Armand, Louis (ed.). The Return of Král Majáles: Prague's International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010". Litteraria Pragensia, Prague, 2010.
n compiling the massive 938 page anthology The Return of Král Majáles: Prague's International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010, editor Louis Armand has managed to capture much of the spirit and substance of a scene that was born in Prague in the early 1990s and of which he himself was—and still is--an integral part. As both Alice and I, the coeditors of The Cafe Irreal, arrived in Prague in 1993 and are also included in the anthology, I thought that it might be a useful exercise to augment the narrative that Armand, in his introduction, provides of that time. This is especially relevant here in irreal (re)views as our particular (and, in some respects, peculiar) relationship to Prague and Czech culture were key factors in our conceptualization of The Cafe Irreal. Not coincidentally, The Cafe Irreal is represented in the anthology by several translations that first appeared in the pages of our publication.
Armand begins his introduction by stating that "there are cities in the world that exercise a particular influence over the minds of writers, artists and historians because they seem to manifest a type of spirit, a genius loci, though which an intellectual vitalism is channeled or communicated. Cities galvanized, in their very substance, by a cultural electricity--a vortex--their names imbued with powers of conjuration--Paris, Berlin, New York, Prague. Such is the mystique of the mind's geography, that thought and poetry find their location in a given place and time which nevertheless appear transcendent...." and later adds "many of [the expatriates moving to and living in Prague] had some connection with the emerging "scene"--as writers, translators, editors, publishers, artists, filmmakers, human rights activists, booksellers, teachers, students, musicians or groupies. This loosely formed community--the new 'Second Culture'--gave rise to a constructed myth of the city which combined a nostalgic Bohemianism, a Western hankering after cultural authenticity (the 'poetry of witness') and a type of Wizard of Oz fantasy set in juxtaposition to the 1980s 'culture wars' and political bankruptcy of the Reagan/Thatcher era in the US and Britain."
That Prague has such powers of conjuration can hardly be doubted. First of all, there is its ancient association as the capital city of the original "Bohemians." Some attribute the first counter-hegemonic connotation of this term (the German word for "Czechs") to the day in 1419 when radical Hussites (early Protestants considered to be heretics by the Catholic Church) defenestrated several establishment figures from the Nové mesto town hall in Prague, thereby triggering the First Reformation. Later, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, there were the alchemical and mystical peculiarities of the Prague court of the Hapsburg emperor Rudolf II and the presence in the Jewish Quarter at that same time of the famed Talmudic scholar and Jewish mystic, Rabbi Loew, around whom several Golem legends arose. Later still, in March 1939, there were the images of German troops marching through the city, confirming the failure of Chamberlain's Munich agreement and setting the stage for the formal declaration of World War II. More immediate to my generation, and many of those who started flocking to Prague in the aftermath of the collapse of the East Block, was the Prague spring of 1968--whether it be for those of a leftist political persuasion (for whom the hopes raised by Alexander Dubček's "communism with a human face" were very evocative) or of an artistic orientation (one only need think of the ubiquity and influence in the English-speaking world during the 1970s and 1980s of such Prague Spring refugees as Milan Kundera and Miloš Forman). And then, of course, there was the attention that had been given to the Velvet Revolution and the accession to the presidency of the playwright Václav Havel.
When this conjuration was augmented by the real and concrete opportunity that Prague presented at the time, in the form of an extremely favorable exchange rate, low cost of living, and possibility of finding work (most readily as teachers of English), it is no wonder that the city drew in so much expatriate energy; this energy, in turn, was a key factor in creating one of those historical moments--like those mentioned above--when Prague could be thought of as a “world city” like Paris or New York, something its much smaller size normally precludes.
But this expatriate energy was, of course, situated in a particular historical moment, or space; in this case, one that stood in the border regions between modernity and postmodernity. (Footnote 1) Broadly speaking, one could even characterize the expatriate community in Prague as an attempt to recapture--in the postmodern era--some of the literary glory of the modernist expatriate communities found, especially, in Paris in the 1920s and 1950s.
But the “constructed myth and nostalgic Bohemianism” that drew me to Prague ran, in a couple of important respects, in different directions than it did for many of the artistic and literary expatriates flocking to Prague at this time. The first was related to this modernist/postmodernist dichotomy. Many coming to Prague wanted to be a part of a viable, contemporary international literary scene and expatriate community, such as Paris had in the 1920s with such writers as Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein, or to establish the 1990s version of The Paris Review, as Harold Humes, George Plimpton, and Peter Matthiessen had done in 1950s Paris. I certainly wouldn’t have been averse to such a international scene developing, but given that by the 1990s postmodernism had become the predominant ethos of the age, the natural inclination of those that became a part of this scene (and who read and thought in these terms) was to essentially eschew the icons of the critical, late modernist approach (Fromm, Adorno, Sartre, etc.) that were central to my own thinking. (Footnote 2)
A rather remarkable conversation that Alice and I had with an Austrian student in 1997 while visiting the Sigmund Freud museum in Vienna might help to illustrate this point. Though this student was an attendant at the museum, he was completely dismissive of Freud as indeed he was of any and all of the figures preceding the advent of postmodernism except those (e.g., Heidegger in his hermeneutic aspects though most certainly not his existential) who prefigured postmodernism. His opinion of cultural and political scene in the Czech Republic? The relic of a bygone era. The fact that writers such as Havel still (or had until recently) referenced existentialism and that there was still an active and vibrant surrealist group, were all symptoms of this condition, but ones that would, in his opinion, soon disappear when that country became fully integrated with Western Europe.
But if becoming “fully integrated with Western Europe” meant having to accept the post-1968 paradigm of a depoliticized politics–“neither left nor right, nor even ahead”–in which history doesn’t even have the possibility of a telos (or, if it did, it has already been completed); in which ideology, the historical subject, and class struggle were all dismissed as metanarratives of social progress that had been discredited in the brave new world at hand, which had either already reached the “end of history” or had shown the lie of conceiving of any such end, then I had little interest in seeing Prague integrated with a postmodern Western Europe. Nor did I want to see Prague’s intellectual class get mired in the same endless analysis of signs and signifiers, and the universal application of “hyper-skepticism” to all things political, as the intellectuals in the West had done; approaches whose practical effect (even if this wasn’t necessarily the intention of its originators) seemed to be to merge all the great “-isms” of modernism into one finalizing –ism, capitalism. (Footnote 3)
But the second “constructed myth and nostalgic Bohemianism” that drew me to Prague was one that was rather more literal in its use of the phrase “nostalgic Bohemian,” and is the “constructed myth” that I will be focusing on in this essay. Which is to say, our contribution to the Prague scene – especially in the form of The Cafe Irreal – was very much tied in with our being literary refugees fleeing one parochial literary tradition, American realism, by, in part, embracing another, specifically Czech (and imaginative) tradition and sensibility.
To explain this properly will require a short literary autobiography. When Alice and I first arrived in Prague in late 1993, we had both been actively writing for some number of years. We were, however, also rather confused as to what kind of writers it was possible for us to be. Both of us knew what kind of writing we didn’t want to do: that which resembled realism and especially realism stripped of any significant philosophical or political content; in other words, the realism that surrounded and entombed the literary scene in the USA in the early 1990s (as it continues to do to this day). We were both, but especially Alice, drawn to a certain extent to experimental forms of narrative. But we’d watched as the great era of the modernist avant-garde that emphasized such an experimental approach, and which we'd caught the tail end of (and, in another artistic context, participated in) in Chicago in the early 1980s, had faded out in the course of that decade. And so we had both returned, almost instinctively, to the one non-realist alternative that presented itself as a presence in our milieu at that time, science-fiction; “returned” in the sense that both of us had read science fiction extensively as teenagers and, while neither of us were particularly inclined to write in the style of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, there was a sense of other possibilities offered by our memories of the American New Wave of science fiction of the 1970s, plus the continued presence on our shelves of translated works by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. But this proved to be a dead-end, as it soon became apparent that genre science fiction had stratified itself into a rigid and self-limiting genre, whose moribund state was probably best epitomized by the decision of the Science Fiction Writers of America some years before to strip Lem of his honorary membership in the organization because of his criticisms of American science fiction. (Footnote 4)
All that remained for us, then, in the realm of serious literary inspiration was what we perceived to be the occasional (and usually foreign) "eccentric" writer of non-realist literature such as Lem, Kobo Abe, Italo Calvino, Donald Barthelme, or, more distant from us in time, Lewis Carroll and, of course, Franz Kafka.
Thus, while we were both quite aware that continental European literature featured a tradition of the philosophical novel not present in the United States (i.e., there were no American correlates to Gide, Sartre, Camus, Kundera, et al.), we didn't necessarily expect this difference to extend very far into the sphere of the imagination. Wasn't Franz Kafka, after all, considered the very definition of the eccentric outsider?
We might then have expected that by situating ourselves in a European cultural context, we would escape the strictures of American realism (e.g., the “slice of life,” poetry-in-prose scribbling that permeated the literary journals of the time) for a more varied and interesting realism, sometimes even extending into the kind of fantastic scenarios that Günter Grass, for example, utilized in some of his novels such as Dog Years or The Tin Drum. And, perhaps, if we’d settled in France, Germany, Italy, or most of the other countries on the continent, this is largely what we would have found. But we found something more when we came to Prague and this is where (what I would contend is) a uniquely Czech emphasis on imaginative art and literature made its presence felt.
We first started to become aware of this imaginative sensibility in the course of 1995, our first full year of living and working in the Czech Republic. Curiously--but not surprisingly as neither of us could yet read Czech--we first encountered it in the visual arts. In our wanderings through the bookstores and art galleries in Prague’s centrum we quickly encountered the work of graphic artists such as Adolf Born, whose pictorial fantasias mixing humans and animals were phenomenally popular at the time; Ivana Lomová and her series of graphic prints depicting a world inhabited by identical old men; and Zdenek Mézl, whose ironic woodcuts we not only saw in a number of galleries, but also at home, as a copy of his portfolio "Slovník cizích slov" was in the collection of the family in whose apartment we were staying.
This was soon supplemented by our wanderings across the river, into Mala strana, where we came across, especially, the tourist-oriented but nonetheless impressive Galerie Art & Craft on Malostranske namesti where the work of the painter J.S. (Jaroslav Šolc), was featured. His large-canvas paintings immediately caught our attention with their elastic perspectives, fantastic themes, and paradoxical titles; also of note was the work of Kata Kissoczy and the way her wooden jigsaw puzzles managed to be both abstract and figurative at the same time. A little further afield in Nový svet, the Gamba gallery representing the work of the Czech and Slovak Group of Surrealists was also a notable presence.
Two major exhibitions we saw at this time also stand out in this regard, the first being a retrospective of the work of an outsider artist, Josef Váchal (1884-1969), who combined mysticism, primitivism, and modernism, at the Neo-Renaissance exhibition space of the Rudolfinum, and the second a huge retrospective exhibit titled "Czech Expressionism" at the Valdštejn Riding School gallery at Prague castle that included a number of paintings by Váchal and also introduced us to the paintings of the symbolist Jan Zrzavý (1890-1977).
The impact of all this fantastic imagery--especially when it was augmented by the Baroque architecture and the Classical and Romantic statuary, with their mythical themes, in the streets and parks of Prague, the presence of Chagall-influenced Russian and Ukrainian émigré artists in several of the more tourist-oriented galleries, and the presence of several shops selling fancifully imaginative traditional Czech wooden toys --was to heighten our imaginative sensibilities and give us a sense of imagination being something that could be, as it were, concrete. (Footnote 5)
And this unveiling of the imaginative was to continue by different means in 1996 when, first, we got our hands on a VCR and started buying videos of Jan Švankmajer's short films (such as Byt [The Flat] and the Arcimboldean Dimensions of Dialogue from the office of Kratké filmy just off of Jindrišška street and then, especially, when I became able to start reading fiction in Czech and encountered intensely fantastic short fiction by writers such as Vít Erban, David Doubek, and Marian Palla in the leading literary weekly of the time, Literární noviny. To be able to read such fiction in what was, after all, a very mainstream literary publication suggested the possibility, quite astonishing for an American, that literary, imaginative fiction could actually be to some degree "normal."
This sense was only reinforced in the following years as I encountered, in other venues, the work of writers such as Jiří Kratochvil, Ewald Murrer (especially his The Diary of Mr. Pinke, which we read in English translation thanks to Twisted Spoon Press), Michal Ajvaz, Pavel Řezníček, and many other Czech writers that we have since translated and published in The Cafe Irreal. Indeed, it was the presence of so much imaginative art, both visual and literary, that not only enabled us to conceive of imagination as being something that could constitute a concrete literary genre that deserved a publication to address its needs, but also to start differentiating between its various subgenres (e.g., magical realist, surrealist, the fantastic, irrealist, fantasy), which ultimately allowed us to focus our limited resources on one of them. (Footnote 6)
Why it is exactly that these imaginative elements play out to such a degree in Prague and in Czech culture is an interesting question worthy of an essay in its own right. Here however I will just say that there does seem to be a tendency in Czech culture not only toward imaginative art and literature, but toward a figurative imagination which acts as a kind of perennial antithesis to abstracting tendencies of the various international movements that have arisen in the past century. This point is perhaps best illustrated by the Cubism of Josef Čapek (1887-1945), which is not as abstracted as the cubism of Braque or Picasso, or in the writing of his brother Karel, whose use of popular genre forms (especially science-fiction) makes him a unique exception among the various figures who dominate their nation’s serious literature. Indeed, during our first trip to the newlly opened permanent exhibition of 20th century Czech art at the Národní galerie at Výstavište in 1996, Alice noticed that, whereas most avant-garde art challenges us with its form, Czech art, even when using avant-garde forms, tends to challenge us more with its unusual content. The absurd, figurative public sculptures of David Černý, perhaps the best-known contemporary Czech artist on the international art scene, are perhaps most characteristic of Czech art in this regard.
Suffice it to say here, then, that Prague’s imaginative richness is unique and was uniquely influential on us. So rich, in fact, that I have been able to get this far in the essay with barely a mention of a certain Prague native—albeit one who wrote in German--whose approach to imaginative literature, and some key elements of the body of criticism that has grown up alongside his work, form in many respects the foundation to irrealism... (Footnote 7)
But to what extent can these specific experiences of ours be used to characterize the overall expatriate experience that led to “Prague’s international literary renaissance?” Especially as we were more focused on Czech literature and art than on what was happening in the expatriate scene. There are two points worth mentioning in this regard. First, it is true that the expatriate scene was generally isolated from the Czech scene (largely because few expatriates could speak or read Czech), and yet there were some distinct cross-currents between the two. Especially notable in this regard was Twisted Spoon publishing both Czech (and Eastern European) authors in translation as well as works by expatriate writers; the various Czech plays staged in English, especially by Black Box Theater at the Divadlo komedie theater (Lemonade Joe, the Vanek plays, Přemysl Rut’s No Tragedy (A Small Czech Macbeth)); and the many Czech writers who contributed to expat publications or occasionally read at Beefstew or other occasions (e.g., Jachym Topol and his translator Alex Zucker jointly reading at the launch party for Yazzyk 4); and the annual Guardian festival of writers. (Footnote 8) Indeed, there are a few expatriates who do not show up at all in the anthology or the expatriate publications because they plunged themselves fully into Czech society and, once having integrated themselves into it, have rarely if ever bothered to report back to their former compatriots. The fact that Alice and I, then, were only one point on a continuum of expatriates who in varying degrees did actually strive to integrate themselves into, and learn from, Czech art and literature leads me to my second point: that, while I have spent much time in this essay emphasizing the specificity of our approach and experiences in Prague, we were hardly unique in having a personally specific approach to or vision of Prague. In fact, I think that the extraordinary variety of such approaches and visions is one of the reasons why it is difficult to define such a thing as a “Prague poetics” or “school” but also, as a corollary, one of the keys to defining it.
Armand, in his concluding thoughts, also addresses this difficulty, while at the same time suggesting that such a thing (or things) as a Prague poetics might exist. Using the French writer Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the social production of space, Armand writes that “whatever collective aesthetic may be attributed to writers living and working together in this particular space, it is always worth keeping in mind the nature of any habitation which goes beyond the mere contingencies of urban geography,” and then points out the specific problem faced by the expatriate writer with the suggestion that “how such a space is imaginatively constituted in and by language is the question which is perhaps most pressing for any writer, and above all for the writer whose habitation is first and foremost that of a foreign space over which no claim is possible.” Consistent with the points I was making above, I would add that an additional difficulty in defining a Prague poetics or school is that the imaginatively constituted space of the expatriates flocking into Prague lacked the unity of the earlier generations of Paris expatriates that we were sometimes likened to. The 1920s Paris scene was dominated by those who had come to know Europe through their shared experiences as soldiers, nurses, and journalists in World War One; the generation of the 1950s was dominated, at least among the Anglo-Americans, by the usual Oxbridge/Ivy League crowd that dominated the literary scene back home. These shared elements were missing among us, as was any coherent or shared ideology beyond the already-discussed “nostalgic Bohemianism” and a vague sense, not generally elaborated on, that “the right side had lost but the wrong side had won” the Cold War. In addition, what Prague and the Czech Republic signified for most of the arriving expatriates was far less coherent then what Paris had signified for the earlier generations. Never a part of the traditional European cultural “Grand Tour,” the city of Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek, Bohumil Kubišta, and Karel Čapek, was more difficult to visualize from afar than a city such as Paris, many of whose artists and writers, such as Balzac, Renoir, Proust, Picasso, and Sartre, had been the dominant international cultural icons of their generation. And so the decision to undertake the expatriate journey to Prague was inspired by a great number of differently imagined Pragues, making it even more difficult to constitute an “our” space once we’d all arrived. (Footnote 9)
But, in spite of all this, there was a viable and thriving expatriate community in Prague, and therefore there had to be an “our” space; as Lefebvre explains in a quotation cited by Armand, such a space “remains qualified (and qualifying) beneath the sediments left behind by history, by accumulation, by quantification.” We were all, in the end, subject to these same sediments and, if I may be allowed to state the matter in a more Sartrean mode, each one of us had to inscribe our praxis on the practico-inert that these sediments formed, even as our acts of inscription were being totalized by the shifting sands of these same sediments. The space that was created reflected all the realities described above: an attempt, spurred by our collective isolation, to overcome the seriality that consumer capitalism had reduced us to back home even as the same mass media driven consumer culture that we were fleeing was being brought into the very country that we’d fled to; nonetheless, there was success--amongst a large group of people who were initially almost all complete strangers to one another, a kind of community arose, complete with a theater and music scene, cafes, publications, and literary readings.
Thus, if there is a shared Prague poetics, it might well be found in such an estranged and yet coherent community as I’ve just described. This is suggested by one of Armand’s concluding thoughts: “Prague, the name of this city, echoes the word práh, meaning ‘threshold.’ And it is this sense of living on a threshold of performing in the gap between what history is able to measure and what its legislators seek to proscribe—that lends to this habitation its character of ostranenie—of strangeness and estrangement.” Alice and I, two expatriates who declared a certain allegiance to the tradition exemplified by Franz Kafka, have made this estrangement--in its imaginative, irreal form--our raison d'être. But I would suggest that a certain shared incongruity and estrangement, however indirectly manifested, could well be the key to locating a "Prague poetics."
(1) Such a characterization is, of course, arbitrary, but I think is suggested by several passages in Louis’ introduction, especially pp. 6-8, and is in any case a distinction that is quite topical right now, at least based on the discussion that Gabriel Josipovici’s recent “Whatever Happened to Modernism?” has been generating since its release over the summer.
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(2) There was, of course, an inherent tension for the expatriates of this time between their “Western hankering after cultural authenticity” on the one hand and their acceptance, even if it was often only a passive one, of the obsessive postmodern fascination with the simulacrum on the other; between their desire to be a part of a community that would produce the next Hemingway while, at the same time, proclaiming along with Roland Barthes the "death of the author." In the early and mid-90s, this tension reached interesting levels of intensity and sustainability as the lives of Prague expats resembled a kind of throw-back to modernity: mostly unable to read Czech publications, much less watch or listen to Czech television or radio, the sole forms of non-musical media entertainment available to us were the hour or two of quiz shows and dramas on BBC World Service and those movies that hadn’t been dubbed into Czech showing in the movie theaters (and occasionally on TV). The result for the vast majority of expatriates was a lifestyle that more resembled the 1930s than the 1990s. And, indeed, just as with the expatriate communities of that earlier time, the expat community in Prague had to make its own entertainment, its own publications, etc. But the situation is very different now and, if you will, less contradictory between lived reality and prevailing ideology. An English speaking expatriate living in Prague in the 2010s, thanks to the internet, has full and immediate access to all forms of English language entertainment; in fact, I suspect that this was a key factor in the decline, especially, of expat theater in Prague that began around the time that the internet became available. In an interview in the Prague Post last spring regarding the release of the anthology, Louis was asked why it was that the Prague literary scene hadn’t produced a Hemingway and he suggested that, given the new publishing and cultural realities, figures such as Hemingway simply aren’t produced anymore anywhere. Similarly, I think it possible that--since all the possible places in the world where there could reasonably be a substantial concentration of expatriates are now fully hooked up to broadband--the Prague scene that we witnessed in the 1990s may be the last such scene that we will see. This is because it will be the last time that so many strangers (that is, enough to constitute a critical mass) will be coerced by their isolation to actually come together in real space and time and create a scene, as opposed to mostly coming together in internet cafes to send emails back home, update their Facebook pages, and catch the latest TV programs from home while, at the same time, lamenting the lack of such a scene.
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(3) Or, to put it on a footing more specific to this publication and city, I had no particular desire to see Deleuze and Guattari’s critical approach to Kafka become the dominant one. Especially when the late modernist critical approaches had eschewed the traditionally reductionist biographical, often psychoanalytical, approach that Deleuze and Guattari rightly criticize; instead late modernism was more likely to see Kafka, though still a flesh and blood human, as being in a social, class, cultural, linguistic, and historical situation not of his own choosing which was constantly totalizing him and his goals even as he attempted to act on these very forces in trying to realize his existential project. To remove any existential agency in Kafka’s texts, as Deleuze and Guattari in effect did by postulating that the entity we know as Franz Kafka wasn’t a “writer-man” but a “machine-man” who was “constituted by contents and expressions that have been formalized to diverse degrees by unformed materials that enter into it, and leave by passing through all possible states,” (p.7) would seem to leave us in the same position in regard to Kafka (and literature) as post-modernism leaves us in regard to history, i.e., drowning in a sea of interesting analyses and texts.
It should also be mentioned here that there was a great deal more going on in the 1990s to ensure that the East Block countries would be integrated into the new paradigm than the admonishments of an Austrian student. Because there was still, at that time, some hope of a “third way” in the East Block (public opinion polls showing that, even in the very Western-leaning Czech Republic there was some real antipathy to a purely capitalist regime), there was a major, ongoing effort on the part of the West to ensure that the East wouldn’t take such a “wrong-headed” path—whether it was by placing extreme neo-liberal conditions on Poland to pay off its foreign debt; backing figures such as Václav Klaus in the Civic Forum (Občanské forum) and isolating Alexander Dubček and other reform communists and advocates of a third way; funnelling large amounts of money to the Western-backed “civic organizations” in Bulgaria and Albania to disrupt the governments of popularly-elected reform communists; or supporting the corrupt and alcholic Boris Yeltsin in his ordering a military attack on the popularly-elected (but not entirely cooperative with the West) Russian parliament. Indeed such actions, which formed a real backdrop in the former communist countries in the early and mid-90s, assured that any last possibilities of a progressive metanarrative were removed, as well as not so progressive narratives, such as Vladimír Mečiar’s People's Party - Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS) in Slovakia, that presented a challenge to such integration and globalization from the nationalist right. It is also perhaps an indication of the diminished importance of literature in the postmodern 1990s as opposed to the modernist 1950s that, so far as I know or have heard, CIA money wasn’t being funnelled into the expat literary scene in Prague as it had been into the 1950s Paris scene (with the intention of countering Soviet influence among French intellectuals), which led to the founding, and no doubt contributed to the long-term viability, of publications such as The Paris Review (as co-founding editor Peter Matthiessen has since admitted or as Richard Cummings has highlighted in his writing on the subject ). This certainly contrasts with the struggles that Prague’s literary scene and publications had to undergo for lack of money. Think of how much Trafika would have been helped if a CIA-backed "foundation" had paid for thousands of subscriptions to the publication, such as they did with the Paris Review, as well as with the American-based Partisan Review to facilitate its wide-scale distribution in Europe. Back to the text
(4) It should be added that I, at least, hadn’t entirely given up on science-fiction when we arrived in Prague; at the time I still harbored some hope that the golden age of science fiction that had accompanied communism in the East Block, and which constituted one of the three golden ages of science fiction (the other two being the era of H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, before it had been transformed into a distinct genre, and the Anglo-American “New Wave” of the 1960s and 1970s, featuring writers such as Harlan Ellison, Ursula LeGuin, and J.G. Ballard). But the writers that were emblematic of that third golden age, Lem, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and Josef Nesvadba, were by the mid-90s barely to be seen in the sci-fi sections of Czech bookstores (even though Nesvadba was a Czech writer), as they’d been overwhelmed by the Anglo-American imports representing the specific genre approach both of us had already rejected. Back to the text
(5) To this list I could also add, among other things, Kurt Gebauer's sculputures at the "Nevlídné mrkání a Staronové obludy" exhibit at the ČMVU gallery on Husová street, some of the ceramic work found at the Galerie michalská 15, the TV program "Večerníček," which shows classic Czech animated short children’s films on Czech Television every evening at 6:45 p.m., the Old Jewish cemetery in Josefov, and the other-worldly Art Nouveau murals and lithographs of Alphonse Mucha and other secessionist artists. The point here is that, in our experience, Prague is unique in having so much fantastic imagery, especially of the non-religious sort, immediately present.
And, because it is so emblematic of the changes that have occurred in Prague in the last fifteen years, I will also mention in this context the former home of the puppet theater Divadlo minor. In the mid-90s the Divadlo minor was located in the courtyard of Slovanský dům; in spite of its central location next to the Czech National Bank and just off of Na prikopě, the main shopping strip in Prague’s city center, it seemed in a world of its own. To go there for a performance at night meant making one’s way along a dark corridor off of Senovážné square before entering an even darker courtyard overlooked by a couple of huge, ancient trees; the only light came from the illumination of the huge puppets that looked down on the courtyard and the light emanating from the windows of the theater itself; entering into its old, smoke-filled lobby and adjacent cafe, filled with puppeteers from all over the Czech Republic, gave one the feeling of being in some other time, perhaps in the 1960s, and somewhere in the spiritual vicinity of the counterculture of that era . There is no longer, of course, any puppet theater there; the courtyard, just like Slovanský dům itself, is now filled with boutiques, glitzy cafes and restaurants, retail shops, and a sushi bar. Divadlo minor is now located some distance away, outside of the most central part of Prague; it can’t, however, be said to have suffered as it now has a new, state of the art theater (built, I presume, from the proceeds of the sale of their original property) whose lack of character is no doubt amply compensated for by improvements in comfort, efficiency, and presentation.
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(6) It would be overstating things, to be sure, to ascribe all the influence in this regard to our being in Prague. Our own previous, and frequent, encounters in Chicago with, e.g., the plays of Samuel Beckett and the performances of Sun Ra’s Solar Jet Set Arkestra, or indeed our key encounter with the many paintings by Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux in the collection of the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels in 1996, also played key roles. But it was the totality of our Prague experience that made such an enterprise seem tangible and not just an arbitrary, two-person conceptual art project. And, in addition, even the audacity on our part of promulgating our specific approach to imagination as an “-ism” was not only inspired by our being in continental Europe, where the concept of –isms is not something to be eschewed as it is in the Anglo-American world, but by being in a city with the strong presence of the Surrealists (even if, as we explain in our essay "Irrealism is not a surrealism," we couldn’t agree with their take on imagination)--in the form of their gallery, films, exhibitions, and publications.
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(7) As is illustrated at length on our theory pages in essays such as What is irrealism? and, especially, our article in the new issue of the Journal of the Kafka Society of America, "After Kafka: Kafka criticism and scholarship as a resource in an attempt to promulgate a new literary genre."
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(8) And some of these crosscurrents have, in my experience, turned up quite a bit later and in unexpected places, such as our stumbling on an exhibition in Arizona of Jenny Schmid's art in 2008, an artist whom I’d never met or heard of before, but who'd studied art in Prague in the early 1990s and still shows considerable influence from that experience. Also, as this essay is, in part, an attempt to add to the historical record of the Prague expatriate scene, I would like to add a couple of our own early, if minor, contributions in this regard: this included reading some of my first translations from Literarní noviny at Beefstew, including a translated poem by the Czech poet František Listopad, whom one noted Czech writer present that night had never heard of before (Listopad had lived abroad since 1948), and Alice’s reading at that same venue of some her first stories written under the influence of the aforementioned imaginative experiences (one of which was to appear in Optimism).
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(9) The question of variously imagined Pragues has a particular importance for me in the rubric of international imagination: Bohemia, the first part of my little trilogy of novellas (contained in Tajný [český] deník Fredericka Barona a jiné texty, Aequitas, Prague, 2007) dealing with an expatriate American named Frederick Baron, is written “by” Baron and concerns his adventures in Prague and the Czech Republic before he’d actually ever traveled there. It was inspired in both its conceit and dream-like quality by Kafka’s Amerika, a novel which Kafka wrote about the United States, a country he’d never been to. Kafka’s novel was, I suspect, in turn inspired by the German writer Karl May. During Kafka's lifetime May wrote one best-selling novel after another about the cowboys and Indians of the American West even though, on his one trip to the United States in 1908, the furthest west he managed to travel was Niagara Falls.
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G.S. Evans is the coeditor of The Cafe Irreal. His short novel, A Week in the Quiet Country (Týden v tiché zemi, Prague, David&Shoel, 2009), was recently published in translation in the Czech Republic; his fiction and essays have appeared in various Czech journals, including Host, Labyrint, Listy, and Britské listy; his translations of the work of the Czech writer Arnošt Lustig have appeared in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, and New Orleans Review.
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