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An old door creaks open, and from inside the house emerges a middle-aged man, a little on the stocky side in his dandyish garb, resting his weight on a polished wooden cane, as he pulls the door shut behind him. He looks up at the cloudless azure sky, his wavy combed-back hair twinkling silvery in the morning light. He runs his hand through his bushy beard a couple of times, then dons his soft hat, and pinches a pair of pince-nez on the bridge of his nose.

Before proceeding down the street, he casts a glance at the building across from his, and smiles to himself as he reflects on the manuscript that he gave the final stroke of his pen the evening before. Love, ambition, pecuniary scruples, the science of winning at lotto, betrothal, marriage and death.

Yes, to the observant eye, every human theme and experience plays itself out on the stage of any quiet little house over time. The man, whom we can call Mr. Neruda, nods to himself, and turns on his way up the street.

The city is only just waking up, as he softly wanders through the neighborhood, his attentive eyes taking in the endeavors of his fellow citizens. A much older man comes slowly hobbling down the street towards him, his chin covered in stubble gleaming like thick cream, his sparse hair circling the bald dome of his head, so grey that it had passed the silver stage and seemed to be turning back to gold.

A story I must write soon, Neruda whispers to himself. A little further down the street he spies a group of children huddled at the side of the street, deep in some very secret meeting. Neruda dumbstruck. He enters through the wide glass door, and is shown to his customary table next to one of the large windows overlooking the street. As he waits for his coffee and breakfast to be served, he quickly skims through the morning paper, which is already sitting on the table, as he sits down.

However, Neruda is merely pretending to read. The man, a Mr Schlegel is the stocky type, seemingly without a neck, sitting with his back to the window, observing another pair of men playing a game of billiards. His head had the shape of a bomb, his hair, though still black, was greying; where no beard grew, it was pink — a combination of luminous flesh and dark shadow, like the chiaroscuro in a Rembrandt portrait.

He was often under the weather, ailing, and his lower jaw tended to sag. His grey eyes were aided by lenses in black horn-rimmed frames. He wore a light-coloured wig, and from his not entirely grey eyebrows one could guess he had been fair-haired.

His cheeks were sunken and pale, so pale as to make his long nose look red, even crimson. Life always trumps literature, Neruda thinks to himself. These men have come here every day for eleven years, and not once uttered a word to each other.

He was a poet by temperament, and published many volumes of poetry in his lifetime in Czech. By profession, he was a journalist, and generally considered the towering man of letters in Prague in the nineteenth century. He was deeply involved in the issues of his times, and his editorials were eagerly read, as were his feuilletons, of which he wrote several thousand. Neruda chronicles the lives of the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the jolly and the melancholy, the solitary existences and the social butterflies.

He takes us into cramped apartments and attic spaces, and out unto the roofs and into the streets, painting a rich canvas of life in Prague as it were in the latter half of the 19th century.


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Jan Neruda


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