New literary collection is a mix of Czech and expat writing
Ever since The Prague Post’s original Editor-in-Chief Alan Levy compared the creative virility of 1990s Prague with 1920s Paris, the image of an artistic nirvana has danced in the heads of expats, both actual and potential.
But a new English-language literary anthology, The Return of Kral Majales: Prague’s Literary Renaissance 1990-2010, moves promptly beyond this idealized vision and directly to the poetry and prose in question.
“I became a little alarmed,” says Louis Armand, the book’s editor and a professor at Charles University’s Philosophy and Arts Faculty. “You start to look for a record of these things, and it is not there.”
For Armand, an Australian native who arrived in Prague in 1994, the task of compiling the book was a monumental one – tracking down and scouring people’s personal archives as well as long-lost issues of now defunct publications like Yazzyk, Prognosis and Optimism Monthly. The 960-page finished product has a physical stature befitting that labor.
“For a while, it was the only thing I was working on,” Armand says.
The collection’s title alludes to a poem by Allen Ginsberg, that translates as “the King of May.” Ginsberg visited Prague in 1965 (eventually he was deported), and students crowned him the King of May during springtime celebrations. Ginsberg returned to Prague in 1990 to give a poetry reading at the Philosophical Faculty.
Armand edited the 960-page tome; the title alludes to a Ginsberg poem.
As the book notes, the literary environment during the 1990s was chaotic, with long-suppressed texts from Czech writers suddenly emerging (some written 20 years earlier) and a flood of expats producing voluminous if not always illustrious compositions.
“A New York Times article estimated that, by 1993, there were up to 30,000 Americans alone living in the city,” reads the book’s introduction. “Many of these had some connection with the emerging ‘scene’ – as writers, translators, editors, publishers, artists, filmmakers, human rights activists, booksellers, teachers, students, musicians or groupies.”
This volume seeks to separate the wheat from the chaff, bringing together the best expat-produced works alongside translated Czech writers, including many still active on the contemporary Prague literary scene, such as Ken Nash, Jason Mashak, Sarah Borufka and Jaroslav Rudiš. Two current Prague Post writers, Stephan Delbos and Tony Ozuna, also have works in the book.
The anthology concludes with a lengthy cataloging of English-language literary publications of the past 20 years. In addition to being sold online and in bookstores throughout Prague, Kral Majales will be sold in New York, Berlin and London.
“Prague is a city with an atmosphere demanding serious literary thought and work,” says Chris Crawford, a Scottish poet and longtime Prague resident who relocated to Ho Chi Minh City in April. “Attempts at documenting that are essential to the story of the city.”
While 1920s Paris produced giants like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce and Stein, and 1990s or 21st-century Prague boasts nobody approaching that stature, in the end, it is a false comparison, Armand says.
“If there was someone like a Hemingway writing today, would people recognize him, or would they miss him because they are looking for Hemingway?” he asks.
A work of historical record more than anything else, Kral Majales stops short of offering judgment on the literary output of the past 20 years, though the views of the editor and the fact that the volume was produced circumstantially claim that it is a period worth further examination. “The term ‘renaissance’ came up again about five years ago,” Armand says. Since ‘renaissance’ is usually defined as a rebirth, how does that apply?
“It was the reinstatement of Prague as a cosmopolitan, international city.”
The Return of Kral Majales: Prague's International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010, An Anthology
Edited by Louis Armand
Prague: Charles University/Litteraria Pragensia, 2010
Available at Prague bookstores and via the publisher's Web site
Anthology launch parties
May 3 at 8 p.m. The Globe Bookstore, Pštrossova 6, Prague 1
May 9 at 6 p.m. Radost, Bělehradská 120, Prague 2