The Golden City of Prague has long been an intellectual center of the western world. The writers collected here range from the early nineteenth century to the present and include both Prague natives and visitors from elsewhere. Here are stories, legends, and scenes from the city’s past and present, from the Jewish fable of the golem, a creature conjured from clay, to tales of German and Soviet invasions. The international array of writers ranges from Franz Kafka to Ivan Klíma to Bruce Chatwin, and includes the award-winning British playwright Tom Stoppard and former American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, both of whom have Czech roots. Covering the city’s venerable Jewish heritage, the glamour of the belle-époque period, World War II, Communist rule, the Prague Spring, the Velvet Revolution, and beyond, Prague Stories weaves a remarkable selection of fiction and nonfiction into a literary portrait of a fascinating city.
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Prague: Zlatá Praha. The Golden City remains to this day, despite the horrors of the mid-twentieth century, a dazzling example of what different nations can achieve when they work side by side with each other. The architecture of the city expresses vividly the skill of Czech and German artists but also the influences of Hungarian, Italian, French and Flemish culture. Prague is a European city par excellence and it is no coincidence that its greatest years of artistic achievement have always coincided with times when the narrow perspectives of nationalism have been in retreat.
It was the Habsburg Rudolf II (1552–1612) who made the city an intellectual centre of the western world. It was a magnet to which Philip Sidney, John Dee and Edmund Campion, to name but three distinguished Englishmen, felt compulsively drawn in order to further their intellectual development. Nearly two centuries later, another Habsburg, Joseph II, emancipated the Jews with his famous Patent ofToleration (1782), thus giving a further impetus to cultural life in Prague where the great oral traditions of Jewish storytelling arguably reached their climax in the immortal story of ‘Th e Golem’, the monster of clay brought to life from the banks of the Vltava by the sixteenth-century Rabbi Loew.
This dazzling variety of sources make the selection of literary descriptions of the city something of a challenge. To limit one’s choice to works in the Czech language would be uncompromisingly narrow. Franz Kafka and Egon Erwin Kisch, two of Prague’s greatest literary sons, both wrote almost exclusively in German. If the late sixteenth century produced a steady stream of important writers from Englandto Prague, the political upheavals of the twentieth brought a similar traffic in reverse. Th e history of modern English theatre would be inconceivable without the name of the Czech playwright Tom Stoppard, one of whose later works attempting to describe Prague from the dramatic days of thePrague Spring of 1968 to the fall of Communism in 1989 we quote here.
Prague was never Vienna or Trieste, both cities of the Habsburg empire which produced a formidable literary Parnassus around the turn of the twentieth century. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century Prague remained commercially and in size of population well behind these other urban centres. Yet as the century progressed and its Bohemian consciousness flourished, Prague proved capable of inspiring some of the greatest creative genius of Europe and while some of the literature we have selected here is the product of central European writers visiting the city, there can be no doubt that Prague was (and is) capable of inspiring good literature well beyond the confines of Europe (see the Australian Nicolas Rothwell’s evocative account of the Velvet Revolution in these pages).
Modern Prague has no literary museum but the visitor to Prague inspired by the descriptions and accounts to be found in these pages can do worse than visit the deserted but atmospheric Lapidarium behind the Hradčany castle. There he will f nd many an original monument to the old literary traditions of the city. Here are the remains of the astrological fountain where Philip Sidney discussed theology with Edmund Campion. In the next-door room are the remnants of the Marian Column which stood on the Old Town square so admired by Herr Kohl in his travels during the midnineteenth century, while nearby is the colossal monument to Marshal Radetzky, the greatest Bohemian soldier since Wallenstein whose military prowess was immortalized by Johann Strauss in his famous march of the same name and past whose shadow Kafka walked to work each day.
The genius loci of a city’s inspiration for the writer is often diff cult to calibrate. The up-to-date bustle of a western city which Prague exudes today is very different from the glacial calm and greyness which marked it during the long decades of Communist repression. Yet both periods inspired writers to produce works which are quintessentially celebrations of a city’s unique atmosphere and quality. Prague’s spirit and mentality is utterly unlike that of Vienna or Budapest despite their sharing the common architectural heritage of a multi-national and multi-confessional empire. The end of the Cold War allowed its inhabitants to open a new chapter in their city’s cultural development and if the works of the latest generation of writers, some of whom we have quoted here, are anything to go by, Prague will continue to inspire a wide audience, drawn not just from Europe but from the four corners of the globe.
Table of ContentsPreface by Richard Bassett
J. G. Kohl, “A Visit to Prague in 1841”
R. W. Seton-Watson, “Appeasement: ‘Peace with Honour’”
Prince Alfons Clary-Aldringen, “Student Life in Belle-Époque Prague”
Lieut.-Col. B. Granville Baker, “From a Terrace in Prague”
C. J. C. Street, “Atmospherics in the Old Town”
Franz Kafka, “The Conscription of Troops”
Gustav Meyrink, from The Golem
E. I. Robson, “John Hus”
Robert Young, “The Imminent German Occupation of Prague”
Franz Kafka, “Description of a Struggle”
Nicholas Rothwell, “One Velvet Evening”
Ivan Klimá, “The Spirit of Prague”
Tom Stoppard, from Rock ’n’ Roll
Madeleine Albright, from Prague Winter
Anne Edwards, “Shirley Temple Witnesses the Warsaw Pact Invasion from the Hotel Alcron”
Sylva Fischerová, “The Stones Speak Czech”
Bruce Chatwin, from Utz
František Langer, “The Sword of St Wenceslas”
Jiří Weil, from Mendelssohn is on the Roof
Ivan Diviš, “Invasion Day”
Michael Farr, “A Long-Awaited Family Reunion in Prague”
Daniela Hodrová, “Prague, I see a city...”
Madeleine Albright, “Revisits Prague and Holocaust Memories”