Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Comment: Letter from Prague

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Comment: Letter from Prague

Article excerpt

Dear H,

Prague has adopted Franz Kafka as its favorite literary son. Though experts on Bohemian taste will tell you that Karel Capek remains nearest and dearest to Czech readers, in Prague the modern writer who is most visible is the one who rendered the city as an anonymous nightmare place-a fact that is celebrated in the new Franz Kafka Museum in the Little Quarter, on the left bank of the Vltava River, below the Castle. On the river's right bank, in the Old Town, a restaurant and a café bear his name. The restaurant is located near where he was born, on a little square now also named for him. The café offers sugar packets with his picture, the famous image of the haunted young man. In a passageway to the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, one of the Gothic churches off the Old Town Square, a plaque indicates the site where Franz's father Hermann had his men's clothing store. Not far away, in the Jewish Quarter just north of the Old Town, next to the Spanish Synagogue, stands a remarkable bronze erected recently in Kafka's honor: a large empty suit with a small suited man astraddle its shoulders. These peculiar memorials remind me that when Kafka read his stories to his friends, stories like "The Metamorphosis" about poor Gregor Samsa's transformation into a giant insect, he and his friends laughed uproariously. Prague's sense of humor is Kafkaesque, at least with respect to Kafka.

My wife Amy and I discovered Prague's affection for Kafka while I was teaching a poetry workshop this past July in the Prague Summer Program. The program, run out of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, is the brainchild of the poet and novelist Richard Katrovas and his wife Dominika Winterova, who is Czech. It offers courses in creative writing, photography, and cultural studies and, while in Prague, has its office and classrooms in Charles University's Faculty of Arts building on Jan Palach Square, located between the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter, facing the Vltava. The windows of my second-floor classroom looked west across the river to a spellbinding vista of the Castle and St. Vitus' Cathedral. I sat with my back to this view and noticed rapt and dreamy looks on my students' faces as they gazed above my head at the skyline.

Prague is a Gothic city encased in a glorious overlay of Baroque architecture. Its Gothic churches, still aspiring and vaulted, offer starry, dazzling interiors with Baroque altarpieces and shrines meant originally to impress Counter Reformation believers. To this day, despite a period of drab Communist functionality in its architecture, Prague swings and tilts to the baroque. One of its most recent marvels is architect Frank Gehry's The Dancing House, Tancící dum, known affectionately to citizens as "Fred and Ginger." It stands beside the Vltava like a groovy pair of curvaceous silos, Bohemian and terpsichorean. The enduring life of the Baroque in The Dancing House and the earlier Art Nouveau style of Alfons Mucha vibrates throughout the city. Kafka would seem to be the antithesis to this celebratory gaudiness. But maybe not. He may be more like the Gothic inner life that wears the baroque like an iridescent beetle shell.

When we arrived, on the drive from the airport, the green farmlands on the way to the city reminded me of Iowa, and I remembered that much of the Midwest was settled by people from Central Europe. Nowhere, except Ireland, have I seen so many European faces that looked American. Dinner the first night in Prague was hearty but dull, with thin white wine, a couple of slabs of wiener schnitzel, a mildly interesting potato salad. We were staying in the Vinohrady district, east of the New Town, near the Church of Saint Ludmila, at a hotel recommended by a former Vanderbilt music student Amy knows who lives in Prague. The VU grad recommended a place to eat called The Red Baron, which seemed like a decent family restaurant. In fact a happy little girl in a funny hat was there with her grandparents. …

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