Jan Němec

A History of Light

Dějiny světla
Dějiny světla
Host, 2013, 488 pp
Language: Czech
Genre: Prose
ISBN: 9788072949625
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 2014 Czech Book Award
 2014 European Union Prize for Literature
Foreign rights
Dana Blatná Literary Agency
W: http://www.dbagency.cz
E: blatna@dbagency.cz
E: nemec@hostbrno.cz
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A novel about the photographer František Drtikol.

Have you ever wondered what a story written by a beam of light would be like? First, the story would be ordinary but the course of events extraordinary; second, its hero would be a photographer, a guardian of light; third, naturally it would be full of shadow. So who was František Drtikol? A dandy from a small mining town, a world-famous photographer whose business went bankrupt, a master of the nude who never had much luck with women, a mystic and a Buddhist who believed in communism; a man whose many contradictions showed outwardly and were synthesized inwardly. The conception of Jan Němec’s extensive novel is very unusual for contemporary Czech prose – fresco-like, it is an artistic and spiritual Bildungsroman that covers over half a century, bringing to life the silver mines of Příbram, Jugendstil Munich and First Republic Bohemianism, with naked models wandering along the lines and light merging unobserved with knowledge…


“I’m certain that Jan Němec’s novel The History of Light is unrivalled in current Czech literature. And I’d even argue that it’s a beacon which Czech literature has been lacking for a long time.”

“The novel moves unsettlingly between imagination and non-fiction.”

“The novel is assembled from elements which sometimes appear to deviate from the novel’s story, but we soon realise how they in fact enhance it.”

Jiří Kratochvil, writer, ČT art

The History of Light isn’t only a biographical novel about František Drtikol. Němec uses the effect of hindsight – he depicts events whose participants cannot know the significance of what’s happening around them, while we are fully aware. Němec is essentially doing something similar to what Florian Illies did in the excellent novel 1913: The Year Before the Storm, where he for example lets Stalin meet Hitler in a Schönbrunn Palace garden; but the year is 1913 and none of those strolling through the park realise what atrocities these two men will one day commit.”

“The whole novel therefore represents a remarkable and substantial experiment, offering an account about Drtikol, the history of photography as a new art form, the cultural climate of the incredibly interesting and turbulent period around the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the First World War and the 1920s, but also about the narrative possibilities of contemporary novels. And as I’ve already mentioned Illies’s novel 1913: The Year Before the Storm, it’s worth adding that Jan Něměc has written a more than worthy Czech counterpart. Not only because of his ability to incorporate all the topics mentioned above into one novel in a sophisticated yet playful manner, but also because of an almost mysterious feature – the novel never loses its pace and is very hard to put down even after 400 pages.”

Petr A. Bílek, Respekt

“Mystery, success and loneliness – these are ingredients for a nutritious literary dish. The author Jan Němec chose photographer František Drtikol as the hero of his book The History of Light and wrote one of last year’s best Czech novels.”

“A great fate demands a great gesture – and Jan Němec’s novel about František Drtikol was able to achieve this with the necessary breadth. He writes about the mining town Příbram as if he were holding a pneumatic drill, about the young photographer’s juvenile loves as if he were in love for the first time, and about the nature of light, this substance which was so vital for the photographer, with the same wonder which Röntgen must have experienced when he discovered X-rays.”

“In the book, Jan Němec very successfully compiles various literary approaches – he addresses Drtikol in the 2nd person singular, the war chapter taking place from 1914 to 1918 is constructed entirely from letters. So why shouldn’t he convey the final stage of Drtikol’s life with silence? He does this very effectively – it’s a conscious silence rather than an absence.”

“The title itself reveals his ambition – if you’re writing The History of Light, you have to expect reactions from readers and critics comparing the result with the magnitude of the chosen task. Něměc succeeded, he’s readable and profound, spiritual and social.”

Aleš Palán, Hospodářské noviny

“I read this novel as a manifestation of a genre which is very fertile in the world but which is more or less absent in Czech literature, a biographical novel, which combines presenting the facts and myths about the life of a personality with the attempt to portray the hero’s life as a series of extraordinary and remarkable events, aiming at higher quality.”

“The author demonstrates his ability to study sources thoroughly and also remarkable linguistic and stylistic skills. His audience are readers of ‘true stories’.”

“Němec is able to brilliantly satisfy the rules of this genre. And in this sense, reading The History of Light was also a literary experience for me.”

Pavel Janoušek, Host

Selected published translations (6)

История на светлината Bulgarian

Historia światła Polish

A fény története Hungarian

Storia della luce Italian

Die Geschichte des Lichts German

Una historia de la luz Spanish

Language: Czech
Title: Dějiny světla
Place: Brno
Publisher: Host
Year: 2013
Pages: 488
Genre: Prose
 2014 Czech Book Award
 2014 European Union Prize for Literature
Foreign rights
Dana Blatná Literary Agency