Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Importance of Scowling in Prague

“Night is not night enough for writing.” – Kafka (in his letters to Felice)

These are the kinds of cheery quotes found around Prague. The myth of Kafka’s madness lurks on every corner. As Americans on a temporary stay, we infused the city with unnecessary superlatives and exclamations. We invaded dark corners with camera flashes and smiles.

As Hana Ullmanova explained in the literature seminar, if a Czech person went to see a play and liked it, he might say “oh, that wasn’t too bad,” while an American would say “that was sooooo good, that was amazing.” I shrank a little in my seat when she said this. I’m guilty of overusing the word “lovely” and sometimes I say “awesome,” though I haven’t lived in California for fourteen years. In my effort to blend in Prague, I tried to drop exclamations and overt enthusiasm. It didn’t last long.

Twice a week, the Prague Program hosted a reading series in the Ypsilon Theater, an old theater with cushy red chairs and the balcony for late-comers (me). The conversations after the readings were filled with superlatives: great reading! great job! great story! In this way we brought American culture with us, carrying our unwelcome excitement into the streets of Prague.

A bar upstairs from the theater sold beer and wine that could be carried into the audience. The mood was lively with people blowing bubbles and clinking glasses, feet propped up on the seats, and chatter about the day’s adventures. At Bret Lott and Robert Eversz’s reading, I sat smack in the middle of the audience, between members of my workshop and in front of a very tall guy whose foot I almost amputated with my seat (his foot was wedged into the chair’s hinge). I’ve crossed a picket line before to attend a reading, but I’ve never injured an audience member. That would have been a first.

Bret Lott read from his new novel with soft, melodious phrases that were the novelist’s equivalent of a folk song, lines like, “let the road be the road and me the traveler on it.”

Robert read from his latest mystery novel starring Nina Zero, a testosterone-infused femme fatale roving through Los Angeles, which he describes as “among the loneliest places in the world” at 3 a.m. Los Angeles, a city of sunlight, defines itself by day, he says. Nina comes up with lines that flatten her foes. Instead of muscle she uses language. “The way he looked at me…was like I was an open goal with no goalie.” She’s smarter than everyone else in the book, which is why she gets to have a number as her last name.

“Never write out of blank space,” either Bret or Robert said during the Q & A. “Fill your head ‘til it starts to spill out.”

The student readings took place on Fridays—two hours packed with flash-readings. En route to one, I ran into one of the teaching assistants for the program who acted like an overgrown camp counselor.

“Hey!” he said. “How’s it goin’? We haven’t had a chance to check in.” He wore band T-shirts and glommed onto groups of undergrads going out to four-story discos. On the first day of workshop, he snapped our pictures “so I'll remember your names.” On the Kafka walking tour he fell into step with me and chatted merrily while I tried to make sense of the gloomy Kafka versus the B-movie Kafka.

On the tram, I was a captive audience. I could try to get arrested for evading the transportation police but a) I had a tram pass and b) no transportation officials were in sight (not that you would recognize them since most resembled homeless people shuffling by with badges hidden in their tattered coats). Short of getting arrested, I didn’t see a way out. I was stuck with him until we got to the reading.

The tram trudged along through Malostranska and past the one Starbucks in Prague. I practiced my best Czech scowl while he told me stories of women he’d rescued in the New York subway. In one case, he beat off the offending miscreant with a rolled up New Yorker. Ah, the literary hero. Daring deeds committed with the latest Munro story in hand. Gag.

As soon as the 22 stopped across from the Ypsilon, I flew off the tram, though the doors to the readings never closed. I slid into a seat on the balcony as one reading ended and applause filled the theater. I overheard someone say, “That was really good.” A reminder that I was in Prague but at the same time I wasn’t. Our American bubble found a place in the city, but never a home.

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