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An introduction to Johannes Urzidil

Posted 13th May 2017

Translator extraordinaire David Burnett tells us why we should all sit up and pay attention to the brilliant Johannes Urzidil, one of the great writers of the Prague circle, a friend to Franz Kafka and Max Brod. Pushkin Press is delighted to bring you The Last Bell: the first collection of stories in English by Urzidil.

I’ve always sympathized with the underdog, anyone I perceived as being overlooked or underappreciated. I was the one in my family who invariably got abysmally sad when a little ethnic restaurant would shut down for lack of business, while my brother and sister would march happily past it, as long as there was food to be had elsewhere.

Maybe Johannes Urzidil was one of those ethnic restaurants shutting down, and I felt the need to give him a leg up. Actually, he’d been boarded up for years already – hadn’t even really opened for business this side of the Atlantic. I think it was in Jürgen Serke’s Böhmische Dörfer (Bohemian Villages – a German expression, also translatable as “Greek to me”), published in Vienna in 1987, that I first ran across this now obscure writer, back in February 2007. The weighty coffee-table book, an engaging and lavishly illustrated volume, spotlighted long-lost Bohemian-German, mostly Prague-German writers.

I was intrigued by the idea of an Austrian-born writer – from Austria-Hungary, Old Austria, mind you – a successful journalist and non-fiction writer, fluent in both German and Czech, son of a Jewish mother and German father (and subsequently raised by a Czech step-mother), a man in the prime of his life, his early forties, picking up and leaving his native “Golden Prague” at the start of another cataclysmic war and eventually settling in New York, where he stayed for the next three decades until his death in 1970. Strangely, he died in Rome, on a reading tour, and was buried just outside the Vatican.

I wanted to know more about this friend of Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel and Max Brod who wrote book after book of stories, essays and a lone but weighty novel, all in German, while living in relative poverty in the New World. (He supplemented his meager income as a print and radio journalist by taking up leatherworking, producing little decorative boxes and rebinding old decaying books, and concentrated on the short story for purely practical reasons, his daily grind not permitting him to focus on larger forms of fiction.) I learned that he became a prolific story-writer only after coming to the United States, publishing about a dozen collections with reputable German and Swiss publishers in the 1950s and 1960s. Why had none of these been translated to English, I wondered. The only translations were his Kafka reminiscences, There Goes Kafka (Detroit 1968), and an offbeat biography, Hollar: A Czech Émigré in England (London 1942), about a seventeenth-century Czech etcher – the latter surely not the ticket to fame and fortune in Urzidil’s adopted homeland.

I went online, ordered a scarce used volume with the title Morgen fahr’ ich heim (Tomorrow I’m Going Home) and dug in. The book was a posthumous collection (1971) of “Bohemian stories” hand-selected by Urzidil himself, with an afterword by noted Austrian-American scholar and Kafkalogist Heinz Politzer. I was immediately taken by what I read, and near the end of my reading fell under a kind of spell. Not the literary kind, dreamy and otherworldly; a real spell, emanating, I felt, from the pages of this book with its bright yellow dust jacket and brutalist artwork. Somehow my mind was held captive.

Later I read and reread his other books and they also blew me away. I was impressed by his humanity and humility, two qualities scarce among modern fiction writers, and by the way that Urzidil’s world is still very much an enchanted one, with an underlying, often mystical meaning and sense of connectedness. Urzidil is a truth-seeker, and I knew I had to translate him, perhaps as a kind of cosmic ransom. I began with the long story “Death and Taxes,” taken from a collection called Entführung, Kidnapping (1964), for which I eventually, gratefully, received a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant.

In trying to understand my decade-long passion for Urzidil, sometimes akin to a bug or fever, I often ask myself just who exactly is the kidnapper, and why did he kidnap me?

Buy David’s brilliant translation of Urzidil’s The Last Bell here.