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Derek Sayer's Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century lead review in TLS

Date: 10 January 2014

Derek Sayer's book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century(Princeton University Press, 2013) is one of two books featured in the lead review in the Times Literary Supplement this week. In her essay "Surreal love in Prague" Yale historian Marci Shore writes:

Inspired by Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, Sayer constructs a montage from petites narratives. "I am not interested in the grand narratives that discipline", he explains, "so much as the details that derail." Sayer's book is a pleasure to read, luscious in a sultry kind of way. ("We may picture Čapek", he writes, "as Hugo Boettinger once caricatured him, hair brilliantined back, cigarette holder between his lips, every inch the urbane intellectual, but Karel liked to get some dirt under those elegantly manicured nails.") Thomas Ort is a pleasure to read for other reasons: his writing is lucid and unpretentious. These two books about Czech modernism - about what Paris meant for Prague - are alter egos of sorts: Ort's earnestness contrasts with Sayer's sarcasm. Ort's chapters are chronological; Sayer's temporality is slippery. Ort's story is driven by the history of ideas, Sayer's by "hasard objectif" ("objective chance", as the Surrealists liked to say) and Kundera's "destiny of unexpected encounters". Sayer meanders voyeuristically into the affairs between Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenská, Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka, Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová, and tarries alongside the ménage ŕ trois of Éluard, Gala, and Max Ernst. The Vogue model turned photographer Lee Miller makes an appearance, as do the singer Jarmila Novotná, the architect Le Corbusier, the "little girl conductor" Vítěslava Kaprálová, and the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. The axis is Prague-Paris, but we detour to Vienna for Expressionism, Berlin for Dada, the Moravian town of Zlín for the Bata shoe factory.

While Sayer lingers at length among Surrealist erotica, he disapproves of the Surrealists' "propensity to parlay the sordid into the sublime". Prague itself - krásná Praha, zlatá Praha (beautiful Prague, golden Prague) - has long been eroticized, but Sayer finds the city's sexualization tawdry. For him, Prague is the laboratory where Éluard's belief that "everything is transmutable into everything" is confirmed. "This little mother has claws", as Kafka wrote of his own city. The fairy-tale picture of the castle overlooking the river conceals the necrophiliac and the sadomasochistic, and images of the pre-modern grotesque flicker across Sayer's Surrealist narrative: in 1621, just before the execution of Prague University's rector, Jan Jesenský, on Old Town Square, Jesenský's tongue was cut out and nailed to the scaffold. If for Benjamin Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, for Sayer Prague was the capital of the twentieth: "Prague is a less glittering capital for a century, to be sure, than la ville-lumičre, but then it was a very much darker century".

The full text of Shore's review can be found here.

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