Rain Mountain Press
by James Claffey
About James Claffey
James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA, with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley, their daughter, Maisie, and Australian cattle-dog, Rua. He is the author of the collection of fiction, Blood a Cold Blue, and his website is at www.jamesclaffey.com.
Jiri Klobouk’s Third Wife collects nine stories that have appeared in various Canadian and North American publications over the last thirty-seven years. The book is a curious amalgam of fiction, ranging from the brevity of “The Homecoming” to the lengthy story, “The Music Teacher.” In the span of stories there are moments of glittering prose, hardscrabble realism, and abject lunacy, all cleverly crafted to beguile the unsuspecting reader. Klobouk’s range is impressive, taking us from the frozen wastes of Russia to the icy streets of New York City. His is a thinking person’s collection, best savored when re-read and reconsidered by a patient reader who has the time to navigate some choppy emotional waters.
In truth, some of Klobouk’s stories become overly bogged down in a no-man’s land of narrative that is headed in no particular direction, but the opening and closing stories in the collection ring notes of clear and wondrous beauty. Both, “The Music Teacher,” and the title-story, “The Third Wife,” are marvelous pieces of fiction, wrought with surety by a writer in charge of his craft. Some of the stories do not have the rich pathos of these two narratives, like the brief “Refugee’s Report,” which is told from the point of view of a man smothered in an avalanche, or “Cavatina,” which relates the last day of Harald Haraldsson, who predictably kills himself in his bath.
It is in these stories that bookend the book that Klobouk’s writing nous is evident in full. He fully explores the nuances and histories of his character’s lives in these two stories, leading the reader on a journey from the cobbled streets of post-Second World War Prague, to the cavernous surrounds of Grand Central Station.
The opening salvo is “The Music Teacher,” a story with echoes of both Camus and Nabokov, in which a music teacher ponders his father’s demise, and the subsequent mental diminishment of his mother. We learn, “Last April 3rd, just before daybreak, my father hanged himself in the woodshed.” As Camus’ L’Etranger begins with the simple statement of a mother’s death, Klobouk in similar manner tells the reader of the father’s death, and how, “I realized there was no point in going to the funeral, which was set for Thursday.” This matter-of-factness is at once startling, and wonderful in its simplicity. One is drawn to the odd, taciturn nature of the music teacher as he explores the loss of his father and the fear of his mother’s impending death.
In Nabokovian fashion, the music teacher introduces us to his “Happy inspiration, Milena Waleská...my most talented student... After countless hours, days and weeks of mental and physical rending apart and merging together, nothing remained concealed any more. Our bodies and souls intertwined into one single mold of togetherness. In the end, we became inseparable, clothed, yet naked, without having touched each other except through the medium of our resounding instruments.” The music teacher’s life meanders through the dreams and fantasies about M.W., yet the story is ultimately one of family and connection. There’s a voyeuristic longing present in the music teacher’s recollection of the music lesson, and Klobouk invites the reader to travel down the wormhole of his narrator’s subconscious, to where he imagines his unhappy marriage, and his imaginary wife, pregnant and sitting “On the ottoman utterly stupefied, her mouth wide open—is this really the father of my child entangled with some preadolescent slut?” This tangled mind Klobouk reveals is an odd character infused with the holy spirit of musical brilliance, mingled with the tawdrier elements of middle-aged repression and angst.
“The Third Wife,” follows the playwright, Harry, through three marriages to Magda, Evelyn, and finally Myrna. Again, the specter of mental illness rises to greet the reader, and we learn, “Magda never returned home from the mental institution.” Harry is Klobouk’s Everyman, a literate, music-loving man in love with life, with women, and writing. The simple details Klobouk inserts in the narrative are compelling, and flesh out the story in a colorful and intensely strange manner. Early on in “The Third Wife,” we see “A black man on the sidewalk plucking the blues on a guitar with a steel hook in place of his right hand.” This sets Harry’s playwriting in motion and he pens another of his dramas.
It turns out Harry’s second wife, Evelyn is a woman of voracious sexual appetite, and after the love fades he divorces her, and at seventy, searches the “American Book Review” personals for a likely third wife. The final act of the three acts of Harry’s marriage drama plays out in a surreal narrative that involves premonitions and strangers in white coats, harbingers of death. Klobouk manages to humanize and surprise the reader with his sense of the absurd, nowhere more so than in the last act of the story where an unexpected turn of events results in Harry’s denouement in Grand Central Station.
Klobouk’s investigation of the playwright’s marriage travails is nuanced, clever, and in the end as harrowing a finale as one could uncover in Beckett’s most hopeless hour. The finality of Harry finding “…himself in a place with no beginning or ending, no entrance or exit,” is almost too much for a reader to bear.
What is clear is Klobouk is a writer whose stories are filled with politics, passion, and the darkness of the human soul. His Prague is the romantic city with ancient streets and bridges, a place where ordinary people live out their lives in a series of incidents and dreams, always searching for the answers to their most pressing questions. In the end these are stories that investigate the relative absurdities and tragedies of the human condition, and these are also stories where life can be “Emptier than a tin can licked clean.”
Ultimately, the collection is slightly unbalanced in terms of how the stories complement one another, and the author’s note that some of the stories were re-translated from the Czech, and given “a new form and meaning.” One can only wonder how different these stories might read without the patina of translation and the obfuscation that act brings to the idiomatic phrases of the original Czech.