Category Archives: surrealism
I am delighted that my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: a Surrealist History is the subject of the lead review in this week’s Times Literary Supplement, along with Thomas Ort’s Art And Life In Modernist Prague: Karel Čapek and his generation, 1911–1938. In her long review essay “Surreal love in Prague” Marci Shore writes:
Sayer’s book is a pleasure to read, luscious in a sultry kind of way… Sayer meanders voyeuristically into the affairs between Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenská, Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka, Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová, and tarries alongside the ménage à trois of Éluard, Gala, and Max Ernst. The Vogue model turned photographer Lee Miller makes an appearance, as do the singer Jarmila Novotná, the architect Le Corbusier, the “little girl conductor” Vítěslava Kaprálová, and the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. The axis is Prague–Paris, but we detour to Vienna for Expressionism, Berlin for Dada, the Moravian town of Zlín for the Bata shoe factory.
While Sayer lingers at length among Surrealist erotica, he disapproves of the Surrealists’ “propensity to parlay the sordid into the sublime”. Prague itself – krásná Praha, zlatá Praha (beautiful Prague, golden Prague) – has long been eroticized, but Sayer finds the city’s sexualization tawdry. For him, Prague is the laboratory where Éluard’s belief that “everything is transmutable into everything” is confirmed. “This little mother has claws”, as Kafka wrote of his own city. The fairy-tale picture of the castle overlooking the river conceals the necrophiliac and the sadomasochistic, and images of the pre-modern grotesque flicker across Sayer’s Surrealist narrative … If for Benjamin Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, for Sayer Prague was the capital of the twentieth: “Prague is a less glittering capital for a century, to be sure, than la ville-lumière, but then it was a very much darker century”.
Thank you Professor Shore for a very generous review! I am also really pleased that the TLS chose to illustrate “Surreal love in Prague” with Toyen’s painting “At the Château Lacoste” (below) and to use one of Karel Teige’s surrealist collages for the magazine cover (above).
The full text of Marci Shore’s review can be found here.
Sorry y’all, this one is about me. Very pleased that Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century has made the Financial Times Books of the Year.
I’m sick of blogging about the self-important, pompous, and utterly provincial British REF (“Research Excellence Framework’). Enough miserablism (André Breton), at least for today.
Instead, I would like to celebrate the October publication by Chicago University Press of Allen C. Shelton’s Where the North Sea Touches Alabama, the follow-up to his widely praised Dreamworlds of Alabama (Minnesota UP, 2007).
I have known Allen since he first invited me, over ten years ago now, to participate in the remarkable festival of arts and ideas he organized annually on a shoestring budget in Buffalo, NY under the Benjaminian title Ethnographic Dreamworlds. Some of the richness of those meetings, which brought together intellectuals across disciplines, performers, and visual artists, can be gleaned from the soft arcades website that survives as a ghostly record of an extraordinarily vibrant event.
It was through Allen and Ethnographic Dreamworlds that I met, among others, Kathleen Stewart, Patricia Clough, Danielle Egan, and Susan Lepselter—scholars doing courageous and pioneering work that make the standard disciplinary boundaries in the humanities and social sciences seem no more than quaint and rather incomprehensible antiques. Allen was kind enough to visit Lancaster University last year as a participant in a cross-disciplinary writing workshop for PhD students, on whom he left a lasting impression.
This is what others are saying about Where the North Sea Touches Alabama:
Kathleen C. Stewart, author of Ordinary Affects
“This is a beautiful and brilliant book. . . . The lives of Allen Shelton, Patrik Keim, Walter Benjamin, and many others intersect in these pages, rubbing up against each other, drawing on each other to evoke layers on layers of worlds in which objects, color, and texture are everything. Shelton’s writing is masterful.”
Donna Haraway, author of A Cyborg Manifesto
“Allen C. Shelton is really special. From the layering and subtlety of his writing to his sense of geography, intimacy, and sensuous detail, I don’t know anyone who writes quite like him. These interwoven narratives of the dead and the living form a boundary-crossing work of worlding, a productive new type of critical engagement; Where the North Sea Touches Alabama is not just a remarkable book, but a fresh genre of writing.”
Howard S. Becker, author of Art Worlds
“Allen C. Shelton is a provocative writer whose prose grapples with a lot of ideas we don’t usually allow ourselves to think about. Readers will have to think hard, but their efforts will pay off in new knowledge and insight: I felt that I knew a whole lot more after reading his book than I did before and I don’t often feel that way, nor feel that way so strongly.”
Jonathan Fullmer | Booklist
“Dense, wildly digressive, and divided into topical microchapters that cite more than 100 endnotes sometimes only loosely connected to the text, Shelton’s singular blend of art-, lit-, and pop-infused intellectualism may not draw a wide readership, but those who enter will find an invigorating analysis of death, art, friendship, and self-discovery.”
Luis Jaramillo | The Coffin Factory
“The sometimes abrupt shifts in subject matter make this a book that has to be read slowly to take in Shelton’s arguments. Fortunately this close reading is rewarded, especially in the moments when Shelton moves from more analytical passages to personal reflections, synthesizing the theories he’s discussing. . . . What makes this book so strangely wonderful is how Shelton moves from the abstract to the personal.”
Check it out here.
“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you” –said Ford Madox Ford.
Following this maxim, Marshal Zeringue has created a very entertaining blog, “The Page 99 Test,” in which he asks authors to comment on page 99 of their book and publishes the results. He asked me to take the test and I did.
It turned out page 99 was set in a cemetery.
You can read the results here.
I have uploaded two essays (of sorts) to the Writings section of this site. “American Surreal” was inspired by Veryl Goodnight’s monument to the fall of the Berlin Wall at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the Texas A & M University campus in College Station, Texas. “Games of the Doll” is an outtake from Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century. It tries to wrestle with the disconcerting gaze of the German surrealist Hans Bellmer’s notorious adolescent doll. I have also added a photo of our poodle Luci to the “About” section. She will shortly be taking driving lessons.
It has taken me over ten years to research and write Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History, the sequel to The Coasts of Bohemia (Princeton University Press 1998). On the weekend I received an advance bound proof copy. It felt good!
656 pages, 62 illustrations, cloth $35.00/£24.95, Princeton University Press Spring 2013.
“A triumph! Sayer’s indispensable work is at once magisterial and puckish, authoritative and subversive, intellectually dense and brilliantly accessible.” Michael Beckerman, New York University
“This is a fascinating and brilliantly written narrative that combines elements of literary guide, biography, cultural history, and essay. Writing with warm engagement, and drawing on his detailed knowledge of Czech literature, art, architecture, music, and other fields, Derek Sayer provides a rich picture of a dynamic cultural landscape.” Jindřich Toman, University of Michigan