I Served the King of England, a novel by Bohumil Hrabal (New Directions)

New Directions has just reissued Hrabal's great novel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, in advance of the release of Jiri Menzel's movie based on the book. Hrabal (1914-1997) is best known for writing Closely Watching Trains. But I Served the King of England is, quite simply, a masterpiece of tragicomic fiction. Hrabal loves to tell a story through the voice of someone overwhelmed by his times and circumstances, a person in the claws of history who exerts his humanity in comical and instinctively unique ways. In this picaresque novel, a man tells the story of his rise from an ambitious waiter to the owner of a grand hotel -- and his fall when the Communists take over. Along the way, he marries a Nazi gym instructor and, after the war, sells postage stamps confiscated from the Jews of Prague. Innocently irrepressible, the speaker sweeps us along in his narrative and makes us deeply feel both his helplessness and idiosyncratic will power. Since the story is so plot-driven, I can see how a screenwriter would be attracted to it. But the telling itself is the miracle here. Available in paper, list $14.95.