SEPTEMBER 25, 2013
LESS THAN A YEAR after the legendary Velvet Revolution of November 1989 ended totalitarian rule in Czechoslovakia and catapulted dissident playwright Václav Havel into the nation’s presidency, a new community of young Americans and other Anglophones was already settled in the capital city of Prague.
By the end of 1991 the continuing arrival of large numbers of non-Czech speakers had even inspired some enterprising expats to start up English-language newspapers for their fellow transplants. The second of these publications to hit the scene, a weekly broadsheet called The Prague Post, breathlessly announced itself that fall with an inaugural front-page declaration of purpose that rolled eyes around Prague, but piqued the interest of stateside media outlets — and a legion of fresh college graduates with no firm plans for the future — in a potential latter-day “lost generation” story:
We are living in the Left Bank of the ’90s […] Future Hemingways and Fitzgeralds, Audens and Isherwoods, Boswells and Shirers will chronicle our course, but even they will need to know the nuts and bolts of what it was like and how it felt to live and be in liberated Prague in the last decade of the 20th century. Until them […] we give you The Prague Post.
So the timing is kind of uncanny. Just a week after the Post’s last-ever print edition disappeared from Wenceslas Square newsstands at the end of July came the publication of a quietly compelling debut novel, Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain, which chronicles the course of a liberating year in the life of a young American in Prague at the beginning of the 1990s. The title comes from a poem by Auden; its portrait of a young expat circle of friends out and about in a European capital readily recalls Hemingway’s Moveable Feast; and the callow, but prodigiously observant, youth at the center of the narrative is a direct literary descendant of Isherwood in Berlin. By the time that old Post editor introduced the paper as a tool for future writers, though, the events of the book he was anticipating, and its author’s time in Prague, had already passed.
October 1990, when Necessary Errors opens, was still the dawn of the post-Communist era in Central Europe. Prague was just barely awakening into its vibrant new global status as a cultural focal point and rediscovered travel destination, and the Czechs’ fast-track transition to capitalism was not yet underway. Hardly a year after the book’s conclusion the following summer, the atmosphere of the city would already be very, very different (and when 1992 ended, the country of Czechoslovakia itself split in two). But for the brief historical moment that Crain vividly captures, there reigned a sense of “general liberation, not yet attenuated — the dispensation that the Czechs and Slovaks were still under to live as if no authority had more responsibility for them than they had for themselves.” Even the pub drunks:
They were gentle for some reason — perhaps […] because even in their cups they participated in the national mood of liberation and melancholy, the blanketing pensiveness about the old order passed away and the new one not yet come, or perhaps because they had learned, through living for decades under a regime where the smallest legal infraction could ruin a life, to get drunk quietly, and the habit hadn’t yet left them. If they lived a little longer in the marketplace, experience of rivalry and inadequacy might give them more of a wish to hurt one another. But they didn’t have much of one yet.
Crain’s protagonist, recent Harvard graduate Jacob Putnam, lives, teaches English, and frequents the pubs with a close group of international friends in this city on the verge, but not yet in the thick, of full-speed-ahead development. Early in the game as it is, though, he is still painfully conscious of having missed the opportunity to “acquire a memory of the revolution.” Even if it was too late to be part of it, “he anxiously hoped that it might not be so far gone that it could not be, in subtle traces it had left behind, witnessed.” Having just finished college, after all, in the year of Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Velvet Revolution itself, Jacob thought:
[H]is first personal experience of adult freedom — which he knew didn’t count for much in the grand scheme of things but which he felt with great intensity — seemed echoed by the wider world. Although he knew that he was hearing not echoes, but emanations from distant sources, he wasn’t above thinking they might have a special resonance for him — that he might be receptive to them in a way others couldn’t be.
Other, more personal awakenings also contribute to Jacob’s sincere conviction that he has ventured to Prague on a unique “quest,” or “mission.” His “recent […] discovery that he loved men strengthened this feeling” that he had achieved a break from his own past and from “the world that had formed him and that this separation […] instead of a skill or a legacy […] was his special advantage.” Gays in the west “had woken up to politics later than other groups had,” Jacob reckoned, so even though the initial revolution had already taken place, he still “might not have arrived too late for the liberation of Eastern Europe’s gay people. He hadn’t settled in advance on the story he hoped to hear, but he did expect to recognize it if he came across it.”
Self-conscious young people trying to find a way in the world do tend to imbue their own individual perceptions with the greater significance of any notable events and circumstances they may get to witness. Or they may confer some special meaning on less momentous events and circumstances just by dint of their having been there to see them. In trying to conflate the historic experience of post-revolution Prague with his own intensely felt adventure in personal liberation, Jacob falls prey to both of these harmless pretensions. For him to do otherwise, the novel’s sympathetic third-person narrator observes, “would have required standing a little farther outside himself than he was able to.”
Of course, Jacob’s youthful frame of reference, his ardent sincerity and his misapprehensions about what he is or ought to be doing as a young American gay man living in an unfamiliar country are a big part of what makes Necessary Errors a constant pleasure to wander through. Jacob may lack the distance that would allow him to crack an indulgent smile at his own excessively considered approach to life, but his misfires in trying to assess who he is and why he’s in Prague are what impel him to have all the meaningful experiences that he has. They also end up allowing him to describe these experiences, his friends, and the city they inhabit in consistently rich and rewarding detail.
For, indeed, while Jacob may be questionably reliable in his sense of himself and his own motivations, Crain’s account of life in Prague in 1990 and 1991 is abundantly evocative and, mostly, right on the money. (A few small linguistic and chronological discrepancies will matter to exactly no one who isn’t measuring every description against their own recollections.) The delicacy of negotiations over living arrangements with over-cautious landlords; the difficulty of reading a Czech newspaper even if one already speaks the language; the “beastly” attitude of waiters, club doormen, and shopkeepers still uninvested in whether or not their customers are satisfied, or even served; the word igelitka for a plastic bag; the privatization of state-owned industries by issuing stock voucher “coupons” to all citizens; vanishing Soviet-model fast food restaurants; and so many other features of that uniquely strange place and time — just before the emergence of the World Wide Web forever eliminated the possibility of isolating oneself in a foreign environment, one where going out and socializing is the only viable means of communication — are all memorialized with a sure and accurate touch.
Without much of a plot per se to drive it forward, the novel simply accompanies Jacob over the course of nine or 10 months. His first serious romantic relationship, with a Czech guy he meets in a club, turns sour when he learns that his lover has had another, secret life all along, prompting Jacob to abandon sexual pursuits for the next several months. In addition to his work teaching English at a language school, he provides onsite group lessons to a team of chemists concerned about what will happen to their careers once privatization gets underway, as well as to the children and neighbors of a grateful family living on the outskirts of town. His ambitions to become a serious writer do not result in any serious writing. He attends President George H.W. Bush’s speech on Wenceslas Square on the first anniversary of the revolution and joins his landlord’s family to watch the opening salvos of the first Gulf war on CNN. He acquires a pet hamster and names him Václav. He takes trips to Berlin and Krakow. Later, he becomes involved with another Czech man, much more happily, but their prospects for lasting commitment are not good.
Jacob is fortunate to have a circle of half a dozen or more very good friends, male and female, from a variety of countries, to go out drinking with several nights a week. (Norman Rush’s review of the book in The New York Review of Books is titled “A Utopia of Friends.) None of them are gay, but when Jacob comes out to them each individually at different times over the course of the year, they are not at all fazed One of the impressive feats that Crain pulls off in Necessary Errors is to involve us closely with all the individual members of this group, and he draws each of them sharply, almost entirely through dialogue. The only descriptions of them are through Jacob’s eyes, the information about them only what Jacob knows. There are no unspoken thoughts attributed to them and no encounters with them outside of Jacob’s company. Most of these characters are burdened with their own dilemmas and dramas, which Jacob addresses sympathetically and engagingly while trying not to personally intervene, though in this he is only partly successful.
As the novel progresses, and Jacob recognizes that his initial sense of mission may have been a bit illusory, he begins to consider whether this great shared friendship may have “come to take the place of what he had once been seeking. The feeling that they were exceptional together. It was their being together that was exceptional, rather than anything any of them did or might do.” And here, again, Jacob’s willful submission to the thrall of a misconception about the greater meaning of his experience is what allows him to enhance the emotional effect that that experience has on him:
He knew that the feeling wasn’t rational. He didn’t care. He was going to believe in it anyway […], that they had all become somehow permanent to one another — leaving didn’t matter, leaving wasn’t going to change the relation that they were all in with one another. […] The connection was going to outlast the time that they were going to share, and somehow they felt the afterlife of it now, while they were still together, almost as a physical thing, casting a retrospective aura, which they felt prospectively. And it was terribly sad, as it turned out, and something else, too — exhilarating, somehow, maybe because they hadn’t lost one another quite yet. […] They had become the world to one another, both those who had fallen in love and those who hadn’t.
In the book’s final section, when Jacob decides to go back to graduate school in the United States, his observations of Prague become more frequent and more acute, as “if he was assembling a map of the city in order to be able to revisit it later.” As he prepares to leave, he and his friends also notice how rapidly the culture of the city is changing. Where once there had been shortages of basic goods, “there were now so many new shops that no single one was any longer a matter of public interest.” But also:
[I]t was beginning to occur to people that not everyone would be able to afford every new shop that opened. Some shops were going to be reserved for some people; others for others. Some shops would be reserved implicitly for special occasions, which would come at different times to different people. One’s pride was at stake, and as a measure of prudence, one had to begin to think a little more narrowly, keeping in mind one’s personal wishes and means rather than those of the average worker — the ideal customer that the old shops, in their uniformity had been addressed to.
Less than two years after the revolution:
[I]ts grip as a story was weakening. […] In their thoughts people were beginning to go their separate ways. It wouldn’t have been tactful to make too much of it; there was no point in throwing the fact of differentiation in anyone’s face. It went largely undiscussed.
At the same time as Czech society is taking on a new shape, so, too, are the Americans beginning to arrive in greater numbers and to leave their own mark on the landscape. The first burritos may still be some months away, but already the expat entrepreneurs are introducing the city to previously unknown amenities like laundromats, and the “backpackers,” one of Jacob’s American friends loftily suggests, “are ruining the city, aren’t they.”
Jacob also evinces a mild condescension toward those following in his footsteps to Prague. At one point he ponders the inception of an English-language newspaper in town (presumably the Post’s livelier, but chaotically managed, rival publication Prognosis, which got there first, but lasted only a few years):
At a newspaper, Americans would have collected and condensed their ideas about the city. They would have passed the ideas back and forth until they had become a kind of currency, and they would expect to be able to buy him with this currency and for him to try to pay for his admission to their circle with it. It surprised him to find that he was still straining to keep himself pure. Evidently he was still on a quest.
Before he leaves, Jacob supposes that someday he might not think that Prague had been particularly important, “[e]specially now that he had learned to take it so casually, as if it were an interlude in a larger story, whose outline he didn’t yet know.” Crain himself has mentioned in interviews that he hasn’t been back to Prague since 1993. In the intervening two decades his own larger story has included success as a literary critic, essayist, blogger, and nonfiction writer on 19th-century American literature and other subjects, most, though not all, unrelated to Prague or Czech matters. But one thing this large-spirited novel demonstrates is that even the errant missions of our youth maintain a necessary resonance long after we believe their influence has faded.