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Teaching PRAGUE by Arthur Phillips in the classroom

On Teaching PRAGUE
by Yasmin Dalisay

It is November, and the semester is speeding to its end. I have been teaching College Writing to a group of study abroad freshmen from Purchase College in Burgos, a small city in Northern Spain. Central to our study of writing is Arthur Phillips’ novel, PRAGUE.

Why did I choose to teach PRAGUE? Admittedly my initial intrigue with the book came from my own experience of having lived as a Prague expatriate in the late nineties, after what is generally thought of as Prague's Golden Age for expats. We who had arrived later in the decade had the feeling that we had missed reliving Paris in the ‘20s. I was intrigued to find that Phillips’ characters had a similar sense that life was elsewhere. In the opening pages of the novel, John, who has come to Budapest to make amends with his brother says, “Fifteen years from now people will talk about all the amazing artists and thinkers who lived in Prague in the 1990’s. That’s where the real life is going on right now, not here” (14). This similarity in our experience made me wonder if there were common experiences that ran through all of expatriate writing. And since I was planning a course to be taught abroad, I thought it would be interesting to compare Phillips’ novel with short essays by James Baldwin, a gay African-American expatriate who lived in Paris after the Second World War.

When we began our exploration of expatriatism, we read Mary McCarthy’s “A Guide to Exiles, Expatriates and Internal Émigrés” to give our study of expatriatism structure and definition. According to McCarthy, “The expatriate is a hedonist. He is usually an artist or a person who thinks he is artistic” (51). Armed with this definition, we began our discussion of PRAGUE. Early in the semester, even before we began our formal discussion of the novel, one of my students told me that she along with some others in the group had gone to a café and played “Sincerity,” the expatriate game invented by Phillips’ character Charles Gábor. The students had already started to talk about the characters, and which ones they could identify with most (Mark, generally). They appreciated Phillips’ intelligently-constructed prose and the irony implicit in even the most nostalgic instances. Phillips describes how the expatriates were conscious of, even as they lived it, how they would relive a certain post-Sincerity afternoon in their minds in the future:

“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” (5).

Phillips’ prose has an edge; he doesn’t let his readers slip (for too long) into the feeling of nostalgia. This kept my students awake and animated, reading passages aloud to each other during class discussions.

While the students appreciated Phillips’ literary sensibilities, I found PRAGUE to be a versatile text in the classroom. Since SUNY Purchase’s writing program teaches writing with a cultural studies focus, I asked my students questions that required cultural and historical analysis. For example, I asked them to look at different aspects of American culture in the nineties and try to relate the culture of the time to expatriatism. For example, how did sexuality and economics relate to PRAGUE and its characters? How did social class and America’s political strength effect one’s ability to live the “hedonist” lifestyle in Budapest after the Cold War?

Another important question was what was the nature of relationships between Americans and Hungarians at the time? How did each side view the other? PRAGUE is not a political novel. It doesn’t strive to answer these questions. It is a piece of literature that tells a story about characters in a specific place and time. However, as it is a novel written about Budapest just after the end of Communism, answers to cultural questions can be found in it. For example, John’s first column in BudapesToday and the conversation about it in Scott’s English class shows how the complex relations between economics, foreign politics and irony increase the possibility for miscommunication and misunderstanding. While Hungarians and other Central Europeans had struggled for their freedom from communist rule, Americans, who had “watched the whole thing, on a screen so big and with Surround Sound speakers so powerful you could practically feel the sledgehammers hitting the stone,” claimed to have brought down the Berlin Wall (Phillips 52). The irony Phillips uses shows the complexity of the situation in Post Cold War Budapest in a way that only literature can.

Perhaps the most fruitful part of our study has been the historical comparison between Post Cold War expatriates and post WWII expatriates. Looking at both Baldwin’s essays and Phillips novel as historical documents (although Prague is a work of fiction, it does well to describe the beliefs and practices of many expatriates during its time) has revealed not only important differences between the times but also major themes that seem to run through all of expatriate literature from Paris in the 1920’s to Central Europe in the 1990’s.

The students chose to write papers on the role of irony in expatriate literature, the impossibility of escape, the search for identity and other ideas that both Baldwin’s and Phillips’ work had in common. The theme that I found to be most interesting was the role of intimacy or lack of intimacy that seems to characterize expatriate relationships. Baldwin’s essay “The New Lost Generation” speaks of expatriates who had failed to make “the longed-for, magical human contact” (278), and this lack of real intimacy is seen throughout PRAGUE. One student described Nicky and her “house rules” (which stated that lovers could not sleep over every night and had to allow her to work on her paintings) as characteristic of expatriates, who, as we had read in McCarthy, were both artistic and hedonistic. The short episode between Mark and his one-night Hungarian lover Laszlo also illustrates a lack of intimacy. Their encounter ends in an abrupt, perhaps intentional, miscommunication. For John, Nadja seems like the answer to his search for “magical human contact” with both a Hungarian and with history itself. This is all if she was telling the truth, of course…

At this point in the semester, the students have researched extensively on four different topics:

The cultural and economic climate of the United States in the years following WWII
The cultural and economic climate of Central Europe in the years after the Cold War
Race and expatriatism and
Intimacy, friendship and alienation in expatriate relationships. They will soon begin to draw on each other’s research for their final papers.

Now that the semester is ending, I have been thinking about other focuses a study of PRAGUE could offer. Next time, I might try to compare PRAGUE to Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” to see what literary parallels there may be. In the future, I would also like to start with the original Lost Generation of Post World War One expatriates in the 1920’s and compare all three historical periods. I would be intrigued to see how the literary characters like John, Charles and Nicky compare to the real life characters such as Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway and Anais Nin.

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