The Hieroglyphics of Prague

Prague as a Literary Topos of German Minority Authors at the Beginning of the 20th Century

/ by Aljaž Koprivnikar

The Theory of Space in Literature

The usage of a city as a literary topos is a common theme in literary history, as cities are not understood only as spaces of urban life infrastructure, but also as spaces that record human existence, past experiences, beliefs, religions, artistic creativity and the varied production of communities, shaping the space as a cultural space. As such, it lends itself to literary exploration as a series of spatial images, riddles which have to be solved to access underlying questions about society. Here, Prague shows itself as a big literary puzzle, as a crossroad to different cultures establishing itself, from medieval times on, as an extremely complex literary topos, joining Slav, Germanic, Latin and Jewish cultures. At the beginning of the 20th century in Prague, one can see the phenomenon of mixing and distinguishing different cultures and national languages, seen from various viewpoints as minorities and, as such, pushed to the margins of mainstream literature and society, as well as their prominent trends. From this marginalization comes the pathos typical of Prague writers, mostly members of the German or Jewish community, with which we will show Prague in its pluralism as a literary mosaic, as a space of societal marginalization, where the city grows as the architecture of the author’s inner space. Such a reading will enable a broader analysis of social interactions of individuals, as well as different cultural communities in the city environment of that time, while at the same time bring from the past knowledge of human existence as the structure of the city which is organically built into our present.


In the discussion, we will be leaning on the work of Neil Leach, The Hieroglyphics of Space: Reading and Experiencing the Modern Metropolis, where the author marks the city as either a reading or an experience. Reading is explained as a broad semiological model, making use of the structuralist paradigm – establishing the world through the concepts of signs, composed from signifiers and signifieds. Signifiers are shapes, so in the case of the city, architectural elements, whereas signifieds relate to their contents and meaning. A metropolis can, as such, be read as a system of signs in which we decrypt its shapes and understand their meaning. Post-structuralists took this basic model of subscribing meaning further, by problematizing the simplified relationship between the signifier and the signified, as well as the adaptability and broad specter of meaning subscription that a signifier can get – meaning that it is no longer fixed, but is at all times fluid. On the other hand, when talking about experiencing the city, we no longer speak of a semiotic, but rather a phenomenological model. It focuses on the experience of our whole interaction with the world, whereas the reading model, supposing the world as a system of signs, only focuses on the visual perception, and neglects the whole ontological potential of the human experience. Such a model of decryption of the city shows itself as more holistic, and it also supposes a moment of revelation, in which deeper mechanisms of the functioning of urban society are revealed. When reading Prague as a literary topos, we will make use of both modes of decryption of the city, as they often overlap, and we can hardly talk about the issues of reading, whilst completely evading the discourse of phenomenology. If we would only read a city, so to say experience it only through a chain of signifiers, we would strip our experience by eliminating other possible sensory receptors. Reading and experiencing of the city must be combined, when trying to decipher its spatial images, so it can be taken in and interpreted as a whole. The metropolis as a place that can be explained with different models of interpretation cannot be understood in only one way. We must keep in mind that there are always several interpretations. We don’t only ask ourselves about how we see the metropolis, but also who sees it. It opens itself as a city that combines multiple cities (interpretations of the city), and therefore cannot be synonymous with only one valid interpretation. To know a city, we must experience it, as well as read it.

Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri
The little match seller

Every match a dream

Every dream a flight!

One flight after another

On the filthy and shear snow

That scratches the child with asphalt

Death makes its way

And turns her body to marble.


Swallow her silent and alert mouth

Grab her round bare little hands

Snatch her lifetime interrupted

By a macramè frill

Grab her knees dirtied on all fours

Grasp her fury without aims

Seize! Her vices as impulsive butterflies

Grasp! Her oxymoron that prolongs time

Seize! The freezing cold of her motionless tender feet

Grasp! Her waiting at the pulsing of the body

Seize! Her implacable disposition to die

Grasp! The scream of her dreaming heart

Seize! Her frozen match on the ground

Grasp! Her last fleeting moan!


Light  the burn out match

Brighten the enchantment of her dream

Clean the filthy snow

Melt that marble body

Soothe the asphalt scratches

Release her breath

Raise her body from the floor

Allow her the last flight.

As stated by Roland Barthes, a city can be semiologically analyzed as language, however a language we must simultaneously also live or experience. “The city is a discourse, and this discourse is truly a language: the city speaks to its inhabitants; we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it […] In this attempt at a semantic approach to [decipher] the city, we should try to understand the play of signs, to understand that any city is a structure, but that we must never try, and we must never want to fill in this structure.” (Barthes, Semiology and the Urban 171-2). To solve the complications arising with trying to understand the city, Barthes proposes a multitude of readings: “If we undertake a semiology of the city, the best approach, in my opinion, as indeed for every semantic venture, will be a certain ingenuity on the part of the reader. Many of us should try to decipher the city we are in, starting if necessary with a personal rapport. Dominating all these readings by different categories of readers […] we would thus work out the language of the city. This is why I would say that it is not so important to multiply the surveys or the functional studies of the city, but to multiply the readings of the city, of which unfortunately only the writers have so far given us some examples.” (Barthes, Semiology and the Urban 171) To this, we can also add that it’s not only important to try to acquire as many different readings of the city, for the understandings of the relations between signs, but also many different experiences. The metropolis – as a concept realized only in its cultural manifestations – can’t only be read, but also experienced in various ways and, as such, also builds itself in different manifestations of itself. When we combine the city as a web of signs with experiencing it, we can talk about a readable metropolis as a system of signs, or rather mental map(s), that come(s) about through interactions in the system of signs, and can be read in a multitude of ways. With multiple readings, we can then get a broader insight into the city which, through literary pieces, caught inside literature, organically grows in outer and contemporary space, and offers a wider picture of the cultural space. In that way, we have set out to show Prague as a literary topos, especially through two lesser-known authors of the German minority from the beginning of the 20th century—that is to say two of the authors who have, exactly because of their cultural affiliations and language in their personal experience of the city in which they have written their works, often times felt excluded. Prague, as represented in the selected works, is often shown through the inner worlds of its inhabitants, as the captive of the cultural crossroads which, in these experiences, do not lead to enriched lives, but rather to isolation, decay and the darker sides of human existence.


Prague as a Literary Topos of Prague German Minority Authors at the Beginning of the 20th Century

Old town square in Prague.
Prague show itself as an extremely complex city acting, at the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century, as a meeting point of three different cultures; German, Czech and Jew, in a sense all isolated from each other – the Germans, as a minority in a predominantly Czech space, Czechs, as a politically-oppressed nation in the multinational structure of Austro-Hungary, and Jews, as the ethnic community that represents the model of an outcast. The Czech cultural issue, to distinguish it from the dominant German and native Czech culture, that shapes in the literature of this space two literary cultures, and can be seen in the selected works, and is as old as the Middle Ages. If Czech literature could flourish and evolve in its native language, and be even printed until the 16th century, the political and military defeat at White Mountain (Bílá hora), where the Holy Roman Empire conquered their lands, pushed national literature and language into a minority position, dominated by the German language. A restauration of the Czech language and its national literature had to wait, all the while, until the late 18th century, however, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, due to changes in the socio-political situation, the bond between the German and Czech culture waned, as the Czechs became enveloped in a nation-awakening optimism (which, in time, resulted in the Czech nation), so most of the German minority moved to larger German cities, as Prague was seen more as a province than a metropolis.

Such a spirit of that age, shown in the differentiation of inhabitants of the city as members of different cultures, and the changed socio-political situation is that much more visible, especially with the representatives of German literature in Prague. Within their literature, one can find the issue of the “Other,” human dejectedness, lostness, as well as showing Prague through the fantastic and thematical gap between dreams and reality, as a city of opposites, a space of immorality and human decay. The issue of combining and differentiating multiple nationalities, as well as the question of human destiny that is combined with it, can best be seen in authors from the beginning of the 20th century, those who mentally belong to the movement of decadence, even though in some works later modernist tendencies, such as those of expressionism, can be seen. As a unifying aspect of those authors, we can put forward the magazine Modern Revue (Moderní Revue) that brought together many German authors of the decadent and, later, the modernist movement. The magazine was founded in 1894 by Arnošt Procházka and Jiři Karásek, the latter influencing a whole generation of authors of the German minority gathered around the magazine. Karásek, of Czech nationality, wrote the novella Gothic Soul (1900), which depicts Prague as a dead city, seen in the feeling of dejectedness of the protagonist, as well as his questions about faith and the pointlessness of living, shown through hallucinations, triggered by the spaces of Prague. Besides that, the author also problematizes identity and nation, with special focus on the position of the German and Czech poles in his contemporary society. In the circle around the magazine, we also count Paul Leppin, an author who established himself with the novel Daniel Jesus (1905), shunned by the critics as a literary scandal (which I examined in a previous review for this magazine). The author continued using the erotic themes and motifs of the French decadence tradition, as well as the aesthetic of the ugly, in his novel, Severin’s Journey to Darkness (1914). In the novel that represents the mirror of the protagonist, Severin, we see Prague through his journeys into various quarters, and following his inner decay, as a rising darkness, fatigue and foulness. Readers face the dichotomy between the reality and human ideals where, as a central theme, we can see the search for sense through the Other and love. However, the protagonist, referencing Nietzsche’s ideas, in the search for the Other within the field of erotica, leaves behind him, through forces known from Freud’s psychoanalysis, only havoc, shown in the structure of the city.


He walked past the walls of the large gardens that enclosed the hospitals and institutes. He was struck by the smell of decaying leaves and damp earth. […] Severin stood in the shadows of the balconies and wondered why his heart was pounding. Was it because of this city, with its dark facades, the silence over its large squares, its decayed passion?” (Leppin 6, 1992)


Through a sadistic love relationship that offers false salvation to the protagonist with the femme fatale at the end of the novel, the author finalizes his character’s submersion to darkness or human decay. That can also be seen in Leppin’s posthumously-published Blaugast (1939), also taking place in Prague (Prague as a dark portrait of the human soul also appears in Leppin’s collection of short stories, Others’ Paradise (1922) where, through eight different stories, the author shows the dark vision of humankind through his protagonists), in which the author even furthers the obsessive sexuality and human degradation. As in Severin, the protagonist is an office clerk who follows his sexual desires to destruction. On his way there, he gets together with an evil prostitute, Wanda, who humiliates and robs him, putting him to such a material shortage he has to leave his apartment to live on the streets. Similarly to Severin, he seeks salvation in the city, which turned nonchalant and decadent. The protagonist’s destiny is revealed in a retrospective narrative, which highlights dream-like flashes of events from his past. Prague is shown as a world of prostitutes, syphilis and a city of demonic energy that brings the character to the point where all that is left of him is an empty shell of his body. Even though the novel concludes with a motif that can represent the platonic idea of soulmates – Leppin, at the end of the novel, introduces the prostitute with the “proverbial heart of gold,” Johanna, showing the duality of human nature (good – evil), who takes the fallen protagonist into her care – in this motif, we can see the dubious moral values of that society. Leppin’s work which, in its critique of bourgeois society, already comes close to Czech expressionism, also influenced Gustav Meyrink who, during his stay in Prague, published the novel, Golem (1914). The devastating effect of the city on the psyche of the human character is present in both works, as with both Leppin and Meyrink, the protagonist lives in Prague, set as the city that combines both elements of reality, as well as the dream and supernatural worlds. Meyrink, in his novel, based on the legend of the Prague golem, combines the fantastic and the occult on the streets of the city. The author who, in his novel, put the horror of the human soul in front of that which metaphysically reaches over him, was at last driven out of the city by the demonic energy of the Prague underworld. Showing the underworld spaces, hidden from public, was also undertaken by Egon Erwin Kisch, who primarily worked as a reporter for the German newspaper, Bohemia, however, through his work he also acquired lots of material for a literary construction of Prague. Among his best-known are also his first works, From Prague Streets and Nights, published 1912, and The Pimp. The latter, published 1914, is Kisch’s only novel, and in it he uses the motif of a steamboat crash on the Vltava River to show social and societal outcasts from the Prague’s island, Kampa – prostitutes, beggars and vagabonds – extremely naturalistically, while also offering a challenging picture of the Prague underground. The energy of the underground can be seen even more explicitly with the third selected author, Hermann Ungar, and his novel, The Maimed (1923), described by Thomas Mann as sexual hell, full of filth, crime and melancholy. The protagonist of the novel is, as in Leppin’s works, an office clerk, seduced into a submissive relationship by a widow. In this relationship he must, together with her sexual needs, also face the slow physical and mental decay of a dear friend, who suffers the effects of an undiagnosed disease. Even though the novel is not autobiographical, Ungar still drew heavily from his own experiences whilst living in Prague, where he, unlike other authors, doesn’t use the occult, but rather shows Prague in a more ordinary light. In his novel, which can, towards the end, be almost read as a detective story, he focuses more on details like fashion, office design and everyday life in the city. Prague is shown more realistically, where we must add that both authors, Leppin and Ungar, are joined by characteristics of both the decadent and expressionist movements. Those can be seen in the shaping of protagonists, taking on roles of office clerks, as well as the theme of the literary topos of Prague, as a city of different, often inter-destructive moral, ethnic, lingual and societal structures, which drive the characters to destruction.

The Klementinum (National Library of Czech Republic)
The listed authors of the German minority can be, when looking at Prague through this mosaic of the lost, degraded and ostracized stories of its inhabitants, also brought closer to the well-known literature of Kafka. Even Franz Kafka, who is not included in our analysis, due to his recognition, in his works includes a space that brings forth a claustrophobic feeling, just as Prague as a literary topos does in the aforementioned works, and he even metaphorically alludes to the city in some of his works – The Castle, The Penalty Colony, The Burrow and others. All the aforementioned authors speak from a position of minority and, as such, the space of their words takes on new dimensions. Their stories are often built from dark internal mental structures of the protagonists, filled out by the structure of Prague where, through these stories, they appear as part of a marginalized community. The common points are captivity in the city architecture, which excludes a synchronized exchange between an individual and society, as well as uncovering the dark period of social stratification, searching for sense, and degradation, which, by themselves, aren’t themes specific only to the German minority living in Prague in the first decades of the 20th century. However, it is in the case of Kafka, a Prague Jew who wrote in German, or rather a Prague German dialect, that we can get a broader picture of the cultural situation in Prague at the time, divided among three cultural groups; the German, the Slavic and the Jewish. In that sense, we can show Prague as a city of minority literature, by leaning also on Deleuze and Guattari, as well as show the selected authors as a voice of the marginalized community, which overtakes the language to reach its intentions and, by doing so, emphasizes the difference between the community and the individual. For this, we can trace all three distinguishing elements set by Deleuze and Guattari for minority literature: “Minority literature is not literature written in the small language, but literature created by the minority in the bigger language.” (24) Besides that, minority literature is also strongly characterized by politics, as for its “limited space, every individual matter instantly becomes directly connected to politics. An individual matter, therefore, becomes that much more urgent, indispensable, magnified under the microscope, insofar as another different story takes place inside it.” (25)

Hand-in-hand with the political nature also comes the collective value of minority literature. The individual, who speaks through a collective voice, is contaminated by the political. However, minority literature “despite its skepticism, actively shapes the sense for reciprocity” (26) between the members of a collective. Together with this, also important for minority literature is that it is constructed from the periphery. Because of the de-territorialization of the “fragile community” from the center of the mainstream culture, it is possible that it expresses another possible community and, as such, establishes means for achieving other consciousness. Because of its marginal position and the de-territorialization of the minority community, also the spatial perception in the literary works of minority authors de-territorializes when remapping spaces. When a marginal work shows a space, it changes the language code and often imposes on it its position. That is why the spaces of Prague, in the texts of the discussed authors, often exhibit a suffocating atmosphere. The transformation of remapped spaces doesn’t only show itself in motifs and themes, but even on the level of language. Deleuze and Guattari claim that language, in minority literature, becomes transfigured, loses its representational value, as it “comes to reality through a non-marked, non-representational line, in which words and things become intensities that reverberate sound” (34). To get to such a division of languages, the author has to take the position of a stranger in his native language as he writes, distance himself and use his own language, synthesized on the basis of conversational language, with mixtures of the other languages of his (Prague) space, which can be found in all the discussed authors. In this way, the works that deal with Prague as a literary topos, or at least share the common feelings of constrains, that the city invokes in its minority literature, together with other parts of that literature, also act as a voice of the collective, a voice announcing destiny and the politics of a certain cultural circle, with which they not only add connotations of constraints and the captured-ness to Prague spaces, but with de-territorialization and canceling of the representational function of language, also map it over to their own, internal spaces.

Aljaž Koprivnikar

, a PhD student at Charles University in Prague, poet and literary critic, was born in Slovenia. At the moment, he lives halfway between Prague and Ljubljana, which are often accompanied by a third city, Berlin – in those cities he is sometimes playing a role as a literary organizer and guest editor for literary magazines.