Summary and book reviews of Prague by Arthur Phillips

Prague

A Novel

by Arthur Phillips

Prague
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2002, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2003, 400 pages

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Book Summary

Brilliantly renders the Hungary of past and present: the generations of failed revolutionaries and lyric poets, opportunists and profiteers, heroes and storytellers.

A first 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--financial, romantic, and spiritual--in an exotic city newly opened to the West. They harbor the vague suspicion that their counterparts in Prague, where the atmospheric decay of post-Cold War Europe is even more cinematically perfect, have it better. Still, they hope to find adventure, inspiration, a gold rush, or history in the making. What they actually find is a deceptively beautiful place that they often fail to understand. What does it mean to fret about your fledgling career when the man across the table was tortured by two different regimes? How does your short, uneventful life compare to the lives of those who actually resisted, fought, and died? What does your angst mean in a city still pocked with bullet holes from war and crushed rebellion?

Journalist John Price finds these questions impossible to answer yet impossible to avoid, though he tries to forget them in the din of Budapest's nightclubs, in a romance with a secretive young diplomat, at the table of an elderly cocktail pianist, and in the moody company of a young man obsessed with nostalgia. Arriving in Budapest one spring day to pursue his elusive brother, John finds himself pursuing something else entirely, something he can't quite put a name to, something that will draw him into stories much larger than himself.

With humor, intelligence, masterly prose, and profound affection for both Budapest and his own characters, Arthur Phillips not only captures his contemporaries but also brilliantly renders the Hungary of past and present: the generations of failed revolutionaries and lyric poets, opportunists and profiteers, heroes and storytellers.

PART ONE
FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I

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

  1. Players (in this case, five) arrange themselves around a small café 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. ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  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 ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Booklist - Michele Leber

Phillips, who lived in Budapest from 1990 to 1992, depicts time and place with skill and affection in this ambitious first novel, but there is a little too much brittleness to his characters.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Dazzling...brilliant...the most memorable fiction debut of the year.

Library Journal

Phillips's exhilarating exploration of time, memory, and nostalgia brings to mind such giants as Proust and Joyce.

Author Blurb Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides
Arthur Phillips's bold and ambitious novel, Prague, is one of those rare books that help define and identify a whole generation, in the same way that Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises introduced his lost generation.

Author Blurb Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body
An intricate and wordly-wise novel, with sly and acute perceptions on every page, Prague sets itself the challenge of extending the tradition of brainy Central European fiction from an American perspective, and succeeds handily.

Author Blurb Pagan Kennedy, author of Black Livingstone
In Prague, Arthur Phillips spins the Jazz Age novel. His expatriate Americans have settled in Budapest rather than Paris, and instead of champagne and ragtime, they outfit themselves with Gauloises, paprika-dusted sandwiches, punk rock, and post-Cold War irony. But their passion--to know America and to shrug it off--is timelessly literary. A hip-hop remix of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, a meditation on a generation, a polemic, a love story, a new branch of sociology, Prague tries to do it all and succeeds.

Reader Reviews

Tim Nordgren

This book offers a glimpse of post-communist Budapest through the eyes of young American ex-patriates. Through the intertwining of stories of Hungary's past with elaborate descriptions of the modern day experience of young Americans living in ...   Read More

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