Karlovy Vary—Plzeň—Český Krumlov—Prague
In August 2017 my family and I traveled to the Czech region of Bohemia, my mother’s homeland and the setting of my new novel, The Organs of Sense. At the airport in Prague we rented a car and drove directly to Karlovy Vary, the birthplace of my grandfather, who had died the year before; then we swung southeast through Plzeň and Český Krumlov before returning north toward Prague. It was meant to be a tour of our heritage, but it would also, I hoped—though the melding of my familial obligations with my artistic ambitions gave me a twinge of guilt—provide material for the novel of which I was then in the middle.
In the spa town where, a century earlier, my grandfather was born, a local genealogist I’d found online and to whom I’d sent a pdf of my grandfather’s death certificate took us first to the spot where once stood the dress shop of Felix and Elsa, names he uttered in a tone of such hushed revelation, as though he had taken us to a site that would obviously mean a great deal to us, that my mother did not dare ask him in what way the people who bore them were related to us. From the dress shop of Felix and Elsa we walked to the apartment building in which Helene and Max lived shortly before the First World War, and from there we climbed a steep staircase to the villa on the hill where the twin sisters Frieda and Clara (both murdered by the Nazis) grew up. Then we drove to the abandoned porcelain factory once run by Frieda’s husband, Julius. At each stop my mother’s mood grew bleaker; she reproached herself for her estrangement from this world; these names meant nothing to her, and the fact that it was now too late (but only just) to ask her father who they were and what they were like caused her—this was clear—exquisite pain, which, however, she kept to herself. Only upon returning to our hotel and locating some online reviews he’d managed to suppress did I learn that the genealogist, driven presumably by compulsions of his own, was notorious for taking foreign tourists to the former residences and workplaces of his own dead relatives, every day the same sites. My mother, whom I had never known to give online feedback, later left him a three-star review.
At the Pilsner Urquell Brewery—which, besides the Great Synagogue, was the only attraction in Plzeň we had time to see—we met a couple, both retired physicians, who had recently completed a tour of the Jewish cemeteries of Bohemia, beginning and ending in Plzeň, the birthplace of the man’s mother, who had died earlier that year. While sipping unfiltered pilsners, the couple explained that though his mother had been buried in the States, they’d come to Plzeň to have her name engraved on her parents’ tomb, which was located in a characteristically ramshackle Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the city. It was raining when they arrived; the tombs were eroded and askew and overgrown with moss; it took them two hours to find the right one. Only then did it occur to them that they had no idea how to have it engraved; certainly there was no one there tending to the tombs. When, however, they left the cemetery, dripping wet and covered in mud, and told the first person they passed that they were looking for the caretaker of the old Jewish cemetery, that they were looking, in particular, for whoever did the engravings there, the passerby said: I am the engraver of the old Jewish cemetery. You are the engraver? they asked. I am the engraver, he said. Yes, I am the engraver. Yes. For $250 he could engrave whatever they wished. They wrote down the mother’s name and dates, described the location of the tomb (Yes, I know this one, the passerby said), and handed over the money. And you are really the engraver? And I am really the engraver. He told them the engraving would be completed in three weeks, three, he said, holding up three fingers. As the man walked away they concluded that they had probably been swindled. But they decided to return in three weeks to see. In the meantime, at the wife’s suggestion, they visited as many old Jewish cemeteries as they could. In each small town they asked where the old Jewish cemetery was, and were pointed into the woods; and they walked into the woods; they walked deep into the woods, really deep, the woman recalled; they always began to suspect that they had, as in Plzeň, been deceived; they always reached a point where it began to seem unthinkable, particularly to the husband, that a cemetery could be found this deep in the woods, let alone a Jewish cemetery, an old Jewish cemetery; It can’t be this deep, let’s go back! he’d cry, the woman recalled; when there, suddenly, was the old Jewish cemetery. Now they’d returned to Plzeň to see whether the passerby had, indeed, been the engraver. My husband, the woman said, is a little bit nervous: first he wanted a beer.
When the couple left for the cemetery we realized that the husband hadn’t said a single word the entire time; the story, though it was more his than hers, had been related by the wife, who, as she noted more than once, was not herself Jewish.
The encounter was striking in several respects, and my father insisted I write it down, it was perfect for me, perfect, he claimed. Yet in the end it proved useless for my novel, as did the whole of Plzeň.
In the charming but kitschified town of Český Krumlov, where Schiele—whose mother was born there—once scandalized the locals by painting their daughters naked, I hoped to catch a glimpse, for my novel, of the room in Krumlov Castle where the prince who inspired one of my characters spent the last days of his life. I wasn’t aiming for verisimilitude; I had no intentions of describing the room; but I hoped that standing on the spot where the young man had died (supposedly from an ulcer suffocating him when it ruptured in his throat) might in some occult way intensify the effect of my book. The earliest available tour was at one o’clock; I signed my family up; then we went to the Egon Schiele Art Centrum. I was standing before a painting of a nude adolescent girl with shyly splayed legs when an old man appeared beside me, leaning on a four-legged cane. This is a very interesting painting, he said—very interesting indeed. Yes, I said. Are you enjoying the exhibit, young man? he asked. Very much, I said. Good, good, he said, enjoy! He stood there. I asked: Are you the curator? Yes, in a manner of speaking, he replied. In a manner of speaking, I am the curator. Not, of course, in any official capacity. And now, young man, I have a question for you. He waggled a finger at the painting. Is this art or is it pornography? Ha, I said, yes, that is the question, isn’t it? He said: And what is the answer? Is it art or pornography? Well … I said, I suppose I have to object to the framing of the question. I think I would argue that thinking about art in those categories, though of course it has become the fashion, deprives us of—No! the man cried. Don’t philosophize! Just answer, art or pornography? Don’t philosophize! Don’t philosophize! Art, then, I said. The man smiled. It is pornography, he said. And I ought to know, young man, for this painting, before it was taken from us, was once in my family’s possession. It used to hang in my parents’ bedroom, right over their bed, above the headboard … Now, perhaps you think it was the Nazis who stole it, whenever one hears of stolen art in this part of the world one thinks of the Nazis, but it was not the Nazis, it was my own brother, my own older brother! It actually would have been better had it been the Nazis, for in the case of Nazis the state always intercedes, there is immense pressure on the state to intercede, to correct the injustices of the Nazis, but in the case of brothers there is no such pressure and so the state never intercedes and the injustices of the brothers are let to stand. Of course, the Nazis were not uninvolved, the man said. I saw that my parents were gesturing at me from the entrance to the gallery; my father was tapping his wrist; our tour was about to begin; but I motioned for them to go on ahead, I’d catch up with them. My father could not comprehend this after all I’d said about Krumlov Castle, its centrality to my novel, et cetera, but my mother took him by the hand and led him out. After the war, which only the man and his brother survived, having fled early on to Santa Barbara, they laid out the family art—which their mother and father and little sister, having stayed behind for this purpose, had secretly shipped them piece by piece—and divvied it up, each picking a painting in turn, the man selecting on the basis of artistic value, his older brother on the basis of monetary value, the irony being that the man eventually had to sell all his paintings in order to support his work as an independent scholar of the philosophy of history—a field he intended to show, contra Popper, was still possible—whereas his brother made so much money in the telecommunications industry that he could afford to donate all his paintings to cultural institutions, and even to do so anonymously, and thereby to acquire the reputation of an extremely generous anonymous art donor, a friend of the arts. Now at some point, the man said, the works of Schiele began to rise in value, two million, five, ten—and suddenly it occurs to me, didn’t we have a Schiele? When we laid out our paintings on the floor, there was no Schiele among them, and yet our family did have a Schiele, I knew it for a fact, we had one once! For the first time in fifty-seven years I make contact with my older brother: Whatever happened to our Schiele? And after a while my brother replies: We never had a Schiele. Yet I knew we had a Schiele, I knew it for a fact, because, young man, I’d pleasured myself to it as a boy, it was the first thing I had ever pleasured myself to, one does not forget that, as I have told the board here many times … How many times have I told the museum’s board of directors that the first image to which I ever pleasured myself was a painting hanging over the headboard of my parents’ bed of a young girl in a blue blouse? With my head where their feet went, and my feet on their pillows, and one eye always on the door, which could swing open at any moment … One does not forget that sort of thing … Now, when my brother died, I was living in rather diminished circumstances, I am not ashamed to say, and a modest bequest from him would have helped a great deal in my effort to resurrect the philosophy of history from the supposed death blow Popper dealt it; but he left me nothing, everything went to institutions, causes and institutions … Shortly thereafter I read in the newspaper of an anonymous donation to this institution: Schiele’s Young Girl in Blue Blouse. There was a picture of it in the paper. Suddenly I am twelve years old again, I am lying on my parents’ bed, my parents’ massive bed, one foot on my father’s pillow, one foot on my mother’s pillow, one eye on the door, my family chattering in the distance, and looming above me the girl in the blue blouse … This is a scene I have described many, many times over to the museum’s board of directors … I describe the scene, they say it is no proof of ownership, we have done this song and dance many times over now … And we will do it many more times to come … Of course, I’m no longer so foolish as to think they’ll change their minds … Yet I feel I must describe the scene to them anyway … It must be described … To me, if not to them, it is dispositive.
The old man bowed.
I thank you for your attention, young man, he said. Yes, this is a very interesting painting indeed.
He hobbled off.
It was too late to join the tour of Krumlov Castle, but I sensed now that to set foot inside the castle I intended to write about would very likely prove fatal to my book. When I rejoined my family afterward I asked them not to tell me what they had seen.
By the time we approached Prague, my mother’s birthplace, I had come to understand that there is nothing more ruinous for a novel than a research trip. Because writers so often ruin their novels at home, domestically, they think that a research trip, especially an international research trip—to see the things they are writing about, or so they imagine!—will do the opposite, i.e., save their novels, when in fact a research trip is just a more expensive, farther-flung means of novel ruination. In our rental car on the way to Prague it struck me just how close I had come in Český Krumlov to ruining my novel; if I hadn’t been buttonholed by the crazy man in the Schiele museum, I would have seen the interior of Krumlov Castle; only because I hadn’t seen it did it remain intact in my imagination. I now understood that the list I’d put together of sights to see in Prague was really a list of sights I must not, under any circumstances, lay eyes on: Prague Castle; Saint Vitus Cathedral; the astronomical clock; the house at the Golden Griffin where the imperial astronomer Tycho Brahe once lived; the Old Jewish Cemetery; the Altneu Synagogue; Charles Bridge; the medical faculty of Charles University, from which my grandfather had graduated. To come all the way to Prague and yet not see these sights—many of them the most important sights in all of Prague—was, for my father, inexplicable, as was the vehemence with which I looked away, for the sake of my novel, each time he drew my attention to anything Kafka-related, the Kafka Museum, the various plaques attesting to Kafka’s residence in various apartment buildings, the bust of Kafka’s head, the statue of Kafka riding on the shoulders of a headless male figure, et cetera, sights which over the course of three and a half days in Prague my father—whose belief that I was keen to see them never flagged or wavered—never failed to point out to me. Whole Baroque-era squares (and this, too, gave him trouble) had to be traversed with my eyes shut, my mother guiding me by the elbow, for the sake of my novel, while I, and probably my father too, reflected in a melancholy way on how greatly our family trips had changed since my siblings and I were children. Aesthetic considerations such as these led us inexorably away from the Old Town, toward districts more recent and farther out that posed no threat to the Prague of my novel. And so, on our final morning, while my father browsed the nonfiction section of an English-language bookstore, my mother and I found ourselves, not entirely by accident, half an hour from the castle, among the constructivist complexes of Letná, across a busy street from the apartment building in which she grew up. This street, with its four lanes of heavy traffic bifurcated by the two tracks of a tramway, had been the site of a small but notable incident in my mother’s life, when, as a young girl, to test her will, or perhaps her mastery of her world, she’d crossed all four lanes and two tracks with her eyes shut, only to receive, when she reported her triumph to her father, the lone spanking of her childhood. For all its seventeenth-century scientific frills, my novel about a blind astronomer had its origins in this image: my mother as a little girl squeezing her eyes shut and running across the street, her ears already ringing with her beloved father’s raucous applause. I wondered aloud, therefore, whether, for the sake of my novel, and perhaps this would even salvage the research trip, which I think my mother could sense had been a disappointment, a little reenactment—it was a good thing my father was in the bookstore, he would not have seen the point—might not, in some occult way, intensify … Or, now that her father had died, and she herself was a grandmother, and I a father of a little girl, might add a drop of pathos to … Whether, in other words, she might consider squeezing her eyes shut and … And she mustn’t think, by the way, that I had been planning this all along, that it was the whole point of the Bohemian research trip, far from it, the idea had only occurred to me just this moment … Whether she might consider shutting her eyes and running, at my signal, which of course I would give only when there was no traffic and no trams, straight toward her childhood apartment building, as fast as she could, while I—in one of the two Moleskines I had bought specifically for this research trip, imagining I would fill both of them up, but which were both still basically blank—would take down richly detailed notes on the emotions induced in me by this sight, i.e., of my mother in her mid-sixties careening blindly toward the Communist-era apartment building of her youth, shortly after the death of her father, emotions which would appear nowhere in the novel, not directly, but which could not help but irradiate the whole of it. (Here it is, I added, the glimpse into my writing process you’re always asking for!) And so, if you’re willing, you might hand me this, this, and this, I said, taking her hat, purse, and sunglasses, and, orienting yourself like so toward your erstwhile apartment building, squeeze your eyes shut, tightly shut, while I wait for a break in the traffic, whereupon, when I say the word now, it would be wonderful, and artistically invaluable, if, for the sake of my novel, you could take off running, truly running, as fast as you possibly can, without looking. For a moment I watched the cars zip past and felt that the research trip I had undertaken might have a point to it after all. Okay, I said. Now.
Adam Ehrlich Sachs is a writer in Pittsburgh. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, n+1, and Harper’s, among other places. For his first book, Inherited Disorders, he was named a finalist for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and received a 2018 NEA Literature Fellowship. In 2019 he received a Berlin Prize. His second book, The Organs of Sense, was recently released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.