Prague, Cap­i­tal of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury: A Sur­re­al­ist His­tory

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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