where the writers are
Kafka And The Coffee Houses of Prague

Kafka, for all his dour reputation, was a social animal. He frequented coffee houses, cafes and the theatres - even those newfangled ones which showed the 'flickers'. He spent many a night in discussions (though perhaps more as a listener), and not all his interests centred around literature. He was adept at both philosophical and political debate.

Prague's Café Louvre back at the turn of the 20th century
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Prague cafés retain splendor of another age

The spirit of Prague’s vibrant early 20th century intellectual world lives on in the Czech capital’s historic cafés

by Michael Stein


“When the great actor Norinski entered the National Café, which is located in front of Prague’s Czech Theater, at three o’clock in the afternoon, he started a little – but then immediately smiled his most disdainful smile.” This is the opening line of the short story “King Bohush” by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in which he parodies the Czech intellectual scene through the title character of an ill-fated hunchback. The haunt depicted is none other than Prague’s famousCafé Slavia, a favorite of artistic and intellectual Czech society from its opening in 1881 to the present day.

The vital role played by Prague cafés in intellectual history goes beyond the sphere of the Czech capital and nation to a truly global prominence. The most notable figure in this respect is Franz Kafka, though the city’s café-goers have included a wide variety of artists, philosophers, novelists and the Czech Republic’s first president, Václav Havel.

Havel’s dissident circle were habitues of Café Slavia and occupied the table below Viktor Oliva’s painting “The Absinthe Drinker” (pictured). The group were called the ’36ers because a majority of them were born, like Havel, in 1936. Fellow regulars included playwright Josef Topol, writer Věra Linhartová, poetJiří Kuběna and writer Pavel Švanda, among others. It was at Slavia in 1953 that the 17-year old Havel met his future first wife, Olga Havlová. The café was further immortalized in the poetry of Nobel prize-winner Jaroslav Seifert and even had a novel take its name in “Café Slavia” by Ota Filip.

© Cafe Slavia‘The Absinthe Drinker’ by Viktor Oliva hangs on the walls of Café Slavia

Later generations of rebellious artists that made Café Slavia their meeting point included the visual artists of the Tvrdohlaví Group, which boasts Petr Nikl and Stanislav Diviš as well as students and teachers at the neighboring Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) such asMiloš FormanJiří Menzel and Věra Chytilová.

The café’s post-communist life remained turbulent, with new American owners closing it up to the general chagrin of the local population. In 1993 President Havel entered the fray, reading an open letter threatening that its continued closing could “seriously damage the relations of Prague’s intellectuals towards capitalism and the US.”

When the various conflicts were finally resolved and Café Slavia was re-opened for good, renovated in the art-deco style it had exhibited during the 1930s, Havel declared the event “a small victory over stupidity.”

Kafka, Čapek and intellectual circles

Just up Národní street from Slavia is Café Louvre, a former haunt of Kafka’s when he participated in the philosophical discussions of the Brentano Circle, a group that met there to discuss the ideas of philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano.