In January, Norfolk writer and novelist Sarah Perry travelled to Prague, City of Literature, to begin her writing residency. As the end of this exciting experience draws near, she reflects on her early expectations and the reality of what she has gained – has she achieved all that she’d wanted to?
I’m nearing the end of a stint in Prague as a UNESCO Writer-in-Residence, representing (as ever!) Norwich. Both Prague and Norwich are UNESCO Cities of Literature, a status conferred on 20 cities worldwide in recognition of their active and richly diverse literary scenes. From my bed I look into the windows of a baroque opera house that wears a golden crown; now and then swans fly upriver through the snow. I’ve been eating date syrup on pumpernickel bread.
Before I left, I promised myself, my husband and my cat that I’d use these two months wisely. I would (I said) return a better and a wiser woman, with a good grasp of conversational Czech and 20,000 words of a third novel.
Reader, you’ll not be surprised to hear I achieved little of this. But much of what I’ve gained I could not possibly have predicted, and I’ve learned a good many things I’d no idea I didn’t know.
I had no idea, for instance, of the extraordinary complexity of Czech history – of how its borders have shifted and changed like a cloud-bank in a high wind. No sooner did I grasp something (it was lost to Germany in the Munich Treaty) I’d immediately be wrong-footed (they call it, here, the Munich Betrayal). If I researched an event I’d find I’d only gone two inches into a rabbit-hole several fathoms deep and with many blind corners. Ask me, and I’ll tell you what little I know about Forest Glass, about the Moldavite gemstones found in the river Vltava, about the student who burned himself alive, about Master Jan Huss and the devils on his paper hat.
I visited Terezin, a ghetto for Czech Jews and a stopping-place on the way to the death-camps – but learned that here, too, German-speaking Czechs were detained at the end of the war. I discovered that the past here is not long-buried: I stayed in a flat where my friend prepared breakfast in a 1983 Communist kitchen, which was one of precisely two styles available to the citizens.
I’ve discovered what it is to live in a city that prizes its cultural heritage – even more, though I blush to say it, than Norwich. Take breakfast (a basket of bread, eggs with chives, pastries, hot chocolate and coffee) in one of the nearby cafes and you’ll be supplied, also, with a notepad and pencil. In my local café the walls are emblazoned with excerpts from Czech literature; it was here I met a retired Jewish scholar of linguistics and his Muslim friend, a professor of sociology in Arizona (the following day the professor emailed to let me know he’d bought my novel, and looked forward to my second). I’ve seen seven operas, most of them Czech: here, opera is taken seriously, but is not the preserve of the wealthy and is frequently attended by children in their party clothes.
My Czech constitutes a paltry handful of phrases, though by some fluke I pronounce them, I’m told, with so convincing a native accent I’m often met with streams of Slavic conversation I can never hope to understand. I have made friends with two Sarah’s: an owl, and a musician. On the great Charles Bridge I’ve been warmly welcomed by a homeless man and his dog, Tiger: it was from them I learned how to say, “How are you?” I have discovered that jackdaws have eyes like blue shards of glass, and that if you keep your pockets supplied with biscuits they’ll come to know you by sight.
I am the proud owner of a membership card to the Prague Municipal Library, where I sit always at desk 209, beneath a vaulted plaster ceiling from which plaster cherubs daily struggle to escape. I do not have 20,000 words of a new book; but the novel in my head now is not the one hazily forming there in the security queue at Stansted – because I am not, quite, that writer.
Sarah Perry was born in Essex. She gained a PhD in Creative Writing & the Gothic from Royal Holloway in 2012, having been supervised by Andrew Motion. A winner of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize & a Royal Holloway doctoral studentship, she was Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone’s Library, January 2013. She is currently the UNESCO City of Literature Writer-in-Residence in Prague.
She has written for a number of publications including the Guardian, the Independent, Slightly Foxed and the Spectator. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and RTE 1.
Her debut novel After Me Comes the Flood won the East Anglian Book of the Year award 2014, and was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2014 and the Folio Prize 2015. Her second novel, The Essex Serpent, will be published in June 2016.