Prague German Writers: A List – A Guest Post by literalab (Michael Stein)

I’m so pleased to have a few guest posts for you from one of the blogs I admire the most. literalab is my go-to blog for Central and Eastern European fiction. Michael is an American expat living in Prague. He is a journalist and writer and has written for different European and American magazines. His posts have always something completely new to offer. Either because the writers are new to me, or because the angle from which he writes about them is unusual. For German Literature Month he has written a few guest post on Prague German writers. We kick off today with an introduction, tomorrow I’ll feature one of his reviews. You will see, there are far more Prague German writers than Kafka to be discovered or re-discovered. The posts wich will follow are part of a series. I’ll feature a few, the following will be posted on literalab in the upcoming weeks. 

As the number of early 20th century German-language writers such as Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig get “rediscovered” and belatedly translated into English there is the impression that the deep literary mines of the era might have dried up and all that’s left are the correspondence and diaries of those same writers, or perhaps a new translation of Kafka’s second-grade homework or some of his miscellany that will inevitably come out of the recently litigated manuscript stash in Tel-Aviv.

That impression is, of course, wrong, and one of the sources of the many German-language writers still left to be read, re-published and even translated for the first time happens to be the same source as those contentious manuscripts and the posthumously famous “prophet of the 20th century” who wrote them in the first place – Prague.

Recently, Prague German writers have finally been getting rediscovered to a certain degree, though generally without getting profiled in the New Yorker like Joseph Roth or shredded in the London Review of Books like poor Stefan Zweig (the exception is Ruth Franklin’s New Yorker profile of H.G. Adler, unavailable online.) I have written about a recent exhibition on Prague’s Forgotten German Writers at Readux and a number of the writers I’ll list have been republished or published for the first time in English only this year.

This will be a totally unsystematic list, consisting of writers I love and have read and reread, writers I haven’t read in a long time and some I haven’t gotten around to reading yet at all. I wanted to put them all there to show the variety of Prague’s now vanished literary scene.

These writers suffered from some very stark and evident wrongs – they grew up in an atmosphere of nationalist intolerance, and with many of them Jewish, experienced Czech nationalism at first as harshly, if not more harshly, than its German counterpart. Later, they experienced more severe repression, exile, and privation.

One ironic result of Nazism’s defeat, in combination with the Holocaust, was that their language was erased from their homeland. This meant that Prague German writers became almost unknown in their homeland, and even today putting up a public bust to a world-renowned figure like Rilke took until 2011, seemingly after all the busts of Czech choral directors and dental school founders had found there eternal homes.

Yet perhaps the darkest and most obscuring shadow for this group of writers has been that of their canonized compatriot Kafka. Their work is compared to his (even by people who haven’t read theirs) in a way that is patently unfair and which would kill off any number of other national literatures of the period if their work was put to a similarly unfair test. Kafka’s labyrinths are supposed to be a stand-in for the streets of Prague, so then why read about those actual streets? Well, I can think of any number of reasons, one of which is that Kafka’s labyrinths aren’t a stand-in for the streets of Prague.

Prague offered a fantastic starting point for its writers to go in a multitude of directions, Kafka included, but where he uses a sparse prose style to delve into layers of symbolic meaning, Leo Perutz, for example, makes use of the city’s rich history and myth, whereas writers like H.G. Adler and Hermann Grab ventured into entirely different realms of modernist writing, often being compared to Joyce and Proust respectively.

Thanks a lot, Michael, for this great contribution. Tomorrow I will post the sequel,  the first name on the list of Prague German writers. The list will be continued in the upcoming weeks and will either be featured on this blog or on literalab

33 thoughts on “Prague German Writers: A List – A Guest Post by literalab (Michael Stein)

  1. Pingback: Prague German Writers: German Literature Month | literalab

  2. Thanks for sharing this Caroline and thanks to Michael–I’m looking forward to these posts. Prague is a wonderful place and I’ve not read hardly any literature (in German or otherwise) from there. I’m hoping there might be some women writers in your list? And I love Stefan Zweig–I think I almost would rather not have seen that link from the LRB! It’s sad to think that these authors have been so ignored, yet exciting to know there will be lots to discover now.

    • I’m really glad he is doing this. I had planned on doing something similar myself but then I saw his post on the exhibition and thought he knows way more as he also lives there. I love Prague, I’ve been there a few times. Let’s see what women writers he might mention. There is Lenka Reinerova but she hasn’t been translated.
      But there are some interesting things to come. I’m very pleased with tomorrow’s post.

    • Hi Danielle,
      re: women writers – I’m afraid that as far as I know there are almost none. This was an extremely conservative milieu, of mostly Jewish families trying (in vain, it turns out) to make a place for themselves between German and Slavic populations, and so thought of their sons becoming writers as the height of irresponsibility – daughters would have been beyond their comprehension. Then again, maybe there is someone there to be rediscovered, as a number of Czech women oainters have been in the past few years.

      • Interesting but not surprising considering the times. Perhaps as you say someone will turn up–of course then once more removed….whether it would be translated into English. Still, looking forward to the writers you will be writing about.

  3. I’ve read lots of Kafka (and a few Rilke poems), but otherwise, that’s it! I’ll be very interested in seeing who Michael recommends – I do love flicking through his posts, even if many of the names he mentions are new to me 🙂

    • he certainly has a knack fro fininding names which are not as widely known. 🙂
      We read a lot of these authors at school but I never came across any reviews so far.

  4. Thanks for the very informative post! I really need to explore and learn more about these writers.

    It is fascinating how in general, so many great minds blossomed in the midst of totalitarianism.

    • You’re welcome, Brian. That’s an interesting aspect as well, you’re right.
      Many of the authors were writing earlier though, turn of the century but quite a few still persevered after that as well..

  5. I’m so, so glad that there’s more than Kafka. I loved “The Metamorphosis” but “The Castle” left me cold, even though I realized at the time that it’s one of those literary sorts of experiments done for its own sake which can only be done by one author and then must only be saluted and improvised upon; it can’t be done twice (thank goodness!). I’ll be attempting in the coming weeks to get to some of the other Prague Writers you mention.

    • I read a lot of his short stories and while they are interesting I can’t say I liked them. Maybe I was too young, not, I might try again some day. I’ve never read any of the longer works.
      There were so many Prague writers, I personally like more.

  6. Pingback: Prague German Writers – Franz Werfel: Pale-Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand – A Guest Post by literalab (Michael Stein) « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  7. Thanks for hosting Michael’s guest post / series, Caroline. It looks really fascinating. I didn’t know that Rilke was also from Prague! I am looking forward to reading the next post already 🙂

    • There are far more authors from Prague than we are usually aware of and qiote a few are forgotten by now. I hope this will help to inspire to pick the one or the other book.

  8. Pingback: German Literature Month – Week I Links « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  9. One interesting post, Caroline…or should I say Michael?

    The part that interest me the most in the erasing of a language. This is the first time I know about that. What a shame. I feel sad when one language is forgotten especially when being forced like that.

  10. Pingback: Literary roundup: Imre Kertész’s retirement, Hermann Ungar makes Top 10 and Tolstoy’s head | literalab

  11. Pingback: German Literature Month 2012: Author Index « Lizzy’s Literary Life

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