20 great novels set in Prague: a reading list that spans 130 years of literature

A round up of some of the greatest novels about Prague written by non-Czech authors, over the course of 130 years

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston Published on 15.03.2020 11:00:50 (updated on 15.03.2020) Reading time: 5 minutes

With all large gatherings in Prague canceled, perhaps it’s time to stay home and catch up on some reading.

Even if you don’t venture outside, you can still literally visit Prague — that is as a backdrop to literature. There are entries by great authors such as Philip Roth and Umberto Eco, adventure writers like Lawrence Block and John le Carre, and even some sci fi by Marge Piercy.

This list looks at works by foreign authors, for whom Prague was an exotic place — so no Jaroslav Hašek, Milan Kundera, Franz Kafka or Gustav Meyrink.

There has also been a large number of novels set in Prague in the past 10 years, but these have not yet passed the test of time so only a few more recent works are listed.

Our 20 picks cover more than 130 years of literature, but there are many more.

Illustration from Witches of Prague, showing the entry to Clam-Gallas Palace

The Witch of Prague, by F. Marion Crawford, 1891. The city is presented as a center of strange occult events, with a woman named Unorna who has hypnotic powers and a cast of other oddballs. Much of the action occurs at the House at the Golden Well, near Charles Bridge. While the book is a charming curiosity, it does have some dated elements. Some versions contain vintage illustrations by W. J. Hennessy.

Three Men on the Bummel, by Jerome K. Jerome, 1900. The lesser-known sequel to Three Men in a Boat finds the same trio traveling around the continent and briefly getting lost in Prague. It contains some charming vintage descriptions of the city.

Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov, 1934, revised 1965. A chocolate factory owner finds his double, a homeless man. This leads to a plot to collect on insurance money —but there are complications. Some authors like Martin Amis consider it a classic, others are less favorable.

The Canceled Czech, by Lawrence Block, 1966. A rather fanciful view of Prague and 1960s politics is the setting for the second Evan Tanner novel, with a shadowy agent having to storm a castle to free a political prisoner before he can be executed.

A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. 1977. The author as a teenager traveled by foot across Europe in 1933/34, and wrote about it decades later. This first of three volumes follows him as far as the Danube and includes his time in Czechoslovakia.

Kepler, by John Banville, 1981. The life of the 17th century astronomer who lived in Prague in the era of Rudolf II is fictionalized in the second part of a trilogy about historical scientists. John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, revisited Prague and Emperor Rudolf II’s court in the 2017 crime mystery Prague Nights, called Wolf on a String in the US. He also reminisced on the city and its history in 2004’s Prague Pictures.

The Prague Orgy
Pavel Kříž, Jonas Chernick and “Václav” in  the film adaptation of The Prague Orgy. via Bioscope

The Prague Orgy, by Philip Roth, 1985. Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman visits pre-revolution Prague in search of an unpublished manuscript, and weaves his way around a world of dissidents who spend their days drinking and attending orgies. This short novella is presented as diary entries, and was recently adapted as a film.

A Perfect Spy, by John le Carre, 1986. One of the veteran spy author’s best works has scenes in Prague as well as London and Vienna. The plot involves double agent Magnus Pym, and a British intelligence officer playing both sides of the fence who gives information to a Czech operative named Axel.

Utz, by Bruce Chatwin, 1988. The title character is a collector of Meissen porcelain during the communist era. He wants to defect to the West, but won’t abandon his collection. He is trapped by his possessions.

Meissen figures. via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

He, She and It (also called Body of Glass), by Marge Piercy, 1991. Futuristic cyberpunk set in the year 2059 is blended with flashbacks about the Golem in Prague in the 1600s. Both tales question humanity versus artificial life.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, 2000. Prague figures in marginally in the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. One of the main characters escapes from Prague in 1939 by hiding in a coffin, and with a partner in New York City becomes a key player in the comic book industry.

Austerlitz, by W. G. Sebald, 2001. Architectural historian Jacques Austerlitz as a child was evacuated from Czechoslovakia to Wales in a kindertransport on the eve of World War II. As an adult, he returns to Prague to find out about the fate of his family.

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, by Gary Shteyngart, 2002. A young unsuccessful Russian in New York City winds up going to Prava, the Paris of the ’90s, as part of some convoluted plan involving mobsters. Prava is modeled on Prague.

Prague, by Arthur Phillips, 2003. Expats in Budapest in the early 1990s all wish they were in Prague instead, which is portrayed as a promised land. Still, the Hungarian capital offers its share of excitement.

The Devil’s Star, by Jo Nesbø, 2003. The fifth entry in the Harry Hole detective series is primarily set in Norway, but has some mention of Prague in a plot twist. As with all of Nesbø’s books, the crime elements are pretty gruesome.

kutna hora
Base of one the bone pyramids in Kutná Hora. via Raymond Johnston

The Black Angel, by John Connolly, 2005. The trail of a prostitute who vanished in New York leads to Europe. The author of this dark thriller with supernatural overtones was inspired in part by his visit to Prague in the 1990s and a side trip to the Bone Church in Kutná Hora.

Men in Space, by Tom McCarthy, 2007. After the fall of communism, a group of people chase a stolen icon from Sofia to Prague. The characters include refugees, referees, police, assassins, and stranded cosmonauts.

Prague Fatale, by Philip Kerr, 2012. Berlin cop named Bernie Gunther moves to Prague during World War II and gets caught up in the investigation of the murder of someone with ties to acting Reichsprotector Reinhard Heydrich. The Agatha Christie style locked room mystery sheds light on historical events of 1941.

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco, 2012. A large cast of historical characters including Alexandre Dumas are caught up in 19th century conspiracies and conspiracy theories, and some of it is connected to a forged anti-Semitic book linked to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague.

Melmoth, by Sarah Perry, 2018. A Gothic tale from the early 1800s is updated. This new take has a translator living in Prague delving into stories about a woman who has wandered the world for centuries, turning up at times of tragedy.

What are your favorite books where Prague takes center stage?

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