18 October, 2010Issue 14.1LiteraturePoetry

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Renaissance By Any Other Name

Stephan Delbos

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The Return of Král Majáles: Prague’s International Lite-
rary Renaissance 1990-2010, An Anthology

Edited by Louis Armand
Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010
937 Pages
£13
ISBN 978-8073083021

 

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of Czechoslovak communism and a significant year of reckoning for the Czech Republic. On a smaller scale, it was also the 20th anniversary of the start of the English language literary community in Prague, which began with the opening of Czechoslovakia’s borders. The Return of Král Majáles, a 937-page anthology of Prague writing from the past 20 years in English and in English translation from Czech, Slovak, and French, was published in May 2010 to mark the occasion.

The book’s very title testifies to the distinctly bilingual nature of Prague letters. It refers to Allen Ginsberg’s 1965 visit to Prague, during which he was crowned “the King of May”—”Král Majáles”, in Czech—in student spring celebrations (a video of Ginsberg reading the eponymous poem can be seen here). Edited by Prague-based Australian poet-critic Louis Armand, The Return of Král Majáles gathers the work of 90 Czech, Slovak, American, British, Irish, Scottish, French, and Australian writers who have lived in Prague over the past 20 years, combined with an ample introductory essay which outlines the literary and political events of the past two decades, as well as photographs and an extensive bibliography.

Heft is not enough to ensure a text’s legitimacy, of course, but the sheer variety and amount of writing—poetry, prose, and drama—collected in this anthology not only attests to the diversity of the Prague literary community, but makes for a fascinating book which is equal parts literary and historical tour de force.

The earliest Czech poets of the 20th century, such as Fráňa Šrámek (1877—1952), were steeped in romanticism, a style which remained popular until Czechoslovakia’s short-lived independence after World War I and the ensuing Nazi invasion in 1938. Many Czech poets writing between the wars, including František Halas (1941—1949), struggled with the three-fold task of making sense of the war that had just ended, celebrating independence, and bracing for the next war which would all too quickly come to pass. The strain of grasping for sense in a nonsensical era partially explains the popularity of surrealism among Czech poets, who in 1934 began the only official surrealist group outside France.

As the horrors of World War II gave way to the “democratic communism” of the 1960s, colorful dissident poets such as Egon Bondy (1930—2007) came to notoriety with poems which fused details from personal life and politically subversive ideas. The Russian invasion of Prague in 1968 put an end to such experiments, however, leading to a bitter stoicism throughout the nation and much of its poetry, which persisted until the fall of the regime in 1989. The Return of Král Majáles begins here, with Czech poets and expatriates willing to learn from the historical events and literature of the preceding decades.

Consider Petr Borkovec, one of the leading Czech poets of the generation now in its late 30s, who has several poems in the anthology (translated by Irish poet Justin Quinn, also featured in the book). Borkovec’s poems—in Quinn’s translation—employ offhand slant rhymes which accentuate each poem’s utterance without detracting from Borkovec’s often philosophical inquiries and explorations of minute details. Here is the end of “Sonograph”, a poem whose investigation relies as much on sound as sight:

The thrush sang all the while.
Against the twilight, now up on the gable.
That metamorphosing stain, I thought,
is almost like a bird—it looks like one.
But everything flowed into it.
And the song was still unchanging.
I watched. Called everything the same.
I listened. The thrush sang.
I believed it all. What it seemed. How it looked.

The modulation of sentence length in this poem and the Czech original exemplifies the speaker’s lack of clarity and confidence in his ability to describe, through the limits of his language, what he is seeing. The first two lines are full stopped, simple declarative sentences. The third and fourth line stretch into the longest sentence in this excerpt, as the speaker ponders the sight of the bird, allowing room for contemplation and comparison. The remaining lines form a staccato of short sentences as the magic transience of the bird is frozen into phrases which the speaker believes.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Return of Král Majáles is the confluence of languages it both exemplifies and promotes. In this poem by Borkovec, one recognizes the tone and subject matter of Wallace Stevens, which is both Quinn’s doing and a stylistic trait of Borkovec’s poems in Czech. But making a comparison to that iconic American poet draws attention to the frame of reference Anglophone readers will unconsciously bring to translated poems. Reading the anthology is therefore a multi-faceted experience: one revels in the foreignness of the many unfamiliar writers while marveling at the familiar echoes one finds in unexpected places.

Besides cataloguing the work of poets like Borkovec and Jáchym Topol, who have now achieved some degree of recognition in the English-speaking world, The Return of Král Majáles also presents writing from more wrongly obscure writers such as Lukaš Tomin, who published three novels written in English with Prague’s Twisted Spoon Press before his suicide in 1995 at the age of 32. “Kye Too” provides readers unfamiliar with Tomin’s work with an extended glimpse at his uncanny use of the English language.

When he dealt with his dreams, it was good.
Kye sat next to me, hanging his head low, saying.
When I dealt with my dreams, it was good.
When I was becoming a preacher, for instance.
Or later a priest.
I had visions then, too.
He had visions and they were not all of becoming.
Even though mostly. […]

Tomin’s writing moves seamlessly between poetry and prose, employing rhyme and wordplay to create extra-linear meanings which deepen and extend rather than detract from the central narration. Less an experiment than an excursion into the depths of language, Tomin’s work deserves to be read more widely. One hopes that with the publication of this anthology, it will be.

The majority of the work featured in The Return of Král Majáles was originally written in English by some of the hundreds of Anglophone poets who have passed through Prague over the past two decades. It is difficult to identify specific stylistic strains in an anthology so large, but Armand does an admirable job of tracing the lineage of consecutive generations of foreign poets in Prague in his thorough introduction. It is especially exciting to read the work of the promising younger poets in the anthology, most of whom have moved to Prague only within the last five years. The poetry of Christopher Crawford, Elizabeth Gross, Scott Nixon, and Jason Mashak, to name a few—though varying widely in tone, style, and subject matter—all display a sensibility that ensures “Prague’s international literary renaissance”, as Armand terms it, remains in good hands.

The Return of Král Majáles is a rare example of a book with both literary and historical impact. As such, it will remain a testament to Prague letters, and a vital collection of poetry and prose from an amazingly diverse community of writers. As Armand notes at the beginning of the anthology: “The 1990s found Prague at the centre of an unprecedented cultural experiment. This anthology attempts to record what became of that experiment.” Thanks to Armand’s editorial persistence in collecting and cataloguing a vast number of texts and documents, the anthology is not only a record of what became of last century’s experiment, it is a catalyst for experiments to come.

 

Stephan Delbos is a poet and journalist living in Prague. He works as culture editor of The Prague Post. His work appears in The Return of Král Majáles.