Read Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City Online

Authors: John Banville

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BOOK: Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City
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Over dinner, crowded together at a small square table wedged into a corner of the apartment, we attempted to move from art to a discussion of the frosty state of East-West relations. Marta, however, would have none of it. She wanted only to hear about America, land of freedom and limitless wealth. She complained that her son, although a diligent letter writer, never gave her the kind of details she desired. Were the department stores as magnificent as she had heard? Macy's, Bloomingdale's, I. Magnum, Nie-man Marcus . . . each legendary name as she breathed it glowed like a coal. J. and G., disenchanted survivors of Berkeley 1968, tried to explain to her some of the realities of life in the Great Republic - there was much emphasis, I recall, on the plight of poor whites in the mining towns of Virginia - but she would have none of that, either, it was heresy to her ears. She was an educated woman, a chemist by training; she was not naive, and certainly not uninformed; she listened to the Voice of America and the BBC World Service, when the signals were not jammed; she was well aware that the West had its pains and protests; but the fact was, she insisted, we could have no true idea of what it was like to live in one of the satellite countries of the Soviet empire. We continually spoke, she said, J. and G. and I, of Eastern Europe, she had listened to us doing so all evening - but could we not see that even by using that designation we were, however unwittingly, conniving with the Soviets and accepting the status quo? Eastern Europe? she said, glaring at each of us in turn - where was that? Where does Eastern Europe begin? At Moscow? Budapest? Prague?
Vienna?
The croissant, that quintessential staple of Parisian mornings, did we know the origin of it, that it took its shape from the crescent displayed on the flags of the Ottoman Empire that were carried to the very walls of Vienna before a terrified Europe at last mobilised itself sufficiently to push the forces of the infidel back to the East? No no, if there was an Eastern Europe, it began no further west than Istanbul!

Flushed by now, as were all of us, on bad Moravian wine, the Professor's wife had taken on a sort of furious magnificence, seemed a very
we shall meet Libuse presently - the raging mother of a country that at depressingly regular intervals throughout the twentieth cen- tury had been dishonoured, betrayed, invaded.
9
As she railed at us, the Professor watched her with brimming uxorious admiration, wordlessly urging her on. I have always been fascinated by the deals that married couples tacitly make with each other, the silent arrangements of interdependence by which they apportion power between them. Who could know how many times over the years the Professor himself had been dishonoured by the authorities, betrayed by friends and colleagues, had his privacy of heart and mind invaded, and how many times he had returned here, to this cramped sanctuary, exhausted in spirit, to feed and renew himself upon his wife's unrelenting fury, outrage and contempt in the face of State oppression? And now, having said her say, his wife retreated into silence, although her rage continued to make a palpable mutter and grumble, like the reverberations of a thunder storm that has departed to batten on some cowering elsewhere.

The Professor was considering his wine glass. Yes, he admitted mildly, all that Marta had said was true. There were intervals when life in Prague was almost unbearable, to him as much as to her.Curiously, perhaps, it was not the times of active oppression that were hardest - the aftermath of the communist takeover in May 1948, or of the Soviet invasion and annexation of the country twenty years later - for then at least there was a sense of dreadful excitement at the spectacle of something happening, even if what was happening was terrible. Afterwards, however, when authority was consolidated and the tanks were gone from the streets, an awful lethargy had quickly descended, and the country had slumped once more into a troubled but unshakeable somnolence. The Professor, still gazing at his glass, smiled ironically. He wished, he said, that he could blame this state of torpor on the Soviets, or even on home-grown petty tyrants, but the fact was, the Czechs had been sleepwalking for three and a half centuries, ever since, that is, the defeat at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, when the Protestant forces of the young Frederick, Elector Palatine, appointed King of Bohemia by the Prague Diet, and known ever afterwards as the Winter King, were crushed by the Habs-burg Emperor Frederick II, Jesuit-trained hammer of the Lutherans. Even the infatuated Ripellino agrees with the Professor's gloomy diagnosis, seeing the country as 'a land prostrate and somnolent' since the disaster of White Mountain. 'Prague,' he writes, 'has the rhythm of slow, endless mastication (like that of Gregor Samsa in
The Metamorphosis
for hours on end), a catatonia from which it at times awakes with a burst of energy that immediately dies down,' and speaks of visitors being 'struck by the frailty of the joyless, eternally pouting city, its suffocating, defenceless lethargy, its deposed-sovereign majesty, the pallor, the morose resignation of those who walk its constricted streets, a dungheap of ancient glories.' The Professor, unlike Ripellino a native son, after all, could not be as harsh in his judgement as the jilted Italian, but even he, it was obvious, had his days when he wished he could take the city by the shoulders and shake it until its stone monuments rattled in their sockets . . . And yet, he said, he would not leave, could not leave, not for all the gold paving of America's streets.

In the confused interregnum after August 1968, before the Soviets had fully taken over and it was still comparatively easy to get out - in the period more than a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country - Marta had begged him repeatedly that they should flee together to New York, to their son, who had a job there, and contacts at the university, and might even be able to find employment for the Professor. But the Professor would not budge - no, he would not budge. Marta was speaking again, as her husband continued to gaze dreamily into the dregs in his glass. 'You would quote those lines at me,' she accused him, 'those lousy lines in that lousy poem by that lousy poet Viktor Dyk, saying those who should dare to leave would die.
10
But you would not have died!' Yes, the Professor mildly agreed - it was apparent they had been through this conversation before, many times - he would have survived, but something in him would have died, for he would have lost an essential part of himself had he left Prague. He turned to us, his visitors. 'This,' he said, tapping a finger on the pale-pine table and making it for a moment Europe, 'this is civilisation, the only one I know.'

After dinner Marta plied us with a sweet liqueur, a local speciality, the name of which I have forgotten - was it green, or was it just the glasses that were green? - and the Professor took from a drawer in his desk a music-case, exactly like, I saw with a start, the satchel that my sister had when we were children and she took piano lessons, an old leather one with a silver metal clasp like an attenuated dumbbell. He put the case on the coffee table and opened it flat. Inside was a sheaf of some thirty photographs, carefully wrapped in tissue paper. Perhaps it was the effect of the wine at dinner, and now the liqueur, but there seemed to me a vaguely religious, vaguely sacramental, tenor to the moment. And why not? True works of art are a real presence, after all.

The photographs were by Josef Sudek. They were in black-and-white, mostly views of Prague streetscapes, with a few interior studies, including 'Labyrinth in My Studio', two oneiric still-lifes from the 'Remembrances' series of the late 1960s, and the ravishing 'Nude', the one seated sideways with her hair partly hiding her face, from the early 1950s. I had not seen Sudek's work before; in fact, I had not heard of him before coming on this mission to Prague. He is, I believe, a great artist, in a league, or almost, with that other visual celebrant of a great city, the Parisian Eu- gene Atget, with whom he shares significant artistic traits. But these sober evaluations came later.

It is strange, that sense of familiarity one has on even a first encounter with an artist's work. As I looked at those photographs one by one I was convinced that I had seen them before, many times, and knew them well - that, indeed, there had never been a time when I did not already know them. Plato's by now trite notion must be true, that somewhere in the unconscious there is a myriad of ideal forms, the transcendent templates, as it were, against which is fitted and measured each new object that one encounters in the world. But there was a more immediate, less lofty, cause of the soft shock of recognition, a sort of shivery drizzle down the back of the mind, that I experienced as I took in these reticent yet ravishing, dreamy yet precise and always particular images. It was, simply, that in them I discovered Prague. Art, Henry James insisted in a famous letter of rebuke to the philistine H.G. Wells, art
'makes
life, makes interest, makes importance', by which he may be understood to mean that the work of art singles out, 'beautifully', as H.J. himself would have it, the essential matters, the essential moments, in the disordered flux that is actual, lived life, while ever acknowl- edging the unconsidered but sustaining dross left behind, the Derridan
rien
that is supposedly
de hors-texte.
All day I had been walking about the city without seeing it, and suddenly now Sudek's photographs, even the private, interior studies, showed it to me, in all its stony, luminous solidity and peculiar, wan, absent-minded beauty. Here, with this sheaf of pictures on my knees, I had finally arrived.

Josef Sudek was born in the Bohemian town of Kolin in 1896 where in later years he would take some of his most evocative, Proustian pictures. His father died when he was three, and his mother moved the family to Prague. At fifteen he was apprenticed to a bookbinder in Nymburk, and later to one in Prague. At the outbreak of the First World War he was drafted into the army and sent to the Italian front, where a shell detonated by gunners from his own side damaged his right arm so badly that it had to be amputated. So ended his bookbinding career, before it had properly begun. When he was capable of being moved he was sent back to Prague and was lodged in the Veterans' Hospital to undergo a lengthy convalescence. He had already developed an interest in photography, and had taken his camera with him to the front and made numerous studies of his fellow soldiers and of the Italian countryside. In his lifetime he ventured abroad only once more, and that was to revisit Italy, and the scene of his wounding: 'Far outside the city toward dawn, in the fields bathed by the morning dew, I finally found the place. But my arm wasn't there...'

Faced now with the problem of finding work, Sudek spurned the government's offer that he should become a street vendor selling cigarettes and tobacco for the State monopoly. Instead, he tried to eke out his army pension by hawking photographs on the Prague boulevards. His time as a street seller did not last long, for he had no professional training as a photographer and could not secure the necessary tradesman's certificate. However, one of the staff at the Veterans' Hospital, Dr Nedoma - spiritual cousin, surely, to Van Gogh's Dr Gachet - had spotted Sudek's potential, and determination, and succeeded in having him enrolled in the photography class of the Prague School of Graphic Arts. Despite the disapproval of his conservative professor, Karel Novak - 'a noble gentleman,' as Sudek would later wryly describe him - he got through the course, and received a certificate establishing him as a professional photographer in 1924. Thereafter, his work came to the attention of a publish ing house,
Prace (Co-operative Work), which began to give him freelance commissions, enabling him to move into a little studio - hardly more than a garden shed, really - on Ujezd, between Mala Strana and the river, which was to be both his workplace and his home for the next thirty years of his life.

The studio was already equipped with photographic equipment, most of it antique pieces from the previous century, which Sudek found perfectly congenial; after all, he was himself a relic of the nineteenth century, if not an earlier era. In the late 1940s he found a camera, a Kodak panoramic, dating from 1894, which might have been made to his specifications, although it had only two shutter speeds. It was a big, awkward brute, but it was his brute, and he loved it, not least for the fact that it was two years older than he was. That even with only one arm he managed to haul it about the city and the countryside is a matter of some amazement, but haul it he did, taking some of his finest pictures, including the series 'Vanished Statues', 1952-1970, stark, austerely beautiful studies of crippled trees that he chanced upon in his rambling through the forests near where he was born. It is perhaps too obvious, given Sudek's poised reticence as an artist, to see in the many images he fixed of these maimed giants a composite, covert self-portrait.

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