The Literature Lover’s Guide to Prague's Most Famous Writers
Like capital cities everywhere, Bohemia’s main city has attracted its fair share of great artists, whether they’ve been born there or have been drawn to an environment with the infrastructure to support and nurture exceptional talent. Prague’s literary figures are famous not only to Czech readers, but also the wider world as a result of the constantly fluctuating political and social environment in which they found themselves over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and which elicited work of global interest.
No-one visiting the Czech Republic could possibly miss the corpulent figure of Švejk (Schweik in German) attired in his Austro-Hungarian uniform and cap and invariably puffing jauntily on a German porcelain wine pipe. The Good Soldier Švejk is the masterpiece comic creation of Jaroslav Hašek, the Bohemian literary jester king, whose own life story sometimes mirrored the uproariously absurd events of his most famous character, at least until he drank and ate himself to an early death at the age of 39, leaving Švejk’s adventures unfinished.
The story of the dim-witted but incurably jolly Švejk, whom Hašek used to illustrate the ludicrousness and futility of the First World War, famously opens with his arrest in the pub U Kalicha (The Chalice) after remarking on the flies defecating on a portrait of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. You can still enjoy a pint or six at U Kalicha at Na Bojišti 12 in Prague’s New Town, although Hašek himself haunted the pubs in the working class district of Žižkov where there’s an intriguing equine statue that’s half pub bar and half Hašek bust on Prokopovo náměstí (Prokop’s Square).
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is surely among the best known Czech books of the last century, if not the best known thanks to the 1988 film version starring Daniel Day Lewis. Despite the book’s obvious primary location, its author, Milan Kundera, is a bit difficult to pigeonhole as a purely Czech writer or Prague literary figure these days since he’s been domiciled in France since emigrating from Czechoslovakia in 1975. He became a naturalised French citizen in 1981 and has published exclusively in the French language since 1995. He allegedly only ever travels back to the Czech Republic incognito.
Kundera’s ambivalence toward his homeland is reciprocated by his former compatriots. His continued belief in the reformist potential of Czech communism even after the 1968 Soviet invasion, his literary sparring with Vaclav Havel, and unproved allegations that as a student he denounced a young Czech pilot to the communist authorities in 1950, have damaged his reputation in the Czech Republic. But Prague unequivocally is and will always remain a strong presence in his work. One example is Petřín Hill where you can retrace the dream sequences of Tereza from The Unbearable Lightness of Being where she imagines she will be executed, but only if she convinces the executioner that she seeks death of her own free will, believing that it is the will of her husband, Tomáš.
Considered one the most imaginative and satirical Czech writers of the 20th century on a par with Hašek and Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal is probably best known to English speakers as the author of Closely Watched Trains, whose celluloid version won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968. Hrabal was adored by the Czech reading public for the characters he portrays in his books as “wise fools” - simpletons who occasionally and inadvertently express profound thoughts, but who are also given to coarse humour and a Švejkian determination to survive and enjoy life despite the slings and arrows fortune has thrown their way. Half of all his published work was turned into films which invariably attracted the cream of the Czech cinematic fraternity.
Before turning to writing full-time Hrabal, worked as paper packer in the 1950s at a waste collection site at 79 Spálená St, not far from Narodní třida metro station; the plaque on the building facade says his time there served as inspiration for the novel Too Loud A Solitude. In his later years Hrabal could be found nursing a mug of beer at the pub U zlatého tygra (The Golden Tiger) at Husova 17 where Bill Clinton also once quaffed a beer with him and Vaclav Havel. There’s a 5.5m painting of Hrabal with his 16 cats and quotes from his most famous works on a bus station wall in the Prague quarter of Libeň where he resided for much of his adult life.
Franz Kafka is Prague’s most famous literary figure, and any expatriate who’s resided long enough in the city will be able to relate from their own excruciating experience at various bureaucratic offices what some of the inspiration for Kafka’s stories might have been. Few other writers have created such an impression that their names have become adjectivised, i.e. ‘Kafkaesque’, meaning an event or activity of a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.
Kafka’s formative years were spent under the Austro-Hungarian Imperial regime which perfected the art of administrative and bureaucratic delay and obfuscation – something which one could be forgiven for believing still holds true in 21st century Bohemia. If you venture up to Prague Castle, it’s not too difficult even today to imagine the atmosphere in which K undergoes his trials and tribulations in The Castle. Kafka even lived for a time at House No.22 at Prague Castle’s Zlatá ulička (Golden Lane). There are numerous other Kafka-related sites in Prague, including the Kafka Museum at Cihelná 635/2b in the Little Quarter, the Franz Kafka Monument at the juncture of Vězeňská and Dušní Streets in the Old Town, and the 45-ton revolving head of Kafka created by the enfant terrible of the Czech art world, David Černy, at the Národní třida shopping centre.
During the inter-war period Karel Čapek was undoubtedly Prague’s most famous literary figure. Best known to the English-speaking world for introducing the word ‘robot’ into the language from his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), he was at the global forefront in promoting discussion of the ethical aspects of industrial inventions and processes already anticipated in the first half of the 20th century, such as mass production, nuclear weapons and artificial intelligence. He was also partly responsible, along with Jaroslav Hašek, for sparking a revival in written Czech using the vernacular after centuries of domination by the German language.
Given his interest in the ethical issues contained in his writing, it’s no wonder he was also a fierce and outspoken anti-Nazi (and anti-Communist). His patriotism, however, meant that he refused to go into exile despite the fact he was near the top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list. When the Nazis eventually occupied Bohemia, however, and the Gestapo came knocking on his door, they discovered that Čapek had died of pneumonia several months earlier. Nazi agents nevertheless arrested his equally famous brother, Josef – a painter, writer and poet – who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. The ‘dvujdům’ (dual house) the brothers shared still stands in Prague’s Vinohrady district at Bratří Čapků 28 & 30.
Karel Hynek Macha
There’s a well-established tradition of the young romantic poet as celebrity, and a cult of personality in literary terms if that poet has died a particularly young death. The archetype is Lord Byron, but other states have also elevated similar poetic figures to the pantheon of national literary hero, from Scotland’s Rabbie Burns to Russia’s Alexander Pushkin to Poland’s Adam Mickiewicz. The Czech Republic’s candidate for tragi-romantic national poet is Karel Hynek Macha, who died of pneumonia at the tender age of 25 in 1836.
His modern reputation is based upon the lyrical epic poem “Máj” (May), which is now regarded as a classic work of Czech Romanticism and one of the best Czech poems ever written, containing as it does many of the precursors of 20th-century literature: existentialism, alienation, isolation, surrealism, etc.
Too young to be appreciated as one of Prague’s famous literary figures while alive, Macha was latterly “discovered” and promoted by other writers in the mid-19th century. Since then, generations of Czech school students have been brought up on Máj’s homage to the beauty of spring. As a result, it’s now a custom among young Czech lovers to place a flower or wreath at the base of the Macha statue on Petřín Hill on the first day of May.
Standard travel guides and travel companies don’t normally offer the opportunity to immerse yourself in the literary cultures of Central European cities. If you want to discover or learn more about Prague’s famous literary figures then we at Go Real Europe will gladly create a customised itinerary that will help you explore the city’s literary traditions.
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