Friday, June 02, 2006

 

Prague.

John Banville, Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City (Bloomsbury, 2004).



As with Don DeLillo, I have never quite liked John Banville's books as much as I feel I should, and Prague was no exception. It's certainly not bad, but it wasn't great, and I hoped it would be great.

Prague is from The Writer and the City, a quirkly series of little books about major cities. I had previously read Peter Carey's 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account and Edmund White's The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, and enjoyed them both, although both approach their subjects in very different ways. (Other books in the series describe Rio, Florence and New York.) Perhaps the book didn't resonate in the same way because I've never been to Prague, unlike Sydney and Paris. Banville certainly didn't leave me wanting to go there any less, although I worry that the last ten years have made Prague more like its counterparts in Western Europe.

On page 87, Banville describes Emperor Rudolph II, born in 1552 and ruler of Prague until he abdicated in November, 1611 (two months after which he died):
Jealous, paranoid, hypochondriacal, incurably melancholy, obsessed with the passage of time and terrified at the prospect of death, Rudolf was a compulsive collector, filling room after room of Prague Castle with talismanic objects meant to stave off mortality and be a barrier against the world, all sorts of rubbish and kitsch tumbling together with exquisite objets d'art. As is so often the case with weak men who inherit vast power, he was obsessed with things in miniature, hiring entire schools of craftsmen to carve and emboss and inlay the tiniest surfaces, of pearls, nut shells, cherry pits, flakes of amber, birds' eggs, sharks' teeth, gallstones. No expense was spared, no effort was thought too great. He purchased a painting in Venice, Das Rosenkranzfest, by one of his favourite artists, Albrecht Dürer, and had it carried on foot across the Alps by four stout men, one at each corner.
It may be unfair to say that this passages evokes some of my feelings about this book: brief glimpses of many wonderful things, arranged in a way that never quite comes alive.


The publisher posts some passages here. Ann Skea reviews the book, as does Tim Adams.


Purchase books mentioned above at Amazon through these links:

Comments:
Not being as well traveled as I'd like, I often contemplate scooping up a handful of tour guides and travel memoirs of some specific destination, and poring through them in an attempt to gain some kind of familiarity by proxy. But I'm always held back by the silliness of the idea that I could come to actually know anything about a place without having been there. Your supposition that this book may not have resonated with you because you hadn't been to Prague reinforces my suspicion, though it also makes me glad that I'll finally (probably) make it over to Europe next summer.
 
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