Roger Grenier Introduces Arthur Phillips’ PRAGUE
at the Village Voice Bookstore – Paris, November 2002
Arthur Phillips’ novel is called PRAGUE But it takes place in Budapest. It seems to me that this is the key element of his rich work of art, its most compelling feature. I don’t know if you are like me, but there are cities and countries I’ve dreamed about all my life that remain inaccessible, as if they were forbidden territory. Promised lands.
For a longtime I dreamed about Spain: I was living right near the border and I couldn’t go there because of Franco. Later I dreamed about Vienna: a woman I loved was living there. When I finally went to Vienna she was gone. As for the city, what a disappointment! So I transferred my dreams to Prague, like the characters in Arthur Phillips’ novel. But I’m talking too much about myself! I would much rather introduce you to his great and beautiful novel.
John Price and his friends are what used to be called in the 1920s, “Americans Abroad.” During the Jazz Age, their beacon was Paris. In 1990, with the fall of communism, they decide that Prague is the new Paris, the capital of the arts, business, pleasure, love. The capital of a world in perpetual movement, where the future matters more than the past or even the present. Yes, but John Price and his friends-four Americans and a Canadian-don’t go to Prague. They have to make do with Budapest, which isn’t so bad.
Still, something prevents them from making light of Budapest-their conversations around a table at the famous café Gerbeaud where they play a game called “Sincerity”; their adventures in love; their shady business deals; their night clubs; and Nadja, the old pianist and incurable liar who tells tales-no way of knowing if they’re true or false– about her tragic and fascinating past. In Budapest the walls are full of bullet holes. And the guy you’re talking to might have been imprisoned, tortured by Nazis or communists or both. Arthur Phillips’ novel recounts the spiritual evolution-and that’s not too strong a phrase-of John Price as he confronts this reality. John Price, the main character, is 24 years old, and he thinks that love is a very dangerous thing. He learned this from books. Budapest has much to teach him about life in general and love in particular. Which places this book in the tradition of the bildungsroman-the novel of education.
The author’s understanding, his generosity, prevents his biting portrait of a world caught between renaissance and perdition from becoming completely cynical. Will John Price, this nice young man, finally get to Prague? I’ll let you find out.
Living abroad, being an “expate” makes you ask questions, makes you wonder what you’re doing so far from home. And this creates romanticism. Many American writers-Henry James, Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few-share the notion that the West is a land of innocents, who, when they travel east to old Europe, find corruption and death. It’s been said that for these American novelists, geography is not geography, it’s morality. Apparently the young Americans who went off to Eastern Europe seeking adventures after the fall of the Berlin Wall, living their own “topsy-turvy fin de siècle,” as the New York Times put it, came back with Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in their backpacks. Who was the greater influence on Arthur Phillips, Henry James or Kundera?
I might add that every character in PRAGUE: John the young journalist; Scott the professor; Mark the intellectual, who hopes to invent a theory of nostalgia; Emily, the girl from Nebraska who works at the embassy, and Charles Gabor, a businessman with Hungarian roots who feels more American than Hungarian–each plays their own role but at the same time, watches themselves playing it. This reminds me of the waiter at the Café de Flore in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, who plays at being the waiter at the Café de Flore.
You’ll also find a novel within this novel-the legendary history of a two hundred year old newspaper and publishing empire and the quite unusual Hungarian family that created it—the Horvaths.
It goes without saying that the author, Arthur Phillips, spent a few years in Budapest. Even though he is a young man, indeed a very young man, he has had a variety of experiences that have enriched his knowledge of life-and hence, his novel. He was born in Minneapolis, in the Midwest; he studied at Harvard; he was a child actor, a jazz musician, and a five-time champion on the quiz show Jeapardy! And now he is living in Paris.
The press was enthusiastic about this first novel. PRAGUE has been compared to The Sun also Rises, to Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, to Kundera, to Georges Perec, even to Proust and Joyce. It’s enough to overwhelm any young novelist! Let’s simply say that Arthur Phillips has seduced us with the art of his storytelling, his sense of detail and gift for dialogue, his brio and irony, and with an equilibrium between action and thought, imagination and nostalgia.
(Original text in French)
Translated by Alice Kaplan