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Getting over Kafka: A Reading List on Czech Interwar Literature.

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German/Austrian presence in the Czech lands dates back to the Early Middle Ages, but coexistence between Germans/Austrians and Czechs was not always free-flowing. At the beginning of the 20th century, almost a quarter of the population was of German/Austrian origin. That lead to a particular phenomenon, that of German literature written in the Czech lands. It seems ridiculous to even mention that the maximum exponent of those Czech-born German authors is Franz Kafka. Other names like Rainer Maria Rilke or Egon Erwin Kisch are also popular.

Although the contribution of Kafka's work to world literature is undoubtedly indisputable, it is at least somewhat sad that his name has overshadowed the magnificent work of many Czech coetaneous authors. Here is a list of some of them available in English translation (Jaroslav Hašek and his superb soldier Švejk is not on the list.) 

A Gothic Soul

(Gotická duše, 1921) Greatest exponent of the Czech Decadence, Karásek’s work remains unknown to the foreign reader. A Gothic Soul is the only full-length work translated into English and just a bit part of his poetry and prose has been translated into any other language. Quite the character, Karásek was one of the few European intellectuals of his time to openly write about same-sex relationships (during the 30s, he edited the literary reviews The Voice of the Sexual Minority and The New Voice. Papers for a Sexual Reform.) Among the many Czech and foreign writers who have portrayed the fascinating city of Prague in their works, the image of the city depicted in Karásek works turns out to be one of the most interesting and influential and is usually an extension of the main character’s self. That is the case of A Gothic Soul, where a tormented protagonist wanders through a city coated with shadow and decay of a majestic past.

The Absolute at Large

(Továrna na Absolutno, 1922) Čapek could be fairly considered as a visionary and precursor to great sci-fi writers such as Asimov or Dick -he and his brother Josef introduced the word Robot in the play R.U.R. Written in a sarcastic and absurd manner, The Absolute at Large is set in the distant future of 1943 and tells us about the creation of a revolutionary machine -the Karburator- which is able to produce a massive volume of energy by annihilating matter. But by doing so, the Karburator liberates the essence held in every matter -the Absolute. Liberation of the Absolute into the world affects minds and causes extreme religious and philosophical disputes that lead the world to the greatest war ever seen. Among Čapek’s extensive and diverse literary production, this anti-politics, anti-clericalism and anti-capitalism satire is definitely a must.

The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch

(Utrpení knížete Sternenhocha, 1928) The madman of Czech writing, Ladislav Klíma embraces Nietzsche’s, Berkeley’s and Schopenhauer’s thought as a way of self-consciousness. Pretty much as the writer himself, Prince Sternenhoch iniciates a descent into madness -after marrying emaciated Helga- that will lead him to find salvation having reached the lowest state of being. Klíma stablishes with this work what he called Egodeismus, an extreme form of subjectivism that leads the individuum to become a form of self-God.  

Hidden History

(Skryté dějiny, 1931) Better known as the Czech greatest symbolist, Březina’s facet as an essayist influenced his own work and that of many of his contemporaries. This posthumous collection of essays accounts for Březina’s aesthetic thought based in the idea of the art as an instrument for social development. 

Marketa Lazarova

(Marketa Lazarová, 1931) When Vančura finds out about his ancestors’ bandit past, he decides to write this fascinating medieval tale about the brutal love between a sensual virgin and a relentless bandit. The author parodies the genre of historical drama with the avant-garde style that he mastered. 

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

(Valerie a týden divů, 1932) Co-founder of the Czech Surrealism and one of the most prolific Czech writers of all times, Nezval flaunted his most overflowing imagination with Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Written with intentionally extreme naivety, this not-for-everyone sexual awakening tale mixes the harsh real world where Valerie has lost her parents with a surreal masquerade of vampires, corrupt priests and androgynous characters.  


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