Literary Adventures in Prague

Literary Tourist in Prague

We experimented with Airbnb in Prague, for the first time. It was an unmitigated success. A beautiful apartment, high ceilinged, modern fixtures, clean, close to two bookstores, across the road from a crazy restaurant/hotel,

around the corner from this wonderfully warped whatever

And here I thought Austin was weird.

One of the shops, The Globe Bookshop and Cafe, sells English books. In fact it’s the largest of its kind in town.

It was here that I first met Stephan Delbos, an American poet who teaches at Charles University, is the editor of From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology, and founding editor of the online international literary journal B O D Y. I later joined him at his apartment to interview him for my podcast on books, passing this incomprehensible sign along the way,

and this monster church

Here’s our Biblio File podcast conversation.

Among other things we talked about the great poets in From a Terrace in Prague and it functioning as a literary guide to the city; prolific surrealist poet Czech Vítězslav Nezval; the importance of reading and translation to the Czechs and Europeans, and famed Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. After the interview we made for Stephan’s local, and a couple of quick cold Pilsner Urquells, passing this statue of Czech poet Svatopluk Čech in the dark along the way.

Not surprisingly, Prague is shrouded in the Kafkaesque, filled with fascinating,

mysterious,

disturbing statues.

There’s the Kafka Museum situated upstairs, dark and mysterious, under a stooped roof, with its piss artists

complete with people picking coins out of its waters,

another English language bookstore close by, Shakespeare & Co. – not to be confused with its more illustrious Parisian namesake; the Mucha Museum, with the famed Czech Art Noveau artist’s Sarah Bernhardt theatre posters (yes, he also illustrated books) and, although I missed it, the not to be missed

Library at Strahov Monastery.

My other big Prague adventure involved tracking down a legend. A last minute decision to email his agent put me in touch with Ivan Klima’s son Michel who set up the meeting. Now, all I had to do was to get a hold of his memoir, My Crazy Century. Since it was too late to get anything from the publishers, and not stocked by any independent bookshops I’d visited, my last shot was to scour some second hand shops in Oxford, where we’d stopped prior to travelling to the Czech Republic. At the very ‘Last Bookshop’

I chanced upon it, yes: another biblio-coincidence. Downstairs in the biography section it was. Every book in this extraordinary shop was priced at three pounds. My lucky day.

Klima’s house is located on the outskirts of Prague, right across from a little forest, copse really. After getting off the tram, hiking up a winding road for about 10 minutes and asking several people for directions, I finally found the house. It had these plaques on it

Ivan’s wife greeted me at the door and led me upstairs to where I found Michel and his wife, and Ivan himself. The three of us then started to talk. Here’s the conversation:

Love and Garbage is Klima’s ‘best,’ and most popular novel. It probes the waste, dishonesty and hypocrisy found in authoritarian regimes, and examines the challenges that those inside experience trying to ‘live in truth’ and freedom. Other important authors connected with Prague include, Kafka, of course, who imposed his dark, tortured world-view on the city with depictions of helplessness in the face of aggressive, incomprehensible bureaucracy; Jan Neruda, whose Prague Tales (1877) about the tumultuous, loving lives of ordinary citizens, was very influential (he’s been called the Charles Dickens of Prague; Chilean poet Pablo Neruda adopted his name); Jaroslav Hasek and The Good Soldier Svejk (1923), a satire flagging the futility of war and stupidity of military authority; Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel.

For more visitor information on Prague, click here.

Photo of David Cerny’s Mimina Babies by Caroline Liguori Beale.

Plantin Museum in Antwerp gets you close to Master Printers and their Ideals


© CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

I never visit the Plantin Museum at Antwerp without feeling that I have come closer to the master-printers and their ideals. Here is the only great printing establishment of the past that time and the inroads of man have left intact. The beauty of the building, the harmony of the surroundings, the old portraits, the comfort yet the taste shown in the living-rooms, – all show that the artist-printer sought the same elements in his life that he expressed in his work. Entering from the Marche du Vendredi, I find myself face to face with a small tablet over the door on which is the device of Christophe Plantin, “first printer to the King, and the king of printers.” Here the familiar hand, grasping a pair of compasses, reaches down from the clouds, holding the compasses so that one leg stands at rest while the other describes a circle, enclosing the legend Labore et Constantia. Within the house one finds the actual type and presses, and designs by Rubens and other famous artists, that were employed in making the Plantin books. The rooms in which the master-printer lived make his personality very real. In those days a man’s business was his life, and the home and the workshop were not far separated. Here the family life and the making of books were so closely interwoven that the visitor can scarcely tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

William Dana Orcutt, In Quest of the Perfect Book (Little Brown, 1926)

Go here for visitor information on Antwerp.

Another stop on your literary tourist bucket list

If you listened to my Biblio File conversation with Jean Louis Maitre, you’ll know that Christophe Plantin was born near Tours, France and moved to Antwerp in the mid-1500s where he founded a printing company. After his death, it was taken over by his son-in-law Jan Moretus. The Plantin Moretus Printing company was sold to the city of Antwerp in 1876. Within a year the public was able to visit the living areas and the printing presses. In 2002 the Plantin-Moretus museum was nominated as UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2005 was inscribed onto the World Heritage list.

The Museum has an exceptional collection of typographical material, the two oldest surviving printing presses in the world, many sets of dies and matrices, and an extensive library. All sorts of typographic masterpieces originated here, including the Biblia Regia, the Bibla Polyglotta and Ortelius’s atlases.

By some miracle the museum, located only feet from the river, twice escaped destruction. First during the Spanish invasion of 1576, second in 1945 when V1 bomb exploded outside the building. It should be mentioned that during the autumn of 1914 the Brits dispatched troops to protect Antwerp, among them were volunteers including Rupert Brooke, Douglas Jerrold and Charles Morgan. Ford Modox Ford published a poem entitled Antwerp in 1915. You can read it here.

Visitor information on Antwerp can be found here.

Audio: Visit the Museum of Typography in Tours, France

Better known for its wines, the perfection of its local spoken French, its cathedral and chateau, the city of Tours France also has a surprisingly rich historical connection with printing and typography. I was in Tours recently and visited the Musee de la Typographie.

It may be small, but it’s full of all sorts of different kinds of old printing equipment and tools, typefaces, woodcuts and handmade paper. As one visitor put it:

“Muriel Méchin, the owner takes you on a personal discovery tour of his museum, including printing off some examples for you to take home on a press from the 1800s. I have been to many printing museums, but this is the first I have found that contains compositors tools such as the Moule à Arçon, a hand-held individual character casting device, that was the forerunner of the mechanical Monotype and Linotype machines hundreds of years later.You can actually handle many of the exhibits which most museums forbid.

Muriel has published a very informative book which we were able to purchase; it is chock full of historical information and illustrated with photos and drawings explaining the history of a most interesting industry that goes back many hundreds of years. The museum is free.”

Since Muriel doesn’t speak English, I sat down with his colleague Jean Louis Maitre to talk about the museum and the fascinating printing history of the region.

If you like English spoken with a thick French accent, you’ll love listening to Jean Louis.

For information on visiting Tour, click here.