Ian Paganus's Reviews > Prague

Prague by Arthur Phillips
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Oct 24, 11

bookshelves: reviews, read-2011, phillips-arthur
Read from April 06 to June 11, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

Despite the title, the novel “Prague” is set exclusively in Budapest, the capital of Hungary.

A Confession and a Generalisation

First, a confession: I am hopelessly, romantically nostalgic about Hungary, a nation I have never visited.
There is a girl involved, well a woman, and the years were 1978 and 1979.
But you don’t want to know about that. Besides, we would need a few glasses of Bull’s Blood to taste the flavour of those times.
Second: a gross generalization: obviously influenced by the context of my first confession, I have never met a Hungarian I didn’t like or respect.

Some More Gross Generalisations

Part of the appeal of the nation and the people for me derives from the fact that they were part of two major social and political groupings during the twentieth century.
Pre-Second World War, they were the eastern half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
From 1947 to 1989, they were part of the Eastern Bloc.
Perched between Austria and Germany (on the West) , Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (to the North), and Romania and Ukraine (to the East), Hungary isn’t quite German or Prussian, and it isn’t quite Slavic.
Its language derives from a distinct group called Finno-Ugric or Finno-Ugaric.
The language with which it has most in common is Finnish.
Despite being pivotal to two Empires, the Hungarians are a distinct cultural island in a sea of variety.
Perhaps because of their differences, the history of this proud people is paradoxically marked by invasion and conquest by external forces.
Yet, wherever its émigrés have ended up, many of them have become extremely sophisticated and successful business people.

The Irony of Place

“Prague” is set exclusively in Budapest, the capital of Hungary.
This reflects an underlying irony that, at the time the novel is set, many of the characters believed they should really have been in Prague, because that is where all of the action was.
Yet Arthur Phillips chooses to set his fiction in the “lesser” of the two cities.
I still don’t know whether this choice of title is insightful or sophisticated or just plain immature.
There are several of these authorial choices that gnaw away at your satisfaction as a reader.
And all of them could have been easily remedied.
Only it's too late to do anything about it now.
A bad joke can follow you around for the rest of your life.
So there is a sense in which the author only has himself to blame for some of the criticism he has received in other reviews.
I want to be a little more generous though.

The Significance of Time

Arthur Phillips was born in 1969.
“Prague” is set in 1990 and 1991, when he was in his early 20’s.
It is the immediate aftermath of the Fall of Communism, when the country was starting to experience the shock waves and challenges and opportunities that rapprochement and integration with the West represented.

An Abundance of Characters

The truly Hungarian characters in the novel are in the minority.
The real focus is the disparate group of North American expatriates who have been lured to Budapest by the thaw.
Some seek business opportunities, some just want to be there to experience the aftermath of a cultural event as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall, some are literally in transit on their way to Prague.
All of them are in their 20’s, “young, anything is possible - friends, romance, adventure”.

Drumming Up Business

Arthur Phillips prefaces his novel with a quote from Thomas Mann:

“The age of arms and epopees is past…We are in for a practical era, you will see: money, brains, business, trade, prosperity…Perpetual peace is on the cards at last. Quite a refreshing idea – nothing whatever against it.”

These words provide an important clue about the design of the novel.
It is not just about a Generation X, a “Lost Generation” finding itself in Europe.
It is partly about business and how it is done and who it is done between.
Budapest is a new frontier town, and people, Americans, have come here to trade, to buy, to sell, to profit, only perhaps to put down roots, to build, to remain part of the future.
We quickly realise that all of the main characters will one day leave Budapest, that for them it will be one long indulgence, a carefully maintained hangover, a broken heart, a battle scar, a chemistry experiment, an education, a stepping stone, a CV entry, the source of some future nostalgia.
They will return to where they came from, clearly changed, possibly improved, only partly European, still essentially American.
Of course, they will leave behind them the city and people of Budapest , who will still have bridges to re-build, a nation to shape, business to be done and relationships and families to form.

The Expatriate Ensemble

For much of the novel, the cast is an ensemble.
Arthur Phillips wrote it in the third person, so initially we don’t identify with any particular character.
He uses a nice plot device of a game called “Sincerity” to introduce us to:

• Charles Gabor, an American of Hungarian origin, an up and coming venture capitalist here to buy State-owned businesses that are being privatised;
• Mark Payton, a gay Canadian who has just finished a thesis on the history of nostalgia;
• Emily Oliver, a junior Nebraskan embassy employee who describes her job as “neat”;
• Scott Price, from Los Angeles, someone who will only return to college “when they institute a master’s degree in living for the moment”, but in the meantime survives on “a diet of self-help books, brief and impassioned love affairs with Eastern philosophies, and a cyclical practice of wading in and out of various regimes of psychotherapy, accredited and otherwise”.

Ironically, Scott is the only one who finds true happiness in Budapest: he marries and settles down with a nice Hungarian girl.
However, it is Scott’s brother, John, who ends up being the keystone of the story.
He is a journalist with an English-language daily newspaper.
He has an eye for detail and a sensitivity greater than the others, and we see most of the events unfold and unravel through his eyes.
He allows himself to be infatuated with Emily, but to no great effect.
Instead, he finds himself in some sort of jump on again, off again relationship with shaven-headed Nicky, an ambitious and hard-working photographer and artist with the newspaper, who is one of the most interesting characters in the novel.

A Stylistic Diversion

The above introductions take place over 125 pages.
There is little action, we just get to see the ensemble in their new environment.
Phillips draws his characters out patiently, and we readers have to be patient with him.
His descriptions are detailed and lyrical, sometimes too lyrical.
While your judgment is still suspended, some of the prose can come across as a little bit purple and in need of editing or self-censorship.
It was particularly disconcerting to find this type of sentence on page 118:

“The young American man with the stubbly shaved head, ill-fitting khakis, and worn blue blazer who answered the door found the alarming sight of John Price’s bright red-smeared palm held up in mute explanation of why he could not shake hands quite yet.”

I even spent some time wondering how I would have edited or improved this sentence, only to conclude that only a complete excision with a blue pencil would do.
Still, put on notice and alert to similar breaches, I discovered that this was the worst sentence in the book, and nothing that was yet to come offended me so greatly.

Imre Horvath

We meet two main Hungarians, the first of whom is Imre Horvath, an urbane sexogenarian publisher who is returning from exile in Austria to reclaim ownership of his family’s publishing house.
Phillips makes a strange stylistic choice in how he introduces him.
Even before Horvath has appeared in the contemporary action, Phillips uses a 62 page section of the novel to detail the history of the Horvath Kiado, the publishing house that was established in the nineteenth century and managed by the Horvath family uninterrupted until the arrival of communism.
We meet Imre’s predecessors before we meet him.
It is this chapter that I felt reads like a Wikipedia article.
It is devoid of dramatic tension.
It has no context until later, when it is finished and we move on.
If you were already sceptical, this chapter would defeat you.
I persisted, to my benefit.
In the following chapter, we see how Charles Gabor treats Imre with little respect in their business dealings.
In the earlier chapter, we learn that Imre deserves respect, if only because of the history of generosity, community-mindedness, decency and sophistication that he personifies.
I read most of the dialogue between Charles and Imre, just wanting to slap Charles for his impudence and lack of respect.
But this is the point of the novel: no matter what you think of Imre personally, he personifies an old Europe.
Phillips’ ensemble of New World Americans are like Henry James’ characters climbing all over the face of the Old World and its cultural and business traditions.
They’re like 20-something management consultants coming in with their new-fangled management theories thinking they can change everything for the better.
The old and tested must be bad, the new and untested must be good or, at least, better.
There is a juxtaposition going on here.
However, it is so much a part of the recipe of the novel’s success that I would have preferred the content of the chapter to be revealed to us through dialogue or description interspersed within the action.
As it is, there is too much of a sense that the Hungarian Goulash has been cooked unevenly, and parts of it are underdone.
We are left to enjoy the idea of the meal, rather than the execution.

Nadja

The other Hungarian is a faded female jazz singer, possibly of a similar vintage to Imre, who sings and plays piano at the Blue Jazz club, somewhere you can drink, talk and listen to music beneath posters of Mingus, Monk and Parker, a previous generation of jazz expatriates.
John is captivated by Nadja and her stories, although we are never certain whether they are totally fabricated.
She recounts tales of Weimar Berlin, ironically a time before the Second World War that was equally attractive to expatriates, if a little more ominous than 90’s Budapest (although that might just mean that we couldn’t see the omens for Hungary in the 90’s).
As if that experience wasn't enough, Nadja describes other adventures - being fought over by two Gestapo officers, "her escape from Budapest, her bohemian life in the United States, her affair with a world-renowned concert pianist, her outrageous dealings with lesser European royalty", her return to Budapest.
Emily thinks she’s a liar, John wants to believe her, because ultimately she, like him, is a story teller, a little bit of a magician.
In the same way that Imre is urbane, sophisticated, accomplished, Nadja is vital, interesting, a spicy ingredient, the paprika in the Goulash.
She is a source of life and even sustenance, even if her tales might not be true.
At the end, when John visits her apartment, he is shocked to see so little evidence of her past.
There are no paintings on the walls, no objet d’art on exquisite cabinets, only perfume bottles in the bathroom.
The minimalism of her surroundings strengthen the impression that her stories might have had no substance.
However, John (and I) might just prefer to believe that she had few material possessions, because of the itinerant life she had always led.
Her life was in her head, she was like a snail carrying her home on her back, she had nothing but her stories and her memories and perhaps her nostalgia for a life lived to the full.

Success is Nothing Without a Succession Plan

The real action, such as it is, concerns the business deal between Charles and Imre.
Charles puts together a joint venture with Imre to acquire the publishing house back from the State, the beginning of the restoration of his family heritage.
In the absence of any family that Imre can locate, Charles is his new family, his succession plan, his guarantee of perpetuating the role of his enterprise as the conscience and memory of Hungary.
Needless to say, for Charles, this is just a commercial deal.
Imre is looking for continuity, Charles is looking for an exit strategy as soon as he has signed the papers.
John writes favourably about Charles in his newspaper, and Charles gets what he wants.
Ironically, just as the first wave of venture capitalists is leaving, a new wave of investors arrives.
Charles’ saviour is Hubert Melchior, a media entrepreneur, the owner of Multinational Median Corporation, not quite Rupert Murdoch, but a colorful, vulgar Australian nevertheless.
Just as this deal appears to be coming to fruition, John decides that he has had enough of Budapest and catches a train to Prague.
The middle and end of the novel are a lot more plot-driven than I have suggested.
However, I am reluctant to reveal any spoilers.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Throughout the novel, we see individuals, relationships, families, businesses and nations in transition.
In an ever-changing world, they seek continuity and stability.
In the Old World, tradition plays a greater role, for good and bad.
It gives its population a degree of confidence, but limits its possibilities.
In the New World, there appear to be no limits on the entrepreneurial personality.
Everybody seems to have confidence, but it is born out of individual egotism, not collective maturity or conscience.
You get the sense that Arthur Phillips genuinely knows the world he describes in the novel, as diverse as it seems.

Of Experience, Wisdom and Memories

Over the course of the novel, some of Phillips' characters do nasty things to each other, and he has been criticized for being too cold in his treatment of them.
However, I think that his characters are genuine, three-dimensional people with good and bad qualities.
The expatriates are at their most youthfully ambitious, and therefore at their most naively ruthless.
They haven’t learned how to slow down and achieve their goals at a steady, methodical, more considerate pace.
The Hungarians, Imre and Nadja, have a whole lifetime of experience and wisdom and memories.
The expatriates, apart from their childhood, are at the beginning of their own journeys and are just starting to take their first cocky, over-confident Gen X steps.
Apart from John, they reveal no respect for the wisdom and memories of the Hungarians.
Even John has to take into account the judgement and scepticism of his friends.
Yet, you also get the sense that this might be just one errant step in their own lives, that they will have up and down experiences of their own, even if they do not involve life-threatening moments or involuntary exile from your country, your family and your heritage.

Varieties of Nostalgia

You also get the impression that the expatriates will look back on their years in Budapest with a great sense of nostalgia, something similar to the nostalgia of Imre and Nadja.
But you also wonder whether, in the future, they will recall Budapest with a sense of guilt and wasted opportunity.
To this extent, “Prague” isn't shaped or weighed down by youthful idealism.
Ultimately, it is a fair-minded analysis of worlds and generations in apparent conflict.
For me, it is a wise and mature work by a precocious author.
The style of "Prague" is flawed in parts, all the more so, because the flaws stand out against a background of high quality.
There were several occasions when I almost put it aside, the sentence I quoted above, the Horvath Kiado chapter.
Yet I’m glad that I kept going, and grateful that Phillips rewarded my persistence.
I would trust him to take me on his future journeys, whether into the past or the future.
Just as Arthur Phillips can create a perceptive nostalgia for the past, I suspect he can conjure a magical "nostalgia for an age yet to come".
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Reading Progress

04/06/2011 page 30
8.0%
04/18/2011 page 110
28.0% "I am enjoying this more than I expected, although there is a lot happening on each page. I feel like there is a whole world of people and places swirling around me."
05/30/2011 page 110
28.0% "I have returned to this work, but one-third of the way in, when it should be starting to grab me, I'm wondering whether it's like some giant wiki-novel where someone has contributed large amounts of information and data about people, places and events (I hesitate to say action) to the wiki article, but nobody's started to shape or edit it yet. So far it has all the dramatic tension of my ten year old underwear."
06/10/2011 page 320
80.0% "I've swung right back and am feeling very positive about this novel."
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Comments (showing 1-34 of 34) (34 new)

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message 1: by Velvetink (new) - added it

Velvetink A book about Prague, Czech Republic but set in Hungary? Do I need to read this one?


message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus Velvetink wrote: "A book about Prague, Czech Republic but set in Hungary? Do I need to read this one?"

There is an explanation for the ironic name, but I'll leave that for my review.
At this stage, I would say there's no reason not to read it, especially for you, but I have received several warnings about this one, so I have to reserve judgement this early.


message 3: by Velvetink (new) - added it

Velvetink Ian wrote: "Velvetink wrote: "A book about Prague, Czech Republic but set in Hungary? Do I need to read this one?"

There is an explanation for the ironic name, but I'll leave that for my review.
At this stage..."



Looking forward to your review!


message 4: by Nancy (new)

Nancy There's a lot of mixed reviews for this one. I'm also looking forward to your review, Ian. My husband is Polish and we have done some traveling around Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.


message 5: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus Hi, Nancy
I postponed finishing reading it to The Pale King, which I've just finished, but I think I'm in the mood for 200 pages of light entertainment right now.
I don't know what I'm going to go to bed with, and I've only got five minutes to decide.


message 6: by Nancy (last edited May 07, 2011 05:49AM) (new)

Nancy I just took a peek at your shelf and see you haven't read The Dancers at the End of Time yet. There's humor, romance, aliens, and time travel. This wonderfully imaginative story warmed my heart and made me laugh out loud in public places. I think you'll enjoy it.


message 7: by Velvetink (new) - added it

Velvetink that's good to hear because I've ordered it!


message 8: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus I've yet to decide whether to give it four or five stars.
At this stage, I'd say four.
I'd like to finish the book and review this long weekend, but we're got another three day netball carnival on and I'm the scorer.
I remember the days when I used to go to clubs, so I could score.


message 9: by Velvetink (new) - added it

Velvetink Have fun! I was never a netball mum, my girls not sporty don't mind much but becomes serious when when they won't come to the beach with me.


message 10: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus Velvetink wrote: "Have fun! I was never a netball mum, my girls not sporty don't mind much but becomes serious when when they won't come to the beach with me."

I hate it when I have to body surf without them.
Review's up.


message 11: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus The first answer is: a girl.
The second answer is: yes.
I haven't bought a copy yet, but we might as well start.


message 12: by Velvetink (new) - added it

Velvetink :) I went to school with a Hungarian girl & worked with another. Didn't really get interested in the country till I read this http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46... by Eva Hoffmann. She talks about that transitional period of time there & it has some good interviews. (her book though not entirely about Hungary).
My copy of Prague not arrived yet.


message 13: by Ian (last edited Jun 12, 2011 11:26PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus Brian wrote: "Ha- I kind of suspected. It's always a girl."

Sorry, V, it's a bad habit of mine. And it gets me into trouble.
Thanks for the Eva Hoffman link, it sounds like it would be right up my alley.

Brian, I forgot to respond to the most important question in your post (besides forgetting to say, "thank you").
There is an early three page chapter about Mark's thesis.
At the risk of casting a modest spoiler into the thread, his best thinking on the subject is yet to be reduced to writing and will benefit from his sojourn to Budapest and Prague:

"His dissertation was necessarily limited to issues of methodology and quantifiable measurement in 'Vacillations of Collective Popular Retrospective Urges in Urban Anglophone Canada, 1980-1988'."


message 14: by Velvetink (new) - added it

Velvetink I knew it had to be a girl!

Am looking forward to reading this. Currently reading Atomised & although that is not set in Hungary it has that element of historical nostalgia but in a completely different way.
Wondering about Nadja (though will have to wait to read Prague)could she have no personal possessions because she lost it all during the war?.


message 15: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus Velvetink wrote: "Wondering about Nadja (though will have to wait to read Prague)could she have no personal possessions because she lost it all during the war?"

It's set 45 years after the war, so I don't think so.
I didn't originally want to say any more about this issue or the ending, because it's too spoiler-prone.
Would love to chat when you've read it though.
Nadja was one of my favourite characters, but she's a woman.


message 16: by Velvetink (new) - added it

Velvetink Ian wrote: but she's a woman.
.."


Meaning???


message 17: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus I started the book with an obsession with a woman and finished with a new one.


message 18: by Velvetink (new) - added it

Velvetink Ian wrote: "I started the book with an obsession with a woman and finished with a new one."

oh I see. I took it to mean something else and felt you were on shaky ground there for a bit.


message 19: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus I should say, I finished with an "additional" one, not a "new" one.


message 20: by Alex (last edited Jun 13, 2011 10:16AM) (new)

Alex >and it isn’t quite Slavic.
>Its language derives from a distinct group called
>Finno-Ugric or Finno-Ugaric.

Also they have some origin descending from Attila's Huns - therefore comes Hungary as the name of the country. Also another relevant historical-geographical term is Pannonia.

PS Ian - Besides List's "Hungarian Rhapsody" and Brahms's "Hungarian dances" have you watched/listened (I presumed that you personally has been in Hungary ? ;-) ) Imre Kalman operettas there ?

PPS - have you seen my review of Nabokov's Lolita ?


message 21: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus Hi, Alex, I haven't been to Hungary, which is part of the irony.
I wasn't aware of the Pannonian connection, but will read further. Thanks for this.
I can't say that my taste in classical music goes much further than piano- or horn-based arrangements (e.g., Baroque).
I have listened to the music you've mentioned before, but not recently.
I think I have them on some comps, so it's time I revisited them.
I've sent you a friend request, so I can read your review of Lolita.


message 22: by El (new)

El Impressive review, Ian. I have a copy of this book but haven't read it yet. Your review has me interested though; I'll have to bump it up on my reading list.


message 23: by Adrian (last edited Apr 11, 2013 02:23AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Adrian Buck Excellent - and exhaustive - review! If you're "hopelessly, romantically nostalgic" about Hungary, you really should read some of its own excellent literature. There's plenty in translation since Imre Kertesz won the nobel prize. I have about 40 on my Hungarian Fiction shelf. Márai's 'The Rebels' is a similar read to 'Prague'. I understand the bit about the girl.


message 24: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus Adrian wrote: "Excellent - and exhaustive - review!"

Adrian, sorry I missed your post. I've added the Márai to my wishlist.


message 25: by Ema (new)

Ema Ian, you've crafted quite an extensive review on this novel! While the background interests me (Budapest), I'm not sure the subject is what I'm looking for.
Why, I thought you've been to Budapest by now! What are you waiting for, Ian? It's a wonderful city, too bad Hungarians - even young people - can't really speak English, so it's an adventure to ask for directions, for example. :)


message 26: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus Thanks, Ema, I think you're right, this is Americans in Budapest. We'll have to wait for an Istvan Szabo film to do justice to the city. I didn't realise that Hungarians didn't speak that much English. My friend was fluent in Hungarian, Russian and French. Possibly German as well.


message 27: by Ema (new)

Ema Of course there are lots of Hungarians who manage foreign languages very well. I'm talking about average people, people I've met in the street. I went alone on one of my trips to Budapest and I had the unplanned chance of making a survey of Hungarians' knowledge of English. They were all nice and trying to help me, but they couldn't understand me or utter a reply.


message 29: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus Thanks, Adrian. I hope you're working to increase the 16%!


Adrian Buck 16% seems low to me - English is effectively compulsory all through Hungarian education - but my position is biased, I teach many excellent students, so for me its more like 75%!


message 31: by Ema (new)

Ema Yes, 16% is low, but it's an average for the entire country. It would be interesting to see a report from Budapest only. I would like to see one for Bucharest, too, as it seems that many people here know English at least on a minimum level (enough to give you directions), even older people. Wiki doesn't have a similar article for Romania, I've checked further and I've found a 17% of English knowledge for the entire country. Very low. But then, in the areas where Hungarians live inside Romania, some people there don't even speak Romanian. You have the feeling that you are in a totally different country! (no connection to English, I know)
Adrian, one question, since I see you live in Hungary: are the foreign movies dubbed there? This might be an explanation... But I still don't get it, if you say that English is compulsory.


Adrian Buck You're right about dubbing, it's disastrous for language education, and not cool aesthetically either. In Hungary everything is dubbed. The long story on English language education in Hungary, is that everyone must study a foreign language from the age of 7, and the vast majority of schools (95%?) offer English only. The program is about as successful as the Russian language program before 1989.


message 33: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Secor Your review interests me more than anything about Arthur Phillips' novel, except for the wonderful character, Nadja. The only reason I might reread Prague would be to revisit her stories.


message 34: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus Having read some of your Phillips reviews, I wonder whether I take him too seriously, but I found a lot of me int his one. I think it was one of my earlier reviews on GR.


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