Literary Boroughs #53: Prague, Czech Republic

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the 53rd post on Prague, Czech Republic, by Jeremy Hauck and Sonja Crafts. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

It would be a mistake to attempt to examine Prague’s literary scene without also looking at its rich history, which informs its architecture as well as its writing. Most major Prague writers have a distinct dialogue with the city’s political history in their works—from the banality/inanity of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy found in Kafka’s writings, to the often satirical, sometimes overt critiques of military force and the region’s various occupying governments found in Hašek and Čapek, Hrabal and Seifert, Kundera and Klíma. Even today, the effects of Prague’s subjugation and the turbulence surrounding its successive political changes continue to infiltrate its literary contributions, more than two decades after the Czech Republic cut the political puppet strings that once tied it to Moscow.

Now the capital of an EU state and one of the most visited cities in Europe, Prague is settling into its capitalistic groove—just how comfortably remains to be seen. Its contemporary writers, including Jáchym Topol, Emil Hakl, Václav Kahuda, Petra Hůlová, Sylva Fischerová, and Michal Ajvaz, continue the tradition of historical, political, and cultural examination, looking beyond Prague’s attractions and hypermarkets to find the real heart of the city and its people—both past and present. With a little effort, visitors to Prague can do the same, finding literary hot spots and quiet, scenic spaces, sometimes only minutes from the main tourist sites. Or as Ajvaz states in an interview with The Prague Post:

To look at beautiful houses inhabited with shops full of kitschy souvenirs and overpriced restaurants without any atmosphere is truly depressing, as is seeing unpremeditated decisions to deprive historical parts of the city of its life by turning them into mono-functional seats of offices. [But] Prague, like every city, has lots of magic places where no tourists go, which are not described in any tourist guides and which each of us has to find for himself: there are empty, dreaming streets on the periphery, railway stations with the atmosphere of distances, departures and arrivals, railways overgrown with bushes, embankments of the river, various quarters with their own souls…

What the city is known for:

Crystal-filled souvenir boutiques; Smaženy syr and pivo; Trams ringing through cobblestone streets and squares; Statues, both equestrian and non; Spires and Art Nouveau; the Jewish Cemetery and Der Golem; Kafka and Havel, Dvořak and Smetana; Prague Spring, Plastic People of the Universe, The Velvet Revolution.

Resident Authors:

This list will be far from comprehensive; even though in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as Kundera says, “the Czech language retreated to the countryside” in the face of Catholic and German invasion, and then went underground or abroad during the Communist era, Prague has fostered an enormous amount of literary talent. The great Czech fiction writers of the 20th century—Hašek, Hrabal, and Kundera—have major connections to Prague.

Few cities, however, are so thoroughly linked with an artist as Prague is with Kafka. By turning around in place in Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) one can take in virtually all of his world. He was born on the square and he lived there for much of his life; he and Max Brod, the man responsible for giving Kafka to the world, went to high school in Kinsky Palace (Palác Kinských). Although Kafka lived in the heart of the Czech capital, he associated exclusively with German speakers. According to Kundera nobody would have ever heard of Kafka if he had written in Czech.

Among other writers buried or immortalized in statue in Prague, Hašek’s bust stands at the bottom of Vítkov Hill, on the Žižkov side; Speculative and dystopian fiction writer Karel Čapek (R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), 1920) is buried in Vyšehrad Cemetery, a space he shares with poets Karel Mácha (1810-36), who wrote the most famous Czech poem—“May”—and has a statue on Petřín Hill. There’s also Jan Neruda; artist Alfons Mucha; and composers Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák.

The only Czech writer to win a Nobel prize, Jaroslav Seifert, lived in Prague, as did Vladislav Vančura, Holocaust survivor Arnost Luštig, Prague Underground writer Ladislav Fuks, and Rilke, who left Prague in his early 20s for Germany. Hrabal, who lived in Prague from his university days in the 1940s, until he fell out of a fifth-story hospital window there at age 82, is memorialized on the labels of Postřižinské beer, brewed in his childhood town of Nymburk.

Prominent Czech writers living in Prague today who have books in English translation include Ivan Klíma, Hůlová, Ajvaz, Kahuda, Hakl, Topol, Fischerová, Jan Novák, Slovakian writer/musician Róbert Gál, and Michael Viewegh, the Czech Republic’s bestselling novelist. A comprehensive list of contemporary Czech authors can be found here.

Expat writers include poet/performer Lucien Zell, Louis Armand, organizer of Prague MicroFestival last year; Delbos, who is also a poet and an editor at B O D Y; Ken Nash, and Douglas Shields Dix.

Literary References:

There are too many to mention each individually, however, a glance at the most well-known (and our favorite) gives readers a sense of Prague literature’s connection to the history of Bohemia.

Kafka’s The Trial, while containing no outright references to Prague landmarks, is understood to refer to specific places in the city. Kafka’s descriptions encompass both the surreal and the real Prague of his day, with tenements, treacherous offices, and the Prague of international renown. In Chapter 9, for instance, Josef K. arrives at the cathedral—St. Vitus Cathedral, the centerpiece of Prague’s skyline—with a tourism album in hand, prepared to show an Italian business client around town. Instead, he finds himself alone until the silence of the cathedral is suddenly broken as he’s preparing to leave: “He had almost passed the last of the pews and was emerging into the open space between himself and the doorway when he heard the priest lifting up his voice…How it rolled through the expectant Cathedral! But it was no congregation the priest was addressing, the words were unambiguous and inescapable, he was calling out: ‘Josef K.!’”

Like Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek was born in Prague in 1893 and died soon after turning 40. And in a narrative move eerily similar to the final chapter of The Trial, Hašek describes his iconic protagonist as he is marched by two armed men toward some unknown fate: “And the good soldier Švejk walked along unassumingly under the escort of the armed protectors of the state. Their bayonets shone in the light of the sun and at Malá Strana before the monument of Radetzky Švejk turned to the crowd which had followed them and called out: ‘To Belgrade! To Belgrade!’”

During Hašek’s time, tensions between the German-speaking residents of Prague, who supported Vienna’s move to war against Serbia, and the Czechs were especially high—Hašek himself rioted against the Germans as a teenager, and you won’t see Radetzky’s statue (of a Hapsburg military commander) in Malostranské náměstí today; it was removed after World War I.

Decades later, Bohumil Hrabal would echo Švejk’s ironic “patriotism” in a character contending with the circumstances of the second world war. In I Served the King of England, Hrabal’s similarly hapless-but-lucky narrator Ditie defends a German girl from Czech nationalists who harass her in the street and tear off her socks, an act that costs him his job waiting tables at the Hotel Paris (a fictional locale we like to imagine as based on the real Grand Hotel Evropa), which is run by proud Czechs. Cue the Nazi takeover: “[t]he second day after the occupation of Prague, I was out for a walk. On the Old Town Square the German army was cooking tasty soup in big kettles and passing it out in mess cans to the population. As I stood there watching, who did I see, in a striped dress with a red badge on her breast and a ladle in her hand, but Lise.” Characters created in Prague tend to have no explanation for the political circumstances in which they live; they merely negotiate with it. In Prague’s history the status quo has changed often, sometimes overnight, as it did in World War II and as it did again on February 25, 1948, when the Iron Curtain fell to the west of the City of Spires.

Despite the suppression of Czech authors in the 1960s and 70s, Prague writers working abroad, and the use of secretly self-published (and often since republished) “Samizdat” texts, allowed the city to keep intact its literary voice and international presence throughout Soviet Occupation. Prague has been the setting for numerous novels from and about this period, from Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being to Ivan Klíma’s Love and Garbage.

More recently, Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City puts Prague under a magical realist lens and sees miniature elks living in the bases of the statues on Charles Bridge. Laurent Binet’s HHhH, about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (the Butcher of Prague) in World War II, was a National Book Critics Circle finalist last year. Mark Slouka’s 2007 novel The Visible World takes on the same subject.

Dozens of films have been shot in Prague including the forthcoming Serena (Prague as North Carolina(?)), Amadeus (Prague as Vienna), Casino Royale, XXX, Mission Impossible, The Bourne Identity (Prague as Zurich), Everything is Illuminated, and that one AFI music video.

Where to Learn:

Charles University is the main higher education institution for residents, where students often study in the same lecture halls that once hosted almost every major Prague writer. Einstein taught there, as did Jan Hus, the forerunner of Martin Luther, in the 15th century.

For English-speaking students, Anglo-American University and New York University offer for-credit graduate and undergraduate programs in Prague—NYU as study-abroad, often with a focus on local subjects.

Perhaps of special interest to Ploughshares’ readers is Western Michigan University’s Prague Summer Program (Held in cooperation with the Faculty of Arts, Charles University). Catering especially to creative writers, and literature and Jewish-studies majors, its courses and writing workshops are not limited to those seeking academic credit—but for those who are, the tuition rates are very reasonable and the credits are usually transferable. In addition to taking creative writing workshops with well-known American authors (like Stuart Dybek, Charles Baxter, and Jaimy Gordon), Czech writers, including Ivan Klíma and poet Pavel Sřut, have been known to give lectures and readings as part of the program. Klíma even brings in his personal collection of Samizdat texts. They also offer tours and visits to nearby sites. If you’re a writer looking to spend some time in Prague, its definitely worth checking out.

Where to Find Reading Material:

Books in Prague aren’t cheap, but plenty of places have amazing selections; three indies that specialize in English-language literature have been in business since the 1990s. Start with the best: The Globe. They once had used issues of The New Yorker on sale for peanuts (maybe they still do)—perfect for an afternoon’s worth of serious reading when you didn’t want to drop the crowns for a paperback. Shakespeare and Sons (aka “Shakespeare a Synové”) has moved up in the world over the past few years, migrating from a quiet lane in Vršovice to bustling Malá Strana (while opening new branches in Česky Krumlov and Berlin). Then there’s Big Ben Bookshop, near Old Town Square, where you’re guaranteed to find contemporary Czech authors in translation.

As for Czech bookstores, the Knihkupectví Neoluxor at the Nový Smíchov mall (Anděl, on the 9 line) is one of the biggest in the city. While it contains an English-language section (lots of Jack London!), the real draw is seeing what Czechs are reading and then browsing its reference materials. It has inexpensive Czech/English dictionaries and an entire wall of maps. Finally, if you prefer the thrill of the chase for old texts you’d never find in the US, any store that says “Antikvariát” (used book store) is fair game. Try the one beside Cafe Jericho on Opatovická, then take your finds next door for a cup of coffee.

Some good online resources for getting further into the Prague literary scene are Radio Praha’s literature articles (especially the Czech Books interview series conducted by David Vaughn), Colophon, The Prague Post’s literary blog, run by culture editor Stephen Delbos), and’s literature section.

Where to Get Published:

Journals come and go in Prague—expat ones do, anyway. For instance, a magazine called BLATT appeared in May 2006 but published only three issues. Zines, such as ProvokatoR and The Alsoran, in which freelancing expats have contributed news analysis, reviews, and first-person narratives about living in Europe—like one piece called “The Green Line of Destiny,” an hour-by-hour log of a beer-drinking challenge along one of the city’s three metro routes—seem to follow the same pattern. However, the largely expat zine Think Prague has moved online since its first publication and is still thriving.

Currently there are at least three English-language literary/cultural reviews: The Prague Revue, B O D Y, and V+L-A=K (“vlak”=“train”), all relatively young (the current Prague Review is a relaunch after a previous existence). The weekly English-language newspaper The Prague Post has been a mainstay since the 1990s.

Two presses publish original works in English. Founded by American Howard Sidenberg in 1992, Twisted Spoon Press publishes translations of Czech authors as well as English originals, and has an impressive catalog of books by international authors. Literaria Pragensia, the publisher of  V+L-A=K, also publishes poetry, including an anthology called From a Terrace in Prague, and lit theory books.

Where to Write/Be Inspired:

Cafes and hospodas (pubs) abound in Prague, but unless you ask for a “presso,” Prague coffee comes Turkish style (turecká káva)—hot water poured over fine grounds that settle at the bottom of the cup as silt. It’s good but sometimes a cup of joe is what’s needed. The Globe serves drip coffee by the huge mugful and the waiters respect your space, at least until the dinner/drinking/dating/live music hour arrives, and then it’s time to close your notebook, pretend that you’re satisfied with what you’ve written for the day, and switch to beer. Most places in Prague serve only one or two kinds of beer, and always from taps; The Globe’s brew is Herold.

For that I’m-in-a-European-cafe-with-a-capital-C sensation, Cafe Louvre is around the corner, on Národní. A few doors down Národní, across from Národní divadlo (National Theater) the windows of Cafe Slavia reveal an expansive, century-old Art Deco space with a tradition going back to Rainer Maria Rilke of fostering the ideas of writers and intellectuals–including playwright and former president Václav Havel, who met there with other members of the Prague Underground. In fact, this area of Prague, contained within the hypotenuse between the Národní Divadlo and Národní Trida stops on the 9 Tram, must be one of the richest parcels in the world for unique cafes and inexpensive, good food (Kavárna Velryba—“whale”—is a favorite, and mere meters away hip Czechs hang out at Cafe Rybka—“fish”—where one can browse the bookshelves or snack on fried hermelín cheese and tartar sauce). Use to explore the area.

Elsewhere, Balbínova Poet’s Cafe, which occupies a space where Hašek once drank and worked, hosts readings and live music. And increasingly popular in Prague as a substitute for hospodas are čajovnas—teahouses. Kavárna Dobrá Trafika in Újezd, at the bottom of Petřín Hill, is a good one.

If you find yourself in Prague in the warm summer months, the city is also full of open spaces which are perfect for reading, writing, or lounging with friends (but watch out, drinking in most parks is no longer allowed). Here are a few centrally-located places that are easy to access via metro, tram, or by walking:

Located on the castle-side of the Vltava River, Petřín Hill overlooks much of Prague’s city center. Kafka took walks here and used it as the setting of his short story, “Description of a Struggle,” and it also appears frequently in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. You will encounter tourists, especially in the rose gardens and around the observation tower (a smaller version of the Eiffel Tower). However, even in the busy summer months you can almost always find a quiet bench on which to read or write. Avoid the funicular and walk up the winding hill path from Malá Strana for excellent views and grassy expanses. At the top of the hill, duck through a wisteria-covered doorway in the garden wall for a flower-filled writing spot with plenty of benches. Continue wandering through the gardens and past the tower—there are spectacular views of Prague from the orchards below Strahov Monastery, and secluded benches if you venture off the main paved path.

Letná Park/Plain, home of a giant metronome which sometimes works, overlooks the Vltava, and was the site of the largest statue of Stalin (until it was destroyed in 1962), as well as many anti-communist demonstrations during the Velvet Revolution. This park has lots of grassy-space and benches, but even better–the well-shaded beer garden that looks onto the river below and city on the other side.

Most visitors to Prague never make it to Vítkov hill. They should—it’s as impressive as Prague Castle! Rising at the northern edge of the Žižkov district the hill’s two unmistakable features are the statue of Jan Žižka, which until 2009 was the world’s largest equestrian statue, and the imposing monument to Czech patriots. The statue commemorates the commander who in the 15th century defended the Bohemian capital from anti-Hussite crusaders. Žižka sits on his warhorse, one eye bandaged and holding a mace, forever ready to swat off a German Catholic’s head—it’s the fiercest statue in the city, perhaps in any city. Meanwhile, the marble block building behind the statue once housed Gottwald’s preserved body—the Communists co-opted the monument, originally for Czech soldiers, for their own purposes in the 1950s. In the heavy stones you can feel history gone quiet.

A few other parks worth mentioning:

  • Havlíčkovy Sady, with its beautiful vineyards and cafes, where you can enjoy a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and even go bowling.
  • Riegrovy Sady, where you can grab a Gambrinus in a plastic cup at the beer garden and watch the sun set over Prague Castle.
  • Vyšehrad, a fortress/castle with well-kept park grounds that can be short on space during tourist season, but with wonderful views of the river. For inspiration, visit the cemetery, where several great artists are buried (see below).

For Kafka-philes, the newer Kafka exhibition is an essential visit. While not located at any of his numerous residences it provides a glimpse of his life in Prague, displaying artifacts and information in artistically curated exhibits that meander through an old warehouse space. Kafka’s burial place, at the New Jewish Cemetery (Nový židovský hřbitov) in Prague 3, in the shadow of Radio Free Europe’s headquarters, is also worth a visit. After leaving a personal item on his grave, settle into one of the benches among the tree-lined aisles; this lesser-known and somewhat out-of-the-way Jewish Cemetery receives very few visitors beyond his grave site, and is a wonderful place for solitude and contemplation.

Events and Festivals:

The biggie is the annual Prague Writers’ Festival, a major stop on the international headline writers’ circuit, brought to the city by Michael March in 1991. Held every April, in recent years it has hosted John Ashberry (2012), Don Delillo, and Junot Diaz (both 2011), alongside Czech authors including Hakl, Ajvaz, Klíma, and Petrova. Live interpreters translate Czech to English. This year’s theme is “The Birth of Nations.”

The Prague Microfestival, which grew out of the now-defunct International Poetry Festival, is held every year in May (in the past at Krásný Ztráty, a popular cafe/bookshop hangout for students and intellectuals). This festival seeks to offer a “poetic exchange” for new and innovative writing outside of the usual Prague-writer suspects—in both Czech and English.

The Anglo-American University library hosts readings (Alex Zucker, American translator of Czech literature, was the most recent headliner, and Brenda Flanagan will read there in May), as do The Globe and Shakespeare and Sons. The American Center, part of the U.S. Embassy Prague and located in Malá Strana, hosts readings, discussions, and film screenings.

Jeremy Hauck recently received his M.F.A. in fiction from Temple University, where he served as managing editor for TINGE Magazine and where he teaches writing. His work has appeared in The Rusty Nail and Penduline Press. In 2005 and 2006 he lived in Prague for a year, teaching English to businesspeople all over the city, and, having been back recently, would like to visit again soon.

Sonja Crafts also received her M.F.A. in fiction from Temple University, winning the Francis Israel Prize for Best Manuscript. She served as editor for TINGE Magazine and teaches writing at Temple. In 2011 she took graduate coursework in creative writing and Czech literature through the Prague Summer Program, offered through a collaboration between Charles University in Prague and Western Michigan University’s M.F.A. program. One of her short stories was recently named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award for Best New Writing. 

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