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Prague Palimpsest

Writing, Memory, and the City

A city of immense literary mystique, Prague has inspired writers across the centuries with its beauty, cosmopolitanism, and tragic history. Envisioning the ancient city in central Europe as a multilayered text, or palimpsest, that has been constantly revised and rewritten—from the medieval and Renaissance chroniclers who legitimized the city’s foundational origins to the modernists of the early twentieth century who established its reputation as the new capital of the avant-garde—Alfred Thomas argues that Prague has become a paradoxical site of inscription and effacement, of memory and forgetting, a utopian link to the prewar and pre-Holocaust European past and a dystopia of totalitarian amnesia.

Considering a wide range of writers, including the city’s most famous son, Franz Kafka, Prague Palimpsest reassesses the work of poets and novelists such as Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Gustav Meyrink, Jan Neruda, Vítĕzslav Nezval, and Rainer Maria Rilke and engages with other famous authors who “wrote” Prague, including Guillaume Apollinaire, Ingeborg Bachmann, Albert Camus, Paul Celan, and W. G. Sebald. The result is a comparative, interdisciplinary study that helps to explain why Prague—more than any other major European city—has haunted the cultural and political imagination of the West.

Read an excerpt.

200 pages | 6 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2010

History: European History

Literature and Literary Criticism: Germanic Languages, Romance Languages, Slavic Languages


Prague Palimpsest explores the complex interplay between history and imagination in representations of what the poet Vitĕzslav Nezval called the ‘city-book.’ . . . The five main chapters supply fresh discussion of particular traditions: myths of the city’s origin; the Golem and Prague’s Jewish heritage; Kafka and his legacy; the relationship between Prague and Paris in the interwar avant-garde; and the writings of Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, and W. G. Sebald. Each supplies a rich store of examples, and shows a different Prague: nationalist capital, Gothic Praga magica, or city of surrealist flânerie.

Times Literary Supplement

Prague Palimpest should find an eager audience among scholars curious as to how writers have written in or around the city. Brief but elegant summaries of the works under discussion are followed by inspired interpretations.”

Slavic Review

Table of Contents


A Note on Translations, Quotations, and Names


1. Women on the Verge of History: Libuše and the Foundational Legend of Prague

2. Deviant Monsters and Wayward Women: The Prague Ghetto and the Legend of the Golem

3. The Castle Hill was Hidden: Franz Kafka and Czech Literature

4. A Stranger in Prague: Writing and the Politics of Identity in Apollinaire, Nezval, and Camus

5. Sailing to Bohemia: Utopia, Memory, and the Holocaust in Postwar Austrian and German Literature

Epilogue: Postmodern Prague?

Appendix: Translations of Poems about Prague



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