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Prague: A Novel Paperback – June 10, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

In Prague, Arthur Phillips's sparkling, Kundera-flavored debut, five young Americans converge in Budapest in the early 1990s. Most are there by chance, like businessman Charles Gabor, whose parents were Hungarian. But one of them, John Price, has the more novelistic motivation of lost love. He is following his older brother, Scott, intent on achieving an intimacy that Scott, a language teacher and health enthusiast, is just as intently trying to escape. The romantic hero of this unsentimental novel, John Price lives like an expatriate of the 1920s. He longs for experience (and more or less stumbles into a writing job for an English language paper), but even more so for the great, obliterating love that takes the form of the perky assistant Emily Oliver. Mark Payton, a scholar of nostalgia whose insights are touched with mysticism, seems often to speak for the author, even in his barely repressed desire for John Price. For who would not love the good and unaffected, in the confusion, opportunism, and irony that characterize fin-de-siècle Europe? Phillips's five seekers are like mirrors that reflect Budapest at different angles, and that imperfectly--but wonderfully--point toward the unattainable city: the glittering, distant Prague. --Regina Marler --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Everything about this dazzling first novel is utterly original, including the title: it's about a group of young American (and one Canadian) expatriates living in Budapest in 1990, just after the Communist empire has collapsed, and the point of "Prague" is that it's the place everyone would rather be, except they have all somehow settled for Budapest as second best to their idealized Central European city.The author's way of bringing his five central characters onstage is also devilishly clever. They are playing a game invented by Charles Gabor, the only one with a Hungarian background called Sincerity, in which scores are made by telling convincing lies and by seeing through the lies of others. This serves at once to introduce these characters and allows the author to play with their sense of themselves. There is sophisticated, devious Charles, working for a New York investment company seeking newly privatized Hungarian businesses to invest in; Mark, a Canadian intellectual obsessed with the elements of nostalgia (and finding Budapest a rich repository); John, who writes a mordant column on the clashes of the old world and the new for the English-language BudapesToday; John's older brother, Scott, who despises him; and Emily, an apparent innocent from Nebraska who works at the U.S. Embassy. At the heart of the story is Charles's attempt to take over a venerable Hungarian publishing company, whose history is brilliantly sketched and whose aged scion, Imre Horvath, is a quintessential Central European survivor. John nurses a hopeless passion for Emily, becomes involved with a bald-headed collage artist and listens, enchanted, to the tales of an elderly pianist in the group's favorite jazz club. Mark disappears, Scott decamps and the publishing caper ends in disillusionment.But what happens in this novel is not nearly so important as Phillips's wonderful grasp Budapest's look, style and ethos, and his sometimes sympathetic, often scathing view of the Western interlopers. His writing is swift, often poetic, unerringly exact with voices and subtle details of time, place and weather. This novel is so complete a distillation of its theme and characters that it leaves a reader wondering how on earth Phillips can follow it up.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (June 10, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375759778
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375759772
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (181 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #646,834 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Arthur Phillips was born in Minneapolis and educated at Harvard. He has been a child actor, a jazz musician, a speechwriter, a dismally failed entrepreneur, and a five-time Jeopardy! champion.

His first novel, Prague, was named a New York Times Notable Book, and receivedThe Los Angeles Times/Art Seidenbaum Award for best first novel. His second novel, The Egyptologist, was an international bestseller, and was on more than a dozen "Best of 2004" lists. Angelica, his third novel, made The Washington Post best fiction of 2007 and led that paper to call him "One of the best writers in America." The Song Is You was a New York Times Notable Book, on the Post's best of 2009 list, and inspired Kirkus to write, "Phillips still looks like the best American novelist to have emerged in the present decade."

His work has been published in twenty-seven languages, and is the source of three films currently in development.

His fifth book, The Tragedy of Arthur, was named one of the best books of 2011 by
The New York Times
The New Yorker
The Wall Street Journal
The Chicago Tribune
Kirkus Reviews
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
The San Francisco Chronicle
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The American Library Association
Library Journal
Paste Magazine
The Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada)
The Toronto Star (Canada)
The New Statesman (U.K.)
Critical Mob
Hudson Booksellers
Barnes and Noble

He lives in New York with his wife and two sons.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

122 of 136 people found the following review helpful By Karl Miller on June 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I hadn't heard of Arthur Phillips before I began reading Prague, but by page 6, I felt I had read 50 other books by him. Alienated youth, joined by a sense of ennui in a habitat not their own...sound familiar? Then, by page 20 I realized that this was, indeed, something remarkably fresh. And incredibly well written.
Don't open this story looking for a party in Prague itself, for the city merely plays Emerald City to Budapest's Oz. The 5 main characters of Phillips books are forever looking toward Prague while chasing money, love, and in one interesting case family through Budapest in the early 1990's. There isn't a whole lot at first to like about Emily, Scott, his brother John, Mark and Charles - but as their adventures roll along the pages, it is humor that makes these characters endearing.
Phillips use of the English language is awe-inspiring. It's clear that he recognizes the kudos showered upon Michael Chabon for taking time to perfect language and idioms in his storytelling. I kept thinking of Chabon's "The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh" while reading this book, and if you are a fan, you will greatly enjoy Phillip's storytelling skills.
I've read this type story so many times over the years (Bright Lights, Big City, Less Than Zero, The Secret History are less worthy members of this literary club). When I finished Prague, I felt like I truly cared about not only the outcome, but the characters themselves. That's difficult to pull off in a novel about self-absorbed, capital-hungry Gen X'ers, but Phillips does a great job in achieving this.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Barger on September 20, 2004
Format: Paperback
Okay, I admit it...I'm mainly writing this review to drag the stars on Prague up. Simply put, it's a stunner...a tour de force that seems to capture a place and time (1990s Eastern Europe) as well as the sort of young Americans who gathered there. It was the best thing I read last year, and I've recommended it to everyone I know.

It seems ridiculous to me that many of the reviewers demand that the characters all be likeable. These characters are complex, and yes, some of them aren't that likeable. But this is an elegiac, bittersweet look at twenthysomething expats in a town going through a seismic change. The characters are going through big changes, too, and that isn't always when folks are at their student-council president best. But who wants to read about people like that anyway? (And don't get me started on folks who are bothered that this is about the realities of Budapest and dreams of Prague.)

Yep, some of these characters trample the locals and the system. Others, like the F. Scott Fitzgerald-ish John Price, find inspiration and some cause for hope. So these aren't all folks you want to pal around with? Go read a romance novel or something. I'm not clear that I was likeable in my 20s, so demanding that of characters seems a little feeble.

But why did I love this book? The way Phillips makes it about the city and about the experience, and not merely a character study. I was sitting reading this looking at gorgeous Montana lake, and his evocative passages about cafes and castles made me want to leave Glacier National Park and hop a flight to Budapest. I'm sorry, but I think that's damn fine writing. One and two-star, he's not.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By stackofbooks on September 14, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In a starred review, Publishers Weekly praised Prague as one of the most dazzling debuts of the year. When I started Prague, I was floored by Phillip's exquisite writing and by the evocative atmosphere of Budapest (no, not Prague) he so expertly weaves into his book.
Gradually however, the novel's ugly characters take up so much real estate that it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore them. Mark, Charles, Emily, and John are a bunch of American expatriates who have descended on Hungary in the early `90's just after the wall was torn down. All four are young and are trying vaguely to figure out the meaning of life in the Eastern bloc city. The characters are horribly self-absorbed and mean. While many have explained their self-absorption as a byproduct of their being a member of Generation X, I submit that it is probably also a product of their expat status. For all their outwardly aggressive behavior, Budapest is a foreign city to these people evidenced in the comfort they find from a person just come from America, "they crowded around him eager for news from home".
After I finished "Prague", I was very impressed by how well Phillips has portrayed his characters. So realistically in fact, that I was shaken by the worry that such obnoxious characters might indeed exist in real life. Charles hungrily swallows up an aging Hungarian native's (Imre Horvath) press and chalks it up to the ups and downs of capitalism. When John Price actually tries to bring genuine emotion to the front, he quickly dismisses it by admitting "he was ashamed to feel his throat tighten. He rubbed his eyes until the tickling sensation passed. His absurdity seemed to have no limits anymore".
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130 of 166 people found the following review helpful By Porfirio Fandango on July 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover
What do you mean, "ennui"? We went to "Eastern" Europe for adventure, enlightenment, shocking new experiences and fun! It was the best time of our lives -- those who stuck around learned a new language, made life-long friends, discovered appalling and comical customs and had a blast! There's nothing anti-intellectual about that -- I could have brooded at home just as efficiently. I wondered when the "new Hemingway" flatulence would finally bubble to the top. Well, Phillips is actually a very good writer with a way with words, but not much more.
As always, ignore the gassy cover blurb cliches -- this is no Hemingway/Fitzgerald/define-a-generation/"finally!" novel.
It describes expat life in Central Europe, as I and many other found it in the early 90s, mostly in poignant single phrases and episodes, and in lots of quotable scenes. But we're already familiar with the situation and expect a decent story, so disregard the setting and let's read the book.

Unfortunately, Phillips violates two extremely important rules of a good novel: 1) Show, don't tell, and 2) If nothing happens after page 1 (20? 50? 100?) why should anyone keep reading?

The author writes with an unnerving, almost pathological (Jeopardy champ?)obsession with surface detail. He makes Joseph Conrad's Marlow look forgetful and reticent by comparison. Once you recognize this, you begin to skim past whole paragraphs or pages of catalogued information for the next actual instance of activity. But because that rarely comes, I think few will readers will actually read to the end.

There are some gripping, square-on accurate scenes, but they are so spaced out. The author is probably an excellent short-story writer who has overreached himself.
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