Vita Nuova, the second book of an autobiographical trilogy (the first is called In-House Weddings, the third volume, Gaps, is due out sometime around June 2011), recounts Bohumil Hrabal's (1914-1997) life in Prague in the 1950s-'70s or thereabout. Though a natural writer -- the stuff just "flows" from him -- the book showcases his struggles at accepting himself as an artist, and there are some tragicomic scenes where his poet friends chide him for not writing even though he is well into his 40s. The book is written from the perspective of Hrabal's wife, Eliska, nicknamed Pipsi (sorry, I'm not putting any Czech diacritics in the names -- then again, neither does Hrabal as described in Vita Nuova, when he types furiously -- usually on the roof of his house -- on a German typewriter with no diacritics).
Hrabal is never named in the book -- it is ostensibly a novel, not an autobiography. Pipsi refers to him as "my husband," and his friends call him "the doctor" on account of the law degree he received prior to WWII. The war, of course, figures prominently here, though only as a shell-shocked echo in the lives of Pipsi and the doctor. However, the book never descends into grimness or bitterness, as the doctor is full of zest for life, an elemental creature that's half man, half child. Hrabal's genius is picking his wife as the narrator -- this gives him the opportunity to really look at himself from an ironic distance, and his love of water, fire and beer, his moodiness, his habit of proclaiming bawdy stories loudly while in public, his constant pub-goings and other quirks of character are all related through his wife's by turn adulatory, loving, horrified, ashamed, disgusted, forgiving voice. Think of Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses, but funnier and more coherent. And speaking of voice, there are no commas or periods in Vita Nuova, only the occasional ellipsis, though Hrabal does use caps to designate new sentences. At first this was a bit hard to read, but after a few pages, I appreciated this stylistic quirk because it lent the writing an amazing fluidity.
Hrabal is not well known in the U.S., and it's a shame. I'm a big reader, and have just "discovered" him after decades of heavy reading. Two films have already been made from his books, and he is extremely well-respected in Europe. Stylistically interesting even in English translations, extremely funny and able to reach deep emotional depths, he deserves to be widely read and appreciated. Forget Kundera and read Hrabal instead. I know I will be picking up every translated work as it gets published.