With the Globe Bookstore and Coffeehouse turning 20 years old this week, it got my mind thinking about all the hype in the 1990s about Prague serving as some kind of literary crucible from which future classics of English literature would emerge. The text here is from an article I wrote a couple of years back on that subject. My angle was that the author community was much maligned at the time but that more than a fair number of good and very good expat writers lived and worked here at some point in their lives and that their Prague experiences affected their output.
I still feel that way now, and the titles that have come out in print since I originally wrote the article only strengthen my case: Matt Welch’s “Myth of a Maverick” (nonfiction), Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls” (also nonfiction) and Brendan McNally’s “Germania,” among others. My apologies to anyone I have overlooked in this article. Please help me fill in the blanks by leaving a comment below. A big thanks to Ken Nash, the author of the cartoon in the upper left. He drew it in 1993, showing that Prague was “over” practically from the moment it began.
The ‘Left Bank of the ’90s’ … Huh??
Expat writers have had it rough in Prague. It’s hard enough to be a successful writer, but thanks to the late American editor Alan Levy (d 2004), expat scribes in Prague labored under almost unbearable levels of expectation. It was Levy who, writing in an early edition of The Prague Post in 1991, christened Prague as the ‘Left Bank of the ‘90s’. In the article, he went on to write, something to the effect, that future Isherwoods and Audens were already hard at work chronicling the course. It didn’t quite turn out that way (or maybe it did).
In the first decade after Levy’s pronouncement, it was easy enough to dismiss it all as self-serving hype. It’s true that Prague at the time seemed to be crawling with wannabe writers, but the actual combined published opus was thin indeed. With more than 20 years’ hindsight, though, it’s possible to say the critics were too quick to pounce. The Prague expat pond spawned more than its fair share of decent writers. A partial list would include:
• Gary Shteyngart spent time in Prague in the early 1990s and is the author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2003) and Absurdistan (2006), the former set partially in Prague — or rather Prava — in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution.
• Jonathan Ledgard, a long-time Prague correspondent for “The Economist”, is the author of the acclaimed novel Giraffe (2006), based on the story of the slaughter of central Europe’s largest giraffe herd by the Czechoslovak secret police in 1975.
• Maarten Troost was a reporter in the early days of The Prague Post and the subsequent author of two hilarious titles: The Sex Lives of Cannibals (2004) and Getting Stoned with the Savages (2006) – books that could have been written about Prague but are actually about his later adventures in the South Pacific.
• Olen Steinhauer spent time here in the mid-‘90s before decamping to Budapest to write five acclaimed Cold War spy thrillers. The fourth book, Liberation Movements (2006), opens in the Czech Republic and shades of Prague can be seen throughout the series.
• Robert Eversz has lived off and on in Prague since 1992 and his 1998 novel Gypsy Hearts is set here. He’s written several popular noir thrillers, including Shooting Elvis (1997), which explore America’s obsession with celebrity culture.
• Arthur Phillips apparently never lived in Prague but still managed to write the best-known expat novel to come out of Eastern Europe, called simply Prague (2002) (though confusingly set in Budapest). Phillips does have a legit Prague connection. His short story Wenceslas Square was printed in the 2003 anthology Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier.
No discussion of expats would be complete without mentioning the growing genre of “I Lived Here and This Is How It Was” books. Gene Deitch’s For the Love of Prague is one of the most enjoyable. Deitch is a former Hollywood animator who moved to Prague in the late 1950s and worked on cartoons like “Tom and Jerry”, “Popeye” and “Krazy Kat” from behind the Iron Curtain. Douglas Lytle’s Pink Tanks and Velvet Hangovers was written not long after the expat golden age from 1991 to 1995 and recounts the major events of the day filtered through the eyes of a young American journalist. One of the newer entries in the genre is Rachael Weiss’s wide-eyed Me, Myself & Prague, the well-crafted story of an Australian woman who leaves the modern comforts of Sydney in 2005 to move to cold and cranky Prague. Not to spoil the ending, she winds up loving it.
Indeed, just this week, the latest installment of Prague viewed through the expat lens is making it debut. Kit Kimberly’s The Last Bohemians, available as a Kindle download, promises “soot-stained facades, bad food and good beer, addiction and corruption” (at least on its Goodreads page) and from the author herself: “one of the best sex scenes ever written” (or something to that effect). I haven’t read it myself, but it’s certainly on my list.
For aficionados of literary history (or if anyone doesn’t believe me), I strongly recommend Louis Armand’s massive anthology on the expat contribution to literature in Prague The Return of the Kral Majales. It’s beautifully illustrated and has tons of vintage photos from the early years. It purports to chronicle the output of some 90 talented and meaningful writers and translators who live and worked in Prague between 1990 and 2010, and at running several hundred pages in length, who are we to argue with that?