Much has been written about Prague as a literary city, as a place that has spurred the imagination of writers. Usually the focus is on the myths of “Magic Prague” from the more distant past, but we tend to hear less about how the city has changed in the literary imagination in more recent years. Lucy Duggan is a young academic and writer from Oxford University and she has decided to focus her research on Prague as seen through the eyes of contemporary Czech writers. Prague is also the setting of her own novel, “Tendrils” published in 2014. In this week’s Czech Books, she talks to David Vaughan.
Lucy Duggan is steeped in Czech literature. She speaks the language fluently and her academic interest in Czech writing is fired by the very complexities that we tend to find so challenging in the work of some contemporary Czech writers. Her particular favourite is Michal Ajvaz, a writer now in his mid-sixties, who has been rather neglected in the English-speaking world precisely because his texts are often seen as difficult – as many-layered as Prague itself. When I met Lucy, we talked about Ajvaz’s work and about her own novel, but she began by telling me about the roots of her interest in Czech writing.
“I began studying German literature at Oxford University and I really enjoyed going back into older German literature and looking at medieval times and in that context I also came across some Czech medieval literature. Then also I became interested in East German literature and that then led me on to thinking how little I knew about the complex boundaries and borders of Central Europe – of anything further east than Berlin. So that was the beginning of my interest.”
It makes me think about the time when I was studying German at university and Kafka, for example, was treated quite simply as a German writer. It was only really later – especially when I moved to Prague – that I started thinking about Kafka’s very different context. The German and Czech literary worlds are very intertwined, aren’t they?
“It was the case for me as well, when I was studying Kafka and also Rilke. We saw those writers almost in a kind of lack of context – as if they were floating above Europe in some way along with people like Goethe – and, as with you, it was only later that I came to realize what complex contexts those writers came from, what multilingual contexts – that Kafka spoke Czech as well – so yes, I think that Czech and German culture are very much intertwined. That’s something you only come to realize as you delve deeper into Czech literature.”
And you have delved more and more deeply into Czech literature. Tell me about some of the writers that have inspired you.
“I’m now working on a project which is to do with the way that Prague is written about in contemporary Czech literature. So the writers that I’ve been especially looking at include Jáchym Topol, Daniela Hodrová and Michal Ajvaz. I would say that these are all writers who I find quite frustrating. I would not necessarily immediately recommend them to any English friend, because I’ve had the experience of people coming back to me and talking about how frustrated they were by these texts.”
That’s partly because they are full of references which, for people who aren’t Czech, are really rather obscure…
“I think that’s right and I think there’s also a difference perhaps between the reasons why you really want to go deep into a text and the reasons why you just want to read something for fun. Having said that, I think that some of the shorter texts by these writers can be fun as well.”
Michal Ajvaz is a writer you’ve taken a great interest in. I’ve never discussed him in this programme, partly because his work is very difficult. But you really have tried to go well under the surface of Ajvaz’s writing. Prague turns up again and again in his work, in all sorts of interesting ways.
“I think that Ajvaz is fascinated by the ways in which all the complex structures of the way that a city fits together are somehow like the complex structures of a text fitting together. At the same time, what I really love about him is that you get the physicality of the city, you get the physical small details which push through the text that he creates. So it doesn’t end up being just a dry structure, far from reality, that he’s creating. You recognize the weird details of your everyday life and that makes it much more concrete.”
He has occasionally been compared with the Magic Realists of Latin America, not least because of that liveliness that you are talking about.
“Yes. I think that’s definitely a fair comparison. I think he’s influenced by Borges, but he brings a very Prague flavour to that style as well.”
In a couple of sentences, could you tell us something about who Michal Ajvaz is?
“He was born in 1949 and he works as a researcher and academic. He’s interested in philosophy and he’s written books about Derrida. He belongs to that generation of writers who were not explicitly part of the cultural underground in the 1980s, but who were working in an academic context, not able to publish their creative work, but writing to ‘put it into the drawer’. Recently, his best known books have been, for example, The Other City (Druhé město), which has been translated into English, and one of my favourites, which is much less well known, is a book with two novellas in it, called The Turquoise Eagle (Tyrkysový orel).”
You are going to read a short extract which you have translated from The Turquoise Eagle, which is about this “other Prague”.
“This extract comes from the first of the two novellas contained in the book, which is called The White Ants. The woman who is talked about in the extract has fallen into a mysterious sleep in which she’s plagued by nightmares in which she wanders partly through Prague, partly other cities. And in each street she turns into, she’s confronted with another monster or another terrifying vista. In this case it’s the jungle, which has penetrated through the surface of Prague.
Sometimes in her dreams she found herself in a strangely transformed Prague. Once she boarded the last, empty carriage of the tram at Balabenka. In Karlín, palm trees and tropical shrubs started to appear in the streets, and there were more and more of them; at Florenc the vegetation was already so thick that the tram had to force its way through an almost impenetrable thicket, big juicy leaves scraped against the glass, supple branches pushed their way inside through the open windows. Through the tangle of leaves it was now impossible to see any houses, and so she did not know where she was when she alighted from the tram.
Not only are you researching into Czech literature, but you’ve also had a novel published. It’s called Tendrils, which is rather an intriguing title, which I hope you’ll explain. It’s partly set in Prague and it has very much a Czech theme.
“It’s a novel that spans the time before and after 1989. It’s mainly set after 1989 and it’s looking a lot at what that really meant – at least to these characters in the novel – to have the meanings of things change and then to have to work out what to do next, what’s the next step. There are two male main characters who grew up in the 1980s in Prague and went to art school at that time and two female characters who are of the younger generation, born in the 1980s and growing up in the 1990s. And it’s all about the ways that the lives of those characters intertwine, which is partly this idea of tendrils – that people’s lives shape each other. It’s not only about love, but also about friendship and the way that friendship can also destroy people’s lives. It’s a bit of a nasty book.”
And have you taken inspiration directly from Czech writers?
“One of the writers who really inspired me was Jáchym Topol, and his way of writing about Prague in particular, which to me seems actually like a romantic image of the city. Even though it’s supposed to be gritty, it’s supposed to have drug dealers on every corner, I feel that there’s something nostalgic there, there’s a wish to be in a city that’s moving, where something’s happening and where there is this underground. And the characters in my novel are also partly nostalgic for that sense of being part of the underground, of being able to kick back against something. After 1989 I think it wasn’t all that clear what one could kick back against any more. There was fragmentation which I’m really interested in, and that’s what I’ve tried to write about in the novel.”
Jáchym Topol once said to me in an interview that there’s nothing he hates more than “Magic Prague”. But from what you’re suggesting perhaps he’s not quite telling the truth about himself.
“Yes. I can completely see where he’s coming from on that and I hate sentimentalized ideas of Prague too, but – yes – his Prague is full of magic. It think it’s a different kind of magic. It’s the dark magic that you hear in the songs of The Plastic People of the Universe. That’s also a kind of Magic Prague.”
And your novel is also about the art world. In a sense that’s something that ties you to a writer like Ajvaz, who is writing is so much about art: that the world that comes out of the work of art – whether it’s a painting, a novel or whatever – is in some way different and shifting. Is it the real world or is it something else? Is it tangible or is it something fleeting that we cannot touch? That’s also something that interests you…
“Yes, it certainly is. In fact, one of the threads of the novel follows the idea of what it would be like if painting a picture could mean that you changed reality, so that the picture would decide what happened in reality – and how terrible that would actually be, if the artist had that power to change reality in that very literal way. So I had fun with that in the novel, but it is something that I’m very interested in both in my writing and in my academic work – this question of how important is literature and whether literature is a luxury or something where we’re really creating reality in a sense. And of course literature has that kind of amazing power to change the way we look at things. But I wanted to push that to its logical conclusion and see what the dark side could be.”
Can you give us a short extract from the book to illustrate the point?
Escaping the city, they held art exhibitions in the countryside, where the colours of their paint would not stand out against the ghostly pallor and easily be detected. They drove out there in rickety Škodas and unloaded the exhibits from the boot. They hung them on the trees in the clearing – bold satires and some scenes of beauty, a few sad failed attempts to express freedom. The art was not all good, but it was good to see it hanging on the trees, and to feel the moss underfoot.
You’re completing your PhD. Where does it go from here?
“That’s a very good question. I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do next and I really, really want to have more time for my writing. So I’ve been wondering whether to look for a publishing job here in Prague – because that’s the other important thing for me, to stay in Prague, which is not easy in the academic context. So what I would love is to find a job that would involve creating Czech books and also have time to create my own books.”
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