Magic Prague

by Eric Byrd

RIPELLINO-AM_praga1Angelo Maria Ripellino (1923 – 1978) was a poet, Slavicist, translator of the great Russian Symbolists and Silver Agers (Bely's Petersburg into Italian, a transmutation as arduous and heroic as any of Ulysses, from what I've heard Nabokov say), and, most memorably, a servant of Czech letters whose devotion extended, in one instance, to the patient chaperoning of Věra Linhartová in her cognac-confused dipsomaniacal descent on Rome. Shortly after the Second War, Ripellino went to study in Prague, married a Czech woman, and lived in Prague for some years. He became a student of the city's hauntings and urban demonology, its “lugubrious aura of decay” and “smirk of eternal disillusionment.” Denied visas after the Soviet invasion in 1968, he joined the émigrés in a sympathetic semi-exile. Shut out of Prague, “perhaps forever,” Ripellino caught himself “wondering whether Prague exists or if she is an imaginary land,” and under an exilic gloom compounded of ill-health and nostalgia, “despair and second thoughts,” he composed – gathered – dreamt – Magic Prague (1973). Mournful anatomy, elegiac bricolage, rarefied and classless as the best books are; a civic enchantment (as St. Petersburg and Dublin had been enchanted), an ark of motifs, an “itinerary of the wondrous”:

How then can I write an exhaustive, well-ordered treatise like a detached and haughty scholar, suppressing my uneasiness, my restlessness with a rigor mortis of methodology and the fruitless discussions of disheartened formalists? No, I will weave a capricious book, an agglomeration of wonders, anecdotes, eccentric acts, brief intermezzos and mad encores, and I will be gratified if, in contrast to so much of the printed flotsam and jetsam surrounding us, it is not dominated by boredom…I will fill these pages with scraps of pictures and daguerreotypes, old etchings, prints purloined from the bottoms of chests, réclames, illustrations out of old periodicals, horoscopes, passages from books on alchemy and travel books printed in Gothic script, undated ghost stories, album leaves and keys to dreams: curios of a vanished culture.

That Magic Prague is consistently passionate, and never “dominated by boredom,” is remarkable when one considers that most of the book is devoted not to Kafka or Hašek or Apollinaire – subjects of inherent interest – but to a vast corpus of forgotten junk, an unread library of “mawkish novelettes” that deploy “all the lachrymose resources of the nineteenth century,” all the “hackneyed devices and trite horrors of late Romanticism.” Some titles: Spawn of Satan, The Crucified Woman, The Cremator. Ripellino's readings of “Prague horror-tale kitsch” are fun to read, and profound. He was obsessed with the mutation of motifs, the process by which Prague's traumatic and macabre history, like that of St. Petersburg, gave rise to a demonic mythos: the golem legends, rabbinic esoterica, alchemist cabals, fabled dungeon languishers and eerily ecstatic religious statuary; the brooding, self-sequestered princes; the closed caste of intermarried executioners; the “monsters and infernalia,” storied massacres and famous ghosts that thrilled and nourished the Gothic romancers of middle Europe, as well as their twentieth century progeny, Decadents pledged to infamy, Surrealist students of obscenity, a duo of Dadaist clowns.

The Romantic Agony is just one thematic cluster, one path through Magic Prague, but the morbidity of the nineteenth century occasions, I think, Ripellino's greatest insights into the ways memory emerges from history, culture from circumstance, mythos from trauma, writing from life. In a representative passage, Ripellino examines the literary figuration of the Baroque churches and statuary propagandistically imposed on Prague by the forces of Catholic reaction after the Thirty Years' War:

Lvovic ze Karásek transformed every church into a melancholy Panoptikum, dwelling on the decay of the altar flowers, the languor of the statues outlined by garments of glossy creased silk, the infirm penumbra of the sanctuaries and the White Mountain dirges. When the Decadents used churches to exalt the corruption of the flesh, the ecstasy of martyrdom and the rapture of sainthood, they were simply indulging in a predilection for the Baroque, a Prague constant…Karásek painted the mystery of Prague's sanctuaries in even bleaker colors in the novel Gothická duše (A Gothic Soul). The hero, the last scion of a noble line with a long history of insanity, is a Rudolf-like hypochondriac. Fearing he too will go mad (he does in the end—and dies in a mental hospital), he retreats into solitude, his greatest delights the smell of incense and wilted flowers, the sight of “glass coffins containing embalmed cadavers atop the altars.” He also feels drawn to the Barnabites or Discalced Carmelites, who live like moles in the darkness of mystical reclusion. Their lugubrious cloister near the Castle was shrouded in wildly imaginative legends. People said that before taking vows each novice had to remove the ring from the shriveled hand of the terrifying mummy of the Blessed Electa at midnight. During mass the faithful heard the chanting voices of those buried alive coming from the bowels of the church and saw the flickering of troubled eyes behind its rusty gratings. “The altars rose like shapeless catafalques.” “Only the main altar, covered with candles beneath the image of St. Theresa, fervent in her devotion to Christ, shone like a great pyramid of liquefied gold, glowed like an immense castrum doloris.” The church deranges the Gothic Soul; it drives him mad. The by-then jejune motif of the haunted basilica acquires new vigor in the myth of a lifeless, funereal Prague.