Tag Archives: Prague

Americans in post-communist Prague

In addition to reading positive notices of Hamburger’s collection of stories set in late-1990s Prague (mostly involving American expatriates or tourists interacting with the natives), and being curious about how post-communist Prague strikes younger (than me) Americans, I was intrigued by the title The View from Stalin’s Head. The title story is the third in the volume, but unsure how independent of each other the stories were, I read the ten of them in order. (I don’t think anything was gained thereby, though a character in the last story (“Exile”) has some background from an earlier one (the second, “Jerusalem,” which is not set in the city of Jerusalem).)

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There are two gargantuan-sized Stalin heads in “The View from Stalin’s Head,” so I didn’t feel cheated by the title. It would be unfair to potential readers to explain how the head(s) are invoked/involved in the stories. I was not disappointed by the teaser title, nor, indeed, by any of the stories. This is not to say that I liked them all. I rather disliked “Control,” though the characterization in it of a transit policeman is convincingly done.

I’m not completely convinced by the Czech giant in the first story, “A Man of the Country,” but the voice and the happenings in it are entertaining and fairly poignant. The first story features a male Jewish-American expat somewhat perplexed by a Czech man. The second features a female Jewish-American expat at least as puzzled by a Judaeophile Czech man.

“The View from Stalin’s Head” has an all-Czech cast (Stalin’s head not being part of the dictator who was dead before either one was made). “The Ground You Are Standing On” does not involve any young people (well, there is a youngish taxi tout). It involves a pair of Jewish American tourists who rent a room in an elderly Czech widow’s house. The confrontation is elegantly developed and brilliantly conceived. There are no villains and a lot of self-righteousness on display.

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(Hamburger in 2019; he was already bald in 1994 btw)

“Sympathetic Conversationalist” has an ensemble of Czech students of (you guessed it) a Jewish-American expat in Prague “You Say You Want a Revolution” has a self-righteous Jewish-American woman who identifies with resistance of Coca-Cola colonialism. She connects with a group opposed to globalization, but rather than being socialist, it is royalist (wanting to restore the Hapsburg Empire). This is the story with the broadest humor and the only one that derides any of the characters (though those in the other stories do not lack for foibles). “Garage Sale” charts an offbeat relationship between a young Czech woman, Katka, and a Jewish-Canadian expat teacher of English who changes his stripes (or thinks he has).

I’ve already mentioned not liking what happens in “Control,” though respecting its artistry. It is the second story in the collection with no North American expat characters.

The most romantic story in the collection is the one set in Israel (though two of the characters are Americans working in Prague who go to visit the relatives in Israel of one of them). I’m not sure that I believe it, but I enjoy the characters and the departures from their expectations. Departures from expectations are rife throughout the volume, especially in the inter-ethnic relationships. “Law of Return” is more like the movie “Cabaret” than the Christopher Isherwood novella “Sally Bowles” that was its original source. “The Ground You Are Standing On” is the closest to some of Isherwood’s other Berlin Stories in which a character named Christopher Isherwood lived in a Weimar Berlin boarding house and observed bittersweetly comic relationships, including his own, with Berliners, as he made some money giving English lessons.

The final story, “Exile,” brings back the Judaeophile Czech, Lubos, a synagogue with a closeted lesbian rabbi, a kitsched-over concentration camp. It has rich detail and characterization, but seems more a sketch for a multi-character novel than a story that stands on its own.

Insofar as I can tell from the advance descriptions of Hamburger’s forthcoming (in October) first novel, Faith for Beginners, will be closest to “Law of Return,” involving a young midwestern Jewish-American in Israel. I have no idea whether it has the same characters or expands on that story.

Hamburger is a very good story-teller. Most of his stories even have endings, although I tended to launch right into the next story as soon as I finished one. At the end, I felt that I knew more than when I started about postcommunist Prague and about some of the Americans who have gone there for the X-generation’s European seasoning (Paris, London, and Rome having become too expensive, along with Manhattan and San Francisco for would-be writers and other kinds of artists to hang out while finding themselves and amassing Experience.

(On Hamburger, ca. 2019, and his second novel, Nirvana Is Here, see here.)

©2005, 2019 Stephen O. Murray

 

Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Bound and Shop Talk

Before the recent death of Philip Roth (whom I consider an important writer, but not before his death “he greatest living American writer”),

Claudia Pierpont Roth’s biography inspired me to read the Zuckerman trilogy (plus a novella), starting (and seemingly finishing!) by rereading The Ghost Writer (1979), which I read somewhere was a Philip Roth novel for people who don’t like Philip Roth novels. I don’t really understand that assertion, still less CPR’s claim that the novel is “seamless.” For me it has glaring seams between its three parts. I feel that the burned out martyr to fictive art E. I. Lonoff was more than a slap (a pummeling?) of Bernard Malamud, who was still alive. The shots of Saul Bellow are fine with me.

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Turning Lonoff’s student/assistant/mistress into an Anne Frank who had survived is tasteless at best — and a cheat to beat. The part I like best is the middle, titled “Nathan Daedalus,” not that it is any more a portrait of a young Jewish writer than the other two.

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I thought  Roth was a splendid essayist, especially about other Jewish writers. Most of Roth’s miscellaneous Shop Talk interesting, but nothing in particular sticks out in my memory of reading it, though I appreciated the opening chapter about conversing with Primo Levi (whose collected works just appeared in English). The chapter on Malamud is as merciless as the fictional portrait. And I certainly agree that Bellow went from comic to rancorous, though I’m not sure Humboldt’s Gift is the turning point. Perhaps my memory of it is faulty. I remember it as my favorite of Bellow’s big books (I liked Henderson, the Rain King when I read it in high school, but doubt I would now; I recall liking the shorter novels, Dangling Man, The Victim, and Seize the Day, but if I reread them, who knows?). I liked the interview of Edna O’Brien. Another female writer is included in an exchange of letters between Roth and Mary McCarthy (spurred by The Counterlife and charges of that Roth insists are the character’s not his of claiming that all Gentles are anti-Semitic in her New Yorker review of it). The (1976) discussion of Poland in the 1930s (centering on Bruno Schultz) with Isaac Bashevis Singer is interesting. I wish that Roth, ca. 2001, had provided epilogs to his pieces on Klima (from 1990) and Kundera (from 1980) about what those Caech writers becamesfter the fall of the Soviet EMpire. The more overtly self-centered Reading Myself and Others is more valuable, but I welcome the second collection, too.

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I resumed Zuckerman Bound after Roth’s demise —with Zuckerman Unbound (1981)—but far from free..

In fact, he is very bound by the notoriety and riches of a novel entitled Carnovsky, which, like Portnoy’s Complaint, featured a lot of masturbation in Newark. Zuckerman is not free of the hostility of Jews for his work, including his younger brother (this is not autobiograpichal, and Roth’s father lived longer than Z’s).

There is nothing misogynist in the book. The one sexual encounter is with an Irish actress who is carrying on an affair with Fidel Castro (Z learns after their night of reading Kierkegaard and an off-the-page copulation). (OK, there is his righteous most-recent wife, Laura, and his sister-in-law, Carol, whom Nathan urges his brother to leave, but neither is treated with any contempt by Z.)

There is a comic (if threatening) version of Herb Stempel , the six-week Jewish ex-Marine celebrity fed answers and then forced to lose to Charles van Doren on the game show “21” in 1956.

“Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life,” Roth wrote.

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If not Roth himself, Nathan Zuckerman had tired of doing that by his next outing.

I liked The Anatomy Lesson (1983) the least of the Zuckerman Trilogy. Indeed, I like each entry less than the previous one. Zuckermann is still the much-resented author of Carnovsky, a mega-best-seller like Portnoy’s Complaint, but, unlike Roth, he has not been able to write anything since it. He has excruciating neck pain and decides he wants to go to medical school (at age 40 with none of the science prerequisites), actively discouraged by a childhood friend Bobby who went to the University of Chicago at the same time he did and is a physician. The physician’s widower father is an even more major character.

NZ borrows the name of his harshest critic (Milton Appel standing for Irving Howe) and makes him the publisher of a porno magazine as he tries to hire a female chauffeur originally from Minnesota, working in Chicago. She is not interest in working for him (let alone sleeping with him). Not a rounded character, but not a wet dream of a misogynist either. She tells him “t’s your honesty that stinks the most. You think because you’re honest and open about it, that it’s acceptable. But that doesn’t make it acceptable. It only makes it worse. Even your honesty is a way of debasing things.” (648)

Anatomy Lessons prefigures Roth’s eventual (much later retirement after returning as more the focus of his last novels):

“All I’ve got to go on, really, is my inner life—and I can’t take any more of my inner life. Not even the little that’s left. Subjectivity is the subject, and I’ve had it.” (602)

“I’m sick of raiding my memory and feeding on the past…. I’m sick of channeling everything into writing I want the real thing, the thing in the raw, and not for writing but for itself.” (610)

“The burden isn’t that everything has to be a book. It’s that everything can be a book.” (687)

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Olga in “The Prague Orgy” (1985) keeps demanding that NZ fuck her before she will surrender the Yiddish Aspern Papers (stories by Olga’s husband’s father; her husband Sisovsky, has fled Czechoslovakia for New York, from whence Zuckerman goes to Prague, visits the Jewish cemetery, and deals with Olga and the ubiquitous secret police who have half the population spying on the other half). The depression of the populace and justifiable concern about surveillance fit with my own observations of even later-communist Prague, where there was no conversation on the subway, everyone staring straight ahead. But NZ at least gets what he orders (poached eggs) in a restaurant.

In Prague, NZ gets outside himself, and he will be narrator rather than focus of later books (as well as the 1988 The Facts: A Novelists Autobiography), so “The Prague Orgy” seems to me to be a breakout/breakthrough, though not altogether lacking in masochism. As he wrote of Kafka (specifically “The Burrow”), “Touched by a spirit of personal reconciliation and sardonic self-acceptance, by a tolerance of one’s own brand of madness…. [He] no longer seeks to resolve itself in images of the uttermost humiliation and defeat.”

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray