The Prague Post recently reviewed The Ghosts of Europe by Anna Porter, finding it lacking in depth and conclusive arguments. Porter is certainly not the first author to try her pen at capturing the spirit of the Continent in writing. Here are a few selections from the work of poets, essayists and fiction writers who successful describe the genius loci of Europe in their era.
“Zone” by Guillaume Apollinaire: The French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, a harbinger of surrealism and the inventor of that term, published “Zone” in 1912, a poem that signaled European – or at least French – poetry’s leap into modernity. The poem’s use of what would come to be known as surrealist imagery, its associative leaps and its lack of punctuation would become key stylistic traits for the surrealists. Apollinaire’s inclusion of the capital of Bohemia – a city he had visited in 1902 – would pave the way for poetic relations between Prague and Paris. The poem is a wide-ranging romp around Europe, from Prague to Paris to Marseilles and back again, at a decisive moment in the Continent’s political and literary history.
Holocaust By Charles Reznikoff: This American poet, who is considered among the Objectivists, created this harrowing poem from the U.S. governments transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials. First person accounts from survivors of the death camps are woven together in a pastiche that is cold, calculated and terrifying. In composing the poem Reznikoff used not a single original word; instead he allows the victims to speak for themselves and in so doing brings the horror of the Holocaust to a rhetorical apogee that had been previously available to few – especially American – readers.
Europe, Europe by Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Originally published in German in 1987 and translated into English two years later, this is a series of essays about the state of Europe in the 1980s, as many countries were on the cusp of revolution. The book covers wide ground, literally, as Enzensberger’s in depth explorations carry him from Sweden to Italy and almost everywhere in between. Each of the seven chapters covers one country Enzensberger visited at length, and the final chapter “The Seacoast of Bohemia, 2006″ is an imaginary journey to Central Europe in a future which was quite accurately predicted. But Europe, Europe is more than a travel guide. The book’s subtitle, “Forays into a Continent,” accurately categorizes the nature of Enzensberger’s physical and intellectual journey. Each chapter presents a series of personal insights into the country under investigation, and Enzensberger seems always to rub elbows with fascinating people, from Swedish intellectuals on the eve of elections to the young Portuguese historian in a murky wine bar. Whether these people actually exist, or are simply character constructs for Enzensberger’s ideas, is besides the point.
Case Closed By Patrik Ouředník: Case Closed narrates a few days in the lives of a small cast of characters, mainly Czech retirees. During the first few chapters, we are led to believe that Viktor Dyk, a elderly man with a penchant for making up “wise” quotes, is the protagonist. But when a rape and an old woman’s suicide – both of which are only glancingly referred to, rather than described – take place in the neighborhood, detective Vilem Lebeda and his investigation become the focal point of the story. Ouředník’s subject is twofold, with the novella’s mystery elements really more of a frame for the author, an opportunity or even motivation for Ouředník to write, rather than the real focus. Language is tested, explored and taunted throughout the novella, both in the characters’ lackadaisical and often pointless conversations, and in direct commentary from the narrator. At the same time, Ouředník takes potshots at the Czech national character, the country’s (lack of) progress since the fall of communism and its current place in the European Union.