Author Gary Shteyngart - a former expatriate - returns to Prague for writers' festival


Of all the authors' participating in this years' Prague Writers' Festival, none seems like a more apt choice than Gary Shteyngart. His award-winning first novel - The Russian Debutante's Handbook - is actually set in Prague during the early 1990s. The novel has received much praise for the sharp, satirical manner in which it portrays the notorious American expatriate scene that existed in the city back then. We met up with him while he was here to talk about his comic portrayal of this particular period in Prague's recent history.

Former Prague resident Gary Shteyngart is back in town for the city's writers' festival. Mr Shteyngart's critically acclaimed first novel - The Russian Debutante's Handbook - is set in Prague in the early 1990s. Shteyngart's novel hilariously lampoons the ex-pat scene that existed here at that time. Back then the city was full of idealistic young Americans, many of whom took advantage of the fact that it was extremely cheap to live here and adopted a Bohemian lifestyle. Some even formed artistic and literary cliques, which aimed to emulate the achievements of other American ex-pat artists and writers from the 1920s and 30s such as Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller. Mr Shteyngart, who spent a semester studying here in 1993, is back in the Czech Republic this week for the Prague Writers' Festival. He recalls the atmosphere that existed here at that time and also describes one of the Beef Stew ex-pat poetry readings that were regularly held at various bars and clubs around the city:

"I was a so-called student - in quotes of course - I was a student at Charles University. The semester there would involve the professor coming in drunk and saying: 'No class today - I am liquidated'. And then he'd send us home. It was sort of an excuse for a bunch of Americans to get together and have a very, very good party. But I learned nothing. Of course, I would go to all these bars and listen to poetry readings. I actually read at Beef Stew one day. I remember listening to this poem and it was the most god-awful thing I ever heard. And when I heard it I thought 'Oh my God, I'm here in the middle of kitsch'. I think that going to Beef Stew and hearing this god-awful stuff was instrumental in my deciding to begin this novel."

In the early 1990s, there was an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 young Americans living in Prague, many of whom had literary ambitions. Guidebooks and travelogues of the time frequently compared the city to the artistic milieu that existed in Paris in the 1920s. Mr Shteyngart, however, is dismissive of the notion that Prague ever had a chance of becoming a kind of "Paris of the 90s":

"Oh it was hilarious! I mean the very idea... You know everything was here for that. It was a beautiful city on the banks of a beautiful river with cheap food and even cheaper beer. The only thing missing was the talent. There just wasn't any talent. But otherwise we had it all set up for the Ernest Hemingways and the Gertrude Stein's to appear except for the actual Hemingways and Gertrude Steins. I mean look - it's been ten years since and what has really come out of Prague?"

Gary Shteyngart's novel "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" is now available in paperback and it is published by Riverhead Books.


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