The Fictional Country You Build When Your Home No Longer Exists

The 20th-century Bohemian writer Johannes Urzidil fled his embattled birthplace just before World War II, never to return—except in the stories he wrote.

People cross the River Vltava on a footbridge in Prague, c. 1890s (Scheufler Collection / Getty)

During World War II, a generation of great German writers including Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt, and Bertolt Brecht became exiles, fleeing abroad * to escape the Nazis. So many left, in fact, that “Exilliteratur” became its own genre, shaped by intellectuals writing about a rapidly mutating Germany from afar. But after the war, these writers still had homelands they could return to. For the exiled German-Bohemian writer Johannes Urzidil, his relationship with his birthplace was more complicated: His Bohemia was, in many ways, destroyed by World War II.

Urzidil, who died in 1970 and spent the last three decades of his life in America, once wrote, “My homeland is my writing”—a not entirely metaphorical idea that encapsulates his literary career. Shortly after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia at the dawn of World War II, the Jewish Urzidil fled his birth city of Prague, formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Though it became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Bohemia was an ethnically diverse region with a complex past—one that would inform Urzidil’s work long after he settled in America in 1941.

This week, five of Urzidil’s Bohemian tales have been published stateside for the first time, in English, as the collection The Last Bell. And like so much of his work, these stories all center—sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly—on a single question: How can a writer reclaim and find meaning in a homeland that no longer really exists? Urzidil’s stories reflect his feelings about Bohemia’s knotty history, as well as the encroaching forces of nationalism and communism that transformed the region in the 20th century.

But Urzidil’s work also offers a deeply moving look into the mind and heart of a man trying to both preserve his memories of home and contend with the cruel political realities shaping it. As Gerhard Trapp, a scholar who knew Urzidil personally and wrote the first published study of his work, told me, the writer and his work were “identical” in that both wanted to “restore humanity after World War I and II.” Urzidil’s Bohemia is a microcosm of the 20th century’s promise and failings, and his fiction shows readers what can be gleaned from such tragedy.

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Urzidil was born in Prague in 1896 at a time when Bohemia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This land of many ethnicities centered on two languages, German and Czech, but Urzidil ascribed to “Bohemism,” or the belief that a single identity united the region’s many peoples. This was not a popular notion: Czech and German nationalism had been competing there since the mid-19th century, and the two groups often lived in isolation from one another.

Before the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I, Czech speakers experienced discrimination; for centuries, they had been denied influence in government and fought for their language to be officially recognized. After 1918, when the area became part of the newly formed Czechoslovakia, over two million Bohemian Germans became foreigners overnight, reversing the previous dynamic. But Urzidil rejected this Czech-versus-German dichotomy and would defend, in print, whoever was considered the region’s minority at the time.

Prague itself, however, had a unique and delicate sense of cohesion. Peter Demetz, a Sterling Emeritus Professor of German at Yale University, grew up in Urzidil’s fabled Prague and knew the writer well. Demetz described to me how Prague’s different communities “lived together and worked together and ate together and loved together ... it was almost charming.”

Urzidil was better known as a poet and journalist in Prague than as a fiction writer. He was on the periphery of Franz Kafka’s “Prague Circle,” a group of German-Jewish intellectuals who would regularly meet to discuss their work. When Urzidil spoke at Kafka’s funeral memorial in 1924, he did it, as the German literature scholar Valentina Sardelli told me, on behalf of a younger generation of German-Jewish writers.

Urzidil praised Kafka for his artistry but also claimed there would always be, as Sardelli put it, a “symbiotic bond” between the late author’s writing and “the multiethnic and turbulent Prague of Kafka’s time.” No matter what happened to the actual Prague, Kafka’s city would persist through his writing. This idea—of capturing the atmosphere of a place and time through fiction—would become a foundational idea in Urzidil’s work. But unlike Kafka, Urzidil would be capturing this Prague retrospectively.

In 1938, the Nazis divided Bohemia, claiming part of it for Germany, and the following year, Urzidil and his wife managed to flee. After the war, the newly established Czechoslovakian government expelled most of the area’s German-speaking population in retaliation. By the middle of the century, Urzidil’s Bohemia was no more—but, by then, the author had settled in a new home: America.

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Effectively exiled and watching the dissolution of his homeland from abroad, Urzidil channeled his feelings of alienation and loss into his work. “Urzidil ... decided to take this multinational homeland with him, to turn himself into his homeland and continue to copiously draw from it the ferment of his life and his art,” Claudio Magris, an emeritus professor of modern German literature at the University of Trieste, said. The stories in The Last Bell, which was translated and compiled by David Burnett, show how Urzidil began building his own Bohemia as the real one was radically transformed.

In one of the collection’s stories, “Siegelmann’s Journeys,” the titular travel agent has never left Prague. But he is able to describe foreign lands in such vivid detail that he convinces the woman he is courting that he’s well-traveled. When the couple discusses taking a trip to Venice together, Siegelmann becomes “panic-stricken by the possibility that the Venice of his dreams ... would be overpowered and annihilated by reality.” As the story’s narrator continues, “who would have sacrificed his genuine, higher, and magical Venice to a naturalist version, a sham being propagated as reality”?

It’s hard not to see a parallel between Siegelmann’s fears for his imagined Venice and Urzidil’s for his fictionalized Bohemia. Urzidil himself never returned to Prague after World War II. In the 1950s and ’60s, he would visit the Bavarian or Austrian-Czech borders and stare over into the Bohemian forest. He could have easily crossed that border and was, in fact, invited to do so many times. But, as Burnett told me: “His entire literary production rested on conjuring up this lost world of German-Jewish-Czech Bohemia ... The disappointment and disenchantment of this new reality [of Czech communism] would have simply been too great. And his writing probably would have changed had the memories of his old homeland mixed with new impressions.”

Still, Urzidil’s work is no sentimental paean to a lost place. In the story “Where the Valley Ends,” a small village is split by a stream, which divides the inhabitants into “left-bankers” and “right-bankers.” The basis of their opposing identities is comically slight but follows the formula of nationalism—the same nationalism that plagued Bohemia and, later, Europe as a whole. One group for instance, “claimed to be the older original inhabitants” of the village. Eventually, a stolen cheesecake rips the village apart. The story then turns into an essay-like mediation on the origins, and self-perpetuating nature, of conflict. Why the people were initially divided, the narrator cannot say. But once they were, “the stream could no longer flow ... It had to acquire a meaning: here left, there right!” And “because a war is quickly divorced from its immediate causes,” says the narrator, “[it] acquires a life and momentum of its own.”

Urzidil renders his lost land “not as a vanished idyll but with its breaks, conflicts, and problems,” Klaus Johann, an Urzidil scholar, told me. Eventually in “Where the Valley Ends,” a vaguely militaristic “new power from below” arrives and cares little for the villagers’ petty conflicts (according to Burnett, this “new power” stands for the Czech communists). The original inhabitants are driven from the valley, which turns to ruin. In this story, Urzidil cleverly locates the 20th century’s broader problems within his Bohemia. He transcends the specifics of his settings to touch on philosophical issues, often reflecting on his own engagement with them. In the collection’s title story, Urzidil even seems to question the moral dimensions of his prose: “Cut the goddamn proverbs,” says the protagonist of “The Last Bell.” “You can use them to justify murder.”

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For better or for worse, language and national identity were intertwined for Urzidil. After settling in America, he engaged with the culture of his adopted home “much more than most of the other German exile writers,” Johann told me. Urzidil came to have a perfectly functional grasp of English. He read American writers voraciously—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman—and published essays on them in German. He translated the American poet H.D. into his native tongue. However, he never published creatively in English.

Part of Urzidil’s dedication to the German language was practical: He was simply a better, more intuitive writer, in his mother tongue. But for him writing in German was also, as Burnett told me, “a kind of moral obligation.” After World War II, Urzidil wrote that exiled authors such as himself “had the responsibility to keep the German language humane, unadulterated, and more ethical than it possibly could have been on the language’s true native soil, where its organic growth was interrupted or trampled underfoot by politics.”

The Nazis were very precise about their language, and how the two relate is a popular area of academic study. Victor Klemperer, in his 1947 classic Language of the Third Reich, goes as far as to claim that “the language of Nazism” is the ideology’s “breeding ground.” And so Urzidil, in his own words, “professed [his] undying loyalty” to the German language “in the darkest and most dubious hours of Germanness itself.”

Postwar Germany and Austria struggled with their own cultural and linguistic heritages; the region was, as Burnett put it, “a highly politicized and experimental literary landscape.” But Urzidil bears none of these contemporary trappings, a fact often attributed to his living in exile. He is seen as following in the more traditional footsteps of Goethe, the giant of German letters, whom he adored. (When visiting somewhere new, Urzidil said he always asked two questions: “What is the water here like? And what is the relationship of this place to Goethe?”) Yet, as Demetz pointed out, Urzidil’s stories often drift between fiction and essay—and this mingling of mediums is itself a very modern idea. Even formally, Urzidil brings together what is usually separated.

Unity despite conflict or difference is a common theme in Urzidil’s work. At the close of “Siegelman’s Journeys,” the protagonist compares a Bohemian rock structure to various waterfalls (the many “laughing waters,” or “Minnehahas”) throughout the U.S.: “I’m finally in America,” Siegelmann says. “Nothing is far away.” Somewhat jokingly, Urzidil draws a parallel between Bohemia and America, both of which he loved for their multiculturalism. But the comparison is also timely for today’s readers: Nationalism is on the rise across Europe, and much of the world, once more. Urzidil—who is said to have coined the term “hinternational,” literally meaning “behind nations,” though sometimes translated as “beyond nations”—offers a stark warning against tribalism for those willing to listen.

There are, of course, tensions between Urzidil’s dedication to a specific homeland and language, and his love of multiculturalism. These tensions of identity still persist in many countries today. But his writing demonstrates how one man navigated them, and how it is possible to love a place—for all its complications—without needing to exclude others from it.

As in his fiction, Urzidil was also welcoming in person. When receiving guests, Urzidil would, according to Demetz, open the kitchen window of his Queens apartment, from which you could see a bit of the ocean, and reference Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: “Bohemia. A desert country near the sea.” In Urzidil’s new home, the water was a little reminder of the one he left behind. But while Shakespeare’s Bohemia is a total fiction (it’s not a desert), Urzidil’s remembered county is a blend of the fact and the fantasy that make up memory. His writing questions what it is to be a human and to remember. And what it means to love your homeland when extreme “patriotism” is precisely why it is gone.