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Prague Pictures: A Portrait of the City

1 rating: 5.0
A book by John Banville

Here is the latest installment in Bloomsbury's fascinating Writer in the City series, which matches well-known writers with cities with which they are intimately familiar. Banville has not written a guidebook but rather, in his own words, "a handful … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: John Banville
Genre: Travel, History
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
1 review about Prague Pictures: A Portrait of the City

"A faithless lover's letter of apology" for this city

  • Jun 12, 2005
John Banville, in many of his novels, conjures up the alchemical and scientific wonders of early modern Europe: Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Dr Faustus. His prose always has daunted me from taking on his dense, serious fiction, but perhaps, after this wonderfully self-deprecating, nimbly observed, and precisely rendered collection of thoughts inspired by events and people in Prague, I will try his novels! As Banville prefaces this small but pleasingly compacted assemblage of ruminations, it is not a guidebook but (my words) a momento urbi, a reminder of this city.

He avoids post-Wall sightseeing (contrast Myla Goldberg's Time's Magpie), limits his Kafka citations wisely (compare nearly any other journalist!), and steers clear from tiresome dynastic recitals (unlike Peter Demetz' City of Black & Gold). Out of his travels there, starting in 1975, he instead opts to build slightly interrelated essays. The first, "Sudek's City," tells of the Professor and Marta, who show him and his companions prints by Josef Sudek, a photographer (two of which I presume grace this book's covers), who reveals tangibly yet tangentially the post-war era. Banville links the dislocation of the jet-lagged traveller in the hotel room with the wider struggle by a people to overcome alienation in their home city, yet such connections are left subtle, for us to tie together. The description in a page or so of the Professor, who himself threatens to become effaced after so many decades of having to blend in to such surroundings, is one of the most powerful depictions in print I have ever read of summing up another human in a few well-chosen words.

"Threshold," from which the name for Prague was derived, merges the background on the city with its monuments, even as Banville insists that they do not make Prague what it is, this essence too elusive. Fittingly, such fluidity blends into an account of Rudolf and the intellectual climate that lured some of Europe's most creative minds in the later 16th c. to study magic, astronomy, the occult, and the rational, or mixes thereof.

"The Prague Orgy", while never mentioning Philip Roth, starts with Banville's teenaged longing for a minor Czech actress, Eva Bartok, and his longing for such dark beauties, often with (sans makeup!) pale plum-hued shadows under their eyes. He segues into his friend Phil who boasts of "The Company," the Havel era, the "putative parents" of his hostess at a doomed dinner party, to conclude, paraphrasing another Philip (Larkin) that "nothing, like something, can happen anywhere. Banville again evokes psychological dislocation marvellously, keeping control of his shifting scenes while hiding from we his readers his manipulative strings. He's too good a writer to let his craft show so nakedly.

From one who wrote a novel called "Kepler," the chapter "Great Dane, Little Dog" relates the long story of Tycho Brahe, his unfortunate death for the sake of royal etiquette, and his somewhat unwilling apprentice Johannes Kepler. Prague itself fades a bit even more than in the rest of the book, but Banville keeps the tale engaging. I found this segment of the volume readable, but since I do not share Banville's obvious love of this period, its comparative detachment from the city itself made it too tangential. On a related note, he incorporates references to a far more obsessive text, Angelo Maria Ripellino's "Magic Prague," nicely into his volume, so you feel you get the gist of that admittedly appealing but immensely detailed study without all of its laborious asides. Their common concentration on the hermetic, the mathematical, and the malcontent does show why Prague thrived as an asylum and a laboratory for so many ambitious quacks, mad scientists, and rogues.

"Snapshots" takes Banville out of Prague to Bratislava, but not for the sights. He conveys here being out of place as a modern intellectual at a conference where his ignorance (so he assumes, though we readers might disagree) his unmasked before the restless native audience. The tale of an old communist, Goldstucker, and the saga of the Golem and the Jewish ghetto is recounted to sum up the condition of the latter-day dreamers and thinkers in a more recent regime that reigned over the Castle.

Finally, in two brief codas, "The Deluge" tells of the 2002 summer floods, with a marvelously apt quote from Eliot's "Four Quartets," and "After-Images" leaves us with Banville's fading scenes from his Prague travels. A short bibliography adds to the value of this short but elegant and never predictable meditation.

Pg. 83 sums up his motif for this volume, except for its covers devoid of visual "pictures" that rather he brings out of his mind's eye into our receptive faculty: "These are the things we remember. It as if we were to focus our cameras on the great sights and the snaps when developed all came out with nothing in them save undistinguished but manically detailed foregrounds." The unreliable and capricious state of memory, then, is Banville's true souvenir that he shares with us from this city.

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