there.
In any case, he talked about his various novels and about being an author who is considered neither truly literary nor quite on the level of the tabloid Blesk. I supposed at the time that he meant he was what we call in the US a mid-list author, but this was not really it, because mid-list authors fall into publishing limbo and can be of all descriptions except for best-selling or utter dreck. Viewegh sells pretty well in the Czech Republic and has been translated into other languages.
Consequently, when I ran across an English edition of his novel, I went ahead and bought it. After all, it looked amusing. It was described as a “picaresque romp” about post-Revolution Prague. True, I already had Jesse’s copy of White Teeth on hand for entertainment, but that is set in London.
Now that I have finished Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia, I confess to mixed feelings. There are things I like about it, and which made me laugh. At the same time, it is not a book that I really found especially satisfying. I do not always require novels to be very literary—I am capable of enjoying decidedly nonliterary mysteries, although they do have to be good examples of their genre. (On the other hand, I was reading Nabokov’s Ada not long ago and have only a few pages left, due to accidentally leaving the book in Brno. It held my interest pretty well most of the time.)
The story line of Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia was not a problem. While in general I feel that real-life student-teacher romances are unwise (after all, look what happened to Abelard), I am perfectly happy to read about them in fiction, whether the ending is happy or tragic. Likewise, I am always up for fiction that explores the peculiarities of Czech history, culture, and daily life.
Indeed, the novel has lots of entertaining scenes, mainly set at the school where the narrator teaches. The descriptions of students, teachers, and administrators are pretty funny. I also appreciated the fact that part of the comedy about the school was that it was named after the writer Vladislav Vančura (an associate of Toyen; in fact, after he was executed by the Nazis, she did the set design for his play Teacher and Pupil) and that there were occasional humorous references to the literary archive where I spend so much of my time.
But alas, something about the novel never really came off for me. Perhaps it was that the character of Beata never really came to life. Initially she was interesting purely because she was depressed and sullen, but once she emerged from that stage and fell for the narrator, she failed to seem at all interesting. I knew that she would eventually commit suicide, but this never managed to become real or sad to me. In other words, the comic bits worked to some extent, but the serious aspect failed. I had enough trouble believing that the narrator ever had an affair with her, let alone mourned her death. Furthermore, the little quotations and italicized phrases, which were initially rather striking, got old quickly.
One never knows, I must admit, whether to blame the author or the translator. The book seemed to have so much potential, but I could not say it really fulfilled it.
We will just have to hope that Michal Viewegh will not have the same reaction to any of my novels when they are (published and) translated into Czech.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Julia said...

When I read the Viewegh book I felt the same way. There seemed to be something missing, a heart of some sort to make the story start living, so that, for example we actually start to believe in the characters. One of my friends argues that we can read it as a book that captures the unreality of the 90s, but there are other writers that do that better (Ivan Klima for example).

December 23, 2005 7:36 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

Yes, I need to read some Klima. Yesterday I nearly bought a book of recent Czech short fiction, but felt like I was already spending too much on books in one day. With luck it will still be around next week or the week after.

December 28, 2005 4:22 PM  

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