Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Magic Prague

Magic PragueMagic Prague by Angelo Maria Ripellino
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's no doubt that Prague, the Prague that I imagine, anyway, has had a strong influence on my writing. I count Kafka, Meyrink, and Rilke, all of whom had differing strength of association with the ancient city, among my favorite writers. Twelve years ago, another writer friend of mine did a review of this book, Magic Prague, in which he praised the book to the point of hyperbole. I had looked for a used copy of this book for some time, but the book's price precluded me from buying a copy. Then, in a moment of lucidity, I thought to check the local library system (ours is very, very good, incidentally) and found the book available.

Boy, am I glad I didn't buy this book without having read it first! Granted, my expectations were high, given the effusive praise heaped on it by some people whose opinions I really value. Perhaps this, combined with the long time I have anticipated reading it, is why I feel so disappointed in it.

At least Ripellino acknowledges that the book is a mess:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a Baedeker, although many vdute of the city on the Vltava appear with it, clicking into place like the colour slides of a ViewMaster or a Guckkasten. I will not play the know-all companion who disgorges half-baked words like the pedant dottore in the commedia dell'arte.

This compendium of Prague-related obiter dicta is incoherent and confused, written in uncertainty and poor health, with despair and constant second thoughts, with the infinite regret of not knowing everything, of not embracing everything, because a city, even if only the setting for a fond flanerie, is a terrible, elusive, highly complex entity. This is why my narrative will lurch along like the old films they used to show at the Bio Ponrepo, Prague's first cinema, located in The Blue Pike santan. It will be flawed with breaks and jolts and gaps and attacks of heartache, like the music of Charlie Parker's alto sax. On the other hand, as Holan states, "Have you no contradictions? You have no possibilities."

I would like to say "thus begins" Ripellino's stupendous and stupefying work, but this quote is from Chapter 7! The preceding six chapters (thankfully, only 17 pages) is a running stream of consciousness narrative meant to show the reader just how smart and cool Ripellino is for having spent time in Prague with his academic friends. While I appreciate Ripellino's candor, I would have preferred the book open with his disclaimer rather than burying it behind an almost impossible-to-follow stew of pompous, self-indulgent reminisces.

Worse yet is Ripellino's lack of academic rigor, which he skillfully hides behind a literary sleight of hand by failing to document key suppositions. For example, in his flippant analysis of Capek's pilgrim, he claims not only that "The fact that the Capek brothers, inclined as they were to see a great mystery in every green plant, substitute nature for the city makes no substantial difference," but he goes on to ascertain that "This character (the pilgrim Tulak) is not merely a variant of the pilgrim; it belongs to the type of wanderer and "evil loner" patterned after the bosyak of Jack London and Maxim Gorky . . ."

Really? Proof please? At least a bibliographic reference, Mister Ripellino?

Nothing. No footnotes, no well-developed thesis, no justification.

This is the sort of thing that, frankly, pissed me off in graduate school - high-falutin' generalities couched in obtuse language with no support. Argh!

When Ripellino does actually propose something akin to a thesis, his scholarship is often sloppy, at best. For instance, this sentence makes me want to rip my hair out: "Although primarily a variation on the wayfarer figure so dear to the Romantics, the pilgrim wandering through the nocturnal landscapes of the Poet Karel Hynek Macha also manifests a Prague-like ambivalence and imperfection."

Prague-like? As if no other city can manifest ambivalence and imperfection. For that matter, what, outside of the Christian ideal of God, can not manifest ambivalence and imperfection? Playing loose and free with these words in regards to one's thesis is lazy, even neglectful. And we wonder why serious studies of the humanities are mocked by the uneducated. "Of course," those in the ivory tower will argue, "the uninitiated don't understand." Well, perhaps this is because the arguments presented are not understandable! Pile it higher and Deeper, indeed!

That's not to say that Magic Prague is without worth. Ripellino is at his best when he avoids unfounded supposition and sticks to verifiable fact, as in the excellent segment on the borderline mass insanity of the Rudolfine era, replete with sorcerers, political paranoids, and a dark pall that lingers over Prague's environs and people.

Even in his section on Rudolf, however, Ripellino engages in the exact chicanery, the "nonsense" of which he accuses the charlatans of Rudolf's age, by shamelessly imposing his embellishments on historical fact. Referring to Rudolf's bizarre collection of bric-a-brac, Ripellino states:

Yet the immobility, the immutability was only apparent. The dead objects were relentlessly sinister. They glowered at him from their cages like animals in ambush, and the ones he looked at too often took on his features, mirrored his hypochondria.

A change of climate does wonders for hypochondriacs: it fortifies the brain, cleanses the nerve fluid and rectifies the enzymes as well as the bodily fluids. Yet Rudolf is unable to escape the objects holding him captive. He returns to them at night in the dark glow of large candelabra. And behold, he turns into one of the men-objects of Bracelli's bizzarrie, whose bodies are made of sections of boxes for concealing goblets, gems and necklaces. The frog-like creak of the cabinets, the gleam of the crystal and amulets, the sanctimonious idiocy of the abinzoar, the fearful eyes of the portraits, the oily sheen of the fabrics, the whisper of the stones interest him far more than affairs of state. In that huaca storeroom, in that Traumland of fetishes he deciphers the mysteries of the universe as from cucurbits and horoscopes.

Where, oh where, is the academic integrity? A book with 42 pages of endnotes should show some academic integrity, should it not? The sinister deed here is not perpetrated by Rudolf's possesions, it is Ripellino's alone.

One bright spot, the section on Golems and other automata, though punctuated, as always, by Ripellino's seemingly insatiable ego, is fascinating. It convincingly connects Rabbi Loew's Golem to Capek's Robot. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that any serious student of the history of speculative fiction should read this section of the book. Were I to teach such a class, this would be required reading.

The rest of the book, while loaded with good information, leaves the reader empty. Maybe this is what Ripellino wanted, to have the reader feel as forlorn as the city he characterizes as ambivalent and imperfect, full of ghosts and charlatans.

As he puts it:

Prague was invaded by hordes of swindlers, quacks and ointment makers, all mumbo jumbo and magic mirrors. A sizable number of adventurers struck it rich, boasting expertise in making mercury fly and sulphur gleam, and then bolted - that is, if ill fortune did not first hurl them into the "Caucasion depths" of the White Tower or hang them in their gold sequins from a gilt noose. And just as the clown's grin can turn into an outcast's grimace, so the other side of the alchemist's vulgar mask is mourning and grief.

This paragraph reflects my thoughts on Ripellino's work, exactly. And thus, I pronounce sentence on the charlatan Rippelino: 2 stars, saved from 1 star only by the subject itself.

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