Lenka Reinerová: a café with many tables

Lenka Reinerová, photo: Miro Švolík

Few writers are more closely identified with Prague than Lenka Reinerová, who died last month at the age of 92. Although in the course of an adventurous life she travelled the world, she loved above all to write about her home city, and with her death Prague has lost one of its most important literary witnesses. In Czech Books this week, we remember Lenka Reinerová and her literary legacy.

"I have a certain special feeling, when I walk through Prague and an Italian-blue sky illuminates not just the gilded crosses atop the church towers and the freshly restored stucco on the house facades, but also penetrates deeply into memory of what was - yesterday or long ago - into what is closed forever or remains open, into what you have done in your life, but also into what has been done to you."

Lenka Reinerová was the last in a long tradition of Prague writers who wrote in German. She was born in Prague in 1916 into a middle-class Jewish family. Her upbringing was bilingual, as she told me in an interview four years ago.

"My mother came from a West Bohemian town called Zatec - in German Saatz - and this town was maybe 80 maybe 90% German. So she spoke German and also Czech - Czech fluently but with mistakes. With my father, who came from Prague, it was the opposite. So I grew up with those two languages, but you know how it is - the main voice you hear in the family is the mother. So we were at home mostly talking German, and in those years, the late twenties and early thirties of the last century, it was not so very extraordinary in Prague. It was more or less normal."

In one of her many autobiographical stories, Lenka Reinerová evokes the world of her childhood.

"My first home was in Prague. I didn't choose it, I was just born into it: in the suburb of Karlín - Karolinenthal in German - in a very long suburban street bordering on the industrial districts of Libeň and Vysočany. We were a middle-class family, all those around us were too. But Libeň and Vysočany were home mostly to workers. When the grown-ups spoke of them, they would use the German word "Proletarier". I couldn't really imagine what they meant, but I found the word strangely attractive, I would try to sing it. For it rather reminded me of a word I did know - "Aria". My music-loving mother had already told me what that meant. She was rather more reserved when it came to the word "Proletarier". My father's explanation in Czech was far from satisfactory: 'These were men or women who worked,' he said curtly. But it didn't seem quite right - even the Czech word "proletář" didn't have quite the same quality as its German equivalent. I was bemused. Father and Mother also worked, and no-one used this peculiar label for them."

In the years before the war, Prague had a rich German-speaking literary life, further enriched by the thousands who had fled to the city from Nazi Germany. Lenka Reinerová came to know such important writers as Franz Kafka’s friend Max Brod and the famous “roving reporter”, Egon Erwin Kisch. As the German invasion loomed, she fled to France, then, during the war, to Morocco and Mexico, in the meantime meeting her husband, a Yugoslav doctor who had fought the fascists in Spain. Returning to Prague via Belgrade, she found that all her relatives had been murdered in the Holocaust.

After the war she worked for some time here at Radio Prague, but soon found herself on the wrong side of the Stalinist authorities. One of the bleakest periods in her life was a year she spent in prison, waiting for charges that were never brought. Later she was able to work as an editor, and then as a translator and interpreter, but none of her literary work was allowed to be published in Czechoslovakia until after the fall of communism. Since then many of her stories have been published in both German and Czech, and she was still writing with great energy almost up to the day she died.

"I'm very frequently asked how come I am optimistic in spite of all the things that happened to me, I mean, I was in prison during the war, I was in prison during the communist regime, I'm not a very healthy woman, I lost all my family, etc, etc, I think probably I have a positive attitude towards life, and this means also that I am able to take pleasure in very small things - I can also have pleasure from big things, but I am observing and looking at events and people, and I go with the tram somewhere in Prague, and I come home, and I am full of adventures. I saw many things and I liked things, or I found things funny, and I prefer to laugh than to weep."

Lucie Černohousová got to know Lenka Reinerová well in the last few years of her life.

Lucie Černohousová,  photo: David Vaughan
“Lenka Reinerová was a very strong or charismatic personality. She was strict to herself and, I would also say, to others [laughs], and resolute in certain points. But one very interesting point was that even though she was over 90 years old, she was still very actively interested in current affairs and would discuss current problems in politics etc.

“But she was also a very nice woman: small – tiny – but a lot of energy. If you saw her big dark eyes, even in her last months when she was in a wheel chair, there was a lot of energy and it was just wonderful to be next to her.”

About a year ago Lenka Reinerová had a fall. She broke her hip and she was not able to get around any more, as she had always been used to. This must have been very frustrating for her…

“It was frustrating, but her strength was also in that she found the motivation to go on and she also started to work on a new book. The problem was more that she couldn’t go out to people, and people were her motivation for the books and also I think gave her energy. When we were celebrating her 92nd birthday in the Goethe Institute in Prague we arrived 30 minutes earlier. So we walked in the park on the river in her wheel chair. And she was looking at the river and the children playing there. It was a very nice day. Suddenly she said to me, ‘Lucinka, would it be possible to organize something so that I could be among people again?’ So we started to plan a discussion and reading about Prague coffee houses, but it was a week before she died.”

Coffee houses and cafés are a recurring motif in her work. They acquire a kind of symbolic quality in her writings.

“I would say not only in her writings. It’s actually a very typical symbol of this German, Jewish, Czech culture at the beginning of the 20th century.

One of Lenka Reinerová’s best known books is Traumcafé einer Pragerin (Dream Café of a Prague Woman), which she spoke about when we met in 2004.

“It's about a café that exists only in my fantasy. The Czech title of the same book is ‘A Café over Prague’, which is a dream café, and probably because Prague is changing so much, which is a good thing at a time when everything is changing, I am missing some things here, a certain atmosphere, a certain personal contact which used to be. Anyway, for me it is something that I'm missing, and missing that, I constructed my own café, in which I put all kind of personalities, whom I met personally. And also there is another thing. It was somehow in my life that I was in contact with groups of people, who were mostly, let's say, half a generation older than me. So naturally, they aren't here any more, and I'm still here, and I'm missing this contact."

“Somewhere, in the veil-like, blue-green mist over the verdigris domes of Prague, there is a café with many tables, and from each one of them, you can look down over our town."

In her last years, Lenka Reinerová worked tirelessly to establish what has become known as the Prague Literary House, devoted to the German literary legacy of the Czech Lands. The organization has come to thrive, rebuilding broken bridges between Czechs and Germans, between past and present, and helping in practical ways to serve younger writers. Lucie Černohousová is its director.

“Every month we organize one or two literary events – authors’ readings or exhibitions. What I like very much is that we have been able to start a programme to support writers with scholarships and to make this tradition of meeting cultures and influencing each other, which was normal here in Prague at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. We send Czech authors abroad and foreign authors can stay here for a long time – something like writers in residence.”

The “Literary House” is so much tied up with the personality and charisma of Lenka Reinerová that it I should imagine it is going to be quite hard to keep going without this driving force behind you.

“Up to a certain point it will be very hard, but she will still stay, as the flagship of our house. We also have a very nice library and we will call it “The Library of Lenka Reinerová.”