Sunday, 14 June 2015

Three Good Days by Dennis Hamley

When I look back over the blogs I've written here, it seems that a great number are devoted to telling you what we did on our holidays. Well, I'm sorry about that, but not unrepentant because every visit seems to bring a new insight, a shock which uncovers something I'd never considered before, so that the latest decade of my life seems to have taught me more than all the previous decades put together. Looking back on them after coming home in the small hours of this Friday morning, I  saw that our three days in Prague had carried the process further.

Prague is a stunning city.


The Charles bridge at night. The castle and St Vitus Cathedral in the distance. That's enough  travelogue! 

These were three days of discovery and unexpected epiphanies. The first discovery was the sculpture in the courtyard of the Franz Kafka Museum. It's by David Cerny (you may remember 'Booster Bus', the Routemaster doing press-ups which he did for the London Olympics), who specialises in installations which make points which the authorities do not like and often get him into trouble. And here we found his sculpture known generally (if you'll forgive the word in a public blog) as 'Piss.'

The Piss Sculpture by David Cerny, Prague

What do you see? Two grim-faced metal men peeing into an irregularly shaped bowl. Their hips can swivel and they use this talent and their hands to direct the flow accurately to any spot they want. Look at the bowl. Familiar? Yes, it's an outline map of the Czech Republic. The Guardian says the installation is humorous. Well, yes, at one level it made me laugh. But what feeling does the thought of being peed over bring to you? To me, it suggests a particularly nasty form of humiliation. Look again. If the man on the right could take one step forward he would be crunching Prague underfoot. Orwellian jackboots come to mind. Controllable willies remind me of miniaturised water cannon. And how many times has this 'faraway country of which we know little' (Neville Chamberlain's words when he abandoned Czechoslovakia to Hitler) had its soul ripped out since the fall of the Hapsburg Empire in 1918? Seven years of Nazi occupation, forty years behind the Iron Curtain? Would we have rebounded from such traumas so convincingly? I think there are many, many levels of meaning in 'Piss', one of which is shown below.



Suffering and defiance in Wenceslas Square. 

And 'Piss' has found its home in, of all places, the courtyard of the Franz Kafka Museum. Weirdly appropriate. Few people in the twentieth century felt they were being peed over as much as he did. And with good reason.

I've read reviews of the Kafka Museum on Trip Advisor and Booking.com complaining that the museum is a con with not much original stuff in it. It's true that many documents on display are facsimiles of originals in museums and libraries all over the world, including the Bodleian. But that's not the point.  It's a display of a tortured life, set out in dark corridors which you expect to lead to a labyrinth. It doesn't because the building is too small, but the feeling that it is there, just behind the next corner, is strong. Here's the irony of a man beset by illness, a member of the German-Jewish minority in Prague, who was obsessed by the impenetrability of bureaucracy which led to the nihilistic alienation of The Castle and The Trial, both still profound images of the worlds we live in. Yet he was himself a professional bureaucrat - and a very efficient one too. So he had an existential problem, partly of his own making, with no escape. A self-absorbed man, wanting to be part of the literary establishment yet always outside it. He had  several unsuccessful relationships. Was this a sort of artistic suffering? Was it purely self-regarding? Surely not if it produced great work. His most significant relationship was with Felice. It's clear they loved each other. But Kafka, afraid of the commitment, broke it off four years before he died. Whose was the greater suffering, Kafka's, or Felice's, who went on loving him for twenty more years until she died in the Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1944?

The question of suffering as the mainspring of art has always fascinated and disturbed me. Many years ago I was only half-surprised to hear a poet I respected then -  and still do now, probably even more - say something to the group of new writers hanging on to his every word which at first knocked me back. 'To be a true artist, the writer must suffer.'

I looked at him, secure in his talent, highly educated, free from poverty, fortunate - as far as I could see - in his relationships and wondered, 'What suffering is this, then? No spitting blood in a freezing garret for you, mate.' Had I missed the point? Well, I want to be seen as a true writer too, so I reviewed my own suffering quotient. It didn't seem high. Bereavements, mistaken decisions and silly misjudgements nearly, but never quite, leading to disaster, disappointments, embarrassments, a profound despair at the dreadful unfairness of the world compromised by a nagging guilt that it hasn't been unfair to me - not, in total, very impressively placed in the pantheon of suffering.  It may be the raw material which I call upon to make my stories, but in itself it's trivial, commonplace stuff.  The dreadful infinities of real suffering are, thankfully, beyond my capabilities to empathise with, partly because I'm afraid to.

Yes, Kafka suffered and made great literature out of the mess of his life. How does it compare with what drove Jan Palach and Jan Zajic to their terrible deaths? Kafka's suffering is private and self-regarding yet makes universal statements which we can test for ourselves. The burns specialist who tended Palach before he died wrote, 'It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation but the demoralisation which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in.' Interesting words, suggesting yet another level for 'Piss'. The Guardian was right. 'Piss' is humorous, but without Palach and Zanic it never could have even existed. Who is to say which is the more worthwhile? I don't know, but Prague is a joyous but serious city, demoralisation is far behind and Kafka, Palach and Zajic are among its heroes. And how can you not admire a country which elects a great playwright as its first president?

Another highlight among many was a visit to the Municipal House, a wonderful Art Nouveau pile built a century ago. A place of galleries, concert halls and restaurants, a real arts hub. Our aim was to see a big Art Nouveau exhibition, which we finally did. But before that, we found there would be a concert in an hour's time - so we bought tickets. And it was at that concert that I saw a tiny incident which brought the experience of Prague full circle.



The entrance to the Municipal House.

The concert was in a beautifully proportioned hall which, though large, had the atmosphere of a drawing room. The programme was unashamedly easy listening - Mozart, Dvorak and, to round it all off, a substantial dose of Johann Strauss. It was exquisitely played, sung and danced by a small chamber orchestra, a superb soprano, six ballerinas and a very athletic leading male. It was the sort of experience which makes the back hair rise and tears sting the eyes. Towards the end, the orchestra played Strauss's Pizzicato Polka. I was sitting in the third row, the last seat on the right. From here I could see the female french horn player sitting a few feet away from the male double-bass player. The Polka reached one of its several  'Wait for it, wait for it' moments. The bass player stood with his fingers poised over the string waiting to make the first 'plink.' Suddenly, the horn player flashed a radiant smile at him. The conductor brought the orchestra in again, the bass player made his 'plink' and then  flashed an equally radiant smile back. It was a superb little vignette. Was there something going on between them? Were they merely sharing in the joy of making music? Were they just happy? Were they all of these things? Were they none of them?

I don't know. All I do know was that it was an accidentally observed magical moment and, it seems to me, is what life should be for. I also think that a place which can encompass all these possibilities within itself is no mean city.


7 comments:

JO said...

I love Prague - and agree it's a stunning city, but with such a difficult history that it asks the visitor some very uncomfortable questions. Which is fine - because, however, beautiful a city might be, it can only every be the sum of its stories.

Bill Kirton said...

A lovely, thought-provoking piece, Dennis. I thought Prague was magical, too, and we also had a similar musical experience to yours there. Ours was just a soprano and her accompanist, but the intimacy of the setting and the purity of the performances was overwhelming. I must say the juxtaposition of the events and history you mention with the fact that it's one of the favourite venues for today's stag and hen parties is ... well, sobering.

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks, Dennis. Prague hadn't been a city that I yearned to visit...till I read your post. Imo, more writers have been done in by the precept that great writers need to suffer than by life itself.

Dennis Hamley said...

Thanks one and all. Bill, the stag and hen parties are a blot and I dreaded being embarrassed and appalled by them. But no, all days were quiet, so we had three days without national shame - a better rate than we get at home, I'm sad to say.

Dennis Hamley said...

Thanks one and all. Bill, the stag and hen parties are a blot and I dreaded being embarrassed and appalled by them. But no, all days were quiet, so we had three days without national shame - a better rate than we get at home, I'm sad to say.

Lydia Bennet said...

Lovely post Dennis, you certainly gain much from your travels - however if you had suffered from stag and hen party contiguity, you could always bank the suffering for any future artistic projects!

Kathleen Jones said...

Lovely post Dennis. I loved Prague too - remember ordering a 'Polish Platter' in a pub and receiving enough pork and sauerkraut to feed a small third world country!