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.

Relat­ed Content:

Born in 1946 in Budapest, award-win­ning drama­tist, nov­el­ist, and trans­la­tor Györ­gy Spiró has earned a rep­u­ta­tion as one of post­war Hungary’s most promi­nent and pro­lif­ic lit­er­ary fig­ures. He teach­es at ELTE Uni­ver­si­ty of Budapest, where he spe­cial­izes in Slav­ic literatures.

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