‘The design is stunning, two of the volumes featuring calligrams in the form of images either wrapped by the text, or which the text forms; these images are, of course, a main point of each page. The book is brilliantly constructed so that the image and text therefore complement each other, and the calligrams force the mind to focus on the meaning behind each page.
‘The immediacy of the second person narrative draws you in completely, and I found myself totally absorbed from the first page. The writing is often lyrical, the setting vividly conjured and the wonderful calligrams really add to the experience of reading the book.’ – Karen Langley, Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings
‘Straddling the line between book as object, of literature as idea, and the perhaps more traditional landscape of narrative comfort, The Edge of the Object manages to balance these elements into an absorbing and thoroughly enjoyable work.’ – Alistair Fitchett, Caught by the River
For more information about the novel, which is published by the Half Pint Press, or to buy the three-volume limited edition with handmade case, please visit the dedicated website at The Edge of the Object.
Here’s a first look at my new novel, The Edge of the Object, which is being published by the Half Pint Press on 1st December in a three-volume limited edition with a handmade case. While the middle part is traditionally typeset, parts one and three form sequences of shaped text, or calligrams.
A dedicated website for the book is now live at www.theedgeoftheobject.com, including info on how to order a copy. And I’m delighted to say that we’re having a physical launch event at the Prince Arthur pub near Old Street station in London on 1st December. If you’re in London or within striking distance of the City, it would be great to see you. Full details on the new website.
By Daniel Williams Published by the Half Pint Press, autumn 2021 (publication date to be confirmed) Three-volume limited edition with letterpress-printed wraparound slipcase
For more information or to be added to my mailing list, please contact me.
A visually arresting triptych, Daniel Williams’ first novel is a playful exploration of words and space, and of presence and absence, both on the page and in the mind of the narrator: a young photographer who has swapped a London high-rise and the city’s music scene and for a storm-damaged cottage in Normandy.
Escaping his solitary confinement, the Leica-less photographer heads off on a tour with two up-and-coming indie bands, Solar Plexus and the Faceless Saints. In Bordeaux he is introduced to Sophie, a meeting that shapes the rest of his stay…
Set in the 1990s, and written predominantly in striking second person prose, The Edge of the Object is a study of love, music, alienation, and of France through the lens of a Francophile, captured in a sequence of stunning calligrams.
‘She smiled. You’re deconstructing my face into a set of lines, reducing me to a mathematical equation that will make sense to you.’
A drawing is a set of lines. So is a letter. In S.D. Stewart’s prescient novel (published by Ghost Paper Archives), both are evidence of a reality which has been compromised and corrupted. The setting is a sunless future in which the earth has undergone ‘the Change’. It’s a claustrophobic world of enclosed cities and tunnels, of censors and fragmented memories, of artificial air and birdsong, and of Code Red days and masks. In an effort to retrieve what seem vital elements of his corrupted, compromised memory, the novel’s isolated and introverted central character keeps a dream journal, and looks for a way out of the nightmare in which he finds himself.
If the novel is dystopian, it’s because we are already facing multiple dystopian situations. It anticipates our near future, and the present which has come to pass even as the novel was having its finishing touches applied. In mostly simple sentences – themselves a set of lines – it generates mysteries which are both quotidian and complex, drawing you into the puzzling web of a world and a mind gone badly wrong; mysteries that neither its central character nor we as readers can ever quite hope to solve. The novel’s terrain lies somewhere between the surreal, labyrinthine hell of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and the apocalyptic imagery of Anna Kavan’s Ice, and the end result is worthy of being filed on your bookshelves alongside those two immersive, unsettling fables.
An edited (less long-winded!) version of my piece celebrating the centenary of Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey is now up at Caught by the River. Originally titled My Book of Hours, it comprises 165 woodcut images telling the story of a man’s life and death, and is widely recognised as a key work in the development of the graphic novel. The book is still available in an inexpensive edition from Dover Publications.
Pick up a copy of Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey, and open the book at any page. There, in lines both broad and fine, lines originally gauged, carved or chiselled into pearwood with a selection of woodcutting tools, are two of 165 striking images of a man in both everyday and red-letter day situations. At first he is fresh-faced, but later he bears the marks of life’s excesses and disappointments, of time’s inexorable march. Each scene is both a story in its own right, and a continuation of the man’s overarching tale, from his arrival in a great city, to his death and indeed his afterlife. So we see him lost in a crowd; looking down into the water of a canal, his head in his hands; visiting an art gallery; making love to a married woman, then walking the streets, his face lit up with euphoria; gathering a flock of birds about him; ice-skating on a river; buying fresh produce from the fruit and vegetable market; climbing up a pole to hang joints of meat from the top of it, then (back on the ground) aiming an arrow at them; reading under a tree, and later in a library; attending a political meeting and speaking to a rally; fallen grief-stricken over the deathbed of a young woman; and travelling widely, visiting as many destinations as a travel writer might, learning about other cultures as he goes, and perhaps concluding on his return to the city that wherever you are in the world, people are not so very different from each other.
Save for a couple of epigraphs and a further quotation after the final woodcut, there are no words. Originally published as Mon Livre d’heures (My Book of Hours) in Geneva one hundred years ago this year, Passionate Journey is one of the earliest examples – possibly the first, preceded only by Masereel’s own much shorter work, 25 Images of a Man’s Passion – of the wordless novel, and as such is widely recognised as being pivotal in the development of what would later come to be known as the graphic novel.
Lauded by Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, a friend of and illustrator for the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, and an admired confidante of the poet Rilke, among others, Belgian artist Frans Masereel’s achievements in his favoured medium of the woodcut would be impressive even without what has come to be his best known work. He went on to carve many other wordless works, including (from the subsequent decade alone) The Sun, The Idea, Story Without Words, The Work, and The City, all but one available in inexpensive editions from Dover Publications. (The City was also the focus of an exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2017.)
In the medieval sense, a book of hours was an illuminated manuscript containing devotional texts, prayers, and psalms. Some had decoration and colour lavished upon them; others restricted this to initial letters at the head of a page. While they were usually written in Latin, many were rendered in the vernacular, especially in Holland. Born and raised in Dutch-speaking Flanders, Masereel must have been well aware of these works, and alongside them Paupers’ Bibles, in which illustration was central, with little or no supporting text. Perhaps a book of hours or an illustrated bible had even been passed down within his family, a seed of inspiration for the artist he would become.
In his memoir The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig recalls the first evening he spent in Geneva, when he met a small group of predominantly French-speaking artists and writers with whom he instantly became firm friends, in spite of the clash of nations being played out by the First World War. ‘Among them was Frans Masereel, carving an enduring graphic monument of protest against the horrors of war before our eyes in his woodcuts, haunting images in black and white that, in their forceful anger, are equal even to Goya’s Desastres de la guerre. Day and night, he worked tirelessly cutting new scenes and figures out of the silent wood, his small room and his kitchen were both full of his woodcut blocks, and every morning La Feuille printed another of his graphic accusations.’
Masereel was indeed a pacifist and political activist, contributing his art to radical publications with limited circulation, so it should be no surprise that the life of the hero of Passionate Journey is very much a political one, and it’s for this reason that the book has long been a favourite in left-wing and anarchist circles. I first came across it at about the same age as is the protagonist at the start of the book. From either a radical bookshop (Compendium in Camden or Housmans in King’s Cross, the former gone, the latter happily still in business) or possibly from a stall at the Anarchist Book Fair held at Conway Hall in Holborn, I bought a cheap A6-sized version of the work, published by an underground Spanish publisher. The no doubt pirated images were badly reproduced, as if they were photocopies of photocopies, but Masereel’s captivating art and storytelling nevertheless shone through, moving beyond the merely political to encompass all of life. The appeal to Masereel of the woodcut form and its resultant starkly beautiful black and white images was precisely its reproducibility; he saw that it meant his art might be widely and cheaply circulated, and this is exactly what happened, initially in Germany in the 1920s (until Passionate Journey and Masereel’s other early wordless novels were banned as degenerate by the Nazis), and then in the late 1940s in the United States.
After the publication of My Book of Hours, Rilke wrote, ‘How happy has this lush collection of images made me! From one to the other I was surprised by its inexhaustible fertility of life and imagination.’ Rilke would have been aware that Masereel must have been indebted to his own 1905 collection, My Book of Hours. With sections entitled Monastic Life, The Book of Pilgrimage, and The Book of Poverty and Death, Rilke’s work could even be seen as an underlying structure for the life of Masereel’s far more secular hero, who – as he passes through those very stages of life – is shown to be both earnest and carefree, hopeful and despairing, weary and defiant, domesticated and adventurous. As one of the epigraphs (by Masereel’s friend, the French Nobel laureate and writer Romain Rolland) also indicates, the woodcuts are filled with ‘joy and sorrow, spite and good-humour, wisdom and folly, hay and straw, figs and grapes, fruit ripe and unripe, roses and haws — what I have seen, felt and known, owned and lived.’ (Rolland it was who encouraged Masereel to tell ‘simple stories of humble everyday life’.) It’s all there within Masereel’s portrayal of a young man trying to make his way, and do his best, until perhaps he realises his best is not enough. If he is ever shown working, it is at some kind of basic labour, and the job never seems to be held for long. A later scene, however, includes an artist’s easel, suggesting that this might be both how our hero has been able to pay his way and what has enabled him to sidestep the straightjacket of class.
In his introduction to the 1926 German edition of My Book of Hours, Thomas Mann wrote expansively but somewhat idealistically and archaically about this aspect of the hero’s character: ‘For only the artist is classless, declassed from birth. If he is born a worker, his intellect and noblesse bring him close to the middle class. If, as almost all artists today, he is a product of the middle class, again his intellect, freeing him of social ties, alienates him from his class, makes him suspicious of middle-class interests, and carries him much closer in spirit to the worker, even though he is likewise mistrustful of the latter’s class interest. His classlessness is not utopian; it is a natural result of fate and genuine at all times. It is this that surrounds him with an aura of purity, strangeness, detachment, something which in former times would have been called ‘saintliness’; and it is this too which, in a world shattered and torn asunder by implacable class conflicts, makes him, the outsider, the uninterested, the pure guest, the only one secretly enjoying the confidence of humanity, despite all the suspicions the ‘practical’ man inevitably feels toward the intellectual and imaginative man.’
In terms of love, the hero’s luck appears to be almost as transient as his attitude to work; he has his heart broken at least once, but there is enough in the unfolding of his passionate journey to suggest that he in turn might unwittingly or otherwise have broken a heart or two himself along the way. He remains a loner, happy to travel the world, to be always moving on. And so he dies how he has lived – alone. In her piece celebrating My Book of Hours, Stefany Anne Golberg writes, ‘The primary tension in Frans Masereel’s work is that of an artist caught between the roles of participant and observer. He is like Tu Fu or Baudelaire, artists on the fringes of society. How, asked Masereel, can one – should one – participate peacefully in a world that is, essentially, destroying itself? All throughout the book, the protagonist struggles to belong, to feel a part of the world. He loves, fights, travels, wanders, rescues. But when is he actually participating and when is he playing a part? It is only at the end, when the man is about to die, when he has stopped struggling, and is silent, that he seems to find real peace.’
As well as a work of imaginative travel (clearly, in the age before mass market flights, Masereel simply could not have visited all of the many countries he depicts), Passionate Journey is also a portrait of a city which echoes the contrasts in the hero’s own personality, being by turns friendly and isolating, caring and uncaring, ugly and beautiful, and squalid and touching. Nothing definitively gives away which city Masereel had in mind, if any; most likely it is an amalgam of the European capitals he knew – Brussels, Paris, and Geneva. The city is populated by beggars and top hat-wearing fat cats, and every gradation of status in between. Our hero is clearly on the side of the poor and the downtrodden, and takes every opportunity to thumb his nose at the rich. That the divisions seem starker than they are today is mostly down to differences in dress, but otherwise the images might stand for any point in time in the hundred years since, and certainly remain relevant to us in the current year and century.
Passionate Journey was the work of a relatively young man; 1919 was the year Masereel turned thirty. While he does a fair job of making his character age, perhaps inevitably he makes his ‘everyman’ hero atypical in not settling down or becoming more moderate as he does so. The hero’s experiences were a blend of Masereel’s own and those of Henri Guilbeaux, a French Marxist and advocate for pacifism who wrote a biography of (and was befriended by) Lenin, and who, in a time of war, was as fearlessly outrageous as the hero of Passionate Journey becomes. In his portrayal of the young men of Masereel’s group whom he met in Geneva, Stefan Zweig writes, ‘From the psychological and historical – though not the artistic – point of view the most remarkable figure in this group was Henri Guilbeaux; in him, more than anyone else, I saw affirmation of the irrefutable law of history that in times of abrupt political upheaval, particularly during war or revolution, courage and daring will do more in the short term than steadiness of character.’ Sure enough, the composite character invented by Masereel for Passionate Journey veers from a life of contemplation to one of impulsive activism. At times, outraged by injustice and unfairness, Passionate Journey’s hero is rather like a later character graphically rendered by a Belgian, Tintin, missing only the foil of a Captain Haddock. Perhaps, in a sense, he is both at once – idealistic, never-say-die Tintin before his travels, and jaded, cantankerous Haddock after them.
Speaking of himself, and quoted by Stefany Anne Golberg, Masereel said, ‘If someone were to wish to sum up my work in a few words, he could say that it is dedicated to the tormented, directed against tormentors in all areas of social and spiritual life, it speaks out for the fraternity of humanity, turns against all whose aim is to set people at odds with each other or incite conflict, it is addressed to those who desire peace and despise warmongers.’ His art would go on to become cleaner and more finessed and sophisticated than it is in the raw and passionate pages of My Book of Hours; 1925’s The City shows a fully realised ability both to caricature, and to depict a city with far greater precision and detail than in the broad brush strokes used for his earlier city-celebrating work. But what makes Passionate Journey the more striking of the two works is the thread of the single life that it follows, in contrast to The City, which in the style of Under Milk Wood ranges across a selection of the intersecting lives to be found in a metropolis, settling briefly on a scene, then lifting away the camera (as opposed to the microphone) to focus in on another tableaux on the opposite side of town. Thomas Mann was in no doubt about the qualities of My Book of Hours, declaring it – in the age of silent film – his favourite movie:
‘Darken the room! Sit down with this book next to your reading lamp and concentrate on its pictures as you turn page after page. Don’t deliberate too long! It is no tragedy if you fail to grasp every picture at once, just as it does not matter if you miss one or two shots in a movie. Look at these powerful black-and-white figures, their features etched in light and shadow. You will be captivated from beginning to end: from the first picture showing the train plunging through dense smoke and bearing the hero toward life, to the very last picture showing the skeleton-faced figure wandering among the stars. And where are you? Has not this passionate journey had an incomparably deeper and purer impact on you than you have ever felt before?’
In his survey of the original graphic novels, Wordless Books, David A. Beronä, the historian and librarian who did so much to renew interest in Masereel (and indeed in early wordless books generally) in the Anglophone world before his death in 2015, writes, ‘In a sense, these silent narratives offer readers a dual reward – the author’s narrative, and more closely, the reader’s own unique interpretation.’ There are as many different versions of Passionate Journey as there are readers, and because of that, as many different heroes.
Interest in Masereel has waxed and waned over the decades, and while there has been Masereel-related activity in Europe in the last couple of years, it remains to be seen how widely Passionate Journey will be celebrated in its centenary year. My own contribution to celebrating Masereel’s artistic and narrative achievements is not only to have penned this piece, but also a novel inspired by Passionate Journey, as well as by Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor’s legendary walk across Europe in the early 1930s, immortalised in A Time of Gifts and two further books. It’s called The Gift of All Travel, and it attempts to recast Masereel’s introspection, and Guilbeaux’s and Paddy’s extroversion, in the form of an immigrant hero arriving in the capital city of a country which alternates between welcoming him with open arms, and giving him the cold shoulder. It’s my interpretation, my telling, with the lead character’s story invented afresh at every turn, but what I hope it has in common with Masereel’s ‘novel in pictures’ is that it too is both a contemplative book of hours and a fiercely passionate journey.
‘Prague seemed—it still seems, after many rival cities—not only one of the most beautiful places in the world, but one of the strangest. Fear, piety, zeal, strife and pride, tempered in the end by the milder impulses of munificence and learning and douceur de vivre, had flung up an unusual array of grand and unenigmatic monuments. The city, however, was scattered with darker, more reticent, less easily decipherable clues. There were moments when every detail seemed the tip of a phalanx of inexplicable phantoms.’ – Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts
The taxi driver’s English isn’t sophisticated, but he has sufficient patter to give us a blow-by-blow guided tour over the course of the journey from the airport to the heart of Prague. He points out a large social housing complex where, he says, many Ukrainian women live; they come to work in the city as cleaners. Conversely he tells me about the cube-shaped private hospital we are passing, and how ‘many, many women’ from the United States go there for cheaper plastic surgery than is available in their own country. Captive in the front seat, I do my best to engage, until the prejudice that seems to inform a not-insignificant percentage of taxi drivers the world over shows itself in disparaging remarks about gypsies. These are the very people whose hospitality and friendliness is lauded by Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor in the books recounting his legendary walk across Europe, the first volume of which is – in part – the reason I am here: the picture that he retrospectively paints of Prague under snow in A Time of Gifts is a typically rich blend of youthful exuberance and mature reflection.
My own journey to Prague was set in motion via travel bookshop Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street, which was my frequent lunchtime haunt when I used to work around the corner from it. Inside its long, galleried, skylit main room – originally built for antiquarian booksellers Francis Edwards in 1910 – I discovered Leigh Fermor’s books. Reading revealed them to be intricate works of crystalline lucidity with a breadth that echoed the place in which I had found them, where books are still arranged principally by country, whether fiction or non-fiction, biography, history, or guide.
Besides being an impossibly handsome and charismatic adventurer with a linguistic and expressive facility that allowed him to communicate across every conceivable divide, Leigh Fermor later went on to be a war hero. Dirk Bogarde played him in Ill Met by Moonlight, the film which dramatised his daring kidnappng of a German general behind enemy lines in Crete. It begins to seem unfair to ordinary mortals that he should also subsequently turn out to be such a gifted and perceptive writer – a hoarding of the talents of several human beings within just the one.
Leigh Fermor set off on his epic walk in 1933, the year Hitler invested himself with supreme power. Before reaching Prague, he passed through Germany, and while the wandering scholar found himself on the receiving end of many instances of kindness and generosity, the ideological conviction of the Nazi propagandists he encountered chilled him. Written decades later, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water offer an elegiac picture of a lost world, before Europe was ravaged by the Second World War and the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany, and perhaps that is why it is magical; because it can only be rescued from the past by an act of the imagination which involves simultaneously giving yourself to the writing, and recovering the cities, towns and countryside it describes from the worst stain with which they have been marked by history.
‘Memory encircles [Prague] with a wreath, a smoke-ring and the paper lattice of a valentine. I might have been shot out of a gun through all three of them and landed on one of its ancient squares fluttering with the scissor-work and the vapour and the foliage that would have followed me in the slipstream.’
Today Prague is under sun rather than snow. These must be the first properly warm days of spring here, the ones which set light to what Dylan Thomas calls ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. The trees are in bloom, with the leaves following on behind. Under the blossom and in the sunshine, the city’s inhabitants have cast aside their winter coats to rub shoulders with the Easter influx of tourists, many of whom have bared their arms and legs, the better to bask in the unexpected warmth.
Like any sizeable place, Prague works and acts upon you on many different levels. It is the city of a thousand statues and a hundred spires; the spotlessly clean town of bubble-shaping street entertainers and stalls selling caramelised chimney-cakes; the historic site of defenestrations, spring awakenings and velvet revolutions. It is also the literary home of Kafka and Kundera, of Holub and Havel, and of their descendants, names as yet unknown to me. Simultaneously, it is a city of the past and of the present; the past inside the present, the present in the past. The future, it is true, is harder to detect, but it is there too, behind the health and safety hoardings guarding building sites, and in the eyes or the sure-footed pacing of the younger generation.
Soon we are making the first of many crossings and recrossings of the Charles Bridge, watched over by its succession of holy personages, their statuesque robes and faces blackened with centuries of grime; a state which enhances their outlines in any photos you take of them. Wenceslas, Vitus, John Nepomuk, Ludmilla, Christopher, Francis of Assisi and Augustine are all here, a panoply of saints venerated both locally and across the Catholic world.
We are not alone, of course. The bridge is teeming both with other tourists and with locals making their way between Old Town on the right bank of the Vltava and the Little Quarter on its left. You have to stay up late or rise early to have the bridge even somewhat to yourself; we manage it only once. The crowds gather round busking bands, creating bottlenecks, but we are in no hurry and idle past one playing a Czech version of motorik krautrock on steel drums, and later a string quartet supplemented with an additional pair of hands drumming out rhythms on a cajón as they reinvent songs such as Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’.
Beyond the other end of the bridge stands the complex of baroque buildings known as the Clementinum. Within, there is not only an astronomy tower from which – being right in among its spires – you can take in some of the best views of the city, but also one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Images of its interior show it well-lit, but we are only permitted to see the library from its threshold with the blinds drawn and under dim electric lights, which enhances the sense of it having been untouched since the eighteenth century, but frustrates the urge to look at everything close up. The air about the books is deliberately chilled and rarefied, the hush almost visible. Is this all strictly necessary from a conservation point of view, or is it a piece of theatre designed to give the library an air of untouchable mystery? There’s also the question of what a library is for, if one can tread upon its floor and take its books down only in exceptional circumstances. It seems the space cannot be both a working library and a tourist attraction, and so the Czech National Library has chosen to preserve this particular treasure in both aspic and darkness. But then, only academic specialists might really need to consult one of its twenty thousand predominantly theological volumes, so perhaps it is not unreasonable to allow greasy-pawed tourists like us merely a glimpse of such wonders.
In his short story ‘The Secret Miracle’, Jorge Luis Borges has ‘Jaromir Hladik, author of the unfinished tragedy The Enemies’ dream that he has hidden himself from the Gestapo in the Clementinum’s library. “A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: What are you looking for? Hladik answered: God. The Librarian told him: God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the 400,000 volumes of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have sought after that letter. I’ve gone blind looking for it.” At that moment Hladik is handed an atlas by another reader. Randomly opening it to a map of India, he instinctively touches one of the tiniest letters on the page and hears a divine voice tell him that the time he needs to complete The Enemies has been granted. Such a moment of divine revelation seems frustratingly out of reach, here on the threshold of the Clementinum.
I suspect that Leigh Fermor also found his way into this enclave of a library. No doubt he used his scholarly enthusiasm and considerable charm to cross the threshold; or perhaps there was always an unofficial way to see what you wanted to see in the days before mass tourism:
‘Where, in this half-recollected maze, do the reviving memories of the libraries belong? To the Old University, perhaps, one of the most ancient and famous in Europe, founded by the great King Charles IV in 1384. I’m not sure. But I drive wedge-shaped salients into oblivion nevertheless and follow them through the recoiling mists with enfilading perspectives of books until bay after bay coheres. Each of them is tiered with burnished leather bindings and gold and scarlet gleam on the spines of hazel and chestnut and pale vellum. Globes space out the chessboard floors. There are glass-topped homes for incunables. Triangular lecterns display graduals and antiphonals and Books of Hours and coloured scenes encrust the capitals on the buckled parchment; block-notes and lozenges climb and fall on four-line Georgian staves where Carolingian uncials and blackletter spell out the responses. The concerted spin of a score of barley-sugar pillars uphold elliptic galleries where brass combines with polished oak, and obelisks and pineapples alternate on the balustrades. Along the shallow vaulting of these chambers, plasterwork interlocks triangular tongues of frosty bracken with classical and allegorical scenes. Ascanius pursues his stag, Dido laments the flight of Aeneas, Numa slumbers in the cave of Egeria and all over the ceiling draped sky-figures fall back in a swoon from a succession of unclouding wonders.’
Franz Kafka also haunts a Prague where it is always winter, and never spring, let alone summer. The long, low expanse of the Castle – the complex owing that name more to its hilltop position than to any especially imposing fortifications – dominates the skyline to the north-west, especially at night, when (in this day and age, as opposed to Kafka’s) it is lit up with a creamy golden glow, while the spires of the cathedral of St. Vitus, which lies within its precinct, rise as silhouettes of contrasting blackness. It is not necessarily the bureaucratic presence that specifically inspired Kafka’s unfinished novel (which he began in the mountain resort of Spindlermühle), but I imagine he must also have had Prague’s seat of government in mind as he wrote it.
The Kafka Museum shares a courtyard with a riverbank restaurant and a sculpture of two male figures pissing into a Czech Republic-shaped pond. Their watery urine spells out literary quotes, but whether any of Kafka’s are among them is unclear. In contrast to the brightness of the day, the museum is darkly lit and somewhat disorienting. Glass cases contain photos, letters, and first editions, while a watery, rippling dream of a film projects images of Prague from the early twentieth century. Like Fernando Pessoa, whose ghost similarly frequents Lisbon, Kafka never married. As affecting as the photos of three women with whom he had significant relationships – his fiancée Felice Bauer, the journalist and translator Milena Jesenská, and the teacher Dora Diamant – and the letters to his employers – pleading for a raise or time off for ill-health – are, perhaps the time might have been better spent revisiting “The Metamorphosis” or a chapter from The Trial. But then this sentence on one of the information boards would not have struck me, partway through a discussion of how the myths about the city and the writer feed off each other (one suggested derivation of the Czech name for Prague being práh, or threshold): “The threshold is a deferred place, a postponed end, an unfinished work.” A secret miracle.
One of at least two statues of Kafka in Prague stands in the Jewish quarter, not far from the Old Jewish Cemetery. It was inspired by a scene in his first novel, Amerika, in which a politician is carried on the shoulders of a giant. Kafka himself has assumed that position, becoming the great upon whose shoulders we now stand. The brass of both of his shoes has been worn shiny with rubs for luck.
Kafka is buried in the New Jewish Cemetery; no-one who died later than 1786 is to be found in the older one. But in the Pinkas synagogue adjoining it, the names of the 77,297 Czechoslovak citizens who were imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and subsequently killed in various Nazi extermination camps are written in careful red and black script upon the walls. The scale of the loss is overwhelming. I try to focus on just one or two names and curtailed lives. Rudolf Buchbinder, 1913-42. Ludvik Buchler, 1936-42. Upstairs, the exhibition of children’s pictures rescued from the concentration camp is unbearable to look at; again, I focus on just one of them, ‘A boat in turbulent seas’, drawn by Jindrich Triescheř, 1932-44. It is as bleak a rendering of a boat at sea as you can imagine.
This city of statues and spires and bubbles and chimney cakes is also a city of death.
Outside, in the old cemetery that Leigh Fermor rated as ‘one of the most remarkable places in the city’, a single magpie emits a harsh cackle; but then there is also the sweet birdsong of two great tits foraging in the earth at the foot of some ivy. It’s said that owing to the yard’s confined space, the dead here are buried 12 feet deep. Beneath the leafing elder trees, gravestones are arrayed at every angle besides the perpendicular, some leaning on others for support. The script upon them is in Hebrew, so we cannot tell for how long these ancestors of the generations who died in the Holocaust lived, nor whether or not their lives ended in relative peace. There are little notes among the graves, lodged in crevices or weighed down with stones, upon which prayers or wishes (or perhaps even secret miracles) have been consigned, feeding upon the legend of the Golem. Its creator, Judah Löw ben Bezalel, a late sixteenth century rabbi who lies buried in this graveyard, gave the Golem life by inserting slips of paper inscribed with incantations into its mouth, in an effort to defend his people from the anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms that Leigh Fermor reminds us long preceded the atrocities of Nazi Germany:
‘The russet-coloured synagogue, with its steep and curiously dentated gables, was one of the oldest in Europe; yet it was built on the site of a still older fane which was burnt down in a riot, in which three thousand Jews were massacred, on Easter Sunday, 1389. (The proximity of the Christian festival to the Feast of the Passover, coupled with the myth of ritual murder, made Easter week a dangerous time.)’
Chilled to the bone by the cemetery and synagogue, we thaw out on the terrace of the Času Dost (Time Enough) café, pivoting away from the horrors of the past into the benign pleasures of the present, and counting our blessings.
The following day is another of brilliant sunshine. We enter the castle complex in order to visit the cathedral, but although it is only mid-morning, it is already swamped with others doing likewise. We content ourselves with gazing up at its exterior, seeing how it shapes itself against the sky, just as Leigh Fermor himself had done:
‘From the massed upward thrust of its buttresses to the stickle-back ridge of its high-pitched roof it was spiked with a forest of perpendiculars. Up the corner of the transepts, stairs in fretted polygonal cylinders spiralled and counter-spiralled, and flying buttresses enmeshed the whole fabric in a radiating web of slants. Borne up in its flight by a row of cusped and trefoiled half-arches, each of them carried a steep procession of pinnacles and every moulding was a ledge for snow, as though the masonry were perpetually unloosing volleys of snow-feathered shafts among the rooks and the bruise-coloured and quicksilver clouds.’
Prague is so filled with historical wonders that inevitably we miss out on all too many of them, like the colourful artisan cottages of Golden Lane, once the haunt of both goldsmiths and Kafka, and the Old Royal Palace, within which the Riders’ Staircase leads up to Vladislav Hall, big enough for indoor jousting tournaments. Both staircase and hall are hymned in A Time of Gifts, in which Leigh Fermor imagines ‘lobster-clad riders slipping and clattering as they stooped their ostrich-plumes under the freak doorway, gingerly carrying their lances at the trail to keep the bright paint that spiralled them unchipped.’
A final crossing of the Charles Bridge at sunset is marked by a brilliant fanfare played from the steps – the threshold – of the Church of St. Francis by two men in black cassocks, heralding not a service, but a concert taking place there that evening. As with Golden Lane, the Riders’ Staircase, and who knows how many other miracles of history returned today to secrecy only through efforts of the imagination, we will have to take up the invitation on another occasion.
Clementinum photo: ccmailb. All other photos by awildslimalien.
Tim Hopkins of The Half Pint Press has been kind enough to print up and publish ‘Letterpress [n]’, one of my Missing letters stories. Having faced down the many challenges involved in realising his boxed version of The book of disquiet, typically Tim gave himself a fresh conundrum to solve, one requiring some serious letterpress jiggery-pokery in order to achieve the finished result:
You can find further details and photos here. If you’re interested in getting hold of a copy, let me know via the First contact page, and I’ll pass on the relevant information just as soon as I have it from Tim.
To celebrate its appearance in print, and also The Half Pint Press publication of Peter Miller’s short story ‘Dusty Springfield’, a launch party is being held at the bookartbookshop on Thursday 12th October 2017. Do come along if you’re in London, as it will be a chance – rare as hen’s teeth – to hear me read…
‘Dawn in the countryside just exists; dawn in the city overflows with promise. One makes you live and the other makes you think. And, along with all the other great unfortunates, I’ve always believed it better to think than to live.’ – Fernando Pessoa, The book of disquiet
* The Antiga Casa Pessoa was a restaurant on Rua dos Douradores. The name is coincidental; there was no link to the family of Fernando Pessoa. But while working as a translator in the Baixa, no doubt drawn by the coincidence, Pessoa would often take his lunch there.