Greetings from Gloomy Pre-Fascist Prague

In the latest issue of The Literary Review Alex Stein has an interview with Egyptian poet Yahia Lababidi that orbits around the figures of Georges Bataille, Baudelaire and Kafka. The first notable thing about this piece is that Stein has opted to rewrite some of Lababidi’s words to, as he states at the outset, “make them sing and to make them say what I intuited he meant to say.”

I have interviewed a lot of people with bad or even no English, and would never dream of doing this. Granted, he has the poet’s enthusiastic permission, but it leaves this reader wondering who thinks what, and then isn’t this whole having words express what you want to say the very thing a writer is supposed to be able to do (even if he/she needs a translator)?

Another problem with singing is that you can tend to get a bit melodramatic and short on self-analysis. He/they link Baudelaire and Kafka, for example, across the unpromising bridge of the title Max Brod gave to Kafka’s posthumously published book of aphorisms Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way. Lababidi then goes on to say that the two artists (like all artists, essentially!) are very similar and that any differences can be ascribed to their different fates, with Kafka’s apparently having taken place “in the gloom of pre-fascist Prague.”

Oh, that gloomy pre-fascist Prague, so gloomy it stretched back indefinitely into the city’s history – at least for its most famously gloomy inhabitants!

Photo – If you can even make it out through the pre-fascist gloom (notice how it sapped all the color!) it’s a photo of Na Příkopě Street at the end of Wenceslas Square in Prague, 1904, a location very much in Kafka’s orbit though I don’t know if he frequented the Cafe Vienna (Kavárna Vídeňská)

Kafka turned 18 in 1901, 38 years before Prague’s occupation. Granted, the 1930s got increasingly gloomy after Hitler took power in neighboring Germany (except among the many Czechoslovaks who liked him) but Kafka had long been dead.

Turning back to Baudelaire and the potentially interesting idea of imagining an alternate path for the poète maudit, Lababidi has this to say: “To what might a concurrent sustained commitment along some scholarly line have brought him? What if he had followed his childhood inklings and made a sidelight of the one thing, ‘religions,’ he would admit, when all else was gone, still interested him?”

Because France doesn’t have enough scholars but the world has a massive abundance of poets as unique and brilliant as Baudelaire.  

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Categories: Essays


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