Apr/May 2004 Book Reviews

Prague Pictures: The Writer and the City

John Banville
Bloomsbury (Oct. 2003) 244 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 6408 6

reviewed by Ann Skea

This is a delightful book, small and compact and full of riches. Clearly, it is the expression of John Banville's long-term love affair with Prague, yet his is not a blind, romantic infatuation. Rather, his relationship with Prague is like that of a faithful suitor who sees beyond the depredations of age to the heart of this city and, as he puts it, sings "a sad song of love to a beloved that can never reciprocate."

Prague Pictures is a memoir of strange encounters, a ramble through curious byways of history and culture, a tribute to a city which stirred Banville's imagination even before his first visit, and which has never lost its mystery for him. Memory, however, is a fallible instrument. So, it is by a combination of memory and imagination that Banville brings Prague to life. Fragments of ancient and recent history rub shoulders with myth and legend. Personal friends and chance acquaintances share the streets with such figures as Tycho Brahe, Joseph Kafka, Jan Neruda, twentieth-century photographer Josef Sudek and another of Prague's lovers, the writer Angelo Maria Ripellino. The ancient city and the modern, flood-ravaged city each find a place in Banville's heart and in this book.

Banville's first visit to Prague was to the Stalinist, communist city of the 1980s. But he had been there before in his imagination, when he set part of a novel in seventeenth century Prague. It was obviously not a feat of invention which he had found difficult, although he was surprised when he actually visited the city that he "had got it right, to a startling degree." However, he attributes that to sleight-of-hand, novelistic technique and the generous imagination of his readers, many of whom, it seems, not only believed in his invented city but congratulated him on having "caught the period," too. It a typical of the wry humour Banville displays throughout this book that he notes how faced with such perspicacious readers he was "too grateful and too polite to respond by asking how they could possibly know."

Now, trying to remember his actual visits to Prague, Banville's memory plays tricks on him. But the pattern of this book is of memories, anecdotes, fragments of history, literature and science, snippets from guide-books and travel books, poems and pictures, all woven together for you by a very idiosyncratic guide. You might not see the Prague you thought you knew or had read about elsewhere, but you will discover some things about the city and about John Banville, and you will almost certainly enjoy yourself in the process.

The Prague of Emperor Rudolf, with its Street of Alchemists and its Court of Mathematicians, Necromancers and Magicians, including John Dee and Edward Kelly, comes to life. So does Tycho Brahe, with his prosthetic gold and silver "dress" nose (he had a copper one for everyday wear), his brilliant astronomical work, his difficulties in pursuing his work and his prickly, uncertain relationship with Kepler. Emperor Rudolf himself is another colourful figure to appear in Banville's pictures: obsessed with collecting almost anything, he went to great lengths to obtain the objects he desired, even arranging for a work by Durer to be "carried on foot across the Alps by four stout men, one at each corner."

In Prague Pictures, Banville himself almost seems to share Rudof's collecting mania at times. His "collection" includes, for example, Rabbi Loew's Golem as well as all the Prague women who look like the 1950's film star Eva Bartok. But more seriously, he writes at length of the photographer Joseph Sudek's life and work, and two of Sudek's evocative black-and-white pictures are reproduced on the cover of this book. Possibly, these are two of the pictures Banville helped to smuggle out of Prague in the 1980s—and that's another interesting story.

Altogether, there is so much in Prague Pictures that is interesting and enjoyable that it's hard to understand how Banville packs it all so neatly and enjoyably into this compact book. But he does. And, for once, the blurb on the back cover is absolutely right when it describes this book as "a refreshing antidote to the average city guide." Anyone planning a first or return visit to Prague should read it. And those who are only armchair travellers should certainly plan an excursion through this book.


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