Sunday, 4 November 2012

KAFKA WAS HERE

I've just come back from Prague.  I stayed in a hotel in a street called Na Porici.  I was just a couple of doors along from the building which used to house the Workers' Accident Insurance offices where Kafka started work in 1908. 

There's a sizeable ex-pat population in Prague as I discovered when I went to a rumbustuous performance of Shakespeare's As You Like It in English with American, English and Czech actors.

One of Shakespeare's literary contemporaries was Elizabeth Jane Weston c.1581 - 1612 (known as "Westonia").  She was born in Chipping Norton.  Her family moved to Prague when she was a child and she became a poet of international repute.  Later this month Prague is celebrating the 400th anniversary of her death.  I visited her elaborately wordy memorial in the cloisters of the later much-baroqued St Thomas's Church.  She wrote in Latin, the lingua-franca of Europe.  David Vaughan has written: "Within a few years of Westonia's death, her whole universe was to be swept away forever and Central Europe was dragged into thirty years of devastating war.  Her poetry captures beautifully this fragile moment on the edge of the abyss." More about Westonia at http://www.radio.cz/en/section/books/a-prague-poet-infinitely-better-known-than-shakespeare

Over three centuries later the Orkney-born poet, Edwin Muir, and his wife Willa came to Prague.  They were a self-styled "translation factory" and had already introduced Kafka to English readers for the first time.  Edwin Muir spent the years 1945 to 1948 as head of the British Institute in Prague. In 1945 the Muirs travelled through defeated, traumatised Germany to get to Prague.  In the city people had made shrines with photographs of loved ones shot during the German occupation.  By 1948 Communist intimidators had silenced Edwin Muir's university students and kept a close watch on the poet's words and movements.

Remembering a Prague poem I turn to R S Thomas's Residues.  Here, in "Went to Prague", are the lines

   "... The Gestapo
    have vanished, but the uniformed buildings
    were still there
    haunting us with the story
    of the man turned
    into an insect."

Prague's turbulent history, resilient inhabitants and cultural richness continue to draw writers.  I've come back with a notebook full of ideas - all I need now is the space to work on them.

1 comment:

  1. Didn't Edith Pargeter turn up in Prague as well? I seem to recall that she worked to translate plays into English. An interesting lady (much missed by Cadfael fans!)

    ReplyDelete