Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic - the novella is set in Prague, which is portrayed as a dead city, a city peopled by shades, who, like the protagonist — a nihilist and the "last scion of a noble line" — are only a dim reflection of the city’s medieval splendor. The man lives in a dreamworld, the labyrinth of his soul giving rise to visions
Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic, A Gothic Soul, Trans. by Kirsten Lodge, Twisted Spoon Press, 2015. [1900.]
A Gothic Soul is the most acclaimed work of Czech Decadent prose. Expressing concerns that are unique to the Czech movement while alluding creatively and ironically to Joris-Karl Huysman's Against Nature, the novella is set in Prague, which is portrayed as a dead city, a city peopled by shades, who, like the protagonist — a nihilist and the "last scion of a noble line" — are only a dim reflection of the city’s medieval splendor. The man lives in a dreamworld, the labyrinth of his soul giving rise to visions. In his quest for meaning, he walks the city, often hallucinating, while pondering questions of religious fervor and loss of faith, the vanity of life, his own sense of social alienation, human identity and its relationship to a “nation,” the miserable situation of the Czechs under Habsburg rule, and Prague’s loss of its soul on the cusp of modernity as old sections, such as much of the squalid Jewish Quarter, are demolished to make way for gaudy new buildings and streets. With a history of madness running in the family and afraid the same fate awaits him, he ultimately retreats into seclusion, preferring the monastic way of life as the epitome of unity and wholeness and a tonic to present-day fragmentation. Yet Karásek eschews the mawkish, opting instead for darker tones that play with the tropes and motifs of Decadence while conflating the same-sex desires of his protagonist, the fatalism and futility of such an existence within the social construct of the day, with concerns for the dual fates of his nation and city.
Given his importance for Czech literature and for European Decadence, very little of Karásek's work has been translated into English. Kirsten Lodge included translations of his poetry in Solitude, Vanity, Night: An Anthology of Czech Decadent Poetry, and we have made available her translations of some of his shorter prose here and here. This is the first time A Gothic Soul, or any full-length work of Karásek's prose, has been translated into English.
Jiří Karásek begins his Preface by noting that: "A Gothic Soul is not a novel in the usual sense of the word". He admits: "It has almost no plot" -- it is: "the painting of a soul, he suggests. He acknowledges that it: "originated in the diary of a twenty-year-old" but emphasizes that it isn't a work of realism; indeed, he insists:
To say that art should represent the world as it really is would be to assert that the purpose of art is to imitate those things that do not interest us even in reality.
A Gothic Soul is, indeed, an intense decadent wallow, but it is also fairly reassuringly novel-like, its story-arc one of life-summary, of decline and fall. The protagonist is left unnamed, but a recognizable type, "the last scion of a venerable chivalric family" that, over the generations, had frayed under the "hereditary degeneration" that he worries afflicts him too.
Already on the novel's first page an example of what becomes his life-long personal struggle is vividly described, from his insistence on confronting it head-on (or having the constant reminder staring back at him) to the rather dramatic affirmation of his concerns:
The gaze of one particular relative frightened him terribly.
He had died of religious mania, quite young.
He had hung his cousin's portrait over his desk.
The older he grew, the more convinced he became that they resembled one another. But he thought his senses might be deceiving him -- until a relative he hadn't seen for some time shrieked at their resemblance and plunged him back into doubt.
In appearance, he's your typical Gothic-decadent specimen:
He grew up anemically pallid, wasted rather than thin, and he looked lifeless.
His parents die when he is young and he's raised in a very religious household, and the pull of religion (and mysticism) is always a strong one. A solitary soul, always looking inwards, he is influenced by what he encounters, even if his engagement remains passive, withdrawn, and introspective. He's your typical overheated, tormented young soul, and there's little that can shake him out of this near-stupor.
To conquer bodily desires ... To immerse yourself in melancholy over your own inner self ... To find a continuous but delicate trembling in the agitation of the nerves.
The atmospheric Prague setting contributes nicely to the overall feel: as Karásek sums up:
The Gothic still lived in Prague ... And then again everything was dead ...
Karásek's protagonist is very much Czech, and in part his journey -- of the soul and mind -- are colored by that, too. So, for example, at one point:
He sought the explanation of his impotence in his being Czech.
Religion plays a significant part in his life, but he can not embrace and follow in the traditional form; his heated soul finds a great deal in religious imagery and Church-myths -- notably the Christ-figure -- but unsurprisingly it is warped in his own tormented perspective.
There is, of course, little hope for a happy ending here. A Gothic Soul is a novel of the decadence, through and through, a variation with less concern for the eternal-feminine than many others (Karásek was homosexual) and more directly influenced by (and reactive to) religion. Much of the writing is splendid -- if very much of the feverish-decadent school -- and though its arguably just another variation of a familiar take, it's still a fine exemplar. Beyond that, the book can be recommended for the Author's Preface alone, a wonderful summary of Karásek's endeavor and personal philosophies. - M.A.Orthofer
Published sixteen years before this book - and therefore too early to appear on my website - J K Huysmans' À rebours (Against the Grain) was the classic decadent novel, telling the story of a man who is disgusted with human society. It clearly influenced Karásek who, we know, read both French and German. The books, while similar in style (last scion of a noble family, a man who cuts himself off from society, strong Symbolist and religious imagery), are also different in many respects, as you would expect from the different French and Czech sensibilities.
This book is narrated by an unnamed narrator. However, before we get to his story, there is an author's preface, in which he explains what the book is about (and what it is not about). It has almost no plot. The protagonist merely walks around his room, or wanders the streets and reflects. A nameless protagonist – without external tribulations, subject to no outside calamities. He has become separate from everything real and material. Rather than plot, a series of stories and episodes, you will find the painting of a soul, uninterrupted by plot details – a continuous flow, a spiritual stream. My book is not a narrative; I have composed it from spiritual processes. Impression follows impression. Feeling gives way to feeling. Spiritual states are in constant agitation.This certainly sums it up. There is no narrative, as he says, in that not a great deal happens, at least a great deal outside the head of our narrator. He is the last scion of a venerable chivalric family, of which a few impoverished women remained, afflicted by hysteria. One of these women has apparently died of religious mania. He wanted to be a priest or, more particularly, a monk, not necessarily for the glory of God but for the solitude, so that he could spend his days in solitude and contemplation, away from people. He is fascinated by death and the dead. He frequently wanders Prague, a Prague which seems to be almost deserted, except for the occasional people at the stations he uses. Indeed, it seems to be a city of the dead, as he visits churches, chapels, crypts, and cloisters. He frequently ends up at the now deserted Barnabite cloisters and it is clear some denouement will take place there, as it does.Physically, he is anemically pallid, wasted rather than thin, and he looked lifeless but inside he has a soul, at least as far as things dead were concerned. The dead came alive for him, while everything alive died before entering his soul. His inner soul is sensuous and, at times, he is carried away by the beauty and smell of flowers but this is all in his mind, not there in reality. Indeed, at times, he has the same feelings about God, feeling very much that he is at one with God and that, with God, he would participate eternally in the beauty that is concealed from everyone else.He did train for the priesthood but melancholy, doubt and a fear of people overwhelm him and he abandons the idea. Indeed, he becomes so afraid of people that he shuns any places, even funerals, where there is a risk of meeting them. However, he later begins to somewhat regret this and yearns to have a friend. On a couple of occasions he meets someone who might be a friend but eventually pulls back from pursuing the relationship. (Though this is not mentioned, we know that Karásek was gay, so it is probable that the relationship the narrator is seeking is a sexual one as much as an intellectual one.) Sometimes, he wants people, other times not. On one occasion he flees Czechoslovakia and wanders round Bavaria for a while, before returning to Prague. But his mantra remains to flee from Judea to the mountains. Despite this, he is is concerned about what he calls the Czech soul. Indeed, he goes as far as anthropomorphising it and listening to it (or, rather, as he calls it, her) speak, though he maintains that it has now died. Nihilism, yes, nihilism is the only philosophy possible for this people he states and reviews the grim nature of Czech history. He turns to God, he turns away from God. He looks for solitude but wants some company. Christ comes to him as a silent stranger but he cannot connect with him. He visits his aged aunt and, after searching in various rooms, finds her but neither she nor her maid recognise him, the aunt assuming that he is Vilem, her dead son. The end is inevitable. The narrator is a man who is clearly not able to fit into this world or, it would seem, the supernatural world. His world is the world of his inner sense, away from human contact, struggling with his relationship with God, if, indeed, there is a god, something he wonders on more than one occasion. His way is the medieval way of life or, at least, his somewhat idealised idea of what the medieval life might have been for the medieval ascetic, a life of contemplation but also a life very close to death and death's images. Indeed, for someone like the narrator, who has had little experience of life, this is all that life has to offer - death. - www.themodernnovel.com/czech/karasek/gothic.htm
I’m your only friend I’m not your only friend But I’m a little glowing friend But really I’m not actually your friend But I amI love it when Twisted spoon bring a new book out as they seem to choose books that firstly would never see light of day in the uk , secondly are important in the context of where they are from . Here again they have published a book from the Czech decadence movement .A counterpart of the French books at the time this book has a much darker feel than the French decandence movement books I have read .Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic was a novelist and critic .He found the modern review a well-known magazine of the time that published the best French and Czech decadent movement writers .
Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch Who watches over you Make a little birdhouse in your soul Not to put too fine a point on it: Say I’m the only bee in your bonnet Make a little birdhouse in your soul
I have a secret to tell From my electrical well It’s a simple message and I’m leaving out the whistles and bells So the room must listen to me Filibuster vigilantly My name is blue canary One note, spelled L-I-T-E My story’s infinite Like the Longines Symphonette It doesn’t rest
I choose birdhouses in your soul as I used a lightbulb in my review as a metaphor for the narrator .source
But he didn’t die
He arose from bed even paler than before . The sound of his voice was more somber . He looked even more terrifying . His eyes now disturbed anyone who looked into them .They lacked luster .They harboured a secret that seemed accusatory , though it could never be expressed in words .
His struggle is beyond words in the world around him .
The book is the story of a nameless narrator and his struggle in the world he is living a world that is caught under an empire that has changed from the world he knew. He wanders the town seeing these changes around him .As much as it is his story it is also the story of the city he lives in which is Prague the city at night jumps of the pages .He seems to be struggling with life and death as the book goes on the world around him seems to dissolve to the struggle with in him .He is the last of his line losing faith in the world around him .He even goes to churches to try to find solace but struggles too .
He left the church .
Where he wandered after that , he could no longer remember .
Today everything that had occupied his soul back then was revived .He knew he would not be able to escape the dank tomb of the past into which he had descended , to free himself from the enchanted circle of overwrought blood and nerves in which he had unexpectedly become entrapped from this atmosphere could not be approached without incurring punishment .
A torture soul which even the church can’t save .
This is one dark book a man’s soul is on the line and we see how he struggles with it .A way to look at the book is the context of when it was written in 1905 the world has just entered a new century . The Habsburg empire is harked back to a lot the book this of course in hindsight is showing the first ripples of the start of world war one . The narrators worry about his own world and the city of Prague maybe show the greater picture a world that has grown a modern age the is fast approaching them . This shows how one man gets caught in the world in flux and like those early lightbulb he is trying to light his night , his dark places but maybe is about to burn out! .
Have you a favourite book from the decadent movement? - winstonsdad.wordpress.com/2015/05/02/a-gothic-soul-by-jiri-karasek-ze-lvovic/
'Reality has only one purpose in art: the artist must become familiar with it so as to know how to avoid it'
Originally published in 1900, A Gothic Soul is a mysterious and alluring piece of fin de siècle decadence in the vein of JK Huysmans and Gustav Meyrinck. Presented by the Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press, with a new translation by Kirsten Lodge, the novel touches on themes of modernity, aesthetics and alienation, as well as contemporary psychiatric debates.
In his preface, a stream of Wildean epigrams regarding art and reality, Karasek declares that A Gothic Soul is 'not a novel in the usual sense of the word’; instead, it is ‘a diary of emotions and moods, of the undulating play of the spiritual world, an account of stories of the soul'. The narrative, such as it is, focuses on the inner life of a young man, 'the last scion of a venerable chivalric family'. Fearing that he may be suffering from a ‘hereditary degeneration’ which has afflicted his ancestors, the youth retreats from the world, attempting to exist in undisturbed solitude. Karasek details the morbid fantasies which concern the young man, who feels alienated by modernity.
Like the ‘decrepit old man’ of Poe’s The Man of the Crowd, the youth is an uncanny, idiosyncratic presence on the streets of early Twentieth century Prague; his eyes, in particular, ‘disturbed anyone who looked into them’. After spending a year living alone in Bavaria, he has returned to his homeland 'resolved to live by nothing but his dreams'. As with des Esseintes in Huysmans' novel A Rebours, he yearns to live an idealised and solitary existence, but crucially, he has never really been at home in society. So how can he renounce a life he has never fully lived?
His thoughts are primarily concerned with the difference between experience and understanding. The question of religious experience is particularly fraught. Watching worshippers in church, he witnesses the ecstasy of direct religious experience, 'mad kisses on holy wood... eyes burst into a blaze of frenzied pleasure', yet when he tries to experience this himself, he is repelled by man's attempts to bridge the gap between the mystical and the mundane, the 'arid desert' of theology. He is suffering from a form of false consciousness – the social conditioning which taught him to analyse and understand the phenomena which surround him has left him feeling alienated. He can learn, but he cannot feel: 'His entire attempt at life now seemed to him an effort to improvise on a violin whose strings had lost their sound and gone forever mute.'
Searching for a purer way of experiencing the world, he looks back to the Middle Ages. He is entranced by world of mythology, which is contrasted with the perceived drudgery of modern life: 'Czechness itself lost its contours in his thoughts, and the more everything became legendary, the more glorious that unfulfilled mission appeared to him'. He is all too aware, however, that his fantasies are illusory: ‘The Middle Ages were dead'.
The young man’s struggles are also those of the aesthetic movement. He privileges form over function, and yearns to live his life intensely, but seemingly lacks the capacity for such elevated thought. In an echo of Flaubert’s observation that an artist should ‘be regular and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work,’ Karasek’s preface stresses that the artist must be familiar with reality, in order to avoid it in his writing. By contrast, his protagonist has been isolated and withdrawn from a young age, leaving him incapable of the sort of transcendence that aestheticism demands. Lacking experience, he is little more than a ghost who haunts himself.This is the first time that a full-length work by Karasek has been released in English, and Twisted Spoon must be thanked for making such a fine example of Czech decadence available to a UK audience. Karasek’s writing is finely crafted, and Lodge deserves credit for her lyrical and fluid translation. While A Gothic Soul is primarily an introspective novel, the atmosphere is comparable to Meyrinck’s great works The Golem and The Green Face, and the two authors deserve to be viewed on an equal footing. - workshyfop.blogspot.com/2015/04/review-gothic-soul-jiri-karasek.html