Readers of contemporary novels may already be familiar with the
names of John Banville. In this slender volume, he momentarily
abandons fiction to prove himself a travel writer of some elegance.
Allowing himself time off from the structured prose of his novels,
Banville visibly relaxes in this city portrait, letting his mind
drift, and producing an idiosyncratic blend of personal and
historical experience. This is not a guidebook. Rather, it is a
series of essays on the history, literature and culture of the
former magical capital of Europe. Banville recalls Prague's glory
in the days of the 16th-century Emperor Rudolf II, who is perhaps
best known to English readers as the irascible patron of Dr Dee and
Edward Kelly. Rudolf summoned alchemists, artists, philosophers and
scientists to his kingdom, and contemporary Prague retains in its
geography and architecture traces of their endeavours. Much of
Banville's book is taken up with anecdotes about these fascinating
figures, but it opens with an account of his own trip to Prague in
a Cold War winter. He describes his hotel, the people he met, and
the differences he found between the Prague he was walking through
and the city he had invented for novelistic purposes. He examines
Prague's literary reputation as a wanton, a she-devil, a coquette
of the city, and comments with some asperity on the emergence of a
vulgar consumer culture since the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
Banville also explores in some detail the intimacies of Czech
cooking. A description of some 'tumourous' dumplings causes him to
remember and discuss for the edification of the reader an
international range of appalling meals and their effects on his
digestive system. Prague Pictures is part of a new series entitled
'The Writer and the City', which includes Edmund White on Paris and
Peter Carey on Sydney. It's an excellent idea; let's hope the other
titles in the series are as vivid and perceptive as this one.
John Banville traces Prague’s often tragic history and portrays the people who made it, the emperors and princes, geniuses and charlatans, heroes and scoundrels, and paints a portrait of the Prague of today, revelling in its newfound freedoms, eager to join the European Community and at the same time suspicious of what many Praguers see as yet another totalitarian takeover. He writes of his first visit to the city, in the depths of the cold War, when he engaged in a spot of art smuggling, and of subsequent trips there, of the people he met, the friends he made, the places he came to know.Click here to read an extract.
‘Meandering among the stories and impressions of people he met, digressing into explanations of astronomy, alchemy and Czech history, literature and folklore (somehow, with his light touch, they seem to merge rather effortlessly), Prague Pictures is an affectionate visitor's account par excellence: polite yet honest, shy yet warm. But it is much more than that, for, with his novelist's freedom to invent, Banville finds the essence of Prague even as he confesses to not having seen enough of it ... the most wonderful element in Prague Pictures
is the author's modesty: in spite of showing such deep understanding and love for this foreign city, Banville makes no claims to have become, in any sense, a 'Praguer', an insider: 'What do I know?' His self-Deprecating tone is, sometimes, almost Czech’ —Elena Lappin, Daily Telegraph
‘Banville is a brilliantly engaging storyteller, and here the quick and the dead all take their cues in a narrative that loops about in time; writers and thinkers, tarts, grand dukes, teachers, bishops, torturers, shopkeepers fill his stories, along with the wide cast of friends and encounters. Most vividly, he conjures up the wasted lives: 'the Professor', with his watchful, self-effacing air, eking out, in a cramped, single room, the derisory 'pension' the state allotted to the intellectuals it banned. Or his friend Zdenek, a writer and translator who held his head high through the decades of poverty, interrogations, humiliation and terror, but for whom the Havel revolution came 'too late, too late'. The greatest delight here is Banville's writing. In a train, he 'rubbed a clear patch on the window and looked out on a bleak expanse of no-man's-land the size of a football pitch, with ghostly patches of glittering ice, and a watchtower on stilts, starkly lit, and lamps glowing in the frozen mist like dandelion heads, and dim, bundled figures moving spectrally over the countless criss-crossing lines of dully gleaming rail. As I was turning from the window I noticed that someone had blown his nose on the tied-back oatmeal coloured curtain beside me...' He can stab his reader with a detail of observation — at St Vitus's Cathedral, 'when one looks up, the entire building seems to be speeding massively through the brumous air, going nowhere' — or bring a smile with a throwaway opinion — 'I always feel a pang of pity for gargoyles'. Whichever Prague is the one you know, or want to know, you'll find riches in this full-blooded armchair expedition. It's the latest in Bloomsbury's excellent series, The Writer in the City, and — even following in the wake of Edmund White's fine flaneur's view of Paris — it's no disappointment’ —Financial Times
‘Vivid, engaging, amusing ... Banville writes wittily and with a breadth of understanding. He acknowledges that breathtakingly erudite, yet romantically coloured and slightly mad, scholarly epic by Angelo Maria Ripellino, Praga Magica — yet his own lighter, self-deprecating, tour is just as well-informed and incisive. He seems to have been in a jaunty, facetious mood while writing this book and much of it — the appalled descriptions of Czech cuisine for example — is very funny. Nonetheless, he succeeds in summoning up the spirit of the city and leaves behind some unforgettably vivid pictures of Praguers he has encountered. Admirers of Banville's novels will relish the tantalising glimpses of a writer who has never made himself a subject of his own fiction ... easily up to the standard of earlier volumes in Bloomsbury's The Writer and the City series, this is a beautifully produced little book with decent paper and attractive type. Banville, like Vaclav Havel, seems, in his sardonic clarity, perfect casting for the role of interpreter and guide to this endlessly beguiling city’ —Independent
Also available in The Writer and the City series: Edmund White on Paris
, Peter Carey on Sydney
, and David Leavitt on Florence
. Click here
to find out more.