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Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century (review)

Press clipping: Research

Publication date15/03/13

PRINCETON, NJ.- Setting out to recover the dreamworlds of modernity in the boulevards, interiors, and arcades of the “city of light,” Walter Benjamin dubbed Paris “the capital of the nineteenth century.” With the publication of PRAGUE, CAPITAL OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: A Surrealist History (Pub date: May 1, 2013), cultural historian Derek Sayer christens a new global capital for a darker twentieth century. Sayer shows how Prague was at the center of all major movements of the twentieth century. It was the first European capital to be occupied in 1939 and the last to be liberated in 1945, and the only place in the world where a communist-led national government came to power through the ballot box. Democracy, communism, fascism, revolutions, invasions, national liberation, and ethnic cleansing—all played the stage in Prague. Yet, between the wars Prague was the capital of the most easterly parliamentary democracy on the European continent—and a hotbed of artistic and architectural modernism, whose very memory was erased during the Cold War. Few other capitals have experienced such a variety of ways of being modern—or can shed so informative a light upon the vagaries of that condition. In this long anticipated sequel to his acclaimed Coasts of Bohemia, Derek Sayer attempts to do for twentieth-century Prague what Walter Benjamin did for nineteenth-century Paris. PRAGUE, CAPITAL OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY ranges widely through the modern history of the city, discussing architecture, paintings, films, operas, monuments, exhibitions, and much else. While the book covers a much larger period, its particular focus is on the interwar and immediate postwar years. A central strand in the story is the emergence of Prague as a center of surrealism second only to Paris, of which Sayer gives the fullest account in English to date. Prague is a place, Sayer argues, where the utopian phantasmagorias of the twentieth century have repeatedly unraveled. It is a location well suited to André Breton’s “humour noir.” From Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek to Milan Kundera and Václav Havel, the city has produced unrivaled connoisseurs of the absurd. What remains, when we finally awake from modernity’s dreams, is the rich, chaotic, vibrant, and eternally surprising human landscape explored in this book.


Original titlePrague, Capital of the Twentieth Century