The ProsenPeople

Two Great Writers of Central Europe

Friday, November 20, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, György Spiró shared how the New York Postal Service and the mysterious identity of St. Thomas inspired his novel Captivity. György will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.


One learns something from every great work, and two writers in particular helped me the most in writing Captivity. They were personally familiar with the worlds that they evoked with exceptional sensitivity. I chose a story that took place two thousand years ago, so I really had to pull out all the stops.

One of the authors is the Czech Ivan Olbracht, whose Golet in the Valley—an extraordinary novel—was published in English, too. He wrote it in the 1930s, when he spent his vacations in tiny villages in the eastern end of the former Czechoslovakia and marveled at the lives of Jews and Ruthenians. At first he found them peculiar, but after returning every summer, he came to understand them better. Later, together with another writer, Vladislav Vančura, he made a film based on the novel. Golet in the Valley consists of three stories, which—along with another book of Olbracht, Nikola Šuhay, Outlaw (which as far as I know has not appeared in English translation)—are miracles of insight into human character. There is humor, wisdom, irony, understanding, compassion, comedy, and tragedy all at once. They have everything that makes reading and writing worthwhile. Olbracht was able to capture the last moments of an archaic lifestyle, just before the Nazis exterminated the region’s Jewish inhabitants. These wretchedly poor people were nevertheless resourceful enough to make ends meet, and were busy day and night trying to outwit the law. For instance, a husband, with convoluted logic, questioned the cleanliness of the ritual bath, the mikvah, so that on the Sabbath he could avoid obligatory marital relations with his hated wife. Read these three phenomenal stories—make sure that the novel about the bandit gets translated: this work also takes place in a Ruthenian-Jewish environment and is also splendid.

The other great writer is the Hungarian György G. Kardos, who was dragged off during the war to a Yugoslav work camp. Partisans freed him and he made it to Palestine via Istanbul. He participated in the war fought for the establishment of the Jewish state. After a year or two he spoke perfect Hebrew, and in 1951 he returned to Hungary. In 1968, his first unforgettable Palestine book, Avraham’s Good Week, came out, which was then followed by two more masterworks about Palestine. He accepted me as his friend. He died in 1997, and I have missed him ever since. I can still hear his voice: “What the hell did you scribble here?! ‘That heaving with laughter, he grabbed his belly’? Did you ever see anyone holding his stomach while laughing? A hack with no talent came up with the line, aping the French phrase: ‘rire à s’en donner mal au ventre,’ and ever since then other idiots keep repeating it.” In the following edition of that novel, I corrected the phrase. Since he cannot read my work anymore, I try to judge with his eyes. Some of them he would like; others he wouldn’t. To this day I correct my sentences with his standards in mind.

Read his two other novels (Where Have All the Soldiers Gone, The End of the Story)—I can guarantee it will be a great experience.

Translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders.

Born in 1946 in Budapest, award-winning dramatist, novelist, and translator György Spiró teaches at ELTE University of Budapest, where he specializes in Slavic literatures. His novel Captivity is newly available from Restless Books.

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Within the Quotidian All the Secrets of Existence Are Concealed

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, György Spiró shared how the mysterious iidentity of St. Thomas led him to write Captivity. György will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.


One day we walked into an Asian-Caribbean restaurant on West 66th Street, not far from Broadway. We had already ordered when four New York mailmen in uniform sat down at a table next to us. They were robust, loud, and cheerful. One of them spread out their next week’s schedule, and without even glancing at the menu, they ordered as only regulars can. I was hit by a sudden inspiration and turned to my sweetheart: “I’ve found the medium for my novel! It’s them.”

At that point I had already been collecting material about the first century CE for ten years, and had no idea in what form I would put it all into writing. At one point I managed to sketch out an ambitious epic drama set in many different locations. I even worked out a couple of scenes in my head. The various documents and books kept piling up; I diligently copied rare materials ordered from abroad, but the murkiness and uncertainty kept growing. Yet, for all that, it seemed ever more likely that such vast material can only be treated in prose.

It was in that Manhattan restaurant in April of 2002 that I decided that depicting everyday life two thousand years ago was the right thing to do. I never thought I’d have to start collecting material from scratch, and reexamine and rewrite everything from a new perspective. Writers like to reorchestrate high-toned politics, or pious spirits, or dominant ideologies; preoccupation with everyday life strikes them as excessively fastidious tinkering, although it is within the quotidian that all the secrets of existence are concealed.

Those living their everyday lives two thousand years ago did not know that they were part of an enormous revolution. And I, the storyteller, did not necessarily have to know either. The people then had no inkling that a tiny Jewish sect would conquer the world in the next three hundred years, though looking back, I can’t think of a greater and more fundamental revolution. This kind of unawareness is characteristic of every generation. We ourselves don’t really know what kind of world we live in. Later generations will know more, but by then we will not be in on it. We are sitting in a restaurant, order in a hurry, our outlook extending to next week’s schedules, and that is as it should be, for we live in the here and now, and nothing could be more important than these trifles. We are cheerful much more often than we should allow ourselves to be, but that, too, is as it should be.

Of course, I didn’t know yet that my easygoing postmen would not decide by themselves what sort of person the hero of the novel should be. It took half a year of work to determine that the Jewish delegation delivering a large sum of offering money from Rome to Jerusalem ought to be in the forefront; and a few more months until I settled on one member of the delegation to focus on. But it was the sight of the cheerful New York mailmen that helped me take the decisive step.

We left the restaurant. I cast a glance at the other side of the street, and saw that on the second floor a restaurateur named Spiro was advertising himself. If I were superstitious, I would have considered it a sign from heaven that we did not go there for lunch.

Translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders.

Born in 1946 in Budapest, award-winning dramatist, novelist, and translator György Spiró teaches at ELTE University of Budapest, where he specializes in Slavic literatures. His novel Captivity is newly available from Restless Books.

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Jesus's Twin

Monday, November 16, 2015 | Permalink

György Spiró is the author of Captivity, an epic novel set in first century Rome written in Hungarian and translated by Tim Wilkinson for Restless Books. György will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

In 1992 I came up with an idea for a novel.

Many people claim that Thomas, the twin, who belonged for a time to Jesus’s sect and in whose name was written, much later, an apocryphal gospel which strangely did not get as far as the crucifixion itself—this Thomas was actually Jesus’s twin brother. It occurred to me that after Jesus’s death the disciples’ grief must have been so overwhelming that one of them, seeing this, decided that they must call back Thomas, who would then pretend to be Jesus and make believe that he had risen from the dead. Thomas played his role well, so the disciples, after some hesitation, recognized Jesus in him and acquiesced. A few weeks later, when Thomas disappeared on Pentecost Day (did he flee? was he killed? I hadn’t quite figured that out yet), they no longer mourned Jesus all that much.

I had already written about thirty pages of the story when I read it over. I was horrified. The sentences, the phrasing, the scenes—everything about it was terrible. I thought I was finished, that my talent had forsaken me. A few months later I thought differently about the whole thing. The basic idea was bad; that’s what made my sentences cockeyed. With a twentieth-century mind and soul it is impossible to apprehend the thought processes of believers who lived two thousand years ago. With rational, sober deliberations, one cannot descend to the depths of the soul. The only honest approach is to leave the story as it was recounted in the gospels and to describe the world around Jesus and his followers. I read many novels about that period, and the authors of those works did not take note of the fact that a nineteenth- or twentieth-century mindset cannot be projected onto an ancient past. With a few exceptions (Bulgakov with The Master and Margarita is a rare example), writers of such novels produced mediocre works.

I realized that despite the enticing original idea (which could have brought in a lot of money—if that were my main goal), I had to admit that I didn’t know enough about the age, so I began to read up on the history of Rome, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Until then I thought I knew quite a bit about Roman history; after all, in high school I studied Latin, and in class we were quizzed thoroughly on details of Roman history. But it became clear that I picked up as much as the so-called cultured people, which is very little. I knew well that I was totally ignorant of Judean and Alexandrian conditions of that period. What’s more, I discovered after a while that even those unfamiliar with certain areas wrote highly praised works about the Roman Empire.

Nevertheless, I owe a debt of gratitude to many historians, archaeologists, as well as sociologists of religion, for I learned everything from them. Naturally, they are more familiar with individual aspects of the region, but I had to tackle everything, as the plot of my novel encompasses the entire Mediterranean basin. What’s more, I stumbled on connections that eluded scholars. For instance, I learned that Emperor Caligula was not at all a madman, as ancient sources and in their wake historians and writers have maintained; his failure to escape from his killers’ clutches was a very close call.

Everything came easier for me, since I am not a historian who must rely on dug-up fragments of sentences and poetry, but a writer who can freely set his imagination into motion. I learned from the fiasco of the “twin story,” and ever since then I am more suspicious of myself, and am no longer willing to elaborate on alluring but arbitrary ideas.

Translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders.

Born in 1946 in Budapest, award-winning dramatist, novelist, and translator György Spiró teaches at ELTE University of Budapest, where he specializes in Slavic literatures. His novel Captivity is newly available from Restless Books.

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