Prague

( 16 )

Overview

A novel of startling scope and ambition, Prague depicts an intentionally lost Lost Generation as it follows five American expats who come to Budapest in the early 1990s to seek their fortune. They harbor the vague suspicion that their counterparts in Prague have it better, but still they hope to find adventure, inspiration, a gold rush, or history in the making.
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Prague

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Overview

A novel of startling scope and ambition, Prague depicts an intentionally lost Lost Generation as it follows five American expats who come to Budapest in the early 1990s to seek their fortune. They harbor the vague suspicion that their counterparts in Prague have it better, but still they hope to find adventure, inspiration, a gold rush, or history in the making.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
At first glance, Arthur Phillips's superb novel reads like an updated version of Ernest Hemingway's classic The Sun Also Rises -- with a healthy dose of Douglas Coupland's Generation X tossed into the mix. Set in eastern Europe after Communism's operatic demise in the early 1990s, this ambitious and exquisitely written debut centers on an eclectic group of young expatriates as they live, love, lie, and drink their way through the dimly lit, paprika-perfumed bars of Budapest.

Budapest? Yes, don’t be fooled by the title -- none of the characters in this novel ever make it to the enchanted city on the Vltava River, the "land of spires and toy palaces and golden painted gates and bridges with sad-eyed statues peering out over misty black water." Budapest, unlike its neighbor to the north, is a city battered by history, pockmarked with bullets, and left by its former occupiers to fade and crumble from time and abuse. Yet it is here that the likes of Charles Gábor, a shrewd financier who is set to grab hold of the fallen city and drag it into the 21st century; John Price, a sensitive, wide-eyed romantic writer; and Emily Oliver, a country bumpkin working at the U.S. embassy (and the object of John's affections) have chosen to live and work out their self-imposed exile.

If Hemingway's characters encapsulated a "Lost Generation," one frustrated and left to feel uncertain about a world literally discombobulated by the horrors of global war, Phillips's sojourners know no such drama. These wanderers are the grandchildren of the "Greatest Generation" -- a new generation insulated and isolated in many ways from world history. And that's where the beauty of Phillips's novel diverges from Hemingway's: How can a group of young, middle-class Americans who have never known oppression ever be anything but spectators in a world emerging from a 50-year prison sentence? They can't. Is Phillips's novel then a whiny talkfest about spoiled rich kids trying to find significance in their ultimately insignificant lives? Not at all. Prague, rich in history and beautifully written, ultimately explores the flight of the human soul toward some kind of truth and reveals that through exile from one's home, country, and history, self-perception can be plucked and ripened like a fruit on a window sill. This is an auspicious debut. (Stephen Bloom)

From the Publisher
“Ingenious...Phillips presents his characters with a wry generosity and haunting poignancy to rival his wonderfully subversive wit.”
—The New York Times

“Wry and skillful...a rare balance of wisdom and imagination.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“Stop yearning for that elegant, entertaining novel that used to be. Thanks to Phillips, it’s right here, right now.”
—Newsweek

“Rhapsodic.”
—The Washington Post Book World

“Heartbreaking...a masterpiece of caustic satire.”
—Los Angeles Times

“Really an old-fashioned novel of ideas...very funny...likely to leave you aching, too.”
—The New Yorker

“Few first novels blaze with such all-knowing poise....Phillips is a wisecracking microbiologist of society and spirit.”
—People

Tom LeClair
Prague is one of the best first novels I've read in several years. It is also one of the most challenging, for Arthur Phillips reworks the nineteenth-century international novel, the setting-saturated, character-centered, slow-moving form practiced by Henry James. Readers used to the action-oriented plots that drive much of the contemporary fiction about Americans abroad will need to adjust to the more complex and more subtle intertwining of stories that Phillips presents. Like the old and beautiful city for which the novel is named, Prague requires and rewards leisurely exploration.

Prague opens in Budapest in May 1990. Five North Americans in their mid- to late twenties sit in a cafe and play Sincerity, a game in which each participant makes five statements others have to judge as true or false. What the characters state about themselves and how they respond to their friends set up an immediately interesting dynamic that Phillips complicates and then extends by bringing other people into the initial group. "Somehow this one game of Sincerity becomes the distilled recollection of a much longer series of events," Phillips writes. "It persistently rises to the surface of your memory—that afternoon when you fell in love with a person or a place or a mood, when you savored the power of fooling everyone, when you discovered some great truth about the world."

Charles Gabor, master of Sincerity and insincerity, is a Hungarian-American venture capitalist bottom-feeding in the newly open economy. Mark Payton, who recently earned a doctorate in cultural studies, is passionately committed to his scholarly analysis of nostalgia in different cultures. Emily Oliver, alow-level employee at the American Embassy, says she's incapable of lying. Scott Price, a California health faddist teaching English, is a master of irony. His younger brother John, a recent arrival who becomes a columnist for the English-language newspaper, is Phillips' focal character, a person who oscillates between sincerity and insincerity.

In this novel about the search for authenticity, all five of the main characters have secret desires that move them and the book forward. Charles plots the takeover of a small Hungarian publisher for himself, not for his firm. Mark pursues other men. The wholesome Nebraska-bred Emily has a lesbian liaison. And always-flippant Scott turns out to be seriously engaged with a Hungarian woman.

John Price is more complicated. Although he moons over Emily, he has sex with several other women, including his brother's girlfriend. John follows Mark's lead in studying old Budapest, yet helps Charles plot against the hoary publisher who symbolizes the city's history. Toward the end, the business takeover provides some conventional suspense; but the characters' changing responses to one another and to a closely observed setting are the author's primary interests and, in turn, become the reader's.

Phillips has said he suffers from "hyperglycemic nostalgia," and Prague longs for the "seriousness"—a key word in the book—of nineteenth-century fiction. Phillips narrates the story omnisciently and persistently, usually choosing indirect discourse over dialogue. The effect is authorial high seriousness, but with a touch of haughty superiority. The characters don't seem to satisfy their creator, not even the "authentic" Hungarians, not the aged publisher Imre Horvath, not the elderly jazz pianist Nadja. Their history as victims of both Nazis and communists gives them an initial appeal that Phillips diminishes as they become self-promoting windbags, perhaps to impress the outsiders.

If Budapest can't measure up to Prague (a place the characters never go), and if Phillips' characters can't measure up to his ideal of authentic living, I can say—as a part-time resident of a Balkan country—that Phillips gets just right the eccentricities of an expatriate community. Living at the edge of familiar European culture makes his characters intensely conscious of themselves and their friends. Most enjoy being "exotic" without doing anything to earn that label. English teacher Scott knows no Hungarian and takes pleasure from living outside of language. Several characters suffer from the dread "Visiting Family Syndrome" that takes them away from their friends. Those in the country for six months resent recent arrivals, and anyone with an apartment mocks tourists. In one of the novel's great comic moments, Charles, Mark and John give a student travel writer a mass of specious information about "authentic" Budapest destinations.

Phillips also finds inventive ways of presenting Hungarian history that contrasts with the shallow pasts of his North American characters. The 200-year-old publishing firm, which did business with a succession of governments, represents Hungarian political life. Buildings that the characters live in or move among still have bullet marks from the 1956 "revolution," and the old pianist Nadja tells stories of Hungarians who were frequently forced into exile. Phillips' characters keep saying Budapest is no Prague, but Phillips makes the city as fascinating to readers as Prague is to his characters.

At 380 densely printed pages, Prague is unusually long for a first novel by an unknown writer. To do full justice to its numerous characters, it needed to be longer yet. The Americans compare themselves to the Lost Generation of Americans in Paris in the '20s, but Phillips is too serious a writer to engage in this kind of shortcut, group characterization.

Although Phillips knows—as a resident alien, as a novelist—that authenticity is earned, he or his editor didn't allow Prague the space to fully become what it initially promised to be. But Phillips promises to be a strong new American voice, and Prague is the largest-minded first novel since Mark Z. Danielewski's audacious House of Leaves in 2000.
Publishers Weekly
Everything about this dazzling first novel is utterly original, including the title: it's about a group of young American (and one Canadian) expatriates living in Budapest in 1990, just after the Communist empire has collapsed, and the point of "Prague" is that it's the place everyone would rather be, except they have all somehow settled for Budapest as second best to their idealized Central European city. The author's way of bringing his five central characters onstage is also devilishly clever. They are playing a game invented by Charles Gabor, the only one with a Hungarian background called Sincerity, in which scores are made by telling convincing lies and by seeing through the lies of others. This serves at once to introduce these characters and allows the author to play with their sense of themselves. There is sophisticated, devious Charles, working for a New York investment company seeking newly privatized Hungarian businesses to invest in; Mark, a Canadian intellectual obsessed with the elements of nostalgia (and finding Budapest a rich repository); John, who writes a mordant column on the clashes of the old world and the new for the English-language BudapesToday; John's older brother, Scott, who despises him; and Emily, an apparent innocent from Nebraska who works at the U.S. Embassy. At the heart of the story is Charles's attempt to take over a venerable Hungarian publishing company, whose history is brilliantly sketched and whose aged scion, Imre Horvath, is a quintessential Central European survivor. John nurses a hopeless passion for Emily, becomes involved with a bald-headed collage artist and listens, enchanted, to the tales of an elderly pianist in the group's favorite jazz club. Mark disappears, Scott decamps and the publishing caper ends in disillusionment. But what happens in this novel is not nearly so important as Phillips's wonderful grasp Budapest's look, style and ethos, and his sometimes sympathetic, often scathing view of the Western interlopers. His writing is swift, often poetic, unerringly exact with voices and subtle details of time, place and weather. This novel is so complete a distillation of its theme and characters that it leaves a reader wondering how on earth Phillips can follow it up. Agent, Marly Rusoff. (June 18) Forecast: An introductory note to readers from Random editor Lee Boudreaux eloquently makes the case for this brilliant book, which seems certain to be widely and admiringly reviewed. Likely bookseller enthusiasm as well should help launch it to the position it deserves as the most memorable fiction debut of the year to date. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This audacious first novel is set where else? in Budapest; Prague is simply the place to be, but our protagonists have not been able to get there. What amounts to a plot a term that entails too ordered a progression of events to seem quite right here unfolds in those heady days of 1989-90, right after communism expires in Eastern Europe, and involves a group of young expats (one Canadian, the rest Americans) with overlapping lives. Also present is a distinguished Hungarian survivor of last century's twin horrors, fascism and communism. Despite the often desultory movement of Phillips's characters along the avenues of Pest and across the Danube bridges, with little happening but the disappointment that nothing much is happening, the author commands a sweep of history and a mastery of language that make this debut highly impressive. Phillips's exhilarating exploration of time, memory, and nostalgia brings to mind such giants as Proust and Joyce. A rich, spicy goulash served up to all with an appetite for fine writing and history. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/02.] Edward Cone, New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375759772
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/10/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 483,144
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Arthur Phillips was born in Minneapolis and educated at Harvard. He has been a child actor, a jazz musician, a speechwriter, a dismally failed entrepreneur, and a five-time Jeopardy! champion. He lived in Budapest from 1990 to 1992 and now lives in Paris with his wife and son.

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

It takes a lot of guts to call your first novel Prague. The name alone has become shorthand for a temporary fantasy world populated by overprivileged, post-collegiate Westerners trying to find themselves. It takes even more guts to call your first novel Prague and set it in Budapest.

Luckily for Arthur Phillips, the confidence is backed up by talent. His 2002 debut became a national bestseller that landed on several critics' year end "best of" lists, including Newsweek, Publishers Weekly, and The New York Times.

The seeds for Prague were planted in 1990, when Phillips graduated from Harvard and moved to Budapest. After the fall of Communism, Central Europe became the latest stopping point for would be bohemians looking to recreate the spirit of Paris in the ‘20s. Phillips spent the next two years working a variety of odd jobs, including stints as an executive assistant, an entrepreneur, a jazz musician, and a repo man.

While in Budapest, Phillips was struck by the radically different communities living together in the Hungarian capital. On one side were the expatriates: young, carefree, self-consciously aware of their role in history. On the other side were the natives: experienced, distant, routinely suspicious of the invading foreigners, yet smart enough to exploit the boon for their own benefit.

The gap between and necessary collision of the two worlds resonates throughout Prague. As Phillips writes on his website, "For some people I knew, the ear-popping pressure of so much history and self-consciousness made it hard to get up in the morning, to justify your lunch, let alone your existence. What does it mean to tell a girl you ache for her as the two of you stand in front of a building with bullet holes in it? What does it mean to fret about your fledgling and blatantly temporary career when the man next to you managed to get himself tortured by the secret police of two different regimes?"

In 1992, Phillips returned to the States to study music at Berklee in Boston. He graduated after a year and a half and started playing music professionally. Shortly thereafter, he got married. It did not take long for his wife to become "increasingly dubious about [his] abilities to make any money," so Phillips did what any man in his situation would do—he tried out for Jeopardy. Six months later, Phillips was on the show, earning enough money as a five-night champion to fund his next few years of exploits.

He began work on Prague in 1997. "I had been back in the States for about 5 years, and I felt so overwhelmingly nostalgic for that time and place, that I really was kind of a drag to be around," Phillips said in a 2002 interview with NPR's All Things Considered. "And my wife and others would ask me to stop talking about Hungary. And so I thought, well, maybe I could write about this time and then maybe I can work through some of my nostalgic issues."

It took Phillips four years to write the book and another six months to find an agent. Random House picked up the novel and published it to nearly universal acclaim. Janet Maslin praised it in The New York Times as "an ingenious debut novel." Other critics called Prague "devilishly clever" (Publishers Weekly), "hilarious and scathing" (Salon.com) and "astonishingly good" (Minneapolis Star Tribune). Phillips, it seems, had finally found his niche.

Two years later, Phillips published his second novel, The Egyptologist. Phillips came up with the idea for the novel when asked by his sister to describe the writing process. To Phillips, writing is like, "an archaeological expedition. You think you're describing the main chamber, but then you discover another door and you go through it and find an even larger room, and what you thought was your goal turns out just to be a piece of a much larger structure you hadn't expected to find."

Phillips has gone on to write Angelica, The Song Is You, and The Tragedy of Arthur, all to critical acclaim.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 23, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      Minneapolis, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B.A., Harvard College, 1990
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

PART ONE

FIRSTIMPRESSIONS

HE DECEPTIVELY SIMPLE RULES OF THE GAME SINCERITY, AS played late one Friday afternoon in May 1990 on the terrace of the Caf Gerbeaud in Budapest, Hungary:

1.  Players (in this case, five) arrange themselves around a small caf table and impatiently await their order, haphazardly recorded by a sulky and distracted waitress with amusing boots: dollhouse cups of espresso, dense blocks of cake glazed with Art Nouveau swirls of translucent caramel, skimpy sandwiches dusted red-orange with the national spice, glass thimbles of sweet or bitter or smoky liqueurs, tumblers of bubbling water ostensibly hunted and captured from virgin springs high in the Carpathian Mountains.

2.  Proceeding circularly, players make apparently sincere statements, one statement per turn. Verifiable statements of fact are inadmissible. Play proceeds accordingly for four rounds. In this case, the game would therefore consist of twenty apparently sincere statements. Interrupting competition with discursive or disruptive conversation, or auxiliary lies, is permitted and praiseworthy.

3.  Of the four statements a player makes during the course of the game, only one is permitted to be “true” or “sincere.” The other three are “lies.” Players closely guard the identity of their true statements, the ability to simulate embarrassment, confusion, anger, shock, or pain being highly prized.

4.  Players attempt to identify which of their opponents’ statements were true. Player A guesses which statements of players B, C, D, and E were true. Player B then does the same for players A, C, D, and E, et cetera. A scoring grid is made on a crumb-dusted cocktail napkin with a monogrammed (cmg) fountain pen.

5.  Players reveal their sincere statements. A player receives one point for each of his or her lies accepted by an opponent as true and one point for each identification of an opponent’s true statement. In today’s game of five people, a perfect score would be eight: four for leading each poor sap by the nose and four more for seeing through their feeble, transparent efforts at deception.

II.

SINCERITY—A STAPLE AMONG CERTAIN CIRCLES OF YOUNG FOREIGNERS living in Budapest immediately following 1989–90’s hissing, flapping deflation of Communism—is coincidentally the much-admired invention of one of the five players in this very match, this very afternoon in May. Charles Gábor, when with people his own age, seems always to be the host, and at this small café table on this sunny patio he reigns confidently and serenely. He resembles an Art Deco picture of a 1920s dandy: long fingers, measured movements, smooth and gleaming panels of black hair, an audaciously collegiate tie, crisp pleated slacks of a favorite cotton twill, a humorously pointed nose, a sly half-smile, one eyebrow engineered for expressivity. Under the green and interlacing trees surrounding the terrace and nodding over the heads of tourists, resident foreigners, and the occasional Hungarian, Charles Gábor sits with four other Westerners, an unlikely group pieced together these past few weeks from parties and family references, friend-of-friend-of-friend happenstance, and (in one case, just now being introduced) sheer, scarcely tolerable intrusiveness—five people who, in normal life back home, would have been satisfied never to have known one another.

Five young expatriates hunch around an undersized café table: a moment of total insignificance, and not without a powerful whiff of cliché.

Unless you were one of them. Then this meaningless, overdrawn moment may (then or later) seem to be somehow the summation of both an era and your own youth, your undeniably defining afternoon (though you can hardly say that aloud without making a joke of it). Somehow this one game of Sincerity becomes the distilled recollection of a much longer series of events. It persistently rises to the surface of your memory—that afternoon when you fell in love with a person or a place or a mood, when you savored the power of fooling everyone, when you discovered some great truth about the world, when (like a baby duck glimpsing your quacking mother’s waddling rear for the first time) an indelible brand was seared into your heart, which is, of course, a finite space with limited room for searing.

Despite its insignificance, there was this moment, this hour or two, this spring afternoon blurring into evening on a café patio in a Central European capital in the opening weeks of its post-Communist era. The glasses of liqueur. The diamond dapples of light between oval, leaf-shaped shadows, like optical illusions. The trellised curve of the cast-iron fence separating the patio from its surrounding city square. The uncomfortable chair. Someday this too will represent someone’s receding, cruelly unattainable golden age.

To Charles Gábor’s right sits Mark Payton, who will eventually think of this very moment as one of the glowing, unequaled triumphs of his life. Retrospection will polish from this ambiguous, complicated afternoon all its rough edges, until Mark will be able to see nearly to its crystalline center, to its discernible seedpod of future events, to the (extremely unlikely) refraction of himself as a young and happy man, sniffing love and welcome in the spring air.

He sits at peace, a state he is lately finding harder and harder to achieve. When these five met at the Gerbeaud this afternoon, before Charles pulled out Emily Oliver’s chair for her, Mark was already discreetly securing the seat he wanted, as he always does at the half-dozen places he’s come to love in his two months in Budapest. He knows that his view, and with it his afternoon, perhaps even several days, would have been damaged if his secret wishes had been thwarted by a misseating of even forty-five degrees.

Safely placed, he can turn his head to the left and see the Café Gerbeaud itself, into its antique interior, into the very past: pastry cases, walls of mirrors and dark wood panels, red velvet seat cushions on gold-painted chairs. In daylight, the cushions are threadbare and the paint flakes, but Mark Payton doesn’t mind. A reupholsterer would steal a certain something in exchange for his handiwork. Atmospheric decay and faded glory reassure Mark, prove something. Much of Budapest—unpainted, uncleaned, unrepaired during forty-five years of Communist rule immediately following a brutal war—provides similar pleasures. For now.

Straight ahead and past his friends, Mark’s New World eye is treated to the grand, intentionally overwhelming European architecture of the nineteenth century (though it has long since lost the ability to overwhelm its native audience). For years Mark has longed to stare at such architecture, to inhale it, ingest it somehow. Unfortunately, he cannot forget that down Harmincad utca to the left, a Kempinski Hotel is slated to inflict its glass-and-steel corporate modernity on the odd, neglected asymmetry of neighboring Deák Square. But at least he can’t see the site’s unspeakable stretch marks and scars from where he sits.

Just to the right of tiny (hardly mappable) Harmincad utca stands an office building in his beloved typical-nineteenth-century Haussmann style, the sort of giant mansard-roofed beauty sprinkled all over Pest and Paris, Madrid and Milan. That its ground-floor, window-front space is occupied by the dusty and only sporadically open sales office of a second-string airline does not offend Mark’s aesthetics, because the decor of the office, plainly visible from his seat, is so absurdly 1960s East Bloc, so unintentionally and yet bittersweetly hilarious, that it evokes a golden age all its own: a sun-faded epoch of boxy-suited apparatchiks and black-and-white Ivy League diplomats in round metal glasses, of stewardesses in pillbox hats, of Bulgarian assassins and Oxbridge traitors, of this amusingly foreign and irrelevant airline acquiring such prime real estate due to ideological compatibility rather than free-market wherewithal.

That office building defines most of the east side, and the Gerbeaud the entirety of the north side, of Vörösmarty Square, the touristic (if not geographic) center of Budapest: artists and easels scattered around the towering bronze perch of Vörösmarty, a poet Mark intends to research eventually, if he can find translations. And the plaza’s southern side: nineteenth-century buildings parting to reveal Váci utca, a pedestrian shopping street, curving away and out of sight. From its mouth echoes the anachoristic sound of an Andean band, piping and thumping love songs of the Bolivian highlands. The musicians serve a welcome purpose for Mark: The throbbing serape-clad romantics screen the unsightly view of a blocks-long line of Hungarians, some in finery for the occasion, eager to sample Hungary’s first McDonald’s.

Of course, the rest of the group has not been spared the square’s west side, from which Mark has protected himself. But even with his back to it, he can sense the building jeering at him, the concrete slabs and offensive edges of its 1970s façade (too old to be new, too young to claim the aesthetic privileges of antiquity) painfully visible from the Gerbeaud unless one is farsighted enough to claim the westernmost seat under the gentle green branches, next to the graceful ironwork, with the view into the café’s dark interior, into the sparkling past.

Fast losing his red hair and fast gaining weight, his pouched and sagging face always looking vaguely exhausted even when his conversation motors hyperactively on matters of history and culture, Mark Payton comes from Canada, where (barring some quasi-French enclaves) it doesn’t look like this. He has just emerged from nearly twenty-two years of education. Having acquired his Ph.D. in cultural studies a few months ago, he is now three weeks into a projected eleven-month European trip, researching the book that he intends to be a popularized expansion of his doctoral thesis: a history of nostalgia.

Next to him sits Emily Oliver, a Nebraskan, though she passed her first, mostly forgotten, five years in Washington, D.C. She too has recently arrived, landing in March to serve as the new special assistant to the United States ambassador, a post she secured on her own merits but also with the assistance of peculiar family connections. Answering the noticeably keen inquiries of the newest arrival at the table, she has just described her job as “neat” but also “a little, you know, menial, not that I’d ever complain,” complaining being a crime her widowed father punished with tickling (until Emily was seven), pithy aphorism (seven through twelve), and thereafter with stark descriptions of real suffering he had witnessed—in Vietnam or in a local thresher accident or in her mother’s last weeks. End of complaints.

Emily looks very American; even Americans say so. (“She smells like corn on the cob,” Charles Gábor will say, shuddering, when discreetly asked later this evening about her availability.) She wears her light brown hair pulled into a ponytail, entirely revealing what Nebraska society politely termed a square jaw but which in fact is much closer to a broad isosceles triangle hanging parallel to the ground, suspended from her ears. Imposing as it is, she has always laughingly resisted the well-meaning roommates and hairstylists who devise methods to “soften” her features or “accentuate her eyes.”

She embodies and publicly extols straightforwardness, a quality her history-battered Hungarian acquaintances find simultaneously charming and a little inexplicable, a flat-earth approach to the world. Embassy elders and their wives cite her listening skills, her aura of certainty and solidity, her similarity to their younger selves, and she cannot argue with any of that, though she wouldn’t mind hearing the last comparison a bit less often. Roommates invariably declare her to be just the sweetest, most trustable woman in the world, not the boring girl you’d expect when you first meet her.

Here at the Gerbeaud this afternoon, as on most days, she wears khakis, white oxford shirt, blue blazer, standard dress for young nondiplomatic employees of the U.S. embassy, but also the unmistakable tribal costume of the world’s interns and first-year assistants. Emily appears to be one of those, too, despite her up-beatitude, one of those about to face the disillusionment of boring jobs with glamorous titles, soon to retreat into the warm embrace of another, more marketable degree and a little more time to think.

To her right sits a young man who recently asserted quarter seriously that he will return to school only “when they institute a master’s degree in living for the moment.” Scott Price’s declaration testifies to 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. Scott’s repeated requests, however, each sharper than the last, that Charles ask the elusive waitress whether the Carpathian mineral water contains any sodium, and his evident frustration at Charles’s unwillingness to comply or even take the question seriously, belie Scott’s recent public claim to “have achieved a new, better relationship with anger.”

Seven months ago Scott swayed very close to a heaving stage-front amplifier in a Seattle nightclub, and he bathed in a long-overdue and honey-sweet epiphany. “Look at Me, I’m Above It All”—an early hit during Seattle’s dominance of American pop—roared over and through him, and though he knew the song’s title was meant ironically, he chose not to take it that way; from that moment, he would be above strife, out of reach of another recently fumbled relationship, yet another unhappy work situation, and, most of all, his family’s long-distance constrictions and chills and cruelties. He knew he would not return the next day to the small athletic woman who had been guiding his failed six-week effort to tweeze out and incinerate any repressed memories of his parents doing something even more sinister than what he could naturally recall. He stood between the amp and the crowd, and the sound peeled from him years of resentment, which he knew he would never need again.

He left the U.S. a week later, not informing his family in Los Angeles, punctuating nearly two years during which contact with his parents and his brother was already infrequent. He surfaced, breathing easily, in Budapest. There he put his college degree to use as Assistant Head of Programs at the Institute for the Study of Foreign Tongues, a privately held chain of schools—first Prague, then Budapest, Warsaw, Sofia, plans afoot for Bucharest, Moscow, Tirana—hawking that most valuable commodity: English.

It is not only at that school or at this table that Scott’s ash-blond hair, nearly Scandinavian features, svelte muscularity (tank top), and patently Californian health stand out. In any corner of Budapest he looks positively exotic, an obvious foreigner even before he confidently mispronounces one of his few words of Hungarian, or, in slow, pedagogic English, pesters underpaid waiters in state-owned restaurants that haven’t changed their pork-predominant menu offerings since the birth of Stalin to make him something vegetarian. Not so different after all, Scott has joked, from his L.A. childhood spent among three foreigners claiming to be his parents and younger brother. (Though Scott neglects to mention that he was then the tremendously—cartoonishly—obese blond Jew in a family of more traditional models: short, slim, curly-haired, olive-skinned.)

After four months in Hungary, Scott blundered into his predictable but somehow always surprising moment of sentimental weakness. Late one night, bothered that his mother might suffer even more regret than he would wish for her, he sent to California a postcard with a picture of Castle Hill in Buda and the text Am here for a while teaching. Hope you are all okay. S. He regretted it as soon as the card schussed into the little red mailbox, but he consoled himself that he had given no address, and surely even they would be able to read between the lines. His carefully constructed world was still safe.

Except that two months later, to Scott’s right sits today’s fifth competitor, his newly arrived and disproportionately loathed younger brother, John.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Arthur Phillips

RH:  How long did you live in Budapest? What did you do there?
AP:  I lived in Budapest for two years, and I tried my hand at a slew of things, all of which I did badly, but I appreciated the Hungarians’ willingness to keep trying me out. After working for an American businessman, I fumbled in and quickly out of advertising, bumbled some real estate development, failed to liquidate vast quantities of coffee and condoms, was very briefly a repo man, and ended up as a poor-quality jazz musician. All of which was worth it, as I had fallen hopelessly in love with Budapest and would have done anything to stay there just a little longer.

RH:  In Prague you describe a game called Sincerity, which is played by the characters. Did you invent this or was it a game that expats actually played?
AP:  It is interesting to note that people have read the book and told me they recall playing the game in the late eighties and early nineties. Equally interesting is that I recall making the game up one sunny day in Cambridge in 1997 and thinking I had found a nifty way to start my Budapest novel. Either I am a genius who can create games that total strangers incorrectly feel they have played, or I am a fraud, unable to distinguish my inventions from real experience. I am okay with either of these possibilities.

RH:  Why is your novel called Prague if it’s not set there? How did Prague become known as the city to go to in the early 1990s?
AP:  The novel is named not for a city, but for an emotional disorder.Milan Kundera wrote a marvelous book called Life Is Elsewhere (set in Prague, incidentally) that touches on the same idea: if only I were over there, or with her, or doing that, or born fifty years earlier, then I would be where the action is. So for some expatriates living in Budapest, Prague felt like the place to be. Had those same people been in Prague, Budapest would have seemed like their paradise misplaced.

Prague’s reputation as the reincarnation of Paris in the 1920s may or may not have been earned, but of course Paris in the 1920s was probably not really Paris in the 1920s until A Moveable Feast was published in 1964. And if people suffering from this disease had actually made it to Paris in the 1920s, they would have been disappointed that it didn’t feel more like London in the 1880s. I know I would have been. Of course, purely aesthetically, one’s preference for Prague or Budapest really depended on whether you preferred your temporarily adopted city untouched by war, or bombed and rebuilt. Those are different looks, and appeal to different strains of Boneheaded Romantics.

RH:  Did you ever go to Prague? Was it your ultimate destination?
AP:  My “ultimate destinations” tend to be a little more difficult to explain to a travel agent. Prague in 1913. Budapest in 1931. Rome in 1964.

RH:  How did your actual experiences in Budapest inform your fiction? Are the bars and cafes and business enterprises real? Are any of the characters based on real people? What about Nadja?
AP:  As a matter of policy, anytime I was tempted to write autobiography or biography, I went and had a cold shower and a lie-down. I knew we were going to slap “A Novel” on this, and I didn’t want to cheat anyone.
As for just precisely how my actual experiences inform my fiction, I’m afraid the question skates into trade secrets, and I cannot disclose the answer.

The only café in the book that exists is the Gerbeaud, which is an unavoidable piece of Budapest history and tourism. Budapest’s geography–streets, metro lines, parks–are as close to accurate as I could recall. A few friends and I appear in cameos, entertaining probably no one but me, but the businesses and the main characters are entirely fictional, dear Nádja included. I played to my strong suit: anything that could be replaced with a lie was replaced with a lie: expatriate newspapers, Hungarian publishing houses, book titles, song lyrics, club decor, embassy personnel. Part Two, to the extent that it deals with actual Hungarian history, is accurate-ish.

RH:  How did you come up with the idea of refracting a hundred-plus years of Hungary’s history into the fortunes of one family and their business, the Horvath Press? How did you research this?
AP:  Ah, yes, my brilliant idea . . . however did I come up with it? Well, that’s an interesting story. The short answer is that I have no idea. The longer answer is that I really have no idea. And, of course, many people won’t think the idea is that brilliant; they’ll just wonder why the hell I’ve veered off the track for seventy-five pages and hurl my poor book across the room.

As for research, I did a little background reading in standard Hungarian histories, and lied whenever I couldn’t find the details I wanted. It would be very foolish to treat anything in Prague as trustworthy history. It’s a novel, and I was therefore free to fudge and fiddle whenever I liked the sound of something better than the truth.

RH:  Your peers–the people who went to Central Europe ten years ago as part of the zeitgeist–will find a certain resonance in your novel. How do you think readers who were not part of that cultural climate will react to it?
AP:  Well, if you had to be there, then I stink and am going straight to literary hell. It is my hope that anyone kind enough to read Prague will say “I wish I had been there.” Ideally, everyone will say this, even those who were.

RH:  What’s next for you?
AP:  A long period of eager reader anticipation followed by some sad, overreaching gibberish, an oddball second novel dismissed as sophomore slump or the musings of a raving mind. Then personal despair. Skid row. “Whatever happened to” articles. Low-level and gently pathetic crime, like shoplifting something I could easily afford to buy. Followed by . . . comeback time, baby. Stay tuned.
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Reading Group Guide

1. Amusingly, critics have cited both Phillips’s “compassion” for his characters and his “lack of compassion” for his characters. Which, if either, of these assessments seems accurate to you? Does an author’s compassion for his or her characters matter to your experience of reading a story? Should an author implicitly or explicitly pass judgment or reserve judgment on the characters? Should he or she make clear to the reader which characters are admirable and which are not?

2. How do you feel Part II (The Horváth Kiadó), the subplot detailing the history of a Hungarian publishing house, fits into the structure of Prague? What function does it serve the novel as a whole? What is gained or lost by its placement immediately after the stories introduced in Part I (First Impressions)?

3. At the end of the novel, journalist John Price, arguably the central character of the novel, is en route to the city of Prague. What do you think becomes of him there and afterward?

4. The title of the book is a subject of much discussion. While John is the only main character who aspires to the literal Prague, how do other characters reveal their longing for other places, times, and lives, for a metaphorical “Prague”? Which, if any, of the characters seem to be most at peace in their real circumstances?

5. Did Charles Gábor, the American who invests in the Horváth Press, behave badly? How? If so, what should he have done instead? If he behaved badly, did he know it? What do you think the Horváth Press represents? Is its absorption by Multinational Median a loss?

6. What does history mean to the novel’s characters? How does it shape their personalities and actions? Do you believe in a “national character”? How much of an individual’s personality do you think is dictated by it? How does the impact of characters’ family history compare to the impact of their national history?

7. Charles Gábor says intentionally offensive things to other characters, both in rounds of the game Sincerity and in general conversation. John Price’s columns often say the opposite of what he feels. Nádja’s stories are often loosely inspired by the lives of her listeners. How else does the concept of irony operate in this novel? In what ways can irony be harmful? Why do certain characters use it, and how? Who is the best liar in the novel?

8. Phillips lived in Budapest from 1990 to 1992. Do you think, therefore, that his novel can be taken as an accurate portrait of that time and place? Can it be taken as reliable history or sociology? Can any novel? Do you believe Phillips when he states that his main characters are “entirely fictional”? How do you think truth is transformed into fiction?

9. Can “expatriate novels” be considered a genre? If so, what do they have in common? Does Prague add anything new to this category?

10. The six expats and Mária are in their twenties. Imre Horváth was in his twenties during the World War II episodes of Part II. Nádja was in her twenties in some of her stories. Does something happen to most people’s personalities or attitudes in this period of their lives? How do people view an experience or an age differently as time separates them from it?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2005

    A literary and geographic surprise.

    Steal this book. Or buy it, or borrow it, or sit every evening in the library 'til closing time... but somehow read this book. That's my advice to all who read because they love the literary art form. If you read because it's a portable replacement for mindless television, please save yourself the agony of trying to get through this subtle, touching, and honest portrayal of ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances. And pay NO ATTENTION to the lazy reviewers whose crutch to success is to compare one writer's style to that of another writer. Arthur Phillips is NOT Ernest Hemingway or Henry James. It is a crass injustice to suggest his masterful crafting of words and sentiment into warm human images is in any way similar to Hemingway's sparse style. From its very premise to its final page, this book is an organic whole. The apparently misleading title (the book takes place entirely in Budapest) is one of its triumphs. It's as though Phillips understands (as I'm sure he does) that readers are looking for something shinier than what he has to offer in shabby, little Budapest... as though he recognizes (as I'm sure he does) that we're all looking for something shinier than what God has to offer in drab, little life. I cared deeply about his characters, even if most of them didn't seem to care very much for themselves. Their greatest gift in life was that they never made it to Prague.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2005

    Bookclub in MN Disappointed

    This book was very disappointing despite all the wonderful reviews I've read. My book club usually has one or two people who don't finish the book, but this time not a single person read the entire book. I am not one to give up easy but this one was not enjoyable. It was very hard to get into the story and there were so many characters and jumping around that it was impossible to keep track of what was going on. I would not recommend this book. It's very slow moving and uneventful.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2003

    Am nostalgic for the days that I was reading this book

    Though many of the reviews I have read of this book focus on the author's portrayal of the city of Budapest, Phillips must also be recognized for the way he writes characters. In these character portraits, his tone establishes a fine balance between seriousness and humor that perfectly conveys the complexity of the protagonists. Prague is an incredibly clever book. Its themes, particularly the main theme about the validity of desiring to live in a different time, is very astute and discerning. One does not find a book like Prague every day. I strongly reccomend it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 8, 2012

    Don't bother

    Boring story, insipid, unsympathetic characters. I always finish a book I start. Almost. Not this one.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 20, 2012

    Makes me nostalgic for Budapest

    Started very well. Beautifully crafted sentences. Got off-course, I think, with the secondary story of the publishing house, though I appreciate the understanding of Hungary's troubled history.

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  • Posted June 15, 2011

    Prague

    I am still plodding through this story, determined to finish this book. I know there's a story in there, somewhere, but the author's prose and punctuation are very confusing. I was truly looking forward to reading this book because I thought there would be more history related events with the characters...but this is not to be. Maybe I'm just not able to see the picture the author is describing. There is way too much jumping from one character/event to another. But I am going to finish reading it, while my other summer reading books sit just waiting to take me away to their worlds....

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2003

    Honestly the best book I've ever read

    Prague was intensely satisfying. Every single scrap and element of the book was interesting; and best of all, I was astounded by the sheer honesty of it. Of course! I thought. And Yes! and Me too! I read this book very slowly, savoring every word, making it last, not wanting to miss anything, and I was rewarded with a reading experience that changed my outlook on people. Which was exactly what this book was about, to me: people, and it reached me in a way that no book has reached me before. If there was anything I disliked about Prague, it was nothing more scathing than minor annoyance at what could be loosely interpreted as capitalist propoganda. Needless to say, that was extremely easy to forgive. I was able to see it as a tool used by the author to communicate the book's true message; an endeavor in which he was highly successful.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2002

    A journey into history

    If the author's aim was to present Budapest and it's sometimes magical sometimes depressing life, he succeded.As a native of Budapest,(although I have left the country by the time our heroes have arrived there) I have found the geographical descriptions surprisingly accurate. While the actual story of the five "heroes" left me rather cold, the real value of the book is the historical background of Imre Horvath's life. If one is interested in the past of the country and its people, this is a good opportunity to get an insight into the political and social turmoil of the last hundred-odd years ( Complementary to the recent film Sunshine). For this ( and this alone) I congratulate the author , and would recommend the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2002

    Perhaps the City of Prague Would Have Been Better

    Although the reviews paint this as a brilliant first novel, I found it difficult to keep reading. The sights and sounds of Budapest were vividly described; but the characters were cardboard characatures. Imre Horvath, a survivor of years of struggle in 20th century Hungary, is the only fully developed character. I kept reading, hoping that there would be more empathy and understanding from the expatriot Americans, but was left with a feeling that I had wasted my time. If you want to experience Budapest, you are better off reading a cheap travelogue.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2002

    Prauge is great for confused teens

    I started reading this book end of Sophomore year and it cleared up so many things in my life. Reading about these five people all represent a part of your adlulthood.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2002

    Like chalk flavoured pastry

    The book provides a number of colourful descriptions of the city that was also my domicile for 4 years. However, such attractive appearances, like many things in Budapest (the pastry, the cuisine, the storefronts, the women, the building facades) really just masks a deficiency of substance within.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2008

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2012

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