Let’s put a bookmark in the river cruise for a bit – time to do the annual reading retrospective. To make it just a bit less jarring, we’ll start with four books from the 2018 reading list that echoed places we visited on the trip.
As soon as I learned we would be traveling to Prague, I revisited The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (320 pages, published 1984). To switch things up, I listened to it as an audiobook this time, narrated by Richmond Hoxie.
The key reason for my re-read is that the novel is set in then-Czechoslovakia around the time of the Prague Spring uprising and subsequent Soviet oppression. The narrative is more about its plot in time than it is about place, but is largely set in Prague and and Petrín Hill is prominently featured, albeit in a troubling dream sequence.
Petrín Hill, Prague:
The main characters are Tomáš, a physician and inveterate philanderer, Tereza, who can’t quit him, and Sabina, a hard-edged free spirit who wears a bowler hat and sometimes not much else. She was played by Lena Olin in the 1988 film:
Kundera’s book quickly became a classic of the period and remains a must-read although I must confess I found it more brittle and cynical this time around. No wonder – Kundera’s underlying theme is a tussle with Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. “What can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?” asks Kundera.
There is a suffusing grey melancholy in the interior and exterior lives of the characters. Better understood having now visited the Czech Republic where its denizens refer to everything as having been grey under the Communists. There are inner frailties: Tomáš looks for love – or something – in all the wrong places, over and over again, and the ever-present secret police of the Communist era, And outer humiliations: Tomás is stripped of his career as a physician for not lining up for the Party and made to work as a window-washer. And then – spoiler alert – quite frankly, things don’t end well.
But Kundera is a brilliant writer and probably well deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature which it is rumored has been withheld from him due to his own questionable political activities as a young man. Those were troubling times indeed.
I gave the book five stars the first time, four stars the second. Recommended reading whether or not you are planning to visit Prague.
Speaking of Prague, I was so pleasantly surprised by the gem that is Prague: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Paul Wilson (paperback, 256 pages, published 1995). Part of a pair of anthologies, this was the better of the two that I read. Beautifully curated, it is an astonishingly good collection of short stories and excerpts that bring Prague to life through literary history. Kundera is conspicuously absent from the collection, but Franz Kafka’s “Description of a Struggle” is included, as are selections by Gustav Meyrink and Bohumil Hrabal. Astoundingly good are “The Case of the Washerwoman” by Egon Erwin Kisch, “Mendelssohn is on the Roof” by Jirí Weil (a harrowing and heartbreaking depiction of the Nazi monster Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during WWII) and “A Prague Eclogue” by Jifí Kovtun, which memorializes the seventeenth-century Battle of White Mountain. The selections are liberally sprinkled with Prague landmarks including, of course, the Charles Bridge, as well as Old Town Square, the astronomical clock and the narrow streets of the Malá Strana. Recommended.
Vienna, A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Donald Daviau (256 pages, published 2008) is also worth a read, although I found it just a little less accessible than the Prague collection. Maybe because I was an extremely jet-lagged tourist trying to see Vienna at the same time I was reading the book. If you are a fan of the Hotel Imperial (and seriously, who isn’t?!) there is a hauntingly beautiful selection called “Visit to Vienna” by Erich Wolfgang Skwara. An excerpt from Arthur Schnitzler’s “The Death of a Bachelor” is notable as the work adapted by Stanley Kubrick to “Eyes Wide Shut”. Stephan Zweig is represented by an excerpt from “Beware of Pity” and Franz Kafka by “The Hunger Artist”, a bizarre story that I read twice trying to make sense of Kafa’s message. I fail miserably every time I try to understand Kafka and welcome any lifeline a more literate reader can throw me…
We were trying to travel light, so when I finished the book, I set it on a bench outside the Staatsoper in hopes that some other English-speaking tourist might find and enjoy it. I like to think that my copy of the book basks in a longer stay in Vienna than I did. Perhaps it will enjoy a life of Nietzsche’s eternal return…
Probably the best-known modern book set in Vienna is The Third Man (paperback, 157 pages, published 1950) by Graham Greene. In a case of art imitating art, I read that Greene actually wrote the book after he wrote the screenplay for the immensely popular film.
Set in post-WWII Vienna, the story is as decidedly noir as the film. It appears at first to be a murder mystery although the mysteries of the book extend even to the murder. Set against the background of the Prater, the book is rich in sense of place.
Greene wrote his screenplay while staying at the Hotel Sacher and dining at nearby Café Mozart, as did, I have read, Orson Welles and other members of the cast while the movie was being filmed. We happily retraced their steps while we stayed at the Sacher, although it thankfully looks much less dreary today than it did in the film.
The Third Man is considered one of the greatest British films ever made, and while I wouldn’t put the book in the same category, it’s still a must-read to put you in the mood if you are planning to visit Vienna.
Four down, fifty-six books to go. Buckle up, we’ll turn a few more pages next week…