by Derek Sayer     Princeton University Press.595 pages. £24.95. ISBN 978-0-691-04380-7

 Reviewed by Jim Burns



I've only once ever visited Prague and that was thirty years ago when it was still behind the Iron Curtain. I'm glad I went then. I'm told that since the collapse of communism McDonald's and other signs of the consumer society are much in evidence and thousands of tourists flock there. I wouldn't want to wish the kind of communism that the Czechs experienced on anyone, and my own reason for going to Prague had nothing to do with admiration for communist ideas. But the fact that little had been done to significantly alter the appearance of the city, in its central areas at least, meant that I perhaps got to see some of the old Prague. On a slightly humorous note, my companion on the trip thought that I felt at home with the run-down nature of many of the buildings, the shabby appearance of most of the people, and the general shortages evident in the shops and restaurants. I was reminded of England in the late-1940s.

My reason for being in Prague related to a Czech friend who had died not long before I went there. He had left in 1968, or rather had been in Paris romancing a professor's wife and decided not to go back when the news came that the Russians had moved into Prague. He had, he told me, seen the barbarians arriving once before, in 1945, and had no desire to see them arriving again. And his response to someone who said that he ought to return and argue the case against intervention was that you can't have a philosophical debate with a tank. So he came to England and before he died he made me promise that I would visit his city.

Václav Sverak was a well-educated man and translated poetry which he self-published in a handful of small books. One of them which I still have has around 130 pages of translations from the work of Frantiśek Halas, while another features poems by a variety of writers, including Vitěslav Nezval and Karel Hynek Mácha. Prior to reading them my own awareness of Czech literature was limited to Kafka, Milan Kundera, The Good Soldier Švejk, and not much else.

I've mentioned Halas, Nezval, and Mácha because they're all in Derek Sayer's book, and Nezval, in particular, plays a key role in it. It doesn't claim to be an all-encompassing survey of Czech literature and art in the 20th Century, and as the title implies, it's the surrealist aspect that provides the basis for Sayer's history. He states that he is "not interested in the grand narratives that discipline so much as the details that derail." And he wants to "rummage amid the rags and refuse of yesterday's modernity in the hope of uncovering the dreamworlds that continue to haunt what we fondly believe to be today's waking state." According to Sayer, Prague's location at "the crossroads of Europe" gave its artists and intellectuals "abundant fuel for modernist dreaming." But he adds that Prague is "a place in which modernist dreams have time and again unravelled; 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."

It was André Breton who said that "Surrealism can flatter itself that it has blossomed in Prague as it has in Paris," though his liking for grand statements may have led him to exaggerate the length and strength of the Czech surrealist movement. But Prague was not a backwater. Individuals like Nezval and Karel Teige (a major figure in avant-garde circles in the inter-war years) were aware of what was happening in Paris. The Dadaists had passed through Prague. Hans Richter's Dada: Art and Anti-Art mentions performances there by Raoul Hausmann and Richard Huelsenbeck and refers to Kurt Schwitters visiting the city in the early-1920s. Contacts were also made with Italian Futurists. There were art exhibitions, readings, manifestos, magazines, and much more. Teige stated that "The New art will no longer be art," and pointed to the "new beauty" of detective novels and adventure stories, American engineering, cinema, popular music, dance halls and billboards. But, at the same time, as Sayer points out about Prague: "Nothing here is ever simply itself. Everything gestures back and beyond. Every nook and cranny comes burdened with history, layered with traces of unquiet pasts." The city was a heady mixture of new ideas and old influences. The parallel with Paris is obvious.

When Breton and Ėluard visited Prague in 1935 they were convinced that their reception pointed to the way in which communism and surrealism might co-exist. The Devětsil group which, in Sayer's words, "had dominated the city's avant-garde throughout the 1920s," had given way to Left Front, though many of the same people were involved. Teige and Nezval were communists, and the latter wrote a poem which, Sayer suggests, "says much about the coordinates of the dreamworlds that the Czech surrealists inhabited:

I see a single city
Through which flows the Seine the Neva and the Vltava
Here is also a stream in which countrywomen wash their clothes
A stream on which I live
Through the first a statue enters the room from the place de Pantheon
The second looks out on Charles Bridge
Through the third I'm staring down Nevsky Prospect

Needless to say, none of the early radical surrealists could have known what life would be like once a communist state was established in Czechoslovakia. Nezval, according to a note in a reprint of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Twisted Spoon Press, Prague, 2005), a work written in 1935 but only published ten years later, "later deteriorated to writing paeans to socialism." Perhaps he could have got an inkling of the future when, at a communist-controlled conference in Paris in 1935, an address by André Breton was deliberately delayed until most of the delegates had left. A Soviet writer, Michal Kolcov, remarked "the surrealists are Trotskyists," and added that Nezval "bewitched by the lunacies of the surrealist kindergarten, has joined Breton's band, which flirts with the Trotskyists and other enemies of the Soviet Union." It seems that Nezval, as the only delegate from Czechoslovakia, had been promised a place in the programme to deliver a speech affirming the "compatibility of surrealism and communism," but was never called. It seems certain that Nezval and others like him were looked on as naive and only to be laughed at by Party hardliners.

Derek Sayer doesn't limit himself to discussing events in Prague, nor just the work of Czech surrealists. The notorious "Degenerate Art" show that toured Germany in an effort to discredit the modern art movement and contrast it with the supposedly "healthy" paintings and sculpture admired by Hitler, is looked at. And so is the large surrealist exhibition that opened in Paris in 1938. It included over three hundred works by sixty artists from fourteen countries. This gives Sayer the opportunity to point out that, in 1968, when a major exhibition, Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage, was mounted at MOMA in New York, not a single Czech artist was included and the large book accompanying the exhibition nowhere mentioned Teige, Nerzval, or any of the others from Prague. Come to think of it, I can't recall (I'm open to correction) any references to Prague in the 1978 Hayward Dada and Surrealism Reviewed. Both exhibitions took place during the Cold War, when Prague was part of the Eastern bloc, and it may have been that acquiring exhibits or information was difficult. But one might have expected some sort of acknowledgement of a Czech surrealist movement in the catalogues, at least, if claims of comprehensiveness were being made. It was, in contrast, a pleasure to see Prague included when the British Library staged its 2007 exhibition, Breaking the Rules; The Printed Face of the European Avant-Garde. It limited itself to what the title specified, but provided a very useful survey and had a well-produced book to accompany it. It neatly placed Prague in context and demonstrated how what was being done there complemented activities elsewhere.

There were, as anyone with an awareness of the history of surrealism will know, various splits among the French surrealists, and Breton wasn't slow to expel those he disagreed with. Politics inevitably became a major battleground. Breton had left the Communist Party and aligned himself with Trotsky, whereas Aragon, Éluard, and Benjamin Peret had retained their membership of the Party. The Czech surrealists had their problems, too. Nezval, who appears to have become more committed to the Party line, announced the dissolution of the Czech group, but was challenged by other members who said that he didn't have the authority to take such action. When Soviet censors removed various items from an exhibition of Czech art that opened in Moscow, Teige objected and stated that there was little difference between the authorities in Russia vilifying "monstrous formalism" and those in Germany attacking "degenerate art." Nezval defended what the Russians had done. Sayer quotes from Teige recounting how Nezval turned up at a meeting of Czech surrealists and launched into a defence of the Moscow trials of old Bolsheviks who were alleged to be saboteurs and traitors, made anti-Semitic comments, and abused the people who were present. It's also indicative of Nezval's loyalty to Party policy that, when he was in Paris in 1938, he ignored Breton and his followers and instead mixed with Aragon, Éluard, and Tristan Tzara, all of them members of the Communist Party.

The period between 1939 and 1945 was obviously a difficult one for the surrealists. Some of them, like Breton, left France, others stayed and participated in the Resistance. Prague was under German domination, too, Both Teige and Nezval survived the war, but Teige was out of favour when the communists came to power in 1948. He was hounded by the secret police and died of a heart attack in 1951. The Czech Communist Party's cultural magazine described him as "A Trotskyist Agency in our Culture."

A Czech surrealist group did continue to 1947. One of its major figures, the artist Toyen, left for Paris in that year and exhibited in the first post-war surrealist exhibition in the city. But times had changed and the exhibition aroused adverse comments. Louis Aragon described it "a rehash of old tricks, worn out from overuse," and Jean-Paul Sartre was even more dismissive, calling surrealism just "a phenomenon from after the other war, like the Charleston and the yo-yo." In Prague the attacks had harsher consequences, and Sayer has a sobering account of the arrest of Zaviš Kalandra, a journalist who had earlier been praised by Nezval for speaking in favour of a blending of surrealism and dialectical materialism. A one-time communist he had been expelled from the Party in 1936, arrested by the Germans in 1939, and had spent the war years in a concentration camp. He was arrested by the communists in 1949 and sentenced to death. Breton and others tried to intervene on his behalf, but to no avail. Breton even contacted Paul Éluard, despite having fallen out with him, and asked him to speak up for  Kalandra, who Éluard had known in the 1930s. His response, as quoted by Sayer, is chilling in its callousness and he did nothing. Nezval likewise didn't intervene. When he died in 1958 he was "an honoured National Artist." But then, he had written stuff like the following:

Salute our most beloved Party,
long live Stalin, our shining ideal...
Long live Klement Gottwald, our leader,
in that is your strength, in that is our celebrity!

I've taken those lines from Reflections of Prague: Journeys through the 20th Century by Ivan Margolius, the son of Rudolf Margolius who was executed in 1952 following the famous (or infamous) Slansky trial in Prague. And that reminds me of the story that Derek Sayer tells about Vlado Clementis, another of those tried with Slansky, Margolius, and several more on the usual trumped-up charges of sabotage and treason. In 1948, following the communist coup, there was a victory parade in Prague. The Czech Communist Party leader, Klement Gottwald, stood on a balcony to watch the parade and by his side was Vlado Clementis, then a leading Party official. It began to snow and, in a gesture to his leader, Clementis took off his fur hat and placed it on Gottwald's head. In 1952, when Clementis became a non-person after his execution, he was airbrushed from the photograph taken on the day of the parade. But his hat remained on Gottwald's head. I suppose this might, depending on how you want to define surrealism, be an example of how life manufactures its own surrealistic activity without any prompting from writers and artists.      

Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century is a thoroughly engrossing book, so packed with names of people who will probably be little-known to most readers that I'm conscious of having only referred to a few of them in this review. There is, for example, the painter, photographer, poet, and collagist Jindřich Štyrskỳ who was a founding member of the Czech surrealist organisation. Edition 69, which featured Nezval's Sexual Nocturne and Štyrskỳ's Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream, was originally published in 1931 and was reprinted by Twisted Spoon Press in 2004. The new edition has some useful notes, so contemporary readers can consult some of the work that Sayer refers to.

I'm also conscious of not having mentioned Sayer's analysis of architecture in Prague. What he says makes me wish I'd read a book like his before I went there all those years ago. I think I would have looked around the city with a greater awareness of its qualities.

There are large parts of the book which are as much about events in Paris as they are about Prague. This is understandable when one considers how important the French capital was in terms of the writers and artists who congregated there, the factional fights, the influence of André Breton,        and the general cultural atmosphere. Major political conferences took place there, as did large art exhibitions. This isn't to play down the importance of Prague, and Sayer always points to the way in which the two cities interconnected. So, let me close with something that André Breton wrote when looking back at the 1930s:

Prague, sung by Apollinaire; Prague, with the magnificent bridge flanked by statues, leading out of yesterday into forever; the signboards lit up from within - at the Black Sun, at the Golden Tree, and a host of others; the clock whose hands, cast in the metal of desire, turn ever backward; the street of the Alchemist; and above all the ferment of ideas and hopes, more intense there than anywhere else, the passionate attempt to forge poetry and revolution into one same ideal; Prague, where the gulls used to churn the waves of the Vltava to bring forth stars from its depths. What have we left of all this now?

I can almost hear the voice of my old Czech friend, Václav Sverak, as he talked to me about what he always referred to as his Prague.