In the English-language world, Magdaléna Platzová is a very recent arrival, her debut novel, Aaron’s Leap, translated into English by Craig Cravens, having been published in January of 2014. The novel was initially published in Czech in 2006, her third book, and she has written three more books in the meantime. What’s more this “new” author has been covering a literary terrain—the Holocaust, Central Europe between the wars and after the fall of Communism, among other subjects—that her personal and family history equip her to document with real insight rather than the clichés familiar from many of the far better-known English-language books on these subjects, where the writers garnered the information for their novels from reading books and three-week trips to Prague.
Aaron’s Leap tells the story of a painter based on the real-life Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who lived through the highs and lows of Central Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, experiencing the cultural life of the Vienna of Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, studying at the Bauhaus, immersing herself in interwar Berlin, only to end up teaching art to children in Terezín before being sent to her death in Auschwitz. The story is framed in the present with an Israeli film crew coming to make a documentary about the now- forgotten painter’s life, enlisting the help of an old Czech friend Kristýna and her granddaughter Milena.
Magdaléna Platzová will be in New York City for the New Literature From Europe festival from December 5 to 6. Her short story “This Time Last Year” appeared in the November 2014 Czech issue of Words Without Borders in a translation from Czech by Alex Zucker.
Michael Stein: For me, one of the biggest differences between the American and European novel (allowing for some generalization) is the place of history. It seems to me at least, that there are many American novels that are ahistorical to a degree that you rarely, if ever, see in Europe, especially in a country like the Czech Republic, that has to navigate the abrupt and often traumatic shifts between different eras.
In Aaron’s Leap, history plays a very different role—not only in the plot but thematically too. Was this an issue you thought about or did it come with writing a novel on the subject you chose?
Magdaléna Platzová: I wanted to write in the first place about Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, alias Berta Altman. I was intrigued by what I knew about her life, by some questions about her that kept coming back to me for ten years, from the moment I first “met” her. People who knew Friedl had warm memories of her, especially her former pupils from the Terezín ghetto. They told me that Friedl seemed happy in Terezín. That question haunted me for years. What life did she have before the deportation to find herself happy in a concentration camp? At first I didn’t realize that I will have to deal with a lot of history: Vienna before WWI, Berlin, Vienna between the wars, the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia under occupation . . .. But the history came in with my characters—not the other way around.
But as I am saying this, I can already see that it’s perhaps not entirely true. Apart from writing about Berta, I wanted to come to terms with one part of Czechoslovak history; concretely, the silence that during the Communist regime surrounded the persecution of Jews, Gypsies, and others under Nazi rule. I was really shocked by my own ignorance, which I exaggerated a bit in the character of Milena. Also I kept thinking: How come my grandparents never talked to us about their Jewish friends who went to the transports? About their neighbors who perished? And how come they let them go and stayed alive themselves? So yes—my approach to history was very personal, it is not a backdrop. And all these questions appear in my book.
Stein: Do you feel, as a writer, that your country’s rich and often turbulent history, works for you as a blessing? And on the other hand, can it ever be oppressive or imposing, as something you would like to be able to avoid but which you find working its way into your writing unbidden?
Platzová: What I feel was a blessing was the fact that I was able to live through the end of the Communist era. The revolution came when I was seventeen, so right in time. The experience of a totalitarian regime is enriching if you can get out of it not too late, with your cognitive, emotional, and other abilities still relatively fresh. It leaves you with a great reserve of thoughts and questions—about the nature of people, society etc.
As for the turbulent history, well, I don’t know if it’s enriching. It can be fine as a topic but perhaps you draw more inspiration from it coming from outside. For us, being born into it, it can be not only oppressive but also discouraging. So many aborted hopes, broken lines of development. The Czechs were rarely able see something through to the end, mostly through no fault of their own.
I don’t think all those abrupt changes, occupations, regimes and wars were good for literature and intellectual life in general. The continuity has been broken, the most intelligent people chased away, killed or rendered numb . . .. It shows. A work of literature always builds in some way on all the writing and thinking that preceded it. Without a strong tradition of sound thinking and writing to lean upon, the writing—or better writers—soon get exhausted. You get one or two good books, some fragments, but there is no real growth. The writers don’t get better as they ripen, quite the contrary.
Perhaps at some point you have to pull away from your “nest,” to step beyond its oppressiveness. One way is to close yourself within. Look at all those “hermits” in the Czech tradition: Reynek, Váchal, Ladislav Klíma, to name some. The other way is to exile yourself, to be out there all by yourself. Or, like Milan Kundera, to plant yourself in some “greater” literature.
Stein: Did you ever think about confining the novel to the biographical account of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis’s life or did you always intend to add the framework of the contemporary characters and Kristýna as a bridge between the two eras?
Platzová: I never intended my novel to be a biography. I am not a biographer. I like to think around, to dream, to be free in my writing. On the other hand, I am respectful of the facts and I would never make things up that did not happen or could not have happened. As to the contemporary characters, no, I did not plan them. They arrived as a necessity, they were my personal way to approach Berta and her era.
Kristýna is modeled after my own grandmother, a modernist artist as well, and also after the painter Anna Sládková, my friend, who actually knew Friedl personally. I loved these two old artists and felt very much inspired by their forever-young spirits. I probably subconsciously did want to write about them—and so they came to me in the form of Kristýna, quite unexpectedly.
Stein: It struck me that the three main contemporary characters all had very different attitudes to the past, both their personal pasts as well as the broader historical one, and that Milena’s attitude (her being your contemporary, more or less, if not an autobiographical character) was the attitude you sympathized with most. Is this true?
Platzová: You are right that Milena resembles me at the age when I first heard of Friedl (I started to write the novel only ten years after that). But as for sympathy, well, she really is quite silly, isn’t she? I like her passion and the fresh naïveté of her attitude, but as the author I am much closer to eighty-year-old Kristýna, really (laughs).
Stein: In Aaron’s Leap you wrote about some very famous figures in twentieth-century culture though without using their real names. Why did you choose to rename or, in the case of a couple characters, not name, them?
Platzová: The rule is simple (it didn’t come to me as a rule, I saw it only after). In cases like Kokoschka, Alma Mahler or Franz Werfel, when the real people became characters of my story and I needed to feel free around them, I changed their names. Again, I did not make things up that could not well happen but just for the sake of unhindered imagination I had to mask them a bit. It was also a matter of decency. In other cases, like Paul Klee, when I used him only as a reference, I didn’t feel the need to change his name.
Stein: Also, some of these figures have been novelized and dramatized quite a bit by other writers. Did you read any of these works or did you avoid them to better create your own versions of Alma Mahler and Kokoschka?
Platzová: I did read texts written by them and about them but it was their letters, diaries, some studies etc. Not the works of art—I think that would not help me at that point.
Stein: The past weighs much more heavily in the book than the present, with the interaction between Milena and Aaron being only a very small part of the novel. How intentional was this and considering how much less present he is, why does the novel’s use Aaron’s name?
Platzová: In the process of writing, whenever I switched to the present, it had always been kind of a rest for me. Dealing with the past was terribly intense, hard, I had to stretch my imagination and my empathy—well all my capacities—to the very limit. I needed some time off and that was Milena, Aaron, and their love affair. There was finally something that I knew very well. I think for the reader it works a bit the same way. You need to take some distance to be able to work in all that weight you mentioned. You need some easy time too.
As for the title. The novel works as a set of mirrors and Aaron is in some way Berta’s mirror. His fear of falling in love with Milena is Berta’s fear of painting, isn’t it? His dream about leaping from that church tower despite his terrible vertigo is perhaps the echo of K’s advice to Berta: Just jump! Dare! Paint with everything you are! Look, I could not name it “Berta’s Leap,” could I? That would be too obvious.
Stein: From reading both Aaron’s Leap and “Alphonsine” in Two Lines, the transitional time of the early ’90s in the Czech Republic seems to have an importance in your writing. Is this the case, and if so, is it because it was a formative period in your life, its historical significance, the literary possibilities it offers, or all of the above?
Platzová: It was definitely a formative period of my life but I still have to discover in what way it formed me . . . We didn’t know what was going on. On all levels the years after the collapse of Communism was very intense and very confusing. Even on a political and economic level, we, the Czechs, are only now finding out what was really going on then.
Stein: Is this a period you plan to return to in your writing? In a novel?
Platzová: Yes, I might. Actually, some twelve years ago I wrote a short novel Návrat přítelkyně (The Return of a Friend), which deals with the confusion of that period from a very young person’s point of view. But I think I will probably revisit it.
Stein: You were just published in the Czech issue of Words Without Borders with a number of other contemporary Czech writers. The previous generation of Czech writers has a certain established identity—how do you see your own generation?
Platzová: Maybe viewed from outside, I am part of some generation—I am just not aware of it. The last real “generation of writers” that I can think of is now at the age of my mother and a bit older. Gruša, Chudožilov, Kohout, Jirous, my mom Eda Kriseová, Kantůrková, Procházková, Ivan Klíma etc. I think, there might be a kind of generation being formed now by people born in the late ’70s and later, well those mostly represented in Words Without Borders. I have an impression they have things in common. Soukupová and Šindelka, for example. But it would be hard for me to name those common points without some further analysis. As for myself, I don’t think I really belong to that group. I feel stuck somewhere between the generations and I am not alone in that, there are definitely more of us.
Stein: What was the process like for you to become a writer?
Platzová: As I said before, my mother is a writer. A real old-times writer, I would say, with a vocation. She is also the dominant figure in our family, so me—trying to become myself—I didn’t want to be a writer. No way. I have been writing ever since I remember and reading all the time, but I didn’t even think of following in my mother’s footsteps. Also, it made no sense, as there were no “writers” in Communist Czechoslovakia. All real writers (for me) were those around my mother, who were all chased away from official literature. I didn’t even know any published Czech authors apart from the dead ones . . .. Real literature was printed in Samizdat or in exile publishing houses. So how could one want to become a writer?
I wanted to be a theater director but as everybody discouraged me, saying it is not for women (I wish I hadn’t listened to them!), I changed to being an actress. Later on, in the ’90s, I actually followed that call and did become a professional actress while studying philosophy in Prague. In the meantime, I studied in the US, in England and was writing all the time. I tried this and that, poetry and drama, just to avoid fiction, which was my mom’s field. Well, in the end, I gave in. I wrote one story in 1999, which was later translated into English as “Every Civilization Has its Heyday” and while writing that story, I somehow understood that this is myself. In everything else I did, there was always something missing—but this was finally all of me. That story did for me what “Das Urteil” did for Kafka (laughs).
© 2014 Michael Stein. All rights reserved.
Published Dec 4, 2014 Copyright 2014 Michael Stein