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Posts Tagged ‘Prague’

Farewell to Meat

April 15, 2015 | by

At Masopust, the Czech festival for spring.


Photo: Carleen Coulter

In February, I took the night bus to Prague for Masopust, the old spring festival—abandoned under Communism—that has made a steady resurgence in the Czech Republic in recent years. The bus pulled into a neighborhood adjacent to the Vltava, north of Old Town, late on a Thursday evening. According to centuries-old tradition, Czech farmers would have slaughtered pigs earlier in the day to make blood sausages, headcheese, and other treyf dishes for the coming feasts. At the bus station, though, there was only a Burger King, a McDonald’s, and, beyond them, the famous Prague spires. Pill-shaped tramcars rumbled along the quiet streets, their interiors as bright as roadside diners.

Saturday morning, I boarded a local bus bound for Únětice, a village about five miles outside the city. With its muddy streets and modest Brueghelian cottages clustered alongside a wide, frozen lake, Únětice presents a fairy tale, or at least preindustrial, vision of Central Bohemia. It was bright and cold, the streets still empty save a few Lycra-clad joggers puffing out steam—Brueghel’s rotund peasants, slimmed down for the new millennium. Cracked and faded village walls suggested an attentively maintained desuetude, and the local tavern was selling strong black beer brewed locally for the occasion. Inside the tavern, I found the tables full of locals eating little open-faced sandwiches called chlebíčky and waiting for the festival to start. Read More »

Imaginary Extensions: A Conversation with Caleb Crain

August 6, 2013 | by


Photography Credit Liza Johnson

This week sees the publication of Caleb Crain’s first novel. Necessary Errors takes place in Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution and offers a view of the changes that roiled the city in the early nineties. We see it through the eyes of Jacob, a young American teaching English to support a dilatory life abroad. Prague itself figures prominently in the story: more than a setting, the city’s linguistic currents, architecture, and Communist-tinged daily interactions are portrayed so deftly as to render the city a character itself. Crain is likewise evocative on the granular moments of frustration and incremental clarity that accompany acquiring a language.

Often, a book about a young person going abroad or otherwise finding himself is presented as a string of solitary experiences. Necessary Errors, on the other hand, portrays the alternating feelings of camaraderie and loneliness endemic to group expatriate life, about learning who one is from a diffuse group of people. Ardent, self-conscious, and introverted, Jacob, having only recently discovered that he’s gay, ventures into social life with new purpose. Through his apprehensions and misapprehensions—his necessary errors—the reader gleans not only a vivid group portrait but a sense of the quotidian consequences of the seismic shift from Communism to capitalism.

Last week, I spoke with Crain, an accomplished critic and essayist, over chamomile tea (him) and wine (me) in New York. Crain, too, lived in Prague in 1990 and 1991 and shares qualities with his protagonist (Harvard graduate, gay male, literary aspirations), but he maintains that the work should be understood as fiction. As he explained, expressing his disinterest in the question of how much of fiction comes from lived experience, “The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott wrote that the child’s toy was the precursor to the adult’s field of culture, and he said the one question you’re not suppose to ask the child about the toy is, Does it come from inside or outside? In other words, was the bear born in the hundred-acre wood and did it grow up with the wizard, or did Mommy buy it at Walmart?” Necessary Errors may or may not have benefited from notes scribbled twenty years ago, but the novel is better served by leaving its fictional shell intact, so one might appreciate the writer’s gifts in transporting us to a dynamic social world twenty years removed.

At the beginning of Necessary Errors, Jacob’s friends seem incidental—they are people he’s happened to meet at the school where he teaches, other expats like him—there’s no particular affinity that draws them together. But if there is a primary love story in the novel, it’s with this group of people.

When people are young adults, they have these packs, or tribes, that they form. Those connections are very real, and yet another, more powerful social narrative is that you’re supposed to pair off and have children—and never see your friends again. In the case of the gay world, there’s an additional element, in which you’re supposed to spin away from your straight friends and be part of a gay world. Both ideas of adulthood are sad to me, and I was attracted to a group of friends as a lost paradise, and one that there’s no way to keep.

As a technical matter, with Necessary Errors I wanted to write as much in dialogue as I could. Mikhail Bakhtin was right when he wrote that novels are dialogic texts, where lots of voices come together. Focusing on a group of friends was a way of having lot of different voices. I spoke with somebody who works in TV not long ago, and I discovered that, in television, that kind of arrangement—in which explication happens through dialogue among a certain group—is called a “precinct.” I guess it comes originally from a cop show, but the idea is that there is some social institution that requires a group of people to come back into contact with each other on a regular basis. In between, they have adventures and misfortunes and romances, but at the end of the show they report back to the precinct. It serves to anchor the world of the show. Maybe the group of friends, meeting in their various watering holes, is the precinct of my novel.

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Václav Havel: Outtakes from an Interview

December 20, 2011 | by

My first memory of Václav Havel is of watching the news as a kid, after the Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and seeing pictures of Havel in his living room: a prison of stuffed bookshelves. For me, Havel was the image of a literary hero, an ideal of literature as integrity.

I’ve always, in other words, been a sucker for the questions of Pragueespecially Prague in the era of Soviet Communism, probably because these questions all relate to a larger problem: a writer’s responsibility and resistance to political life, the serious business of being flippant. In the setups of his farcical plays andfollowing his imprisonment in 1977 for involvement in a human-rights charterthrough the patient linguistic analysis of his essays, Havels subject was always the same: how language can be made to connive in unreality. But he also believed that words could be renovated, that a politics was possible. And this hope led him, for instance, to the courage of the following statement in his 1977 trial: there were certain words, he said, “which recur continually in the indictment and which one would describe as loaded, words like subversion, lies, malice, illegal organizations, anticommunist centers, vilification, hatred and so on. However, when one looks closely at these words, one finds that there is nothing behind them.” Just as it made him read Bellows libertine Herzog, in prison, in these dissident terms: “A professional with ‘words’ goes mad in a situation where words have no weight. He clearly lacks what we do not, which is to say a situation in which words have so much weight that you must pay quite dearly for them.”

This was why, in the summer of 2010, I found myself proposing a Paris Review interview to Havel. I wanted to ask him my own series of Prague questions, about his love of Bohumil Hrabal’s stories, the cinema of the Czech New Wave, his intuition of farce ... These questions, basically, were one big question: What was it like for a writer, as he did, to end up in the Presidential Palace?

The Interview, however, turned into a melancholy comedy of its own. Read More »


Elusive Epigraphs; Travel Books

September 2, 2011 | by

Dear Mr. Stein, May I take advantage of the hospitality of your letters column to ask if you or your readers can help me to solve a small puzzle? I have come across an epigraph ascribed to Proust that heads the first chapter of Hamish Miles’s English translation of Édouard VII et son temps by André Maurois (King Edward and His Times, London: Cassell, 1933, p. 1). It reads: “Every social status has its own interest, and to the artist it can be just as compelling to show the ways of a Queen as the habits of a dressmaker. —Marcel Proust.” An excellent colleague of mine remarks that this certainly sounds genuine, and he even wondered if the aperçu came from the bit in Le Côté de Guermantes where Proust talks sniffily about grocers writing aristocratic novels, but I am afraid it is not there. Now we find that the epigraph is nowhere to be found in Maurois’s original French text, so the plot thickens. Much as I am tickled by the idea of an industrious and I daresay underappreciated translator recklessly concocting a spurious epigraph for the purpose of self-promotion, or worse, something tells me that there is an alternative explanation. So can anyone, do you think, identify these lines about “the ways of a Queen” and “the habits of a dressmaker,” and pin them on Proust? Thank you, Angus Trumble

We all hoped it was made up. But no. The epigraph comes from “An Historical Salon,” an essay—really, a celebrity profile—that Proust wrote for Le Figaro in late 1902. His subject is the Princesse Mathilde Bonaparte, a niece of Napoleon’s and the last Bonaparte to remain in Paris after the fall of the Second Empire. She was known for her literary salons, which included Mérimée, Flaubert, and the Goncourts. In the sentences you quote, Proust has just finished his you-are-there description of one of the princess’s soirées and he’s gearing up for the mini bio (which, in the case of Princesse Mathilde, is slightly delicate, since she left her first husband, a Russian tycoon, for another man, with the connivance of yet another uncle: Czar Nicholas I; it's good to know people).

As translated in F.W. Dupee’s edition of Pleasures and Days, the entire paragraph reads:

An artist will serve the truth only, and have no respect for rank. In his portrayals he will take rank into account as a principle of differentiation like nationality, race, or environment. All stations in society have their interest for an artist, and it is as exciting for him to picture the ways of a queen as the habits of a dressmaker. Read More »