Prague: to understand its writers you need to know its history

Prague’s history is a fascinating story of fierce independence, struggle and occupation  …

‘City of a hundred spires’ and, for some, the most beautiful city in Europe. But also the city of Franz Kafka, whose darkly disturbing stories have made him its most famous literary son. His take on the city was, ‘Prague never lets you go. This dear little mother has sharp claws.‘ This co-existence of opposite qualities – ‘dear little mother’ and ‘sharp claws’ – is a useful image of Prague to bear in mind.

John Banville, Prague Pictures
John Banville, Prague Pictures ‘A lovely book’

In his lovely book, Prague Pictures (2003), multi-prize-winning Irish writer John Banville remarks that although much has been written about the beauty of Prague, he is not sure that beauty is the right word to apply to the city. Its loveliness, he feels, is ‘excitingly tainted.’ The pretty Old Town Square and the ‘smouldering concrete suburbs, where the majority of Praguers live their decidedly unbohemian lives‘ are both part of the reality.

Prague is one of those cities whose story has taken so many twists and turns that in order to fully understand much of its literature, one really has to know something about the city’s changing fortunes – especially in the twentieth century. It started the century as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then came the First World War and the break-up of that empire. This gave the country some years as an independent republic and Prague developed a thriving cultural scene.

Communist rule

But the rise of Fascism and the country’s takeover by Nazi Germany, for the duration of the Second World War, was rapidly followed by the Communist rule of the Soviet Union. The attempt to have ‘Communism with a human face’ was stamped on in 1968 by the invasion and a forceful clamp-down by the Warsaw Pact countries, led by the USSR – their rule only ending with the ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 1989, as Communism crumbled across Eastern Europe.

Literature can engage with history and enable a community to process ‘what has happened’ to it. And that is certainly true of some of the best works set in and around the Czech capital. So it’s worth getting to grips with the basics of its history – while the stories themselves help the reader to a deeper insight into the impact of events on the lives and minds of ordinary citizens.

Peter Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold 'A wonderful history of Prague'
Peter Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold ‘A wonderful history of Prague’

There’s a wonderful history of Prague, by Peter Demetz, called Prague in Black and Gold (1997), the very title embodying the city’s contrasts and its complex story as suggested by Kafka’s image of the little mother with claws. For those who like to tackle a solid and substantial history of a city before setting out to explore it, Demetz’s book is a good place to begin.

Paradoxical city

Having grown up in Prague but fleeing to the US in 1949, he aims to bring out the paradoxical nature of the city, ‘in which the golden hues of proud power and creative glory … are not untouched with the black of suffering and the victims’ silence.’ He tells Prague’s story from its founding myth until the eve of the Second World War. The myth tells how a young princess, Libussa, head of a matriarchal tribe, marries the plowman Přemsyl, looks out over the Vlatava River and utters a prophecy: ‘I see a great city whose fame will touch the stars!’. It’s a good story – appropriate for a city that was to give Europe so many wonderful writers.

Although the ‘historical’ part of Demetz’s book ends before the Nazi Occupation, the book’s ‘Epilogue’, in which he describes his return to Prague many years after his escape, is moving and informative, even if you don’t want to tackle all the details of the earlier history. The section on Charles IV, however, is well worth a look. The period of his reign, in the fourteenth century, is known as Prague’s ‘Golden Age’. He instigated the building of the Charles Bridge – one of the most beautiful and famous bridges in the world – as well as the expansion of the town and important reforms in law, administration and education. He founded Prague University, the oldest in Eastern Europe and still thriving today.

Derk Sayers, Prague: A Surrealist History
Derek Sayers, Prague: A Surrealist History ‘Full of fascinating and surprising details’

While on the subject of detailed histories of Prague, anyone interested in the cultural history of the twentieth century will enjoy Derek Sayer’s PRAGUE: Capital of the Twentieth Century – a Surrealist History (2013). It’s quite a hefty tome, but full of fascinating and surprising details. And there’s also Art and Life in Modernist Prague: Karel Čapek and his generation, 1911-1938 (2013) by Tomas Ort, and Prague: a cultural and literary history (2003) in the ‘Cities of the Imagination’ series.


Jan Morris, Europe: An Intimate Journey 'Startlingly revivified'
Jan Morris, Europe: An Intimate Journey ‘Startlingly revivified’

A little bit more general background reading before we get into the ‘literature’. There are just a few pages on Prague in Jan Morris’s Europe: an intimate journey (2006), in which she contrasts a visit in the 1950s, under Communism, with one made after its overthrow in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, noting that few European cities have been ‘more startlingly revivified‘. In scarcely more than fifty years, Prague has changed from being the capital of a country which – trying to justify his appeasement of Hitler after the latter’s annexation of it – British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain referred to as a ‘faraway country‘ of whose people we ‘know nothing‘, to a major city-break venue swarming with tourists and groups on pre-wedding stag parties and hen nights.

There’s also a very good chapter called ‘Prague under snow’ in famous British travel-writer Patrick Lee Fermor’s A TIME OF GIFTS – On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1987: it’s the first of three volumes recording his journey: he died in 2011). He sees Prague as ‘not only one of the most beautiful places in the world, but one of the strangest.’ The chapter ends with a lovely evocation of looking down on the snow-covered city in the evening.

Rachel Weiss, Me, Myself and Prague
Rachel Weiss, Me, Myself and Prague ‘Light but informative read’

For a light but informative read, try Me, Myself and Prague (2008) by Australian Rachel Weiss. Having a Czech father she decides to discover her roots by going to live in Prague for a year. In her complex love affair with the city, she diligently records the difficulties of everyday life (including Prague’s plumbing), and gives a potted history of twentieth-century Prague along the way. A lively plunge into the city of now.


Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series. She is the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published by Oxygen Books.


Malcolm Burgess and Heather Reyes are the publishers of Oxygen Books' city-pick series, featuring some of the best writing on favourite world cities. These include Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Dublin, London, St Petersburg, Istanbul and New York.

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