Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jeffrey Condran writes about Prague Summer from Counterpoint Press.
Novels are meant to be complex, to operate on multiple levels: plots, subplots, themes, motifs. I remember reading Milan Kundera’s, The Art of the Novel, and shaking my head in admiration at the symphonic construction of his fictions, one movement juxtaposed with a second and, lingering there, flirting like a firefly, some discordant thread that both delighted in its otherness and yet wove the whole together. I know for certain that reading Kundera’s early novels — The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being — made me fall in love with the idea of Prague. It was a place, I felt, where all of human experience could be found. Beauty, sadness, History; a place where art and politics, philosophy and professional life, might live together at once in a single individual. A narrative tied together by Kundera’s artful constructions. It was galling to me all through the 1990s to not be able to find my way there.
While it took me more than a decade to get to Prague, no one could deny me Kundera’s narrative ideas. And so when it came time to draft my own novel, Prague Summer, I knew that I would need several “movements” that could be pulled together by a single magical thread.
The First Movement: September 11, 2001
I have written before that the genesis of the novel came from a story I published in The Missouri Review titled, “Praha.” It is without question a post-9/11 story, following a quasi-allegorical threesome: the protagonist, Henry Marten, and a young Yemeni couple, Mansour and Selma Al-Khateeb. I’d become interested in the subject when on the morning of September 11 I arrived on campus to teach a course at La Roche College only to find my students, nearly all of whom were young Arabs, stunned by the day’s events. In the weeks and months that followed they were interviewed by the FBI (“Is Osama bin Laden your uncle?”) and constrained by the Patriot Act. Or, and I think this is infinitely worse, they were compelled to explain to nearly everyone they encountered a buffet of difficult topics: Islam and its multiple identities, the political realities of the Middle East (as though it were all a single narrative), al-Qaeda, the potential feminism of hijabs and burkas. I was intensely moved by the horrendous complexity of the situation and knew right away that I wanted to write about it. What concerned me, however, was all that I did not know. And so I embarked on a campaign of interviews with my students. We met in spaces all over campus and talked for hours while I filled legal pad after legal pad with my notes. What did I learn? More than I can say and less than I needed: racial profiling during traffic stops, Superman t-shirts worn under hijabs, the toll-free ACLU telephone number. I could go on and on.
The personal relationships that I began to form with my students were soon paired with a new kind of reading list. The fall of 2001 found me reading texts such as Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, The Day the Leader Was Killed and Fredric Jameson’s “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” and thinking for the first time of the notion of political allegory. Suddenly, I wondered if recent events might not have carved out room in American fiction for work that paid more than lip service to the political.
The Second Movement: Books
Don Delillo’s Falling Man, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, all dealt with the 9/11 attacks directly. However, these novels were character-driven, largely psychological dramas that took the occasion of the attacks as a way to show readers something new about the world, but by generally using very familiar methods. My own first book-length attempt erred far too much on the side of the allegorical and the political, and while my novel was read by agents with interest and sympathy, it was also rejected. And so I decided that if my political novel were going to ever work, it would have to be coupled with some other, more accessible idea.
I have always loved books. But as any bibliophile knows, these are considered to be difficult times for print books. A recent New York Times article referred to lovers of print as “stodgy” and “fetishistic” — a description that I can’t help but see as sad and misguided. I wanted very much to express my feelings about books — these objects, these artifacts — that have so comprehensively shaped my life. I wanted whatever I wrote to be beautiful and poignant, and to show through story, the deep feelings I have for books. I wanted, to be frank, to write an homage to the printed word before it was too late.
The result is that in Prague Summer I made my protagonist, Henry Marten, not a real estate agent or diplomat as he had been in earlier versions of the story, but a bookseller. I was determined to allow inspiration to come from any number of books, fiction and nonfiction, that I’d come to love over the years for the way they made books and reading a central part of the theme: The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Reader by Bernard Schlink, A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. In each of these titles, books acted as a gateway to larger action. They represented not an escape from the world, but a way to see it, to frame it. They also, incidentally, represented work. And I have been powerfully persuaded by authors like Ian McEwan and Richard Ford, that writing about work is a fundamental aspect of the human experience.
More importantly even than the inspiration for Henry Marten as a bookseller, is the work of three writers who shaped the larger structure of the novel. Milan Kundera I have already mentioned for the wonderful mix of sex, politics, and art. Another influence, however, was Henry Miller — especially Tropic of Cancer. So many readers get hung up on Miller’s treatment of sex and, to some degree, how could they not? Yet for me, Miller is attempting to work within a Whitmanesque tradition of wisdom literature: a narrative voice, describing and hoping to understand a world that is always dying, over and over again, but which can be made beautiful through interpretation. The way he writes about poverty, ambition — and the loneliness it inevitably breeds — is far more significant. For Miller, the world is Depression era Paris and, impoverished, it is a world that is seen on foot. A flaneur… aimlessly walking, confident that some kind of inspiration will strike, though just what it will be and how it will arrive is always a mystery. It was this feeling I wanted my readers to have as they read my novel. That and something else, a kind of relentless self-consciousness that can only be created when a small, seemingly insignificant person finds themselves overwhelmed my larger events. For that, especially when the setting is Prague, you need Franz Kafka.
The Third Movement: Prague
Kafka’s stories have always transported readers into the vortex of governmental bureaucracy, a perfect allusion to America’s post-9/11 reaction to its Arab citizens and visitors. It was easy to pepper the novel with Kafka references — The Café Franz Kafka, the remarkable Kafka statue in the Jewish Quarter, a character’s touristy desire to make a visit to Kafka’s house in the Stare Mesto.
However, it soon became clear that channeling Kafka was only a kind of “gateway drug” to Prague. When I finally visited the city in 2008, it was love at first sight. Coming out of the subway station into Wenceslas Square where the citizens of Prague had gathered in 1989 for the Velvet Revolution, I was overwhelmed by its beauty. Not only had the city survived the 20th century wars largely untouched, it also possessed another, unspoken quality. A blanket of relative quietude covered everything, even among the tight throngs of people that are always gathered on Charles Bridge. This was a place of secrets, of alchemy, of the occult, a place where open conversation was still frowned upon because, in a country where self government has never lasted for long, only a child — or those with a child-like outlook on the world and it’s realities — would believe that today’s happiness would last for very long.
More than even this, however, Prague has the feel of an “open city.” It is markedly different from the rest of the Czech Republic, more cosmopolitan, more multicultural. In the early 21st century Prague that I came to know, I met more expatriates than I did Czechs. There are roughly 50,000 Americans living in Prague, but this is nothing — the world has arrived at the city’s doorstep: Russians, Germans and Central Europeans of every nationality, Australians, Spaniards, even the British. It was this feeling of an “open city” that provided me with the magic thread that held all these separate movements together.
Leitmotif: Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Aleph”
In chapter four of the novel, I take Henry Martin to work at his bookshop, Hades Rare Books. His assistant, Morgan McBride, has just opened the mail to reveal the handwritten manuscript of Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “Aleph.” In the story, the Aleph is “the place in which all places have been assembled. The entire universe in the space of only a few centimeters. A place where everything exists together at once.”
This idea from Borges’s story is what the Prague of my novel had come to represent to me — a place where all the world could be found at once, the perfect vessel to demonstrate what has become of our lives.
What couldn’t happen there?