Look! It is winter in Prague: night is rising in the mother of cities and over her thousand spires. Look down at the darkness around your feet, in all the lanes and alleys, as if it were a soft black dust; look at the stone apostles on the old Charles Bridge, and at all the blue-eyed jackdaws on the shoulders of St John of Nepomuk.
Look! She is coming over the bridge, head bent down to the whitening cobblestones: Helen Franklin, forty-two, neither short nor tall, her hair neither dark nor fair; on her feet, boots which serve from November to March, and her mother's steel watch on her wrist. A table-salt glitter of hard snow falling on her sleeve, her shoulder; her neat coat belted, as colourless as she is, nine years worn. Across her breast a narrow satchel strap; in the satchel, her afternoon's work (instructions for the operation of a washing machine, translated from German into English) and a green uneaten apple.
What might commend so drab a creature to your sight, when overhead the low clouds split and the upturned bowl of a silver moon pours milk out on the river? Nothing at all – nothing, that is, but this: these hours, these long minutes of this short day, must be the last when she knows nothing of Melmoth – when thunder is just thunder, and a shadow only darkness on the wall. If you could tell her now (step forward! Take her wrist, and whisper!) perhaps she'd pause, turn pale, and in confusion fix her eyes on yours, or look at the lamp-lit castle high above the Vltava and down at white swans sleeping on the riverbank, then turn on her half-inch heel and beat back through the coming crowd. But – oh, it's no use: she'd only smile, impassive, half-amused (this is her way), shake you off, and go on walking home.
commentary: I am going to quote from my blogpost on Sarah Perry’s previous book:
You know how it is when everyone else discovers an author you thought was yours? I couldn’t be more pleased for Sarah Perry that Essex Serpent is now an OFFICIAL BESTSELLER, but I would just like to point out that we covered After Me Comes The Flood on the blog back in 2014.
So now even more so – and as I said last time, you may have heard about this book, and if so, everything you have heard is true: it is marvellous and terrifying.
The extract above is the opening of the book,set in a framework of
contemporary Prague, where Helen Franklin is about to hear whispers of a strange folk-tale – the story of Melmoth, who saw the empty tomb of Christ, but who refused to bear witness: now she is condemned forever to wander round the world, witnessing other extraordinary events.
Some friends of Helen have been linked with this – in a chain reaching back into the mid-20th century in memory, and further back in documents and letters and diaries. These pieces of evidence alternate with Helen’s present-day discoveries, along with various social events – with the Perry trademark of hilarity, cringing, and horror. Eventually we find out what it is in Helen’s past that is bothering her so much.
It is, I suppose, a Gothic horror story, though that doesn’t seem to describe it at all to me. Prague is portrayed in all its glory, along with some harrowing details of the past 150 years, right up to current day events and the deportation of asylum-seekers. Each story is compelling and beautifully-written and shows a different voice. There is a hideous landlady, a helpful but strange young woman, a magnificent trip to the opera to see Rusalka. There are pearls and jackdaws, an empty chair in a field, old libraries and fading documents - everything I like in a book.
Perry is a wondrous writer, unique, drawing pictures that live with you forever. Prague is one of my favourite places, and I know if I visit it again I will be seeing at it through Perry’s eyes – and looking to see if a woman in black is disappearing round a corner.
She recently published an article in the Guardian about her appalling health problems while writing Melmoth, and this line from it struck me as showing how well she writes:
The problem with describing pain, of course, is that you can no more know what I mean by torment than I can know what you mean by love – and besides, privately we all think ourselves made of sterner stuff than the sickly.I like to think Sarah inspires me to find good pictures for her books: I was very pleased with the ones I found for After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent, and she kindly said she loved them too.
So here are some moody atmospheric pictures of Prague, the most beautiful of cities.
They come from a Cold-War era Czech book of photos, and were taken by Jiri Vsetecka, who was a well-known Czech photographer. With thanks to Audrey, who gave the book to me in Prague 31 years ago almost to the day.
If you look closely perhaps you will see the mysterious figure of Melmoth somewhere in the photos….