From Karel Čapek to Graham Greene: a Scottish poet’s memories of Prague

Edwin Muir

In a recent edition of Czech Books we looked at the Prague-inspired poetry of the Scottish poet, Edwin Muir. But it was not just in his poetry that Muir evoked the atmosphere of the Czech capital. David Vaughan finds out more in this week’s Czech Books.

Edwin Muir
Today Edwin Muir is one of Scotland’s best loved poets and along with his wife Willa he is also remembered as the translator who first introduced Franz Kafka to English readers. The couple lived in Prague twice, and on both occasions at moments of huge change. When they first came in 1921, Czechoslovakia had just emerged from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and they were to live in Prague again twenty five years later, when Muir was invited to head the British Council in Prague just after World War II. They stayed for three years, long enough to witness the coup d’état that brought the communists to power in 1948. Muir wrote vividly about both these stays in his autobiography, which was published in 1954. His memories offer an outsider’s eye-witness account of life in the city.

Here are a few of Edwin Muir’s impressions of Prague cultural life in 1921. The euphoria he writes about reminds me very much of the atmosphere just after the Velvet Revolution seventy years later:

Actually the life of Prague had a somewhat improvised air; this was inevitable, since it was new and not yet properly organized; but the very improvisation gave it extraordinary vigour. The theatre was particularly lively and progressive; less than two years after the War Prague had probably the most brilliant producers and actors in Central Europe. The Vinohrady Theatre, one of whose producers was Karel Čapek, performed during the winter we were in Prague plays by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Racine, Goldoni, Alfieri, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov, in addition to plays by Czech dramatists, such as Capek himself. The standard of production was very high. In addition to the Vinohrady there was a National Theatre, which performed both plays and operas, a German theatre, and a small experimental theatre. There were numerous cabarets, with first-rate Rabelaisian comedians. There were orchestral and chamber concerts every night. At all these places you found an admirable mixture of classes, old peasant women with shawls, sitting side by side with fashionably dressed girls. There was a feeling of nationality and a feeling of equality, and the two things went together.

Muir goes on to describe the friendship that he and Willa built up with Karel Čapek, then just over thirty and already immensely popular. “Čapek seemed to be known and loved by everyone,” Muir wrote, going on to describe how people would stop Čapek to talk to him in the street, greeting him as “Karlíček” or “Charley”. And it was in the informal and relaxed atmosphere of Prague, that Edwin Muir first discovered himself as a poet.

It was in a foreign town where everything – the people, the houses, the very shop-signs – was different; I began to learn the visible world all over again… In Prague everything seemed to be asking me to notice it; I spent weeks in an orgy of looking; I saw everywhere the visible world straight before my eyes. At this time too I realized that my fears were gone; there was nothing to spoil my enjoyment of this new world which had been created simply by travelling a few hundred miles and crossing two frontiers…. I was thirty-five then, and passing through a stage, which, if things had been different, I should have reached ten years earlier. I have felt that handicap every since. I began to write poetry at thirty-five instead of at twenty-five or twenty.

The Prague that Edwin and Willa Muir returned to a quarter of a century later was very different, although physically little had changed. It was 1946 and the city was recovering from six years of Nazi occupation. Many of the people the Muirs had known, including Karel Čapek himself, had not survived.

The crowds in the streets looked undernourished and apprehensive; here and there I saw a man jerking his head over his shoulder, as if the memory of being watched and followed still lingered in his nerves. The Czechs as I had known them were a noisy, somewhat unruly people; but now they hardly spoke.

Zdeněk Stříbrný, photo: David Vaughan
But what Muir did find was a strongly Anglophile population. A surprisingly large number of people could speak English, something that he attributed to their having secretly followed the BBC’s English lessons on the radio during the occupation. Muir quickly set about getting the British Council up and running, and he started teaching a course on English literature at Charles University. One of his students was Zdeněk Stříbrný, who later went on to become one of the Czech Republic’s most erudite Shakespeare scholars. Now in his late 80s, he remembers the distinguished guest lecturer from Scotland:

“I’m afraid I’m one of the few people still alive that can remember Edwin Muir as a student. We very much appreciated his lectures, although he was a rather shy lecturer. His two assistants helped us by reading excerpts from Shakespeare and Milton, and that was great fun for us.”

This was just a few months after the end of the war.

“It was very exciting to attend lectures and seminars and readings on English literature right after World War II. I remember that students really appreciated that they could again read English literature freely.”

And this is how Muir remembers his students in his autobiography.

They were excellent students, responsive and eager, and their incessant industry generated a sort of intoxication which failed them only at the rare times when they could find nothing more to do. In the second winter they began to give parties and organize dances, and they flung themselves into these as if they were working at some task. They were like pleasure-seekers who cannot endure a hiatus or silence in time, but must find something to fill it, no matter what. They filled it with literature, history, science and philosophy.

But these few years of freedom were themselves to prove to be nothing more than a hiatus, brought to an end by the Stalinist coup, led by Klement Gottwald, in 1948. Zdeněk Stříbrný recalls:

“The feeling was that this will last for a very long time, whereas it ended so abruptly in February 1948. It was a shock for many students.”

The atmosphere of that moment, as recalled by Edwin Muir in his autobiography could hardly be more different from the euphoria that we see in the grainy communist newsreels from the time.

I found a young Czech girl crying in a corner and saying over and over, ‘What is to become of us?’ During the war she and her mother had escaped from a train which was taking them to Auschwitz and the gas chambers, and had made their way to Prague through bye-roads to arrive a day or two after the Germans had been driven out. I tried to comfort her by saying that nothing would happen.

By coincidence, on the very day of the coup, Muir was being visited by the novelist, Graham Greene, who had been staying in nearby Vienna – this was just the time when Greene was writing his famous short novel set in Vienna, “The Third Man”.

That evening I listened to the radio. A great outdoor demonstration was being held in the main square; and Gottwald was the chief speaker. Graham Greene had written a few days before from Vienna to say that he intended to stop in Prague on his way to England. He was in our flat that evening; a Communist member of the Czech P.E.N. Club appeared along with him; the Party was already keeping an eye on distinguished foreign visitors. We listened to the rehearsed, timed, threefold shouts that greeted Gottwald, and I could not help saying to the young Czech, ‘Why, it’s ‘Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!’ all over again.’ He threw a startled glance at Greene, wondering, perhaps, how he took it, and protested, ‘Not at all! Not at all!’ These shouts, which sounded like the brute response of a huge mass machine and had no resemblance to the spontaneous cheers of a crowd, brought back mean and bullying memories.”

Edwin Muir resumed his lectures at the university.

But all was changed; my class, once eager to discuss everything, was silent. Two Communists were in attendance, taking down what I said. I could speak to my class, but I no longer had any contact with it… … I could still mention liberty; but the Czech professors were in a more difficult position. They too had their Communist observers, and a single imprudent sentence might bring their dismissal and the withdrawal of their livelihood.

Zdeněk Stříbrný still has a copy of a letter of that Muir wrote not long afterwards.

“There is a letter sent by Edwin Muir to the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, Professor Kozák, in which he writes: “I much regret to tell you that some time this year I shall be leaving Czechoslovakia and will not be able to continue my lectures on English literature at the Charles University next autumn.”

The official reason that Muir gave was his health.

“He could not speak about his political reasons, but it’s evident that the political reasons were the most important for his leaving.”

At last I felt I was not doing any good in Prague. When my students came to see me at the Institute or at our house, I could offer them what comfort I could think of, but I could not give them encouragement without the risk of getting them into trouble. It was a hopeless position, and when the Chairman of the [British] Council came out to Prague, I told him that I wished to be transferred to some other post. He promised to see what could be done.”

Edwin and Willa Muir left Prague in the summer of 1948, and they were never to return to the city. Muir’s 1956 poem, The Cloud, refers indirectly to the new order in Czechoslovakia, evoking it with an image of dry, arid dustiness. Here are a couple of lines from the poem:

A prisoner walking in a moving cloud
Made by himself for his own purposes;
And there he grew and was as if exalted
To more than man, yet not, not glorified:
A pillar of dust moving in dust; …

Edwin Muir died in England in 1959 and Willa Muir died in 1970, not long after publishing her own account of their years together.