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.


Update

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. (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.

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I was recently invited by the excellent Prague-based magazine Alienist (motto: ALL SUBJECTIVITY IS APPROPRIATION) to participate in this questionnaire.  The entire issue of the magazine can be downloaded here.  I have also posted my own brief contribution, which interrogates the notion of alienation, separately on academia.edu.

ALIENIST MANIFESTO

We live, we die. In a world beset by alienation, it seems we exist in a recurring dream of disillusionment. The history of reason – history as reason – poses itself at the beginning of the 21st century as a congenital madness. And if reason is the symptom of an irrational problem, what part does the mind play in this? Bloodless revolutions have stained the pages of psychiatry, literature, art history, philosophy – if emancipation is an idea that first belongs to those who forge chains, it is not a facetious question we pose: IS SCHIZOPHRENIA A SOLUTION?

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Feelings of Structure

How places, objects, fantasies, histories, and memories get under our skin and how we understand their affective connections.


Sweatsuits and the apocalypse, the demands of a sofa, a life recalled through window frames, whale watching through cancer, the serendipity of geographical names … in Feelings of Structure, these are just some of the spaces and places, memories, and experiences addressed by the authors in writings that are multilevel explorations of the tangled-up nature of feeling and structure.

Inspired by Raymond Williams’s classic essay “Structures of Feeling” and influenced by the current discussion of affect studies, this collection inverts Williams’s influential concept to explore the ephemerality of feeling as working in concert with the grounding forces of materiality and history.

Feelings of Structure is a collection of twelve original texts that explores the weight of diverse encounters with a variety of configurations, be they institutional, spatial, historical, or fantastical. Featuring writers from a range of disciplines, this book aims for textual evocation in subject matter and approach, with essays that encompass multiple methodologies, writing styles, and tones.


Much looking forward to this unusual set of writings, out this fall from McGill-Queens University Press.  Contributors include Craig Campbell, Michael Daroch, Lindsey Freeman, Christien Garcia, Mark Jackson, Adam Lauder, Adam Kaasa, Kimberly Mair, Lee Rodney, Joey Russo, and Lesley Stern.  More details and pre-order here.


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One of my earliest attempts to formulate the argument of my Prague Trilogy was in a keynote lecture I wrote for the conference New Directions in Writing European History at the Middle Eastern Technical University, Ankara, Turkey, on October 25-6, 1994.  I was one of three keynote speakers, along with Paul Langford and John Hall.  My lecture was titled “Prague as a Vantage Point on Modern European History. ”

The conference proceedings, including the three keynote lectures, responses by Turkish scholars, and a transcript of audience questions and panel discussions, were published in English in METU Studies in Development, vol. 22, no. 3, 1995.

I am pleased to belatedly discover that my lecture, along with those of John Hall and Paul Langford, has appeared in Turkish translation in Huri Islamoglu (ed.), Neden Avrupa Tarihi (Istanbul: Iletisim Yayincilik, 2nd ed, 2014).  I like the cover too.

The title means “Why European history?”—a good question.   I began my contribution to the discussion of John Hall’s paper (which was titled “The Rise of the West”) as follows:

I found the presentation very compelling and I was suspicious precisely because of that.  It was the clarity, the simplicity, the elegance of it that came across so strongly, but I wonder can you do that when you are talking about 2000 years of European history and contrasting it with the rest of the world?  Can you compass that complexity within so simple an argumentative framework, within a single theory?  I want to try to pin you down by asking three simple questions …

The simple questions are: first, what is Europe?  Second, where is the West?  And third, when was modernity? 


 

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My 1986 book with David Frisby, Society, has coincidentally also just appeared in Turkish under the title Toplum.  The same publisher previously did a Turkish edition of The Violence of Abstraction.

Given the appalling repression going on in Turkish universities since the failed coup in 2016, it is heartening that such texts are still being published.

Blackwell issued a 2nd edition of The Great Arch in 1991, six years after the original publication, for which Philip Corrigan and I wrote a postscript discussing new work on English state formation published since 1985, and responding to various reviews of the book.  Both entailed some clarification and extension of its arguments. The 2nd edition had a very small print-run and soon went out of print, so this text is little known.

The excellent cover illustration is from Lyubov Popova’s set for The Earth in Turmoil (1923).  I have posted a downloadable scan of the postscript here for anyone interested.

GA 2d ed cover

 


There was also a Spanish translation of the Introduction and Afterthoughts sections of The Great Arch, in Antropología del Estado: Dominación y prácticas contestatarias en América Latina, ed. María L. Lagos and Pamela Calla, Cuaderno de Futuro Nº 23, La Paz (Bolivia): Hernando Calla, 2007, pp. 39-116.  A pdf can be downloaded free here.

Earlier this year New Perspectives published an updated version of a paper I had been working on—on and off—for more than a decade, in which I tried to re-examine some of the arguments about English state formation presentein my 1985 book with Philip Corrigan, The Great Arch, in light of my later work on Czech history in my Prague Trilogy.

Abstract

Considering the differences between the superficial orderliness of the English/British table of royal succession and the apparent anarchy of its Bohemian counterpart, this essay questions aspects of the analysis of English state formation offered in Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer’s 1985 study The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution. Rather than providing a contrast to England’s institutional political continuities over centuries, Bohemia’s manifestly fractured history furnishes a vantage point from which the ideological character of such claimed historical continuities becomes clear.  E. P. Thompson’s image of a “great arch” of state formation attributes far too much shape, solidity, and coherence to a process that was always, whether in England or Bohemia, a matter of flux and fluidity – a landscape in constant erosion, upon which coherence is only ever imposed in momentary retrospect.

New Perspectives has just made the text freely downloadable here.  I would welcome any comments.

For those interested, I have just posted the full text of my first book, Marx’s Method: Ideology, Science and Critique in Capital (1st edition, 1979) on academia.edu.  As with other out-of-print books I have posted on the same site (The Violence of Abstraction, and Philip Corrigan and Derek Sayer, The Great Arch) it is selling for ridiculous prices second-hand.  All these texts can now be downloaded free of charge from academia.edu.