Three novels packaged together from 1933 and 1934 by the Czech science fiction writer (those these, not so much!).
Hordubal – 1933
When Juraj Hordubal goes off to the United State, he didn’t realize it would ruin him for the world. It’s no so much that America was so amazing that he could hardly stand to be back in his old life, nor is America so ruinous that it chewed him up and spit him out. Instead, it had a disrupting influence all told. That the world is this big and this different in other parts creates in him a broken existence. How could someone possibly return to a life of mundane farm work and an increasingly stressful and loveless marriage? Lucky for him he’s about to be murdered.
In this novel, we have a kind of send up of mystery novels, which generally start with the crime and focus on the killer, their means, motives, and opportunities, and investigate and pursue them as a consequence. In this book, we begin with the life of the victim, who doesn’t even become the victim until 2/3 thirds the way through, and once is the victim, never returns to narrative centerplace for the rest of the novel, and of course in the final cynical moment, is completely erased from existence.
This novel shares some similarities to a poem like “Miniver Cheevey” or like the novel Amerika by Franz Kafka. It also has some of the same disruptions of form and genre as Trent’s Last Case or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but than any of these it’s an existential novel at its heart.
Meteor – 1934
A truly bizarre novel in its own way, this is a kind of reversal of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Four different people witness what they originally believe to a meter landing nearby and when they investigate, they find a crashed plane and a dying pilot whose fever racked body and head leads him to explain his story to each of the three primary witnesses, each who interpret his story through their own lens. The novel then proceeds to give each of their accounts of the pilot’s backstory written as a document for an official inquest of the crash.
The three stories are: a Sister of Mercy who hears in the ravings of the dying pilot a witness to sin and salvation; a Clairvoyant who uses the sparse information supplied by the pilot to craft a series of signs and portents; a Poet who takes the pilot’s ravings and writes an entire short novella of international intrigue of sex and smuggling and adventure and theories about novels!
At the end, the doctor, a mere scientist merely constructs the report.
The book is again a kind of satire of the different ways of capturing human condition and putting into different forms of writing and language. Whether that form privileges spirituality, metaphysics, language and ontology, or simply the bare existence of life, the story attempts to piece it together. None of them get it right, or maybe they do, like them, we also cannot pull naked truth from the different forms any better than they can.
An Ordinary Life – 1934
In this third novel in the collection, we meet a reluctant memoirist looking back on his life. His reluctance comes in two distinct varities: a reluctance to tell what he considers to be too boring and too mundane a life to worry too much about and two, a reluctance to tell of a life that he might end up regretting for any numbers of reasons. And of course, both can true and can spiral back on one another in various ways.
He has had an ordinary life. He wanted to be a teacher, having gone to college and developed a love of learning, and even when speaking with his father found love and support for the idea. But something happened along the way and he instead became involved a regular sort of business. The resulting choice created that kind of destiny for him and left him out of sorts.
This memory opens up for him further elements of the choices he made along the way and how those choices did and didn’t allow for other choices.
As these digressions and iterations in his choice become more and more clear from a retrospective sensibility, his current writing begins to spiral more and more out of control.
This is a book about choices, the longview, reflection, but also about the difference between descriptive and prescriptive language.