At the CROSSROADS
Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History
BETRAYED by its Western friends and allies, twice invaded in the course of the past century and twice occupied, lovely, magicseeming Prague nonetheless has been well served in one domain by its foreign admirers in recent years. For no other small mid-European capital can point to such a grand parade of literary chroniclers and portraitists.
There’s John Banville’s poignant record of his journeyings, Prague Pictures, there’s Peter Demetz’s synoptic Prague in Black and Gold, there’s that Baedeker of dreams, Prague: A Traveler’s, compiled by master translator Paul Wilson a decade ago.
Each of these books is, in its particular way, a gem of description and evocation; each gives its readers the sense of wandering the city’s darkened arcades and passages and coming out on its wide embankments and windswept, flag-stoned squares.
And all of them are no more than curios when set beside the gloomy pages of Magic Prague by Angelo Maria Ripellino, that secret masterpiece of modernity, a work awash with fantasies and nightmares, a book that lies open, gathering dust on the bedside table of every Czech emigre, and which begins with the declaration that its author had surely lived in the Bohemian capital during a previous life.
It is against such benchmarks that Derek Sayer’s exorbitant, free-wheeling new study must measure itself, and does, repeatedly, enlisting its myriad precursors with spectacular results: the reader of this hypnotic, mazy ‘‘ surrealist history’’ turns from its cascade of interlinking chapters quite caught up in words and their shadows, almost swept away.
Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century is clear about its genre and its genealogy. Sayer claims the mantle of Walter Benjamin, who had a penchant for building up a narrative from disparate fragments and from the yearnings and projections of the past. And so it is here. Prague is the stage set for a relentless examination of the hopes of modernism and their eclipse: the capital where irony and absurdity come to shape time’s patterns.
Sayer unveils his design early on: this will be the tale of an elusive city at an elusive time. But above all it will be the tale of an elusive movement, which leads him in pursuit across continents and cultures, and which he sees as both ephemeral and vital — Prague surrealism, By Derek Sayer Princeton University Press, 656pp, $61 (HB) Distributed in Australia by Footprint Books a current of art and writing that flourished during the inter-war years in the newly independent Czechoslovak Republic, only for its chief exponents to be pulverised by exile, then written out of history in the years of East European communist control.
Surrealism in the Czech lands was a promiscuous affair; it touched on every novel thought and experimental endeavour in the arts, it was youthful, it was erotic, it was political, it was scandalous and in love with itself; and it thus left a detailed paper trail. Sayer is a master of his sources: he looks back on a past still within reach, receding from us; he tracks down its threads, from liaison to liaison, from city to city. Can a research professor ever have written a book quite so triumphantly eccentric and persuaded a major academic press to publish it so splendidly?
Sensual collages and Sadean drawings fill its pages, along with images of vanished cityscapes and reconstructed sculptures in kinetic light. Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, the exile composer Bohuslav Martinu and Moravian Janacek: they are all here, their lives anatomised, organised around the bright trajectory of the famous French surrealists and their first visit to the capital they came to dream of in later years. Andre Breton and Paul Eluard arrived in Prague on March 27, 1935, stayed two weeks, and spent much of their time hanging out in the coffee houses the city was famous for, places such as the Grand Cafe Orient, now reconstituted, where Sayer likes to while away ‘‘ a postmodern hour or two’’ listening to ABBA, Bach or Andrew Lloyd Webber scored for a baby grand. Or the celebrated Slavia, with its vast picture windows, a favourite haunt of literary dissidents in the 1980s, conveniently up the road from the old headquarters of the secret police.
There was a welcoming party for the Parisians: the unofficial head of the Czech vanguard was the combative Karel Teige, ‘‘ the many-headed Hydra of modernity and revolution’’, an essayist of prodigious energy. The poet laureate of Prague surrealism was Vitezslav Nezval; the chief artists were Jindrich Styrsky and the glamorous Marie Cerminova, who specialised in plangent erotic works on paper and rechristened herself Toyen.
Around these luminaries revolved a galaxy of gleaming stars and cultural enthusiasts: architects, designers, sculptors, dancers, pamphleteers. They comprised a movement: Devetsil, named for a flower, intellectual in temper, inclined to the making of artworks far from the mainstream. Sayer argues their most important achievements were in design, theatre and photography. They swirled into brief vogue, then faded. Who remembers the ‘‘ pictorial poems’’ Nezval and Teige made, which were choreographed in acrobatic poses by the puckish dancer Milca Mayerova? Yet they call to mind contemporary images; indeed, they are contemporary images, almost a century ahead of time.
This movement had an orientation: it looked outwards and drew influences in. ‘‘ It was the transformative power of the imagination that made Devetsil’s art what it was,’’ Sayer writes. ‘‘ Had Prague’s young writers and artists not been marooned in the landlocked centre of Europe, far from seas and skyscrapers alike, their work might well have been a good deal less adventurous than it was.’’ In fact the city spread out before the French visitors was already, as Breton and Eluard swiftly realised, a surrealist artwork, a conjoining of distinct elements that made up a new and multiplicit whole: buildings from different ages thrown together, cast in strange roles by fate.
Sayer, a Canadian who is professor of cultural history at Britain’s Lancaster University, surveys Prague like a native. He knows not just its face but its past faces and their present disguises. He takes a quick illustrative stroll from the Vysehrad shrine along the Vltava river. He passes the modernistic Nusle viaduct