PRAGUE: “LITTLE MOTHER WITH CLAWS”? (FRANZ
KAFKA) – “FATA MORGANA OF LIFE”? (FRANZ WERFEL)
Three significant books that deal with Prague are used as gateways to literary thoughts about this ancient city at the center of Europe. Short glances at the city’s history are followed by two figures directly related to the nature of Prague, Franz
Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek, whose tragic visions alternate and often merge with raucous laughter. This leads to the complex Czech-German relations that have been haunting, but also enriching the city’s culture. Returning to literature, this study briefly explores works (banned during the Communist regime) where Prague appears filtered through the intellects and perceptions of three very different Czech writers (Klíma, Kundera, Vaculík). Subsequently, the vision expands to the enormous impact Prague has had on internationally well-known writers (Apollinaire,
Banville, Beckett, Rilke, Trollope). Ultimately, this essay seeks to highlight the opposites which Prague comprises – its ancient nature as it constantly renews itself, its tragic periods shot through with lively irony, its jostling because of political changes and finally, its perennially being steeped in a specific magic which writers of different cultures have long been trying to describe.
Keywords: Czech Literature; Prague; Franz Kafka; Jaroslav Hašek; Ludvík
Vaculík; Ivan Klíma; Milan Kundera
Available online at www.sciencedirect.com
Russian Literature LXXVII (2015) I 0304-3479/© 2015 Published by Elsevier B.V. www.elsevier.com/locate/ruslit http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ruslit.2015.01.003 22 Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz
There are three books on my desk. All of them imposing volumes. They will serve us as different gates by which to enter this ancient city whose turbulent past ruptures into its current multileveled, contradictory nature: German
Oskar Schuerer’s Prag (1935),1 Italian Angelo Maria Ripellino’s Magic
Prague (Praga Magica, 1973, 1994)2 and the third Peter Demetz’s Prague:
City in Black and Gold (1997),3 written by a Czech-American scholar.
Schuerer, an art historian, has written a widely read book (it went through five editions in the course of eight years) that contains a lengthy section of photographs, is closely researched and details the 9th century until the beginning of World War II. The author concentrates on the arts, obvious in the subtitle of his volume Kultur, Kunst, Geschichte. Written in what could be called an expressionistic, at times exaggerated style, it tends to rise, as it were, into higher linguistic spheres and might occasionally elicit a modern reader’s smile. What is interesting for us today is that by reading the five successively appearing introductions, we can follow a strand of Prague’s multileveled history, namely its changing relations with German culture that became more ideologically dominating as time went on. The first introduction written in 1930 tells of the author’s initial visit to Prague when he was led through the proud magnificence of the city (its “stolze Pracht” as he calls it), by a certain Antonín Novotný. The second one, written four years later (1934), takes issue with the critical voices of the Czech reviewers who reproached the author’s “German” stance. Written as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was being established in 1939, a later introduction describes the precarious fate of Prague at the crossroads of several cultures, appearing as if in a distorted mirror:
When the days of March of this year decided Prague’s fate, this book was already out of print. In the previous nine years it had accomplished its task, the difficult task to make Germans realize what wealth of the
German people’s strength [the national socialist “Volkskraft” is the author’s word here – M.G.-S.] has been merged into the thousand years of building this magnificent city. [...] So this book will embark again on its responsible task.4
The responsibility, as the author explains, to provide a deeper understanding of the German nation’s “Eastern fate” (“Ostschicksal”) and the city on the
Vltava (Moldau), is thus aiding in discerning the “own and the other” (“Eigenes und Fremdes”) that have merged here into the complementary unity that the city displays (“Stadteinheit”). As we read this linguistically formulated process of cultural domination, we perceive the dark shadows of the future closing over the ancient city and its inhabitants.
The second book, Ripellino’s Praga Magica, covering four centuries of
Prague’s history, is a passionately argued, yet deeply learned panegyric of
Prague – ancient and mysterious, bent under the burden of a millennium of
Visions of Prague 23 wars and occupations, yet resilient in its magical beauty, myths and legends and layered consciousness. Ripellino tells us that after initial difficulties with the complicated nature of the city, he stuck his roots in it, “like a tree”,5 and decided to avoid “the rigor mortis of methodology […] [and] weave a capricious book, an agglomeration of wonders, anecdotes, eccentric acts, brief intermezzos and mad encores”,6 peopling its pages with figures from a broad perspective of European literature and art, its street theatres, clowns, alchemists’ laboratories, colorful cafes and bordellos. He evokes the dark excesses of the Gothic era, the Cabalistic powers of Rabbi Loew and the creation of the by-now-renowned Prague Golem that was mirrored in subsequent literature again and again. The last pages are a mixture of melancholy and bitter resentment of what Soviet imperialism had wreaked upon the city. Yet a ray of Chaplinesque hope always seems to lighten the scene. Ripellino has given us a masterpiece of suspenseful, elegant story-telling that bears its enormous learning lightly, as in a dance.
Peter Demetz’s Prague in Black and Gold, the third book on my desk, was written after the demise of the Soviet Union. It bears the imprint of a lucid scholarly mind that has experienced the stultifying weight of the repeated political impacts on the city and its nation, and sweeps away the thousands of emotional, often distorted, semi-mythical or narrowly political pages that have been written about Prague. Starting with various versions of