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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Working Knowledge

Petr Král

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To purchase Working Knowledge

Title: Working Knowledge
Author: Petr Král
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 184 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Working Knowledge - US
Working Knowledge - UK
Working Knowledge - Canada
Notions de base - Canada
Notions de base - France
  • French title: Notions de base
  • Translated by Frank Wynne
  • With an Introduction (of sorts) by Milan Kundera

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing observations

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/2009 Jeff Waxman
TLS . 28/10/2005 John Taylor

  From the Reviews:
  • "(W)ith Král’s virtuosic ability to get at the meat of a thing, his utter focus, his venerable voice, we’re treated to a sober and bittersweet and painfully observant volume that crystallizes for us an experience of life far different than our own. (...) This is a book about a person with himself and the things, the trappings of life: the Jerusalem artichoke in the kitchen at night or a trip to a public toilet. This is a quiet book, not one to be read all at once." - Jeff Waxman, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Taking on nearly anything that pertains to our daily experience, Kral's elegant and incisive meditations vary in length from a couple of pages to a mere sentence (.....) Intimate with French life yet also at one remove from it because of his background, Kral hints at the metaphysical ramifications of whatever he comes across." - John Taylor, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Petr Král's Working Knowledge collects short meditations and observations, generally on the very everyday and common. There is often a slightly wistful edge to his take on things, but what is most noticeable is that lingering sort of gaze, as he focusses in on what we often don't bother reflecting much on.
       From the feeling of relief that comes with urinating to the glimpse of skin of a woman's back whose blouse is "rucked up" -- knowing that: "with its silent yet unyielding radiance, blinding in spite of itself, it is no more than a strip of no man's land" -- he has a fine touch with the physical and sensual. He finds: "only a curve gives meaning to the journey and transforms it into a joy", breaking the monotony of the straight road -- but doesn't stop there, noting that:

Even the pleasures of love are in its meanders -- without which it would be no more than the simple shunting of a piston -- the loops and leashes of seduction, a fluttering skirt, a glove, a hat gracefully removed, gentle detours by the curve of a shoulder or the delicate hollow of the elbow.
       He writes of the different times of day -- dawn and twilight and night -- or the feel of the days of the week, or simply crossing a street. He writes of a clean shirt as: "a second -- a better -- skin, its rustlings and flutterings swell the breathing of the epidermis", and of shaving:
     In shaving ourselves, we put on a soapy white face as though to play the clown, the better to find beneath the foam his bare skin
       He argues:
     In spite of its apparent offensiveness, there is no better word. In contrast to the clinical 'sex' or the seductive 'pussy', 'cunt' definitively describes the fascinating thing -- including its hidden bone -- just as it complements its subject: the brusque tension it introduces into the world.
       Some of these pieces are beautifully concise, but Král also spins out his thoughts well, as in one on being 'Stuck', which finds him conveying those moments where:
     We do not even know how old we are, we have learnt nothing, and everything is behind us now; the things around us, cars, friends, strangers passing by, all sink back slowly into themselves, growing darker now like a film stuck in a projector. Nothing leads anywhere, the grey of the afternoon stretches away with the four winds; life is but a plateau where we glance about wildly.
       And in 'Morning' there's a beautiful bit about starting in on books, including:
Sometimes, we spend the whole morning in the library, pacing the aisles of books, taking down first one book then another only to replace them having skimmed only a few words. Far from wasting time, each attempt is like beginning a new life, boundless and immemorial. As we linger, leafing simultaneously through all the riches of the world, we too are eternal, unbounded; and here we would remain, though we were struck down by a thunderbolt, a book still open in our hands.
       The collection is uneven, and occasionally ponderous, but there is more here that works than doesn't. Translation is occasionally an issue, especially given Král's very precise expression; on the whole it comes across well enough, but at some points even translator Wynne has to throw up his hands in surrender, as with the pun that is the essence of the short piece 'Disappointment' ("This doesn't work in English" Wynne acknowledges in his notes).
       Rather typically French (with a bit of an Eastern European accent), Working Knowledge might be a bit much to take at one go but is an enjoyable volume to dip into -- and contains some very fine riches.

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Working Knowledge: Reviews: Petr Král: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Author Petr Král was born in Czechoslovakia in 1941 and moved to France in 1968.

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