So the question is why I'm writing a historical novel set in Prague. A long story. Here's the core dump, me and Prague
--First contact I'm about eight or nine, I come across a book, can't recall what book, but it has in it the story of the Golem of Prague. Fascinated! A 16th century rabbi made a giant out of clay and put an inscription in its mouth and it came to life. It could do all kinds of convenient labor, could protect the Jews of Prague, then went out of control so the rabbi, Judah Lowe, the Maharal, had to remove the holy inscription and reduce it to clay again. Oh, yes, it couldn't speak because only God has the power to convey speech. The Maharal leaves it in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Prague. I associated this with Boris Karloff's Frankenstein in the movie, a figure that filled me at eight not with horror but with sadness, the lonely monster who just wanted to talk to the little girl and got into such trouble, peasants with pitchforks and torches. Some identification there, obviously. I recall that I heard the name of the city as rhyming with "vague."
--The word defenestration, a big word just right for a ten year old junior pedant, the Defenestration of Prague, I saw the phrase somewhere, looked it up, added it to my Aspergers storehouse along with the names of the visible stars and the species names of early hominids. This was all encyclopedia work, of course, the opposite of googling, because after you read the thing you looked up you read the next article in alphabetical order and learned something you never would have come across. Like the Pragmatic Sanction (the next entry after Prague in my World Book Encyclopedia.) That takes one into the history of Austria, of the Hapsburg Empire, a place that no longer existed, a fairy-tale kingdom like the yet to be devised Middle Earth but real, a congeries of nations, of tribes, ruled by an ancient man with funny whiskers, an empire that had caused the First World War and the destruction of a civilization. I read, I accumulated facts, I began an intense and inexplicable interest in this lost empire, about which one rarely heard, most of it then behind the Iron Curtain, another of my secret stores of useless information.
--Now I'm a freshman in college and a guy sets me up with a blind date. (A “date:” you call the girl on the “phone” and propose an outing to some actuality, a movie, a show, a musical venue. You travel to the girl's house, take her to said event, then home again.) This was a long time ago. I invited this unknown person to a party. At college parties one then wore coats and ties and if girls, cocktail dresses, but this was not that kind of party. At this party we would wear army surplus and jeans and t-shirts and drink beer and unbelievably horrid wine from straw-covered bottles and listen to jazz records, and perhaps sometime during the evening fourteen people would crowd into the bathroom and share a single joint. So when the girl asked me how she should dress I said, "You know, sort of bohemian," which was the only word I had to describe an event outside the mores of the standard culture of the late Eisenhower era.
On the night of, therefore, I show up at this girl's place, which turns out to be a tenement in the Bronx, and am shown in by her aged granny, who gives me the fish eye because I am wearing a black turtleneck and jeans and an Army field jacket and a black watch-cap, and in a few minutes out comes the girl and she is wearing the Bohemian national costume--embroidered blouse and dirndl waistcoat, voluminous skirt over numerous petticoats, white stockings, and the lacy head-dress, with colored ribbons. Oddly enough, this was not the most embarrassing incident of that year, or even of that evening, but I did extract from the debacle the understanding that capital B Bohemia was a real place rather than a sort of fairy-tale kingdom, as well as a fresh understanding of the outer limits of shame.
--Kafka, speaking of the outer limits of shame and making art from a sense of helplessness and degradation. Kafka came from Prague. The Castle is an actual castle, Hradcany, that looms over the city. Gregor Samsa turned into a giant cockroach in a particular house. Read Kafka as a teenager and something happens to your brain. The Golem comes alive again and takes up residence. No matter how much Enlightenment I absorbed later (and it was a lot) the idea of magic never quite departed. Humanism and Enlightenment came to Prague as it did everywhere in Europe, but it got uniquely warped there. They had an Emperor, Rudolf II, who was a magician and an employer of magicians, alchemists, astrologers. Dr. Dee worked for him, as did Tycho Brahe. The Europeans knew something was strange about Prague. In the 19th century they encumbered it with legends, Magic Prague. When surrealism came to Prague in the early 20th century, it put its feet up, sighed, and said, "Home at last."
--Czech animation and puppets--I spent a lot of time in art house and museum screening rooms watching this stuff in the 50s and 60s. Surreal. It's not the faintly silly Freudian stuff made popular by Dali, but the product of a nation for whom plain reality had been awful for a very long time, and it's about resistance, a message from a people who had their religion destroyed, and their leaders murdered, and their institutions suppressed, and their language forbidden for centuries, and yet here they still are, blowing cryptic raspberries at their oppressors. And Prague is the stone symbol of this, one of the few cities in Central Europe that's perfectly intact architecturally, never razed, never fought over, never bombed: gothic, renaissance, baroque, art nouveau all jumbled together like jewels strewn out on a table.
--The mystery and attraction was enhanced during my youth by the isolation of Prague behind the Iron Curtain. When the crack-up came (and it was no surprise that the Czech revolution was led by writers and artists) I went for a visit. I won't say I was disappointed, but it's the case that nothing physical can compete with a prior psychological reality, as anyone who has experienced Romance can attest. Prague in the summer of 1990 was a gorgeous, slightly dilapidated Central European city full of people who seemed run down and a little dazed at what they had accomplished. There were unemployed secret policemen trying to hustle bribes from the tourists and the town was full of bargain-hunting Germans. As with anywhere else on earth its true essence was secret and since it was Prague these secrets were deeper than in most other places, and if I had another lifetime to burn it would have been interesting to explore them all. But a week was all I had.
I forgot where the idea for this book came from, although I knew instantly that it would be set in Prague. There's the idea of a failed revolution. We all lived through a failed and rather fatuous revolution in the sixties (incidentally, as Tony Judt pointed out, essentially ignoring an actual revolution taking place in the Soviet sphere) so that was part of it, and also the sense that something missed happening in 1848 that then turned to the worst poison in the whole history of the the West. And the sense of the lost world of aristocracy, which Americans pine for and hate at the same time, seeing in the aristocratic style a relief from the corrosive status anxiety of their lives, and so I wanted to write a sort of defense of that cast of mind, and I wanted to write about a revolutionary era and the maddening choices such eras present to their denizens, perhaps in memory of the dead sixties as well. I had, from who knows where, an image of the Charles Bridge in Prague by moonlight, and a boy, a little baron, about to commit suicide because of Romance, this when the idea of Romance was still bright and new, and how he was saved by a distinctly un-romantic courtesan, and what happened to him after this signal event, and on the other side of the story what had brought him to the bridge in the first place.
I really hope I can complete this novel, which seems to be stalled at around 200 pages, just because I'd like to read it myself.
Update: it seems to be rolling again. I am too hard on myself. A fiction in which one has to research every single detail described is going to take longer to write than a contemporary work in which you have all those details more or less in your head. I am on chapter 11, of something like 25 planned.