Coasts of Bohemia by Derek Sayer
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E mailto:richardgarza1@...The Coasts of Bohemia : A Czech History
by Derek Sayer, Our Price: $55.00 (paperback at $15.16)
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Hardcover - (April 1998) 408 pages
In The Winter's Tale, a play of 1610, William Shakespeare gave a coastline to Bohemia, a landlocked country. Three hundred and twenty-eight years later, his compatriot Neville Chamberlain would call a brewing war in Czechoslovakia, as the country was called, "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing." As Canadian scholar Sayer writes, knowingly, Bohemia eventually got its coastline, one "guarded by minefields, barbed-wire fences, and tall watchtowers with machine guns," while the West took little notice. The general ignorance of all things Czech would cost Europe dearly, for conflagrations from the Thirty Years War to World War II (and even sparks that might have ignited World War III) have begun in the tiny country known by many names---Czechoslovakia, Bohemia, Moravia. Canadian scholar Sayer writes of the Czechs' struggle over centuries to define themselves as a people and nation, and he does so in a vivid, detailed narrative that will enlighten readers who are unfamiliar with the critically important center of Eastern Europe. --Gregory McNamee
The title of this timely and delightful survey is taken from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale; it serves as a metaphor for the West's frequent ignorance and often tragic indifference to this landlocked nation in the center of Europe. Sayer, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, presents both a political and a cultural history of the Czech people and eloquently hammers home his central thesis: that, for the past millennium, the Czechs and their homeland have been at the crossroads, not the periphery, of many of the key events and movements of European history. From the Reformation to the nineteenth-century nationalist movements to the inferno of the two world wars, the Czech people have been prominent players, both as initiators and as victims. With the Czech Republic about to join NATO and the West, this superbly written book is a useful tool for historians, political scientists, and the well-informed general reader. Jay Freeman
From Kirkus Reviews , February 15, 1998
An unconventional and original look at Czech history, examining the ``artifacts of national culture,'' both large and small. Sayer, a Canadian sociologist (University of Alberta, Edmonton) married to a native Czech, aims to set the record straight. His intention is to free Bohemia from the conventional and uninformed image of it as a pastoralized, romanticized, and Orientalized place far from the realms of Europe proper. His key point is that the displacement of Bohemia from its proper context ``equally dislocates and deranges what we like to think of as our history.'' The result is a daring and exciting book, energetically and beautifully written, and complexly conceived. Sayer pursues two tasks simultaneously and carries them off gracefully. First, he presents a history of Bohemia and Moravia during the 19th and 20th centuries. Rather than viewing this history vis--vis events in Western Europe, he focuses on concepts and manifestations of national identity and manipulations of these phenomena. Thus he lays bare the fascinating links between different periods. In chapters with telling titles such as ``Rebirth,'' ``Mirrors of Identity,'' and ``Future Perfect,'' he weaves together his copiously documented tale of how leaders from every period drew on Bohemia's national heritage to further their aims. While one strand of Sayer's narrative constructs his argument about the centrality of the sense of a national community and past and its appropriation by the powers-that-be, the other meticulously documents the material and cultural expressions of these trends. Sayer centers much of his discussion on artistic trends, especially Czech modern art, but he includes in his panoramic view everything from postage stamps to monuments and street names. Here national culture and memory are dissected in their entirety, from the grand gestures of national heroes and artists to the minutiae of everyday life. A rare ``crossover'' book that will appeal to both scholars and general readers interested in Central Europe, modernism, and debates about national identity. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
Stan Persky, Vancouver Sun
"Sayer's penetrating and balanced discussion of Czech political and cultural history should spare us from ever again thinking of the central European place as 'a far away country'."
Andrew Lass, Mount Holyoke College
"This is a beautifully written cultural history of the Czech people. There is no comparable work available in English, and certainly not one of such sensitivity and breadth."
In ^IThe Winter's Tale^N, Shakespeare gave the landlocked country of Bohemia a coastline--a famous and, to Czechs, typical example of foreigners' ignorance of the Czech homeland. Although the lands that were once the Kingdom of Bohemia lie at the heart of Europe, Czechs are usually encountered only in the margins of other people's stories. In ^IThe Coasts of Bohemia^N, Derek Sayer reverses this perspective. He presents a comprehensive and long- needed history of the Czech people that is also a remarkably original history of modern Europe, told from its uneasy center. Sayer shows that Bohemia has long been a theater of European conflict. It has been a cradle of Protestantism and a bulwark of the Counter-Reformation; an Austrian imperial province and a proudly Slavic national state; the most easterly democracy in Europe; and a westerly outlier of the Soviet bloc. The complexities of its location have given rise to profound (and often profoundly comic) reflections on the modern condition. Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Ha^D^sek, Karel ^D^Capek and Milan Kundera are all products of its spirit of place. Sayer describes how Bohemia's ambiguities and contradictions are those of Europe itself, and he considers the ironies of viewing Europe, the West, and modernity from the vantage point of a country that has been too often ignored. ^IThe Coasts of Bohemia^N draws on an enormous array of literary, musical, visual, and documentary sources ranging from banknotes to statues, museum displays to school textbooks, funeral orations to operatic stage-sets, murals in subway stations to censors' indexes of banned books. It brings us into intimate contact with the ever changing details of daily life--the street names and facades of buildings, the heroes figured on postage stamps--that have created and recreated a sense of what it is to be Czech. Sayer's sustained concern with questions of identity, memory, and power place the book at the heart of contemporary intellectual debate. It is an extraordinary story, beautifully told.
The author, Derek Sayer , August 29, 1998
Review of The Coasts of Bohemia in The New Republic
There is a lengthy review of The Coasts of Bohemia by Tony Judt in The New Republic, September 7, 1998. Among other things he says:
"Derek Sayer's The Coasts of Bohemia is an ambitious, elegantly written, and sympathetic account of the art, the literature, and the politics of the Czech people. Concentrating on the history of the Czech Lands, but above all on Bohemia and especially Prague, from the National Awakening in the nineteenth century through the decades of Communist decline, Sayer saunters gracefully and with sure footing back and forth across centuries of Czech religion, mythology, and history, displaying enthusiasm and engagement but immune to the usual self-serving national illusions ... His book is a delight. It is based almost without exception on Czech-language sources ... But the uses to which Sayer puts these sources are, with one exception [Sayer's depiction of the Hungarian repression of Slovak schools and the Slovak language in the years before World War I], exemplary ... Sayer has a tireless eye and ear for detail and illustration, and the volume of local riches that he describes ... is remarkable ... Anyone interested in Czechoslovakia and the modern Czech Republic should read this book: it is sad that there is no equivalent for any other country in the region."
The author, Derek Sayer , July 11, 1998
Further reviews of The Coasts of Bohemia
From The Washington Times: ... a fine, often lyrical history of Czech culture ... The author's aim, stated in his impressive opening chapter "Bearings," is to write a history of this people and their "attempts to equip Bohemia with cultural coastlines to make up for those that nature forget." His scope is broad. Mr Sayer, who is a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton but writes without a trace of academic jargon, ranges from Jan Hus, the religious reformer executed in 1415 for heresy and who became a major symbol of Czech patriotism and independence, to the contemporary Czech leader Vaclav Havel ... Mr Sayer deals with figures familiar to Americans, including Franz Kafka, Antonin Dvorak and Milan Kundera. He also brings up names most won't recognize, even though they're big names in Czech history--the painter Alfons Mucha, for example, and the historian Frantisek Palacky--but handles them in such a way that readers will not be confused. So comfortable is Mr Sayer with his characters and so on top of their endeavors that he's able to endow them with an immediacy and a realness rare in historical writing. And he writes especially well about the numerous and talented 20th-century Czech writers and artists who passionately embraced modernism in all its forms, from cubism to surrealism ... Mr Sayer's book is so complete and so well-done that it's unlikely to be superseded for some time to come. (Stephen Goode, May 31, 1998)
The author, Derek Sayer sayer@... , July 5, 1998
Other reviews of The Coasts of Bohemia
From The Financial Times (London):...Derek Sayer's book, a history of the Czechs since their conversion to Christianity in the ninth century, serves as a thoroughly effective rebuttal to Engels and a stern post factum rebuke to Chamberlain. Written rather more from a cultural than a political perspective, the book notes that the greatest ever Czech reference work, a 28-volume encyclopedia published between 1888 and 1909, was second in its day, in terms of numbers of entries and illustrations, only to the Encyclopedia Britannica...As Sayer illustrates, and as Engels and Chamberlain should have known, the Czechs were responsible for constructing one of Europe's most advanced medieval polities. permanent integration into the western world.. But the temptation should be resisted to portray the Czech past as one long national pilgrimage from Jan Hus to Vaclav Havel. If history were that simple, there would be no need for books as discerning and thought-provoking as Sayer's. (Tony Barber, "The language of national identity denied," March 28, 1998)
From Publishers Weekly:...Sayer doesn't fall into the many traps awaiting cultural histories: he weaves individuals into the larger story, doesn't give in to nationalistic boosterism and doesn't make the messy unnecessarily clean. In readable but never condescending prose, Sayer tries to balance the multiplicity of art forms (although the performing arts do take second place to literature and the visual arts) to show how the Czechs constructed their identity...Lively and intelligent, it will appeal to the legions of Americans visiting (or settling in) Prague, as well as to anyone who wants to know about the culture that nurtured Kafka, Smetana, Karel Capek, Alfons Mucha, Josef Skvorecky, Dvorak and others. (Starred review, April 1998).
From Novy Domov (Czech newspaper, Toronto):
Autor je cesky profesor sociologie na University of Alberta v Edmontonu. Na temer 450 strankach zajimave podava dulezite useky z historie ceskeho naroda--od sv. Vaclava po Bilou horu, tristaletou porobu, obrozeni a rozkvet ceskeho pisemnictvi 19. a 20. stoleti. Je to idealni zdroj pouceni o nasich dejinach pro Cechy i cechofily ctouci anglicky. Kniha se setkala s velice priznivym kritickym ohlasem. (Zdena Salivarova, 6. June 1998)
Translation: The author is a Czech professor of sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Over almost 450 pages he engagingly presents important junctures from the history of the Czech nation--from Saint Vaclav through the White Mountain, the three hundred years of subjugation, the [national] revival and the flowering of Czech literature in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is an ideal source of knowledge about our history for Czechs as well as for English-speaking Czechophiles. The book has met with a very favorable critical response.
Mockrat dekuji pani Salivarove za recenzi, a take za poklonu -- ale Cech rozhodne nejsem! Svoji cestinu si neustale zdokonaluji. Jsem Anglican, zijici v Kanade v poslednich letech. Mam ale ceskou manzelku, Alenu, ktera prelozila vsechno z cestiny v knize, a bez ktere bych nemohl takovou knihu napsat vubec.
About the Author
Derek Sayer is Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He is the author of several books, including (with Philip Corrigan) The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution.