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Guided Tours of Hell: Novellas Paperback – September 3, 2002

3.1 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

These two novellas about Americans abroad combine to create one wallop of a book. As they confront the legacy of history and their own shortcomings, Prose's characters are obsessively self-aware, even narcissistically petty--just like we are. In the title story, Landau, a struggling playwright, engages in a vanity-laden struggle of wills with a charismatic Holocaust-survivor in the cafeteria of a death camp-turned-tourist-attraction during a Kafka symposium. In the second novella "Three Pigs in Five Days," Nina is sent to Paris by her boss and ex-lover to write an article about a whorehouse-turned-hotel. While there, she is plagued by the demons of her erotic past as well as the romantic ghosts of the dysfunctional relationships of dead Parisian artists and their mistresses. Always harrowing, occasionally baroque, and tinged with hilarity, Guided Tours of Hell is an early candidate for the best fiction of the year. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The ego is a slippery thing. Suppress it and it sneaks in through the back door all the stronger. In the two deftly written novellas included in this volume, Prose (Hunters and Gatherers) creates funny, brilliantly authentic examples of this resilient truth. In the title piece, Landau, a mediocre New York playwright attending a conference on Kafka in Prague, tours a Nazi death camp. Aware that there is "something by definition obscene about guided tours of hell?except, of course, if you're Dante," he nonetheless spends his time consumed with self-conscious envy of a fellow writer at the conference, Jiri Krakauer, a big, handsome, charismatic Auschwitz survivor. Landau obsesses about Jiri, "Mr. Zest-For-Life," as he struggles to manufacture a feeling or a reflection that might be appropriate to a death camp that has become a theme park. Jiri reminds Landau that under all of Landau's layers of intellectualization and overdramatization, he pines for a life that has meaning. In "Three Pigs in Five Days," Nina, a young writer, holes up in a dumpy Paris hotel room, unable to face the city without Leo, her editor and lover. "Although they've been lovers for months, he apparently wasn't someone she knew well enough to ask" why he has sent her there alone, Nina realizes. Venturing out at last, Nina understands that she has sacrificed herself and her own dreams to his self-protective version of reality. These small, wonderfully well-observed tales bubble with the energy of real adventure and discovery. Prose has done what only the best writers can do: she shows us something new about the subtle peek-a-boo game we play with reality. Author tour; rights: Georges Borchardt.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (September 3, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006008085X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060080853
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,576,021 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jay T. Segarra on March 10, 2001
Format: Paperback
This book contains two novellas. The first is a well-crafted study of how charismatic individuals spin history for personal gain, be it social/sexual or material. The fact that the Holocaust is the history being spun is timely and fascinating.
The second is a full length novel that has been unfairly savaged by previous reviewers for being formless, with "thin" characters, unattractive "pathetic" main character etc. etc. Anyone's entitled to his opinion, but I believe these reviewers missed the point. This is an existential story written from the perspective of a woman who is neurotically obsessed with her (older) lover. I think it's brilliantly done. Certainly we know lots of OTHER people who have been in such relationships. Do all romantic heroines have to be heroically self-assertive? What a depressingly narrow range of reader tastes if that is the case! Nina's musings as she flounders in the emotional vortex of her obsessive love for Leo are fascinating and generally close to the mark. Her character is 'thin' because love-obsessed persons are self-absorbed and have a constricted range of expression. That Prose "made Paris boring" is not a criticism, but high praise! The embarassingly simple point is that even the most attractive environment will be sterile and dully malevolent when filtered through the opaque lens of emotional dependency.
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Format: Hardcover
Is there a more striking cultural critic writing literary fiction today? Are you sick of the solipsism and self-indulgence of folks like David Foster Wallace and Martin Amis? If so, these two novellas are for you. The shorter of the two, "Guided Tours of Hell," gives us a pathetic American playwright who, at a Kafka conference at German Death Camps, can't divorce his consciousness from petty rivalries. It takes guts to set a satire at the sight of one of our century's greatest tragedies, but Ms. Prose does it and to devastating, shocking success. The commercialization of the Holocaust -- most speciously seen in the film "Schindler's List" and publicity and self-congratulating that surrounded it -- is the perfect backdrop for this tale of male rage and cultural jealousy. Ms. Prose is a marvelous and graceful prose writer with a cultural critic's sharp eye and an academic's reservoir of knowledge; her writing is a pleasure, and a terror to read, as you never know what unpleasant truth you'll discover about yourself.
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Format: Paperback
I read these two novellas before I saw the other reviews here on Amazon, and its a good thing. It would have been a real shame to have been discouraged or influenced by some of the negative comments. Ms. Prose's voice is unique, her stories well structured and interesting, her characters human. I don't want to spoil these stories for anyone who has yet to read them, so I won't go into the details of the plots. This is the second book by Ms. Prose I have read (Hunters and Gatherers was first) and I am pleased to have discovered her. Paris in the winter can be a gray place, but it is still Paris. Enough said. If you enjoy well crafted, serious fiction you will enjoy these stories (how is that for a loaded sentence?)
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Format: Paperback
My Creative Writing professor recommended this book to me, and I flew right through the first of the two novellas. I think it's brilliant---it's hard enough to write about the Holocaust, but it's even harder to do it with a true sense of humor. And though the second novella isn't as strong as the first, the first is so good that I stand by the five stars I'm giving it.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The title story in this book, a sixty-page novella, is a darkly comic tour-de-force. A minor Jewish-American playwright named Landau attends a Kafka conference in Prague, a seedy affair in a country barely emerging from socialist austerity. His inept reading from his play about Kafka's one-time fiancée is trumped by the anecdotes of Jiri Krakauer, a Holocaust survivor who claims to have had an affair with Kafka's sister Ottla while in the Terezin concentration camp. Jiri serves as an exuberant guide on a tour to Terezin itself, lionized by the others and reveling in it, and telling ever more fanciful stories which become increasingly Kafkaesque. When Landau timidly calls him on some detail, Jiri rounds on him. "You neurotic American guys! Writers and academics and bloodsucking so-called intelligentsia. The dirty truth is, you envy us, you wish it had happened to you. You wish you'd gotten the chance to survive Auschwitz or the Gulag!" Despite the depths of tragedy to which he bears witness, Jiri is a monster, relying on his immunity from criticism as a Holocaust survivor to pursue personal adulation. He reminds me strongly of the protagonist in Ian McEwan's recent SOLAR, who trades on his Nobel Prize and global-warming credentials in much the same way, but Francine Prose's story is more successful because more compact.

The other novella in this book, "Three Pigs in Five Days," is almost three times as long and lacks the concentration of the title story. But it revisits some of the same themes in the friendlier setting of Paris. The protagonist, Nina, works for a much older man, Leo, who edits a travel magazine selling the city to American retirees.
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