Very pleased to see that I am getting some excellent reviews in the Czech press for the Czech edition of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, which was published earlier this year in Prague by Volvox Globator. Extracts below.
I dare not estimate the total number of pragensia, i.e. books dedicated to Prague, that have so far been published. Two of them, however, are absolutely fundamental works and rightly recognised throughout the world. These are Magic Prague by the Italian bohemist Angelo Ripellino and Prague in Black and Gold by the now ninety-eight-year-old Prague native and Yale University professor emeritus Peter Demetz. These two admirers of Prague were joined eight years ago by a generation and a half younger Canadian-British bohemist Derek Sayer, with his extraordinary cultural-historical monograph Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, subtitled A Surrealist History …
I consider Derek Sayer’s book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, with the significant subtitle A Surrealist History, to be an excellent guide to the history that we assume we know. This Canadian has managed to make it special precisely by looking from elsewhere and putting into context what, seen from up close, appears like some impressionist paintings – illegible spots of colour. (Zdenko Pavelka, Meziřádky Zdenko Pavelky, Magazín OKO, 25 May 2021.)
According to the author, the modern history of Prague is “an illustrative lesson in black humor.” Where else can one get a better sense of irony and absurdity, a lasting mistrust of the sense of grand theories and of totalitarian ideologies, and a Rabelaisian delight in how all social and intellectual claims to rationality are indiscriminately subverted by the erotic? But above all, Sayer repeatedly emphasizes that we should understand “modernism” as Vítězslav Nezval prefigured it in his collection Woman in the Plural, namely as something diverse and plural. According to Sayer, it is time to acknowledge that abstract art and the gas chamber are equally authentic expressions of the modern spirit …
The author’s picture of Prague and those times … is dominated by left avantgarde artists … about whose occasional inclination toward the Stalinist Soviet Union the author writes overly generously … Despite this slight bias and minor errors, we can agree with Lenka Bydžovská, who wrote enthusiastically about the original book that Sayer amazes the reader with his “encyclopedic knowledge, his reliable orientation in specialist literature, memoirs and correspondence, in literature and art, but above all with his inventiveness, his ability to illuminate seemingly familiar events, stories and works from a different angle.” (Jan Lukavec, “Surrealistická setkávání v modernistické metropoli” [Surrealist encounters in a modernist metropolis], Deník N, 3 June 2021.)
A substantial book on art has been published – and yet it doesn’t weigh 5 kg! It is, however, weighty in its genuine passion, content and reach. The main theme is the interwar cultural scene in Prague, with an emphasis on the local surrealist circle, which has gained an international reputation. The book is about this phenomenon, but it is is also full of enjambments, digressions and wider contexts. It is a great read – and yet it is based on a truthful, factual and clearly accurate text. Here we have writing that is extremely learned, informed as well as naturally flowing. It is strange that no one has written a book like this before. Only now has a foreigner taken it up. And that is very good …
Sayer’s book is a great achievement. It is a source of information, education and entertainment. A volume that brings Czech history to life, a text that penetrates its numerous hidden corners, a collection of (un)known stories of which we can generally be proud, for they prove the valuable place of our cultural activities and art in the first half of the 20th century. We belonged to the avant-garde, and Derek Sayer knows how to write about it. (Radan Wagner, “Vynikající kniha nejen o Praze a českém surrealismu” [An exceptional book not only on Prague and Czech Surrealism], ArtReview, 12 June 2001.)
A slightly incorrect and provocative guide to the cultural history of Prague, not only of the last century. It reminds Western readers how significant a role Prague played in the world’s modern culture. For those here, it can help them to perceive in a new, unhackneyed and lively way many of Prague’s realities that we too often take to be self-evident. (PLAV, iLiteratura.cz, 19 June 2021.)
Eight years after the original, a Czech translation of a monumental guide to Czech modern culture has come out, whose author is Derek Sayer … The author’s aim is not only to rehabilitate Czech surrealism before the global public, but to present Prague as the city of “another” modernity: “This is not ‘modern society’ as generations of western social theorists have habituated us to think of it, but a Kafkan world in which the exhibition may turn into a show trial, the interior mutate into a prison cell, the arcade become a shooting gallery, and the idling flaneur reveal himself to be a secret policeman …”
For him Prague is also the capital city of the twentieth century because “this is a place in which modernist dreams have again and again unraveled; a location in which the masks have sooner or later always come off to reveal the grand narratives of progress for the childish fairy tales they are.” And also a place where “the past is not easy to escape … even when, and perhaps especially when, you are making new worlds.” (Petr Zídek,”Kniha o českém surrealismu aneb monografie světové Prahy” [A book on Czech surrealism or a monograph of global Prague], Právo, 1 July 2021.)
None of these reviewers are without their criticisms, and I am grateful where they have pointed out occasional factual mistakes in the text. There are of course errors, mostly minor, in the book (and as Petr Zídek noted in his review, some more were added in the Czech edition that were not picked up by the Volvox Globator editors). Zdenko Pavelka also (justly) alerts readers that:
“Sayer’s knowledge of realities and his ability to connect them in time and space are exceptional. I have to warn, however, that sometimes maybe also with a certain exaggeration or, let us say, poetic license. Perhaps you know that the Kinský Palace on the Old Town Square was the seat of the State German Gymnasium at the end of the 19th century, which Franz Kafka attended as a student. Sayer mentions that just outside the windows of his classroom is the balcony from which Gottwald spoke on 21 February 1948. I’m not sure whether in this case Sayer is not slightly embellishing reality in the Hrabalian manner, because the rooms at the disposal of the gymnasium were supposed to be in the rear of the palace. But even if Kafka did not sit in that balcony room, the well-known story of how in a later retouched photograph of the balcony scene, only the cap of Gottwald’s faithful comrade Vladimir Clementis remains, of course on Gottwald’s head, is certainly close to Kafka, but also to the surrealists.”
Precisely. In this case the error was inadvertent, but call it hasard objectif. The Kinský Palace remains an excellent example of Prague’s surrealities. As to the comparison with Bohumil Hrabal, I take it as a compliment.