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
His English may be far from perfect, but my driver manages to give me a blow-by-blow account of the route leading from the airport to the heart of Prague. Here is a large social housing complex where Ukrainian women who have come to work as cleaners live. There, a cube-shaped private clinic where “many, many women” from America stop by for cheaper plastic surgery than is available to them in their country. Captive in the front seat, I do my best to engage him until one of the unifying prejudices of European taxi drivers reveals itself in his disparaging remarks on gypsies—the very people whose friendliness and hospitality Patrick Leigh Fermor lauded in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the books recounting his legendary continental crossing, and the first volume of which is—to some extent—why I’m here now.
My journey was set in motion at Daunt Books, the travel bookshop on Marylebone High Street and a frequent lunchtime haunt when I used to work around the corner from it. It was in its long and sky-lit galleria—originally built for antiquarian booksellers Francis Edwards in 1910—that I would discover Leigh Fermor, whose intricate and lucent works were of a breadth and scope that mirrored the place I unearthed them in, where books are still arranged mainly by country, regardless of whether they are fiction or non-fiction, biography, history or travel-guides.
Leigh Fermor was an adventurer with a linguistic and expressive gift that allowed him to communicate across every conceivable divide. Uncommonly handsome, he was also a war hero played by Dirk Bogarde in Powell and Pressburger’s Ill Met by Moonlight, a 1957 film which dramatised his kidnapping of a German general behind enemy lines while in Crete. It seems unfair to ordinary mortals that he should have been such a stunningly perceptive writer too, hoarding the talents of several people within just the one.
He set off on his epic walkbout in 1933, the year in which Hitler became chancellor and then, dictator. Before reaching Prague he passed through Germany, where—despite being on the receiving end of many instances of generosity and kindness—the ideological conviction of Nazi propagandists troubled him. Written decades later, A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water (and his unfinished manuscript The Broken Road) offer an elegiac picture of a world before Europe was forever transformed by the Second World War. This may be a part of their magic; since Leigh Fermor renders a past that can only be retrieved through a feat of the imagination.
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.
Prague today is under sun rather than snow, which is how Leigh Fermor found it. These must be the shy first days of spring, those which set light to Dylan Thomas’ “force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. The trees are in bloom, the leaves follow closely. Beneath the blossom, in the sunshine, Prague’s inhabitants have cast aside their winter coats to rub shoulders with the Easter tide of tourists, many of whom have bared their arms and legs to bask in the unexpected warmth.
Like any sizeable place, Prague works on one on many levels, not all of which are immediately apparent. It is the city of a thousand statues and a hundred spires; the spotless town of bubble-blowing street entertainers and caramelised chimney-cake stalls; the site of great historical defenestrations, spring awakenings and velvet revolutions. Its literary genii include the likes of Kafka and Kundera, Holub and Havel, as well as their descendants, whose names remain unknown to me. Established in the seventh century, it is both venerable and vigorous, its present deeply rooted in its past, its past richly imprinted in the present. And though the future may seem harder to detect in such well-clotted contexts, it is there too, rising behind the hoardings guarding building sites, flitting in the eyes of younger generations.
I’m soon caught up in what will be the first of many crossings and recrossings of the Charles Bridge, presided by a host of holy personages: Wenceslas, Vitus, John Nepomuk, Ludmilla, Christopher, Francis of Assisi and Augustine are all here. Ages of grime have blackened their statuesque robes and faces in ways that sharpen their outlines against the sky.
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 to its left. One has to stay up late or rise early to have the bridge even somewhat to oneself; I manage it once. The crowds gather around buskers, creating bottlenecks and meanders, as I idle past someone playing a Czech version of Motorik Krautrock on steel drums, followed by a string quartet supplemented with an extra pair of hands reinventing the Eurythmics on an Afro-Peruvian cajón.
Past the opposite end of the bridge rises the complex of baroque buildings known as the Clementinum, which includes not just the astronomy tower from between the spires of which one can enjoy some of the city’s best views, but also one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Images of its interior make it seem well-lit, but the tourist is only allowed to glimpse its contents from the threshold with the blinds drawn and beneath the dimmest of electric lights. As much as this excites a sense of the place having remained intact since the eighteenth century, it frustrates the urge to look at everything close up. The air about the books is deliberately rarefied, the hush indoors nigh-visible. Is this all strictly necessary from a conservation point of view, or is this a piece of theatre meant to lend the place an air of mystery? It stirs the timely question of what a library is for, if one can tread upon its hallowed floors and take its books down only in the most exceptional circumstances. It would seem that it cannot be a working library and a mass-tourist attraction all at once, and so the Czech National Library has chosen to preserve its particular treasure in aspic and darkness.
In “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 father and the fathers of my fathers have sought after that letter. I have 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 smallest letters on the page and hears a divine voice tell him that the time required to complete his tragedy has been bestowed. To anyone outside the specialists who may really have to consult one of the Clementinum’s tomes (which are, for the most part, theological
treatises), such a revelation may be tantalisingly out of reach now.
I do suspect, however, that Leigh Fermor found his way past the threshold I was unable to cross. He must have used his scholarly wiles and personal charm to be permitted entry; or perhaps there always was an unofficial way to see what you wanted to 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.
Kafka haunts a Prague where it is always winter, never spring. The long, low expanse of the Castle—which owes its name more to its hilltop location than to any readiness for battle—dominates the skyline to the north-west, especially at night, when it is lit-up with a creamy-gold glow, while the spires of the cathedral of St. Vitus, which lies within its precinct, rise as figures of contrasting darkness, black on black. Even if wasn’t the highly visible presence of the bureaucratic and the clerical over the cityscape that would inspire Kafka’s great unfinished novel, he must have had Prague’s seats of church and government in mind as he set about writing The Castle while in Spindlermühle.
The Kafka Museum shares a courtyard with a riverside restaurant and a sculpture of two men pissing into a Czech Republic-shaped pond. Their urine spells out literary quotes, but whether any of Kafka’s are among them is unclear to me. In contrast to the brightness of the day, the museum is darkly lit and somewhat disorienting. Glass cases harbour photos, letters, and first editions, while a filmscreen projects watery, rippling images of early twentieth-century Prague. Like Pessoa, whose ghost presides over Lisbon in many a similar way, Kafka never married. As affecting as the photos of the three women with whom he had significant romantic relationships—Felice Bauer, Milena Jesenská and Dora Diamant—and the letters to his employers—pleading for a raise or time off for ill-health—are, I left feeling that my hour at the museum might have been better spent revisiting “The Metamorphosis” or a chapter from The Trial. But then this sentence on an information board may not have struck me as it did: “The threshold is a deferred place, a postponed end, an unfinished work”—a suggested derivation of the Czech name for Prague being práh, or “threshold”.
Of the (at least) two statues of Kafka in Prague, one 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 has posthumously assumed that position, becoming the great upon whose shoulders we now strive to stand. The brass of both of his shoes has been worn shiny with rubs for luck, much as the once-derelict Wilde’s Parisian grave has been kissed back to life.
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 Czechoslovakians who were imprisoned in Theresienstadt and subsequently killed in Nazi extermination camps are written out in careful red and black script on the walls. One will never be prepared to be confronted with the scale of their loss. Overwhelmed, I try to focus on just one or two names and their curtailed lives: Rudolf Buchbinder, 1913-42. Ludvik Buchler, 1936-42. Upstairs, an exhibition of children’s pictures rescued from the camps is unbearable. I am, again, only able to focus on 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 anybody could imagine.
Outside, in the old cemetery that Leigh Fermor ranked as “one of the most remarkable places in the city”, a magpie emits an acrid cackle, to the sweeter backdrop of two great tits foraging at the foot of some ivy. It is said that, owing to the yard’s confinement, the dead here are buried in stacks 12 feet deep. Under the leafing elder trees, gravestones are arrayed at every angle other than the perpendicular, with some leaning on others for support. The writing on them is in Hebrew, so I cannot tell how long these precursors to the Holocaust lived, nor whether they did so in relative peace. It is unlikely, though. Little notes with prayers or wishes are ensnared among the graves, lodged in crevices or weighed down with rocks. The Golem’s alleged creator, late sixteenth century rabbi Judah Löw ben Bezalel, is buried in this graveyard, and it’s claimed he gave the creature life by inserting slips of paper inscribed with incantations into its mouth, in an effort to defend his people from the 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, I thaw out on the terrace of the Času Dost (Time Enough) café, pivoting into the pleasures of the present, counting my blessings.
The next day greets me with more sunshine. I enter the castle complex to visit the cathedral. Though it is only mid-morning, the place is already swamped with others doing the same. I content myself with gazing up at its exterior, seeing how it shapes itself against the sky, just as Leigh Fermor 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 thick with historical riches I inevitably miss out on too many of them, like the colourful artisan cottages of Golden Lane, once the purlieu of goldsmiths and Kafka, or the Old Royal Palace, within which the Riders’ Staircase leads up to Vladislav Hall, large enough for indoor jousting tournaments. Both the staircase and hall are celebrated in A Time of Gifts, where 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 at sunset is punctuated by a fanfare coming from the steps—the threshold—of the Church of St. Francis, played by two men in black cassocks who herald not a service but a concert taking place that evening. As with Golden Lane, the Riders’ Staircase, and so many sites returned from the tourist city of the present to Prague past through an effort of the imagination, I’ll take up the summons on a future occasion.
Daniel Williams is a writer from Hampshire. His first novel, The Edge of the Object, is due to be published in the coming year by The Half Pint Press, which also published a limited letterpress edition of his short story, “Letterpress” (2017). His writing can be found online at https://awildslimalien.wordpress.com/ and you can follow him on Twitter @awildslimalien