The Prague Moment

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, through which an intellectual vitalism is channelled 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. Equally, there is a question of pragmatics: culture, wherever it is conspicuous, happens by implication and association, like a political crime.

The end of “the Empire of Stalinist tyranny”[1] signalled by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution, not only projected Prague into the centre of a new Europe and a new European consciousness, it also reignited – however briefly – the libertarianism with which the city, ever since the “thaw” of the 1960s and the Prague Spring, had been symbolically associated. Following the communist putsch of 1948, Prague – once the heart of Mitteleuropa – became an annex of that historical and cultural fiction known as Eastern Europe. As Michael March noted in his preface to Description of a Struggle, this pseudo-territory had been “a lost continent for over forty years.”[2] The cultural landscape which emerged in Prague during the Soviet Union’s collapse was thus one both newly central and yet fundamentally decentred.

Writing in a special issue of the New Orleans Review – “Ten Years After the Velvet Revolution” – Petr Bílek noted that Czechoslovak poetry in the early 1990s exhibited a type of historical schizophrenia. Most of the work being published in the immediate aftermath of the revolution “had been written in the seventies and eighties, but repressed by the old order.”[3] As Alexandra Büchler observed in her editorial to an issue of Transcript devoted to “Iron and Velvet: A Decade of New Czech Writing”: “Haste and indiscriminate publication of what had been banned and censored until 1989 made for a chaotic scene.”[4] This was evident even at the time. “Czech literature of the 1990s,” wrote Daniela Dražanová in a 1993 issue of Prognosis,

exists in fast-forward and reverse. Publishers are printing the formerly banned works of “dissident” authors, previously censored Czech classics, and the efforts of fresh and relatively unknown writers.[5]

Such an outpouring produced a sense of hyper-anachronism on the one hand (“time exploded”),[6] and a cultural disconnect with a younger generation, which often found itself alienated from the historical revision in progress and with more affinity to contemporary literature from elsewhere. Some, like Ewald Murrer and Jakub Rosen established their own journals, such as Iniciály, devoted to publishing writers under thirty.[7] At the same time, the picture of “Czech” poetry after the revolution was complicated by at least three other factors: the competing claims of newly returned émigrés; the ethnic and political divisions which would lead to the partitioning of Czechoslovakia in 1993; as well as by conflicting East/West representations of the Prague literary scene inherited from the Cold War and transformed by the rapid growth of an international literary community within the city itself. What this meant in reality was something like Brion Gysin’s dictum: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”[8] Jaromír Slomek, a critic at Literární Noviny summed the situation up when he wrote that “Czech literature of the nineties is something completely different from the books being published in the nineties.”[9]

Out of this complex genealogy, no clear sense of what inaugurated the “Prague moment” can really be gained. Throughout the “Normalization” period of the 1980s, the Prague intelligentsia had been systematically suppressed. Much of the writing to appear in print during the early 90s had first circulated in samizdat, using typed carbon copy. Prague writers experienced their own cultural milieu as a series of arbitrary discontinuities, mediated (according to changeable State policy) by the official publishing apparatus, access to educational institutions, and the availability of exit visas. The 1984 awarding of the Nobel Prize to the Prague poet Jaroslav Seifert (one of the original signatories of Charter 77) – and the consequent accessibility of his work in translation – created a type of parallel universe outside communist Czechoslovakia (ČSSR), shaping a literary consciousness entirely at odds with prevailing realities within the country. One of the “greats” of modern Czechoslovak poetry, Seifert’s writings brought with them evocations of Prague as the city of Vítěslav Nezval, Karel Teige, Toyen; of Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, and Marina Tsvetaeva.

During the same period, apparently apolitical writers such as Miroslav Holub were also becoming well-known abroad. Holub was a frequent contributor to British journals like Encounter (founded by Stephen Spender) and the Times Literary Supplement. Alongside Seifert, Holub was widely regarded by many outside the ČSSR to be a major defining figure of the Prague literary scene. British poet laureate, Ted Hughes, famously described him as “one of the half-dozen most important poets writing anywhere.”[10] This was starkly at odds with the reception of Holub’s work among the mainstream of Czech academics and critics. In her introduction to the Arc anthology, Six Czech Poets, Alexandra Büchler writes – as late as 2007:

That Miroslav Holub is by far the most widely-known Czech poet is symptomatic of the ready acceptance of cerebral poetry of linear thought, “universal” ideas and easy-to-decipher allegories on the one hand, and a reluctance to engage with poetry referring to an unfamiliar culture and literary context on the other. Even Seifert, whose work received a brief flicker of attention following the Nobel Prize award, did not merit as prominent a place in English-language publishing as Holub, whose work was brought out by Penguin and Faber, and later by Bloodaxe.[11]

This typecasting of Holub as somehow exemplary of a failing – on the one hand, of a “universal” poetics and, on the other, of the English-speaking literary establishment (as culturally myopic) – masks, behind a facile ethnographic binary and an undeclaired aesthetic ideology, a set of more fundamental issues that have continued to inform how the various cultural dialogues that make up the contemporary Prague cultural scene are reported. Holub, an accomplished immunologist, maintained – against this kind of parochialism – a sense of the artist’s moral duty to enquire about the state of the world at large. In the inaugural issue of International Quarterly, he insisted that concerns such as global ecology must not simply be ignored by retreating, for example, into a type of arcadia of national identity. Responsibility for the state of the world is a shared burden, one that cannot be eschewed by glib assertions that history, in the abstract, is to blame. This was a long-held view, dating back to his collaboration with poets like Jiří Šotola, Miroslav Florian and Karel Šiktanc, and their collective rejection of “abstract ideological proclamations.”[12] For Holub there was no room after the revolution for the perpetuation of the “ghetto mentality” that had gown up within the mainstream of Czechoslovak literature – in many respects “a typical minor literature,” in Bílek’s words, which “preferred to dwell on specific domestic issues rather than be part of an international exchange.”[13]

In the early nineties, in the face of war in former Yugoslavia, history indeed appeared to cast a long shadow over the future of a re-unified “Europe.” Holub, who steadfastly rejected the victim-culture that cast the Czechs as the butt of Austro-Hungarian, Nazi and Soviet oppression, insisting that historical “blame” could not simply be apportioned according to binaries of political or cultural hegemony. He shared a commitment to unpleasant truths – a commitment similar to that of other poets, like Paul Polansky and Gwendolyn Hubka Albert, who in the late nineties devoted much energy to exposing the hidden history of the Lety concentration camp (a camp for the internment of Roma and other ethnic and political undesirables, exclusively operated by the Czech collaborationist authorities throughout World War II).[14] But if Holub thought of himself as first and foremost a “European,” he also argued against forgetting the specific responsibilities we share for our local and internal landscapes.[15] The process of lustration – the exposure and prosecution of former communists – remained controversial in post-revolution Czechoslovakia. Holub, who was blacklisted through the 1970s but who some critics attempted to associate with the former regime, never turned away from the necessity to face up to one’s history in its most specific yet also most universal aspects.[16]

The apparent ideological rift between a broadly “western” poetics and the national sensitivities of some Czech translators and academics – as made clear in the case of Holub – has arguably to do less with poetics as such than with a certain “resentment” which applies equally within the sphere of specifically “Czechoslovak” and later “Czech” literature of that period, in which dividing lines are often perceptible in terms of personal politics and political histories – between émigrés and non-émigrés; dissidents and non-dissidents; anti-communists, socialists, anarchists, democrats, capitalists, monarchists; and also inter-generationally. In a typical remark – which takes in the work of writers like Ivan Blatný and Josef Skvorecký – Bílek writes:

Most of the poetry written in exile had few original ideas to offer; it reiterated views already held by its writers and readers. And, paradoxically, this poetry exhibited many of the same features of the official poetry published by the communist regime in Czechoslovakia…[17]

It is equally telling that, of the twelve poets Bílek chose to include in the Summer 2000 issue of the New Orleans Review – a survey of the state of contemporary poetry in the Czech Republic – none were born after 1963, while only three (Sylva Fischerová, Božena Správcová and Jáchym Topol) were born after 1952. The attempt to frame these disparities in terms of the legacy of the Cold War, of ‘68 and the “Moscow communiqué,” or of ‘80s normalisation, serves only to obscure – or attempt to obscure – the fact that in Prague, as elsewhere, fundamentally self-serving agendas remain at work in establishing claims over cultural discourse.[18] Political or aesthetic ideology often provide an otherwise arbitrary basis of critical proscriptions. One finds, for example, certain discursive forms of modernist poetry earmarked as Soviet (Yevtushenko); a return to lyric “subjectivism” as a specifically domestic response to the uncertainties and vicissitudes of a world from which higher temporal authority (“the constant presence of an obvious enemy”) has been removed.[19]

As elsewhere, literary criticism in Prague has for the most part remained aloof from popular, and properly contemporary, culture. The widespread influence of, in particular, 1960s western music upon pre-revolution (dissident) writing has been well-documented.[20] Unsurprisingly, Lou Reed, Frank Zappa and Allen Ginsberg remained, throughout the early nineties, major cultural icons in post-communist Czechoslovakia, adored by former president Václav Havel. As late as 1998, students were conducting 24-hour readings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry during the Beat publisher’s visit to Prague that May. While Beat poetry is now frequently accused of being politically “naïve” and – like surrealism (which continues to prosper in the city) – anachronistic, its sustained popularity indicates, beyond mere nostalgia, a general disaffection with the sorts of cultural binaries that – although the terms have changed since the end of the Cold War – have been preserved in the current status quo. To appreciate the ongoing significance of the Beat legacy in the ‘90s, one need only look to Prague’s hugely successful 1998 Beat Generation Festival – in whose catalogue, incidentally, Srp published the StB (secret police) files documenting Ginsberg’s 1965 visit.[21]

Against the propaganda of free market capitalism (celebrated uncritically after the revolution by supporters of Václav Klaus) and of cultural nationalism, Ginsberg’s refusal of ideological solidarity – “the Communists have nothing to offer but fat cheeks and eyeglasses and lying policemen / and the Capitalists proffer Napalm and money in green suitcases to the Naked”[22] – represents a critical stance which, in the era of the IMF and the WTO, appears to be newly affirmed.[23] The question that remains is how much of this reaffirmation is connected with any formal advancement of poetics, and whether or not the impact of Ginsberg and the Beats upon the Czech cultural consciousness has evolved beyond its historical moment.[24]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pop-literary view from the outside also remains dominated by the Beat legacy and in particular that of Ginsberg who visited Prague twice during 1965, before being arrested and expelled from the country (allegedly for corrupting the city’s impressionable youth). His account of being crowned “King of May,” and his subsequent deportation, was recorded by Richard Kostelanetz in a New York Times article two months after the event. The article begins with the pronouncement: “To university students all over the world today, Allen Ginsberg is a kind of cultural hero and sometimes a true prophet.”[25] Kostelanetz reports that Ginsberg arrived in Prague from Poland on the 30th of April (his second visit to the city). Ginsberg’s account commences from the following day:

I walked in the May Day parade that morning, and that afternoon some students asked me to be their king. I agreed; they put me on a truck, and I travelled in the procession of the Polytechnic School [ČVUT], with a Dixieland band on a nearby truck. The procession went through the city to a main square, where 10,000 to 15,000 people had gathered. I made a speech, dedicating the glory of my crown to Franz Kafka, who once lived on that square.

From there, we are told, the procession continued to the Park of Culture and Rest (Park kultury a oddechu Julia Fučíka; the present-day Výstaviště exhibition grounds) where Ginsberg found himself elected Král Majáles by an assembled body of “100,000” students from all of Prague’s universities.[26]

A few days later, late at night, someone suddenly attacked me on the street, screaming “bouzerant,” which means “fairy” or “queer”; and all of us, including the students with me, were arrested by the police and taken down to the station. I wasn’t released until 5 A.M.; they took affidavits from the others. I suspect the attacker was a police provocateur, but I can’t prove it.[27]

On the 7th of May, Ginsberg was arrested and held in isolation before being put on a plane for London. Almost twenty-five years later, Ginsberg was working to bring attention to the plight of Prague’s dissident community. In January 1989, Ginsberg appeared alongside The Fugs’ Ed Sanders and Vratislav Brabenec, of The Plastic People of the Universe, at a New York concert in support of the Czech poet Ivan Martin Jirous (known as “Magor” or madman). Jirous had been imprisoned by the communists for reading protest poems in public. Jirous, an art historian by training but prohibited from working, was known for his conception of the “Parallel Polis,” or “Second Culture” – the belief that art could expose the régime’s falsification of social reality and bring about its collapse by “living in truth.”

The city to which Ginsberg returned a year later in 1990 was very soon to undergo a type of transformation few cities ever experience. Over the next few years, Jirous’s “Parallel Polis” would come to seem like a more fitting description of the separations occurring within Prague society on both an economic and cultural level – the outcome on the one hand of a fantastically corrupt voucher privatisation scheme (widely heralded in the West as a new economic miracle),[28] and on the other by the large scale return of former Czech émigrés and the rapid increase in the size of the city’s international community. A New York Times article estimated that by 1993 there were up to 30,000 Americans alone living in the city.[29] Many of these had some connection with the emerging “scene” – as writers, translators, editors, publishers, artists, filmmakers, human rights activists, booksellers, teachers, students, musicians and 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.[30] As Bruce Sterling wrote in 1993, in an article for Wired magazine:

this is a very ‘90s city. Even its artistic problems are ‘90s artistic problems: the struggle of a bewildered and put-upon generation to speak authentically in an era whose central directive is to reduce all art and all life to an infinitely replicable commodity, to turn Kafka into a T-shirt and Havel into a carny attraction, to shrink-wrap cultures as pasteurised package-tour exotica, to make art a bogus knickknack and heritage the hottest-selling market segment of the Museum Economy.[31]

Prague, mired in its own and others’ histories, has never been a stranger to myth and mystification. “It’s uncanny atmosphere,” notes Heinz Politzer, “had impressed observers as early and as independent of one another as the American Longfellow and the Northern German Wilhelm Raabe.”[32] But Prague’s influence over the Anglophone imagination dates back further still. At least – if one is inclined to excesses of cultural genealogy – as far back as Anne of Bohemia, patron of Anglo-Saxon poet Geoffrey Chaucer, with whose writings – on the model of Boccaccio – the long migration of a vernacular literary English is said to have begun, born – as it were – of translation.[33] It was at this time, too, that Jan Hus, whose statue stands at the centre of Prague’s Old Town Square, sparked a political and cultural revolution in Central Europe by translating and teaching the work of Englishman John Wycliffe.

From Shakespeare’s imaginary Bohemia, and the Prague of John Dee and Edward Kelley, to the real and romanticized post-Revolution city of the 1990s, is perhaps not such a great leap. Nor would a comparison appear entirely out of order. The metamorphoses of Prague following the Velvet Revolution of November 1989 in part revived, in part invented, a pan-European and cosmopolitan tradition that forty years of communism never quite succeeded in snuffing out. From the Utraquists to the Plastic People of the Universe – from Hus, via Masaryk, to Havel – from Arcimboldo, via Kafka and the surrealists, to Klíma – the idea of Prague persists as a type of Xanadu of cultural resistance in which a poetry of universal ideas, contrary to Auden’s glib pronouncements, might indeed make something happen. As Sterling notes:

A lot of writers come here, not because Havel can teach them how to write, but because Václav Havel is a symbol of what words-in-a-row can do. [34]

When Ginsberg made his speech in 1965, dedicating the glory of his crown to Kafka, he was acknowledging a symbolic debt to a writer who, though he was a Praguer to the very core of his being, was also a German-speaking Jew (whose collected writings, incidentally, were not comprehensively translated into Czech until the very end of the twentieth century).[35] Kafka, the great ironist of state bureaucracy and individual alienation, defined what it meant not to be the citizen of any singular nation or state, but to be a creature of that “Parallel Polis” which is not merely a collocation of architectures, municipalities and ordinances, but a type of cultural vortex whose topology is both particular and universal. In a world beset with fundamentalisms of every kind, it is worth being reminded that the figures, the places and moments of cultural modernity – at any time – have always been in some sense foreign.[36]

In 1990, returning to Prague at the invitation of mayor Jaroslav Kořán, for the first time since his expulsion in 1965 (“to reclaim my paper crown”),[37] Ginsberg gave a “momentous poetry reading” at the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University.[38] In the audience were many of those who had been students when Ginsberg was expelled from the country twenty-five years previously – including Havel – and were active in the literary underground before the Velvet Revolution. Karel Srp, founder of the dissident Jazz Section (1971), has pointed out that the connection between Prague and Ginsberg dates back even further, to the mid-1950s with the journal Světová literatura.

The editors were the first to publish Ginsberg’s Howl in Czechoslovakia, as well as stories by Kerouac and Ferlinghetti. As these authors sometimes illustrated the dark side of the United States, communist censorship tolerated them.[39]

For Joseph Yanosik, “the influence of Ginsberg’s [1965] visit on Czech culture should not be underestimated,” and was, according to him, a major catalyst for the ’68 Prague Spring.[40]

Ginsberg’s return thus signified for many the inauguration of a new cultural moment which, under the presidency of the playwright Václav Havel, would result in what the expatriate American newspaperman Alan Levy later – in an often quoted editorial – called the “Left Bank of the nineties”:

We are living in the Left Bank of the Nineties. For some of us, Prague is Second Chance City; for others, a New Frontier where anything goes, everything goes, and, often enough, nothing works. Yesterday is long gone, today is nebulous, and who knows about tomorrow, but somewhere within each of us here, we all know that we are living in a historic place at a historic time. Future historians will chronicle our course – and I have reason to believe that they’re already here – but even they will need to know the nuts and bolts of what it was like and how it felt to live and be in liberated Prague in the last decade of the 20th century.[41]

Writing two years after Levy, Sterling concurred:

Prague is very much like Paris in the ‘20s, but it’s also very much unlike Paris in the ‘20s. One main reason is that there is no André Breton here. People do sit and write – stop by The Globe, the crowded émigré bookstore on Janovského 14 in north Prague, and you’ll see a full third of the cappuccino-sipping black-clad Praguelodyte customers scribbling busily in their notebooks. There are many American wannabe writers here – even better, they actually manage to publish sometimes – but there is not a Prague literary movement, no Prague literary-isms. No magisterial literary theorists hold forth here as Breton or Louis Aragon or Gertrude Stein did in Paris. There isn’t a Prague technique, or a Prague approach, or a Prague literary philosophy that will set a doubting world afire. There are people here sincerely trying to find a voice, but as yet there is no voice. There may well be a new Hemingway here (as The Prague Post once declared there must be). But if Prague writers want to do a kind of writing that is really as new and powerful as Hemingway’s was in Hemingway’s time, then they will have to teach themselves.[42]

Like Ginsberg, Levy had been expelled from Czechoslovakia by the communist authorities. Originally from New York, Levy moved to Prague in 1967, where he chronicled the Soviet invasion the following year – recounted in his book Rowboat to Prague (1972; reprinted in 1980 as So Many Heroes). In 1971 his press accreditation was revoked and, along with his family, he was expelled from the country on allegations of spying. For many years he lived in Vienna, where he served as foreign correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and as dramaturge of Vienna’s English Theatre. Levy returned to Prague in 1990 and subsequently became editor-in-chief of The Prague Post, from its founding in 1991 until his death in 2004. Of his contribution to the city’s cultural life, Havel wrote:

Alan Levy chose to become active in our country during what was for us a very sensitive and important period – the time of creating a free, open environment for the media. Because of his human qualities and professional experience, he quickly became recognised as a not inconsiderable figure for whom I had great respect.[43]

Levy, the author of 18 books, published interviews with W.H. Auden, the Beatles, Fidel Castro, Vladimir Nabokov and Ezra Pound – a body of work that, for some, helped to establish the requisite genealogy for viewing the post-1989 Prague scene within the broader historical context of previous international milieux in Paris and Berlin. He also represented a sense of continuity with a Prague of the past.

As the only accredited American journalist in the city during the years immediately following the ‘68 soviet invasion, Levy was able to lay claim to a particular authority in seeking to foster the young, post-revolution scene. He was, nevertheless, merely one of a number of longer-term expatriates whose activities, in some respects, constitute this scene’s pre-history – among them the Academy Award-winning animator, Gene Deitch; the “Rhodes Scholar Spy” and KGB informer, Ian Milner; and Mary Hawker, daughter of the defector and propagandist George Wheeler, a former major in the US military government in West Germany. Both Hawker and Milner worked in what is today the Department of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures, in the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University – the same university department in which Prague Structuralism was first theorised in the 1920s by the likes of Vilém Mathesius, Jan Mukařovský, René Wellek and Roman Jakobson. Before his death in 1991, Milner served as the translator of poets such as Holub, Sylva Fischerová and Vladimír Holan.

During the years leading up to the Velvet Revolution, philosophers, musicians, artists and writers from the “West” continued to visit Prague, despite the restrictions put in place by the communist authorities. The seminars of the underground university – hosted during the 70s and 80s by dissident philosophers including Ladislav Hejdánek and Julius Tomin (father of the writer Lukáš Tomin) – brought to the city the likes of Jacques Derrida (detained in Ruzyně prison in December 1981) and Roger Scruton, and has been examined in detail by Barbara Day in her book The Velvet Philosophers.[44] Meanwhile Philip Roth’s The Prague Orgy (1985) helped to maintain the myth of Prague literary Bohemianism, echoing the émigré writer Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984).[45]

In May 1989, Joan Baez – one of many 1960s artists to influence Czechslovak dissident groups – performed a concert in Brno, openly criticising the regime (she performed a reprise concert in Prague on 17 November, 2009). At the same time, writers like Gwendolyn Albert (studying linguistics in Prague on a Fulbright scholarship) were becoming involved in the day-to-day operations of the Občanské Fórum (Civic Forum, soon to constitute the first post-communist government, headed by Václav Havel). When the revolution began in earnest, more than a week after the fall of the Berlin wall, Albert was working in Civic Forum headquarters in the Laterna Magika Theatre, assisting Rita Klimová (later to become Havel’s first ambassador to the United States).

In an account later published in the Prague Post, Albert records the moment, on 23 November 1989, when Alexander Dubček – the former ČSSR president deposed by the Soviet invasion in 1968 – addressed the crowds from the balcony of the Svobodné Slovo newspaper offices on Wenceslas Square, standing beside a Václav Havel who had only recently been released from ten months’ imprisonment.[46] This symbolic conflation of the Velvet Revolution and the Prague Spring served to feed a broader, international romanticism about the city and its political and cultural circumstances. With glasnost still working its inexorable way towards the collapse of the Communist Party in Russia, the post-revolution euphoria in Prague served as the backdrop for a self-willed literary renaissance. As Bílek notes:

After the revolution, almost two thousand private publishers emerged. Instead of two periodicals covering all of contemporary literature, suddenly there were dozens of monthlies and quarterlies appearing and disappearing.[47]

This renaissance was in part fostered by the rapidly growing international community in the city and by a reading public hungry for news from the outside.[48] Regular publications soon began appearing in English, German and French. In November 1990, five Americans from Santa Barbara founded Prague’s first English-language newspaper, Prognosis, which published bi-weekly (and for a brief period weekly) until its closure in March 1995. Many of the writers to emerge on the Prague scene worked for the paper in one capacity or another – including John Allison, Anthony Tognazzini, David Freeling, Randall Lyman, Thor Garcia and Louis Armand. Less than a year later, The Prague Post – a weekly newspaper with ambitions more orientated towards the status quo – was founded by Lisa Frankenberg and Kent Hawryluk (two former Prognosis employees), with Alan Levy as editor-in-chief. By 1993 two further papers where briefly in print – Prague News (half in German) and the Bohemia Daily Standard – representing the apogee of the “left bank of the nineties” phenomenon.

The middle of 1991 saw the first of Prague’s international writers’ festivals, initiated by the former New York book seller and (until 1993) director of the Prague Book Fair at Palác Kultury, Michael March. The same year saw the publication of March’s Child of Europe: The Penguin Anthology of East European Poetry. This anthology, like the Prague festival, grew out of a project beginning in the 80s. As March recounts:

I established poetry festivals and readings at Keats House [in London] – publishing and introducing with George Theiner, editor of Index on Censorship, the work of such great poets as Vladimír Holan – before moving the readings to the Arts Theatre and Donmar Warehouse Theatre. From 1983, they became the “Covent Garden Readings.” In February 1989, I brought “Child of Europe” to the National Theatre, presenting poets from eight communist countries, at a decisive moment. The Festival was broadcast on television and radio, and praised in the press. In May 1991, I moved the readings to Prague – to Valdštejn Palace, which was opened for the first time in living memory to the public.[49]

The inaugural festival featured, among others, Miroslav Holub, Eva Kantůrková, Irving Layton, Karel Pecka, Paul-Eerik Rummo, Zdena Salivarová, Josef Škvorecký, and Petr Odillo Stradický. 1992 saw Robert Bly in Prague as a guest of the festival, and in succeeding years a roster of internationally renowned authors (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Susan Sontag, Harold Pinter, Jorge Sempún, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Creeley) appeared alongside Czech writers such as Ivan Klíma, Hana Androniková, Jáchym Topol, Sylva Fischerová, Jaroslav Rudiš, Sylvie Rychterová, Michal Ajvaz, Petr Borkovec and Ewald Mürrer.

In February of 1992, Howard Sidenberg – a former doctoral student in Russian politics at the University of California-Santa Barbara – founded Twisted Spoon Press out of a communal apartment in Smíchov. Sidenberg, who had arrived in Prague the previous year, joined with translator Kevin Blahut, artist Kip Bauersfeld, and the writer Lukáš Tomin, to establish the sole continuously operating English-language literary press in the country.[50] The first title to appear was Tomin’s debut novel, The Doll, described by Fay Weldon as:

A visionary work, by an extraordinary and important young writer. As cultures and languages mix and merge, Tomin meets the consequent literary challenge head on, and actually makes this reader hopeful about the future of the novel.[51]

Tomin, the first of two sons of prominent dissident intellectuals (his mother, Zdena Tominová, had been spokesperson for Charter 77), had lived in the UK, France and Canada since 1980 and wrote three novels in English (all published by Twisted Spoon). A series of poems had earlier been published in the London Literary Review and The New Statesman. After his return to Prague in 1991, Tomin became a regular contributor to Literarní Noviny, Iniciály, Host and The Prague Post. His second novel, Ashtrays (1993), illustrated by Alf van der Plank, is regarded by many as the masterpiece of the Prague renaissance of the 1990s – described by the Post as “a linguistic tour de force.”[52] Without ever having received the recognition his work warranted, and which his early reviewers suggested was immanent, Tomin committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 32. His body was discovered at the foot of a cliff in the Šárka valley.[53] His third novel, Kye, was published posthumously in 1997. Reviewing it, Anthony Tognazzini wrote of Tomin as “a fine formalist whose narrative experiments are bold and intriguing.”[54]

During its almost twenty years of operation, Twisted Spoon has produced books in translation by Bohumil Hrabal (Total Fears, written between 1989 and 1991 as a series of letters to an American student in Prague, April Gifford), Ladislav Klíma (Glorious Nemesis, translated by Marek Tomin), Eva Švankmajerová (Baradla Cave, translated by Gwendolyn Albert), Pavel Brycz, (I, City, translated by Joshua Cohen and Markéta Hofmeisterová), Vít Kremlička (Selected Writings), Róbert Gál (Signs and Symptoms) and Tomaž Šalamun – alongside work by Louis Armand, Joshua Cohen, Søren S. Gauger, Travis Jeppesen, Christopher Lord and Phil Shoenfelt – garnering strong reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books and the Los Angeles Times. Throughout, the emphasis of the press has been, in Sidenberg’s words, “on introducing both new works from contemporary writers and work from an earlier period that has been neglected in translation.”[55]

Soon after Twisted Spoon published its inaugural titles, Prague’s first English-language literary journal appeared in print, in June 1992 – founded by Doug Hajek and fellow Canadian Laura Busheikin, with former Los Angeles resident Tony Ozuna (who had arrived in Prague two years earlier), and designed by soon-to-be-prominent Czech artist Veronika Bromová. Deriving its name from a play upon the pan-Slavonic for “tongue” or “language,” Yazzyk was avowedly cross-cultural, publishing work both in translation and the original English. Seeking in part to emulate former underground magazine Revolver Revue[56] and Joachim Dvořák’s more recent Labyrint Revue (a journal devoted to articles on culture, writing and the arts largely in translation), it included such writers as Jáchym Topol, Michal Ajvaz, Egon Bondy, Iva Pekárková, Eva Hauserová, Ivan Jirous, and Jana Krejcarová, alongside David Freeling, Randall Lyman, Věra Chase, Toby Litt and Daniela Dražanová. A consistent feature of Yazzyk’s cover was the incorporation of the tri-part design of the new Czech flag. The first two issues (with a print run of 2,000 copies) sold out within twelve months of publication – number 2, on “Erotica, Sexuality and Gender,” has since become a rare collector’s item. There was rumour of a number 5, to be edited by Cyril Simsa – an active translator, critic, essayist and science fiction writer. Fantasy and the Fantastic was to be the theme, but the journal folded before it could appear.

Although running to only four issues, Yazzyk was a major accomplishment and paved the way for many of the journals that were to follow. In his article on the Prague scene in Wired, Bruce Sterling wrote: “it may not be the best literary magazine on the planet, but it’s the best one to deal with this corner of it.”[57] Ozuna describes how the first issues came about:

Our contacts for writers and translators were all from the mailing lists of the Czech underground, who were operating out of an office for VOKNO magazine across the street from Hlavni Nadraži. We were able to easily solicit texts from many translators: James Naughton (Oxford University), the translator for Bohumil Hrabal, Miroslav Holub, and Alexandra Berková; Peter Kusy (Columbia University), the translator for Milan Kundera; and Paul Wilson, Václav Havel’s translator. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg urged us to use poetry translations of Ginsberg’s Czech counterpart, Egon Bondy (whom we did publish in two issues). The Bondy was only published due to the collaboration of Martin Machovec, who is the current (as he was at that time as well) expert on literature of the underground.[58]

Also in June of 1992, Aleš Najbrt and photographer Tono Stano started up the bilingual RAUT magazine, funded by Reflex, produced on large format (70cm x 100cm) glossy paper, featuring photography, interviews and new writing – including Toby Litt and Tomáš Míka’s translations of Jaroslav Pižl in issue 2.

Three months later saw the beginnings of the Beef Stew poetry readings. The first reading took place on the 13th of September at Rubín Theatre, in Malá Strana and continued, two weeks later, at the fugitive Ubiquity Club’s “Reggae Room.” Two weeks later still the readings moved to the Prague Cultural Centre in Prague 5, where they continued until the end of the year. Readings also took place at a tea room in Žensky Domov, near Anděl metro station. From February 1993, Beef Stew moved to its permanent venue in the downstairs bar at Radost/FX, on Bělohradská street. Initiated by New York poet David Freeling, Beef Stew ran every Sunday evening for ten years, during which time the readings were coordinated by a string of writers including Anthony Tognazzini, Jim Freeman and Willie Watson.

A favourite venue for British and American journalists reporting on the New Bohemia, Beef Stew became the epitome of Levy’s rive gauche hype.[59] Freeling: “Everyone wants to find a great writer. We’re all waiting for something to escape the pot.”[60] Beef Stew was variously loved and loathed by members of the international community and the media alike. Many sought to find in Beef Stew symptoms of a cultural disconnect. Gwen Orel, in Performing Cultures: English-language Theatres in Post-Communist Prague, described the open-mic readings as “a cultural ghetto where [American] expatriates performed their ambivalence.”[61] For many involved in the Prague scene, Beef Stew was nevertheless – particularly in its early years – at the heart of a substantial English-speaking subculture.[62] While the epicentre of that subculture shifted many times as the decade progressed and literary circles eccentrically formed and reformed across the city, a list of those who performed in the Radost basement reads like a Who’s Who of the Prague ‘90s. Among them, Lukáš Tomin, Julie Chibbaro, Myla Goldberg, Peter Orner, Stuart Horwitz, Alan Ward Thomas, Anthony Tognazzini, Louis Armand, Donna Stonecipher, Ken Nash, and Jeri Theriault – writers who went on to build important careers both in Prague and abroad.

Perhaps due to limited book publishing opportunities in Prague at that time, many worthwhile manuscripts never saw the light of day – a signal for detractors to declare, like Gary Shteyngart (author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and one-time reader at Beef Stew) that the scene lacked talent.[63] Myla Goldberg, author of Bee Season (Random House, 2000) and Time’s Magpie: A Walk in Prague (Crown, 2004), was a regular reader at Beef Stew between 1993 and 1994, where she presented chapters of an unpublished novel Cirkus, an intricately structured story about the last days of the Kludský family circus (1902-1934), which circulated in typescript and became one of several underground Prague classics without ever making it into print. Julie Chibbaro, author of Redemption (Simon & Schuster, 2004), was another regular, arriving in 1996. She described the Beef Stew readings as “life-changing”:

to have a weekly audience response helped me to understand what worked and what didn’t in my pieces (at least to an extent). It was hosted by an excellent writer named Anthony Tognazzini and held at Radost. Around that same time, about five of us got together and started a writers’ workshop, helping each other learn and improve. One of the writers recommended I submit my work to a little mag called Optimism Monthly, edited by Alan Ward Thomas. He ended up publishing a number of my stories and novel excerpts (about ten) in the next several years. An editor, David Speranza, at another journal, The Prague Revue, also asked for a story, “Chrome,” which was published in the Autumn/Winter 1996/97 edition of the Revue.… My time in Prague transformed me from a person who thought she was a writer into a professional.[64]

Along with David Freeling, Anthony Tognazzini was a central figure in the Prague expatriate scene. Over a period of six years, Tognazzini published in almost every English-language periodical in the city, writing regularly for Prognosis and the Prague Post. According to long-time patron and sometimes publisher, Jim Freeman, Tognazzini was one of the major voices to emerge from the early 90s and is perhaps the most closely associated with Beef Stew. His collection of short stories, I Carry a Hammer in my Pocket for Occasions Such as These – published in 2007, by BOA in New York – originated as a chapbook produced by Alan Thomas’s Presidential Press, ten years earlier. Peter Orner – a lecturer in Anglo-American law and Human Rights at the Law Faculty of Charles University – began publishing in the Atlantic Monthly while living in Prague. The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (Little, Brown, 2006) was described by Dave Eggers in the Guardian as a “georgeously written book… bursting with soul.” Orner’s first book, a collection of short stories entitled Esther Stories (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), was ostensibly written chapter-by-chapter for the weekly Beef Stew readings. As Orner recalls:

I was working on my first book, Esther Stories. Each Sunday night I read with a group of writers at the Beef Stew reading series in the basement of Radost. Beef Stew was led by Jim Freeman. I loved Beef Stew because it was such a supportive environment and also because it gave me a deadline. Each week, I had to finish something. It didn’t matter what the hell it was, it simply had to be something. It was odd down there in the dark. Some nights the light wouldn’t work and I remember being barely able to see what I was reading.[65]

Writing in the Lonely Planet guide to Prague (2008), former Globe bookstore partner, Mark Baker, notes that “with 20 years’ hindsight… it’s possible to say the critics were too quick to pounce.” The Prague scene, he adds, “spawned more than its fair share of decent writers,” among others:

  • Jonathan Ledgard, a long-time Prague correspondent for The Economist… the author of the acclaimed novel Giraffe (2006), based on the story of the slaughter of central Europe’s largest giraffe herd by the Czechoslovak secret police in 1975.
  • Maarten Troost… a reporter in the early days of The Prague Post and the subsequent author of two hilarious titles: The Sex Lives of Cannibals (2004) and Getting Stoned with the Savages (2006) – books that could have been written about Prague but are actually about his later adventures in the South Pacific.
  • Olen Steinhauer [who] spent time here in the mid-’90s before decamping to Budapest to write five acclaimed Cold War spy thrillers. The fourth book, Liberation Movements (2006), opens in the Czech Republic and shades of Prague can be seen throughout the series.
  • Robert Eversz [who] has lived off and on in Prague since 1992… his 1998 novel Gypsy Hearts is set here. He’s written several popular noir thrillers, including Shooting Elvis (1997), which explore America’s obsession with celebrity culture.[66]

The story doesn’t end there. Defying the notion that Prague’s international scene was principally a North American enclave, Toby Litt – author of ten books, including Corpsing (Hamish Hamilton, 2000), Ghost Story (Penguin, 2004) and Journey into Space (Penguin, 2009) – completed three novels between 1990 and 1993, while teaching English at the Economics Faculty of Charles University. As Litt notes, however:

All three Prague novels are still unpublished, as is the Prague-based novel, dissidents, I wrote back in England. Eventually, The Prague Metro helped me get an agent, Mic Cheetham, who still represents me.[67]

Read the rest of the story at the Equus Press website.

published: 24. 7. 2016