Adolf Hoffmeister on terrace of Les deux magots café, Paris, 1969. Photo by Václav Chochola, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I have recently published a short essay on the eventful life of the “Czech writer, publicist, dramatist, painter, illustrator, scenographer, caricaturist, translator, diplomat, lawyer, professor, and traveler” (as he is described in the Czech Wikipedia; French Wikipedia adds “and radio commentator”) Adolf Hoffmeister (1902–1973), known to his friends as Ada.

A central character in my book Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, Hoffmeister wrote the libretto for Hans Krása’s children’s opera Brundibár, which was staged 55 times in the notorious Terezín (Theresienstadt) ghetto during 1943-4 before the composer, the set designer František Zelenka, and most of the children in the cast were deported to Auschwitz and murdered.

I end the essay:

Hoffmeister died of a heart attack on July 24, 1973. His life was extraordinary, and yet it was thoroughly representative of Czechoslovakia’s twentieth century. Like countless other men and women—writers and politicians, architects and athletes, journalists and filmmakers, artists, musicians, and comedians—his story shows why Czech dissidents sardonically baptized their country Absurdistan. Biographies like Ada’s are why Prague provides a more revealing vantage point on the modern condition than the western capitals from which we are accustomed to look out, naively equating history with progress. Things look different when viewed from Central Europe. Prague’s modernity undermines easy distinctions between east and west, good and evil, right and wrong. Here, all choices come with costs, and the lines dividing collaboration and resistance, consent and dissent, dissolve into a blur of moral uncertainties. This is a landscape painted in infinite shades of gray. When authoritarianism is in the ascendant and democracy under global assault, we cannot afford to dismiss twentieth-century Czechoslovakia as a faraway country. Prague’s modern history should sound a warning to us all.

I have recently published an article in Britské listy in a series in which historians reflect on the pros and cons of researching on the history of a country that is not their own. Its organizer Muriel Blaive described the aim of the series as follows:

In May 2021, Jill Massino and I organized a roundtable at the annual congress of the Association for the Study of Nationalities in New York. It was entitled The Benefits and Burdens of the “Invisible Suitcase”: Writing Contemporary History as an Outsider.

Some of the greatest historians of the contemporary period are “outsiders” to their country of study, for instance Robert Paxton and Christopher Browning in the case of France and Germany during the Second World War. Outsider perspectives enhance, complement, and complicate existing narratives, and, as such, help to produce a more nuanced and complex portrait of the past. Yet our collective experience is that Western historians of communism in Central Europe struggle to establish their legitimacy among societies that remain attached to an ethnonationalist definition of identity. Also, many people believe that only contemporary witnesses are entitled to speak about contemporary history. This roundtable offered the cumulated experience of four scholars: Marci Shore, Jill Massino, Jan Čulík, and Muriel Blaive. We reflected on the way in which our status has affected our research, our writing, and our reception. As a result, our roundtable also offered insight into the societies we are studying and into the stakes involved in the production of history.

Britské listy has kindly offered us to publish our texts, as well as a few others on the part of colleagues who attended the panel and participated in a very lively discussion. 

My contribution began with reflections on a conversation in a Prague pub with a Czech colleague thirty years ago on a 1949 set of Czechoslovak postage stamps that he found absolutely unremarkable and I found utterly surreal. I titled the article “The Density of Unexpected Encounters.”

English text here.

Czech text here.

Earlier contributions were Marci Shore’s “Ostranenie, or the Epistemological Advantages—and Disadvantages—of Marginality,” and Anna Müller and Jadwiga Biskupska’s “Objectivity and the Polish Question: Two Answers.”

Christian Michelides, Stolperstein für Milena Jesenska, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The Guardian did not think the following letter, responding to a column by the self-proclaimed feminist Zoe Williams, worth publishing. The “terrible gift” to which Williams refers was a book that she identifies as Kafka’s Milena: Life of Milena Jesenská. No such book exists: she might be referring to Jesenská’s daughter Jana Černá’s Kafka’s Milena (which has no subtitle) or Mary Hockaday’s biography Kafka, Love and Courage: The Life of Milena Jesenská. It probably doesn’t matter, since Williams considered her father’s gift an insult and didn’t bother to read the book.

19 December 2022

Dear Editor,

I take issue with Zoe Williams’s article “I unwrapped Dad’s terrible gift …” (December 19).  Humour is humour, but Milena Jesenská deserves better than to be ridiculed as “KAFKA’S FUCKING MUSE” (sic). Jesenská was a pioneering advocate of women’s emancipation, who as an independent journalist and translator practiced what she preached.

For the record: “Metamorphosis” was published in 1915, five years before Franz and Milena first corresponded in connection with her translating his work into Czech.  Their love affair was almost entirely epistolary, lasted less than a year, and was likely not consummated.  Jesenská was then in her early twenties.  She had a life before, after, and beyond Kafka. 

She went on to became one of Czechoslovakia’s most distinguished journalists, whose reportage on events in Central Europe in the 1930s (the rise of Nazism, the Vienna Anschluss, persecution of Jews, the Munich Agreement, the invasion of Czechoslovakia) is of lasting value to historians.  Her writings on refugees are especially moving and have lost none of their pertinence today.  

Milena was arrested by the Gestapo for resistance activities in November 1939 and died in Ravensbrück concentration camp in May 1944.  In 1995 the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem listed her as Righteous among the Nations—that is, “non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.”

Perhaps Williams should open that “terrible gift.”  Better yet, she could dip into Kathleen Hayes’s excellent selections in The Journalism of Milena Jesenská: A Critical Voice in Interwar Central Europe.  Zoe’s Dad was doing her a favour. What better role model could a young, female Guardian journalist ask for?

Sincerely,

Derek Sayer

Professor Emeritus

University of Alberta

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Record of the Year

Ryuichi Sakamoto   Playing the piano 12122020

Having received the news that his cancer was stage 4 in June 2020, Ryuichi Sakamoto wrote:  

“I have just turned 70, but how many more times will I be able to see the full moon?  But even thinking that, since I have been granted life, I am praying that I will be able to make music until my last moments, just like my beloved Bach and Debussy.”

He is doing just that.  My Record of the Year was recorded piecemeal, song by song—by that time Sakamoto was too weak to perform continuously for an hour to an hour-and-a-half—and streamed from a vast empty studio in Tokyo, simulating a concert, on 12 December 2020.


Tied for 2nd Place

Binker and Moses   Feeding the Machine

Sun Ra Arkestra   Living Sky

Binker Golding and Moses Boyd’s album creates an astonishing soundscape, taking us well beyond the horizons of what jazz used to be. One reviewer characterizes it as “a kind of exquisite madness. The music feels as if it could tear itself apart even while mournful at its core.”  

The Sun Ra Arkestra, led by Marshall Allen on alto sax, is the most joyous sound I’ve heard this year.  Allen is 98 and has played with the Arkestra for over sixty years.  


Rest of Top 10 (in alphabetical order)

Beach House   Once Twice Melody

S. G. Goodman   Teeth Marks

Hurray for the Riff Raff   Life on Earth

Jockstrap   I Love You Jennifer B

Angel Olsen   Big Time

Plains   I Walked with You a Ways

Sharon Van Etten   We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong

Beach House got listened to a lot this year, the sound of spaced-out, endless summer: just the thing for these Endtimes. 

Goodman chronicles the slow decay of the American heartland in a suite of sharp and melodic songs.  “It’s about the way we leave marks on each other, and empathy or the lack thereof,” she says.  Plains’ album, a collaboration between Katie Crutchfield (of Waxahatchee) and Jess Williamson, has a similar quirky country vibe, with exquisite vocal harmonies (that make songs like “Abilene” all the more chilling). 

Hurray for the Riff Raff is Alynda Segarra, who hails from the Bronx but is now based in New Orleans.  She’s been around a while but her previous albums are more folk/Americana. I like this reboot better. Among the “nature punk” songs on Life on Earth is “Precious Cargo,” which “shares the story of a man swimming across a river with his children, of a border crossed, a family torn apart; of shivering on a cold jail floor with a foil blanket and calling out to Allah.”  

I discovered the young British duo Jockstrap (Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye) only this month from Metacritic’s Records of the Year.  What a fabulously original and creative album! Even if it is sometimes a tad pretentious.

Olsen and Van Etten are both singers whose previous albums had some great individual songs (like Van Etten’s “Seventeen“) but didn’t grab me as a whole.  Not so this year.  These are masterpieces of skilled songwriting and vocal expression.  


Alternate rest of Top 10 (in alphabetical order)

The Bad Plus   The Bad Plus

Keith Jarrett   Bordeaux Concert

Makaya McCraven   In These Times

Caitlin Rose   Cazimi

Marta Sánchez   SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum)

Stormzy   This Is What I Mean

Sudan Archives Natural Brown Prom Queen

The Bad Plus, whom we saw a few years back at the Village Vanguard when they were a piano trio, have replaced the piano with an electric guitar and a tenor sax. It works. The Jarrett concert may turn out to be his last recording, since he’s suffered a massive stroke since that left him unable to play. If so, it’s a fine way to sign off.

Following up on Where We Come From and Universal Beings (both in my previous Albums of the Year lists), Makaya McCraven takes the looping wizardry Teo Macero started with Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew to unheard-of heights. New York-based Spanish pianist and composer Marta Sánchez (whom I hadn’t heard before) shows that the future of jazz is in good hands.

It’s great to see Caitlin Rose back after all these years (nine) with some characteristically catchy, bitter-sweet songs that get under your skin and stay there. As with her previous album The Stand-In, I love the retro-pop arrangements. And that inimitable voice, clear as a bell.

I listened to Stormzy’s record only when I read it was challenging Cliff Richard (aged 82 and saccharine as ever) for #1 in the UK album charts, which I saw as a metaphor for the culture wars dividing the country. It surprised me by its poetry and its quiet lyricism. The second album by vocalist and violinist Sudan Archives (Brittney Parks) is a joyful, sexy, exuberant blast. Both give reason to hope in the darkness.


Songs of the Year

the #1

Caroline Shaw/Attacca Quartet    Other Song 

and some other great songs of 2022 (in no particular order)

Rihanna Lift Me Up

Sudan Archives Selfish Soul

Plains   Abilene

S. G. Goodman   Work Until I Die

Hurray for the Riff Raff   Rhododendron

Margo Price   Lydia

Caitlin Rose   Only Lies

Jockstrap   Glasgow

Allison Russell + Brandi Carlile + Sista Strings   You’re Not Alone

Sharon Van Etten   Darkness Fades

Angel Olsen   Chasing the Sun

(Yes, I do like female vocals.)

The third and final volume in my Prague trilogy, Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, is out today in North America in hardback and Kindle editions. More details here (Princeton) and here (amazon.com).

Early reviews are positive:

“Necessary. It should be in every academic library” (Library Journal, starred review)

“Derek Sayer’s Postcards from Absurdistan is an encompassing review of cultural and sociopolitical Prague from tumultuous 1938 onward, detailed with compassion for the Czech people … Fascinating and capacious, Postcards from Absurdistan surveys Prague’s anguished recent past, raising concerns for its future amid new global conflicts and challenges.” (Foreword Reviews)

“Covering literature, the graphic arts, music, philosophy, architecture, and photography, Sayer profiles a staggering cast of artists and intellectuals … The book is littered with memorable vignettes, including [Egon Erwin] Kisch learning in Mexico City that his brothers back in Prague have been killed … (Publishers Weekly)

Postcards from Absurdistan will be published in the UK and Europe on January 3, 2023.

Frontispiece. Jan Reegen, Rita, 1950, tempera, on a protectorate newspaper and a Union of Czech Youth poster, 62.5 by 43.5 cm, Galerie Ztichlá klika v Praze. From Marie Klimešová, Roky ve dnech: české umění 1945–1957, Prague, 2010.

My new book, Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, will be published by Princeton University Press on November 22. This is the third and final volume of my Prague Trilogy. The earlier volumes, both of which were also published by Princeton, were The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History (1998) and Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (2013).

PUP have now posted a preview of Postcards from Absurdistan on the web containing the Contents, Chapter 1, and Index.

Advance praise:

“Like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project on nineteenth-century Paris, Derek Sayer’s book on twentieth-century Prague brilliantly mixes an infinity of small worlds that reflect the greater world of an enigmatic and fascinating city.”—Jan Baetens, author of Rebuilding Story Worlds: “The Obscure Cities” by Schuiten and Peeters

Postcards from Absurdistan is a compelling account of the official and the everyday dramas of twentieth-century Prague. Derek Sayer evokes the farce, satire, tragedy, and absurdity of the fragments that create history, masterfully balancing reality and the myths constructed by visual artists, writers, dramatists, and composers.”—Marta Filipová, author of Modernity, History, and Politics in Czech Art

“An extraordinary entrance ticket to modern Czech culture—erudite, independent, fascinating!”—Jindřich Toman, author of Czech Cubism and the Book

“Brilliant and addictively readable, Postcards from Absurdistan is at once an intimate history of Prague and a lively retelling of the story of the twentieth century.”—Paulina Bren, author of The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring.

On 24 February 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, I responded to an argument on a friend’s Facebook page that the West should give in to Vladimir Putin’s demands in order to avoid the prospect of World War III and possible global nuclear annihilation.

A few days later, to my great surprise, I was informed that my comment had violated Facebook’s “Community Standards” and my account would be subjected to multiple restrictions, including a ban on posting or commenting for a week, a ban on participating in groups for a month, and having all my posts moved down in Newsfeed for two months.

Facebook operates a system of escalating penalties, and this was not the first time I had fallen foul of their algorithms. I was reminded that “multiple posts from the last year didn’t follow our standards.” They listed three previous violations. One was for “bullying” (I had the temerity to suggest that to describe COVID-19 as “a little headache” when over 800,000 people had died of it in the United States was “stupid and dangerous”) and another was for “nudity” (I posted a picture of the newly published Czech translation of my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, whose cover utilizes a collage by Karel Teige featuring a bare-breasted woman). I can’t track down the third violation because “this content is no longer available.” This is hardly a litany of hate speech.

I checked the box disagreeing with the decision over my latest post. Facebook responded confirming that in their view, my post violated their standards. They told me, however, that I could appeal to Facebook’s (allegedly) independent Oversight Board, “which was created to help Facebook answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up, and why.” There is no guarantee the board will review any particular individual case: “The Oversight Board will define the criteria that will ensure it selects eligible cases that are difficult, significant and globally relevant that can inform future policy.”

While I do not think my personal quarrels with Facebook are of any great importance in themselves, I believe how and in whose interests Facebook and other social media control the flow of information on the internet are among the most pressing political issues of our time.

Here are extracts from my submission to Facebook’s Oversight Board. If I get a response I will post it here. I’m not holding my breath.

Summary of case

I am a professional historian and an acknowledged expert on modern European history. Among other honors and awards, my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2013) won the George L. Mosse Prize for 2014, which is awarded annually by the American Historical Association for “an outstanding major work of extraordinary scholarly distinction, creativity, and originality in the intellectual and cultural history of Europe since 1500.”  This book was also chosen as one of the Financial Times History Books of the Year.

The comment Facebook removed read (in full): 

“This is my last territorial demand in Europe” (Adolf Hitler, speaking of the Sudetenland, September 1938).  

The Sudetenland is the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia that the leaders of Britain and France agreed Nazi Germany could annex following the 1938 Munich Agreement in order to achieve “peace for our time” (Neville Chamberlain). It soon became clear that this appeasement policy did not work. Hitler occupied the rest of the Czech Lands in March 1939, and invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, triggering World War II.

The context in which I posted this comment was a discussion on a colleague’s timeline of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. People were suggesting that the most prudent course of action was to appease Putin by agreeing to his demands to demilitarize Ukraine and prevent it joining NATO.  My point was that Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine was reminiscent of Hitler’s toward Czechoslovakia in 1938, and to appease him now would likely have the same result. Concessions would encourage further aggression elsewhere. I am far from the only person to have made this case on Facebook or elsewhere.

Nothing in my post can reasonably be construed as praising or endorsing Hitler or Nazism. And my scholarly record of opposition to fascism speaks for itself. This decision is preposterous, and sends out a chilling message for scholarly debate.

Why did I post this comment on Facebook

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is arguably the greatest threat to peace in Europe and global security since World War II.  As a professional historian of modern Europe, I believe I have a right as well as an obligation to bring my knowledge of recent history to bear on current debates on Facebook and elsewhere.  In this case I was drawing attention to the strong parallels between Adolf Hitler’s behavior toward Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine in 2022. The quote I chose (“This is my last territorial demand in Europe”) was intended to suggest that Putin’s assurances on Ukraine should be treated with skepticism.  Historians know that appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 did not prevent World War II breaking out a year later.  By using this quote I was implying that appeasing Putin over Ukraine is no more likely to stop him moving into (for example) the Baltic states if he is not resisted now.

Did Facebook misunderstand my reason for posting?

Yes, I do think Facebook misunderstood my reason for posing.  The context of the debate into which I was intervening should have sufficed to make it abundantly clear that I was in no way endorsing Hitler. For example another of my comments in the same exchange read: “If Joe Biden can seize all assets of Bank of Afghanistan in US and give them away to Americans, he can sure as hell do more to sanction Russia and Russians than he has done to date. Same goes for other western leaders. If they don’t, Putin’s troops may well think the road is open to Riga, Tallin and Vilnius … and who knows, Warsaw and Prague.”

Does this case raise issues of wider social importance?

Yes.  It is universally accepted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a grave threat to world peace, and how best to respond has been debated in every western country.  The invasion gave rise to the first emergency UN General Assembly session since 1982 (and only the tenth such session since 1950). It is essential that academics be allowed to bring their professional knowledge to bear in commenting on such issues on Facebook and elsewhere. They cannot do so if mere quotation of Adolf Hitler or similar figures, irrespective of context, is treated by your algorithms or adjudicators of “community standards” as tantamount to endorsement.  If I know this is how Facebook acts, I will self-censor and avoid even mention of possibly controversial topics in order not to get banned from a network that is useful to me for other purposes (keeping up with family and friends across the world). If everyone responds similarly for fear of having their Facebook account disabled, the net effect will be to close down informed debate on important social and political issues – WITHOUT in any way deterring the real, organized, purveyors of hate speech, like white supremacist organizations, who have proved adept at taking advantage of your platform many times in the past.

Can you suggest improvements Facebook can make to avoid this happening?

The simplest measure you could take is not to treat the mere mention or quotation of a historical figure as an endorsement of their views, but to examine to context in which the mention or quotation is made. And, possibly, employ better educated adjudicators.

10 word summary of complaint

Quotation should not be treated as endorsement irrespective of context.

  

Shit year, great music.

SONG OF THE YEAR

1 Taylor Swift All Too Well (the 10-minute version, as performed on SNL). You go girl!

2 Japanese Breakfast Paprika

3 The Felice Brothers We Shall Live Again


ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

THE TOP FIVE

1  Arlo Parks Collapsed in Sunbeams

2  Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders/London Symphony Orchestra Promises

3  Japanese Breakfast Jubilee

4  The Felice Brothers From Dreams to Dust

5  Vijay Iyer/Linda May Han Oh/Tyshawn Sorey Uneasy

THE NEXT FIVE (in no particular order)

Steve Earle J.T.

Valerie June The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers

Jaimie Branch Fly or Die live

Mdou Moctar Afrique Victime

Jack Ingram/Miranda Lambert/Jon Randall The Marfa Tapes

OLDER RECORDINGS FIRST RELEASED IN 2021

Mike Cooley/Patterson Hood/Jason Isbell Live at the Shoals Theater

Drive-By Truckers Plan 9 Records July 13, 2006

John Coltrane A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle (1965, featuring a much younger Pharoah Sanders)

Masabumi Kikuchi Hanamichi: The Final Studio Recordings (recorded in 2013)

HONORABLE MENTION

Dry Cleaning New Long Leg

Sons of Kemet Black to the Future

Alfa Mist Bring Backs

John Hiatt Leftover Feelings

Tony Higgins and Mike Peden (compilers) J JazzVolume 3: Deep Modern Jazz from Japan

Theon Cross Intra-1

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.


Czech readers are at last getting a translation of the best known book by the internationally acclaimed and award-winning Bohemist, which is an adventurous tour through twentieth-century Prague in all its surreal corners, that lurk at literally every step.

Prague – “a city located at a crossroads of imagined futures that seemed boundless and imagined pasts that eternally threatened to return.” Just because of this it became an inspirational metropolis for a movement so sensitively reactive to the social changes of its time. Now, surrealist Prague is presented in a spectacular monograph, which in more than 500 pages shows the important role of this uncanny city in its interwoven connections, without which surrealism would not have achieved its celebrated forms. And what is still more remarkable – it is not a Czech but a Canadian-British Bohemist who narrates this adventure …

In his spellbinding account of the turbulent art of Prague and the lives of its creators, Sayer does not forget the finest details … (Elizaveta Getta, “Město surrealistických snů,” iLiterature.cz, 1 August 2021)


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. For Prague flaneurs. (PLAV, iLiteratura.cz, 19 June 2021, where it is among six non-fiction books listed in the site’s traditional annual recommendations for summer reading.)


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.