An American in Prague

15. 3. 2017

Caleb Crain, Necessary Errors (Penguin Books, 2013).

Jacob Putnam, the hero of Caleb Crain’s novel Necessary Errors arrives in Prague in August 1990, when “capitalism still hadn’t arrived; communism hadn’t yet altogether departed.” (81) Jacob is a fresh graduate from Harvard and wants to become a writer. In Prague, however, he hardly writes. As the novel’s reviewer in New Yorker James Wood noted, the conceit of a writer who works on a novel, which turns into the one that we read, is not rare. But the case here is different. Crain’s novel that was published almost a quarter of century after the times it describes, thematizes Jacob’s non-writing; as in Kafka, writing and living are two exclusive modes of existence.

Jacob comes to Prague with a vague plan. First he lives in Hloubětín, later in Žižkov; he buys eggs in paper bags and bread in shops that surprise him with their simple descriptive names, “foodstuffs,” “meat,” “frozen goods”; he takes trams to the language school where he teaches English and gives private lessons to chemists at an unnamed scientific institution. He spends evenings in bars with friends (one night they appear at the club Under the Stalin, a well-known hangout of the early 1990s), but even more often is he alone. The intensity of his loneliness is extended not only by few contacts with the outside world, but also by his minimal Czech and by the technological limitations of the beginning of the nineties. The use of the landlord’s telephone must be justified by Jacob’s illness or the death of his friend in the US; Jacob is invited to watch TV news when the war in Kuwait breaks out. He reads an unnamed English economical weekly, the only English language journal that is then sold in the city. Among other events described in the course of the novel is the illness of the main hero (twice), a couple of weekend trips (to Berlin and to Cracow), and an expedition with Jacob’s partner to the former quarry and popular swimming hole “Amerika” near Beroun.

This seems hardly enough for a novel of almost five hundred pages; the writing is however only commendable for its slow tempo, epical breadth and detailed observations. The seasons structure the novel, from August to the following summer. Jacob’s love affairs give the writing some progression and also a hint of development to its character: from the first misunderstandings in a gay club until a firmer and more meaningful relationship in the last part of the novel, enabled perhaps by Jacob’s upcoming departure. As the hero gains confidence in his relationships, he also develops cognitively; his Czech is improving along with his orientation in the geographical and cultural environment.

Due to his relationships with Czech men Jacob learns Czech better than his English, American, and Scottish friends in Prague. The perfection of Jacob’s Czech is mirrored in the novel’s language. Czech appears in the novel as distinct words and phrases, and in dialogues with the locals. The novel’s English mimics Czech idioms and syntax, the lines of Czech characters are translations of Czech sentences into a non-idiomatic, literal English. (“She has fear, that you will not want” is a literal rewriting of the Czech “má strach, že nebudeš chtít,”“mushroom and vinegar” is obviously a translation of the Czech idiom “houby s octem,” and “you ox,” the colloquial address “ty vole”). The author wrote the Czech characters’ lines first in Czech, and then translated them to English, keeping the Czech syntax.

Jacob’s friends were “elected by affinities,” similarly as they elected the place of their residence, Prague. Jacob’s friendships and the pace of the writing evoke Goethe’s idyllic novel. The dialogues among Jacob’s friends are tactful and delicate. Such idealization brings the novel to the tradition of Bildungsroman or comparable English and French literature, whether in direct or implicit intertextual references (Henry James, Gustave Flaubert). The novel’s events are channeled through Jacob’s eyes; the narrator is perceptible in mildly ironic distance from the main character, for example when the narrator refers to Jacob’s group as “friends.”

With its focus on friendship, its quietness and almost lucid clarity, the novel strikingly differs from the Czech writing of the last decades, often distinguished by its linguistic experimentation and hyperboles (Petra Hůlová, Jáchym Topol). Crain’s novel has a slow rhythm; it is carefully crafted. It pays attention to detail and is overall thorough in its narrative structure and its language. The reader cares for the heroes and does not want to turn the novel down, which rarely happens in contemporary literature.

Visual and photographic sensibilities, descriptions of Prague’s peripheries, store signs and typography are important to the novel and naturally coincide with Jacob’s lyrical persona of a lonely flâneur. Visual perceptiveness and harsh invasions of disease to Jacob’s everyday life recall Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, a classical lonely aspiring poet in a large city, but in Jacob’s life, the acute states of neurasthenia and wild flights of imaginations are missing. Anxiety and restlessness lead instead Jacob in a different direction, to quiet contemplation. The sense for detail and order assign the ordinary objects the power of every-day epiphanies; they hint to some assumed orders, whether natural or social. The reader who likes slow pace of narration experiences moments of euphoria when, after more than four hundred pages arrives at a scene in which Jacob eats with his pupils pudink from a blue bowl, served on a metal tray—and senses behind these descriptions a necessity similar to descriptions of felt home-shoes and furniture restoration techniques in a calmly flowing novel Late Summer by Adalbert Stifter.

The progress of Jacob’s maturation is subtle; there is no major change in him during the year. The indeterminateness of Jacob’s search is persuasive for the mind of a twenty-year-old. “He knew what he was searching for, as well as he ever had. It was a feeling about the world: an answering quality.” (357) The narrator understands Jacob’s feelings a little bit better than Jacob. “In fact Jacob dreaded the burden of earning a living. To be here was something more than a holiday; it was a kind of rift in the net, so new that it was not yet clear how it would be rewoven into the systems of money and responsibility.” (54) When looking at photographs from the large demonstrations in November 1989, Jacob’s desires take clearer outlines: “Jacob’s old, confused longing to take part in the lost moment in the pictures came over him again—the longing to belong to the moment, to have been alive in it. The odd thing was that he had hated to be part of any group in America.” (444)

In the spring, Jacob knows that he would return to America, where he was accepted to a graduate program. He must return to the US so that he can write. His year in Prague gets clear boundaries. The year enfolded in different time, outside of “money and responsibility.” For some readers, this clear limit to Jacob’s experience can reduce its significance. Isn’t it just another “curricular window” in a standard CV, a gap year spent abroad? And what role would then writing play in this predictable course of events?

We can put Crain’s novel in a broader tradition of its kind: an American abroad, Americans in Europe, and specifically in Eastern Europe after 1989. The topic was explored in Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), Arthur Phillips’ Prague (2003), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2002), Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001). In 2003, an anthology was published in New York, Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier, with stories connected to Eastern Europe. According to its editor Boris Fishman, Americans were discovering in Eastern Europe the last unexplored part of Europe. In his Introduction, Fishman opposed the scholar Eliot Borenstein, who has reviewed in The Nation (3.2.2003) six “expat” novels and maintained that “ultimately, the post-communist expat’s story is a fundamentally male narrative of conquest, submission and coming of age.” Fishman publishes very different stories inspired by Eastern Europe. Crain’s novel about a gay in Prague expands the topic further.

Crain’s novel was published twenty years after “Americans” arrived in the “Paris of the nineties,” when we would hardly await groundbreaking works from this artistically ambitious cohort. Foer approached the theme of searching for roots in Eastern Europe with magical realism, Shteyngart satirized it and mocked it in a parody and farce. Crain’s quiet novel is unique in its classical mode; it shows the time in a new light, in a surprising interlacing of a personal experience of liberation with a vague dimension of freedom pertaining to the specific historical time and place.

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