Bohemian rhapsody

Prague. Photo by Julius Silver, Pexels

“Prague is one of the most interesting towns in Europe. Its stones are saturated with history and romance; its every suburb must have been a battlefield. It is the town that conceived the Reformation and hatched the Thirty Years’ War. But half Prague’s troubles, one imagines, might have been saved to it, had it possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.”
— Jerome K Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel”

Prague. Not a city I’ve ever been to but it wears a kind of aura as the capital of the Czech Republic — a country right in the physical centre of Europe and an apt symbol of the heart of the continent — and is thus a place I feel I ought to visit.

Being set centrally in what is deemed Mitteleuropa—nestled within Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria—Prague has also been at the crossroads of movements of people, with a turbulent and troublesome history, and yet historically it seems to retain a mystical attraction for freethinkers and revolutionaries.

And of course as the main city of ancient Bohemia it has a huge cultural capital in fictional terms, as I have discovered from recent, current and future reads.

Charles Bridge, Prague (1906)

I’m currently reading Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, set almost entirely in Prague (though with excursions elsewhere). One character says that it is essentially a sad city, and what with persecutions, massacres, invasions and bombardments that’s not surprising, but there is something else, a somebody, here that leads to this melancholy state of affairs in the novel.

In recent weeks and months I’ve completed and reviewed at least two other novels with substantial episodes in the city. First there is Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, which though set in an alternative world nevertheless has an urban centre which bears a marked resemblance to our own world’s Prague. Lyra’s dæmon Pantalaimon visits a philosopher in Staré Mesto, Prague’s Old Town, where later Lyra herself also comes across practioners of alchemy, a protoscience which has long been associated with the city.

Incidentally, this isn’t the first time Pullman has co-opted Prague for his fiction: his Sally Lockhart novel The Tin Princess (1994) — which I really must reread — is set in the capital of a Mitteleuropa country, Razkavia, a city which I understand he based on this very capital of Bohemia. And of course Razkavia owes a debt to Anthony Hope’s country of Ruritania in The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) which also seems to fill the space occupied by Bohemia; it was, I notice, published exactly a century before The Tin Princess.

Then there’s Bruce Chatwin’s Utz, a novel which concerns a Meissen collector who lives in Prague during the period when Czechoslovakia is under Communist rule. Chatwin incorporates the legend of the golem, an anthropomorphic creature formed from clay which is likened to the porcelain figures which Utz treasures. The most famous golem narrative features a 16th-century rabbi from Prague.

Ever since I read Frances Yates’ study The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972) back in the seventies I knew that the city had several occult associations, so these three novels met my expectations for uncanny storylines. What I didn’t know was that a sequel to a comic masterpiece would also feature Prague. Though I regret to say I’ve not read Three Men in a Boat (not yet, at any rate) I do have a copy of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel (1900) which, I’m delighted to say, includes passages on Prague as the chums go on a cycling tour of Mitteleuropa.

More sombre are the novels of Prague native Franz Kafka. I’ve read some of the short stories as well as The Trial (1925) though I seem to have disposed of my copies some time ago; I have a notion I must revisit his surreal dystopian worlds soon, in which we must surely discern an alternate Prague.

Of tangential relevance are Ursula Le Guin’s two volumes set in Orsinia, a nation which derives its name from a root (meaning ‘bear’) also found in the author’s forename. Orsinian Tales (1976) and Malafrena (1979) are focused on a tiny nation in Mitteleuropa, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which derives some of its aspects from Czechoslavakia but which isn’t however identical with Bohemia, Moravia or Silesia, provinces of the modern Czech Republic. Orsinian Tales is on my list of short story rereads for the Library of Brief Narratives.

There are other authors who feature in lists of Prague-related fiction (such as that on Goodreads) but I rather fancy two in particular: Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (2011) and John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy (1986). There are so many others worthy of my attention; I think Prague may well continue to feature in my reading, much as the river (which I know as the subject of Smetana’s symphonic movement Vltava or Die Moldau) winds through the city.


What about you? Have you read any of these? Are there Prague-set novels you have enjoyed?

30 thoughts on “Bohemian rhapsody

  1. Coincidence – or encouragement by the Fates: my WIP, the second volume of the Pride’s Children trilogy, just moved, halfway through Book 2, to Plzen – about an hour from Prague.

    I use Plzen because it has architecture that still resembles Victorian England, for a movie shot on location here, in 2005, about Lewis Carroll.

    I perk up when I see posts like this one – and I have to be very, very careful not to let them influence me. It’s in the air.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope the post is an encouragement for your writing, Alicia, rather than discouragement. So do avoid the titles I’ve mentioned here but rest secure in the knowledge that your time is very likely coming! 🙂

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    1. The Goodreads list I link to suggests many titles specifically connected with Prague, Veronica, so there may be some other titles there that attract your fancy and, with your own experience of visiting it, make the reading more intense! I hope so, anyway. 😊

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  2. Great post and amazing photos! Thanks for that. I have read Eco’s novel —complex as each one of the Prof (I had the honour to assist to one of his lectures when I was a student), but utterly enjoyable. I visited Prague only once, and you’re right. It is one of the most interesting cities of Europe. A beautiful one 😊

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    1. I have so many of Eco’s books to read or reread — the Foucault, Rose, and Baudolino I enjoyed, but have Island and some essays waiting, all in translation of course — but the blurb for the Prague title certainly is enticing. Lucky you to have assisted at his lectures, I’m guessing having fluency in Italian helps! Prague? Some day I’ll make it, hopefully without the presence of hen and stag parties…

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    1. I regret not visiting it before now as, thanks to a bunch of neoliberal politicians and their shadowy and shady mates, it’s going to be a real faff with visas, extra costs for health insurance, poor exchange rates and so on, if I do want to consider it. ☹️ Books will be better as passports, I reckon, than those new blue ones… 😁

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  3. I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being back in the 80s and Kafka in my undergraduate days. I’m interested to see the Laurence Binet HHhH on the list, as it’s one that’s been recommended to me over and over but I haven’t yet picked up.

    Three Men In a Boat is a fun one to listen to out loud.

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    1. I seem have spent most of my working life reading a very narrow range of fiction, Jeanne, and am only now to some extent catching up with the literary gems, both ancient and modern, which I missed. The Kundera is on my longlist, though it may be a long while till I get to it (if ever), and while the Binet sounds very worthy I think Jerome K Jerome may be closer to the head of the queue!

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  4. I must read Melmoth – I went to Prague a couple of years ago and thought it was the most relaxed and artistic city, everybody seemed to be painting! After a concert (where we bought tickets from a guy with a pot for money sitting outside) we went to a bar for Margheritas and the whole orchestra was in there too just having fun. What a city!

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    1. I saw an article by Sarah Perry where she waxes lyrical about Prague just as you do (and it does sound wonderful!) but I have to say that though some of the research she did then turns up in the novel Melmoth is very dark. But I’ll say no more till I’ve completed it and put up a review!

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  5. I’ve read “The Trial” only, but I’ve visited Prague twice and I truly loved it. I can still remember Charles Bridge under the fog, while some musicians were playing. So romantic but I was actually with my students, it was a school trip. I think I’ll pick Umberto Eco to revive those memories. Thank, Chris.

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    1. I hope you’ll have a relaxing Christmas break, Stefy, after the term’s stresses (political uncertainties as well as technological glitches in your virtual classroom and the ever present worries about the virus) with plenty of time to catch up on Umberto’s novel and anything else that takes your fancy — anything for that ‘Peace on Earth’ we were promised two millennia ago…

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  6. piotrek

    As a native of a city very close, and not that different from Prague – Krakow, I’m a bit jealous about all that attention the capital of Czechia gets 😉 And I haven’t actually been there yet, although there were some unspecific plans about going this year that, for obvious reasons, never materialized.

    I have to admit, we don’t have internationally famous novels about Krakow. Despite being quite multicultural for centuries, we had no Kafka, and foreigners prefered the bigger and famous Prague when they needed a place in our region. Orsinia is mostly based on Czechia, and Hungary, definitely, although I got some Polish vibes as well 🙂

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    1. Krakow gets a brief mention in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, doesn’t it, but I can’t think of anywhere else, though I know that it has a long and chequered history, along with beautiful buildings. All things being equal I’d love to visit it and similar cities, my European visits (France, Belgium, Italy, Crete, Malta, for example) being rather timid, almost safe, in terms of choice. I’m looking forward to Orsinia though! 🙂

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  7. Krakow plays a role in Europe in Autumn – a modern day political thriller (first of a series) with some fantasy vibes. I agree that Orsinia is at least partly based on Poland, too – but I do confirm Western infatuation with Prague instead of Krakow – sadly! Seems that they have a better PR strategy 😀

    I do love Prague, though, it’s a great city, well worth a visit!

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    1. When things are back to ‘normal’ — if ever! — and our sainted leader sorts out a Brexit that doesn’t punish the electorate for believing in his lies, it may be possible to visit some of those parts of Europe I’ve not yet done so; but I think virtual visits are all that are available and so I’ll bear Europe in Autumn in mind, thanks!

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  8. Melmoth has been sitting on my shelf for a while now – I’ve been meaning to get round to it but I think the part you quoted more or less sums up why I haven’t – the end of 2020 doesn’t feel like the right time for me to be reading stories about such a sad city. I do think that’s an accurate portrait of the city, though. I visited about ten years ago, and at one of the most cheerful times, right before Christmas. For all the beauty and Christmas cheer, there is definitely a certain darkness… perhaps it comes from the medieval buildings, or perhaps simply a knowledge of the city’s history…

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    1. I’m two-thirds of the way through Melmoth but while it’s set mostly in Prague I’m finding it’s actually mostly about the baggage people bring with them than what is inherent there (though that history does come into the narratives too). And like the only other Perry I’ve so far read, After Me Comes the Flood, it has a haunting quality which isn’t necessarily about the ghosts but about things not seen.

      As for Prague — and Krakow, and Bratislava, and all those other Mitteleuropean centres I’ve yet to experience, if ever — I do envy those like you, Sarah, who have known it at first hand while also acknowledging central Europe has not had it easy over the years. (Sorry, I have a weakness for litotes!)

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      1. Don’t we all 😁 I think I see these middle and eastern parts of Europe in a certain way because I’ve been visiting on and off since I was a toddler, so I’ve seen some of the history directly after the fact, seen things change for better and worse (mostly in eastern Europe, to be fair). They’re definitely fascinating places to explore, although I do wonder if and how this latest chapter in their history will leave any visible marks on the landscapes of these cities in years to come.

        I know what you mean when it comes to Perry, I read The Essex Serpent and it was also one of those books that stays with you, “haunting” seems the best way to describe it indeed…

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        1. I’ve come to these places vicariously, through my interests in history, archaeology, medieval epics and music, though never in person. If I can only visit them through the eyes of people like Perry then I’ll take that!

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