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.
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.