György Spiró interview: Part I

Angelus-award winning Hungarian writer discusses his connection with Poland and the writing of unpleasant truths

The Angelus Central European Literary Award is a literary prize awarded to the best regional prose work in Polish, so it would be logical to assume that the Central European part of the name designates the qualifying countries and nothing beyond that. Yet in giving the award to Hungarian György Spiró on December 4th this year in Wrocław the award truly lived up to its name.

Messiahs, Spiró’s Angelus-winning novel, is about the emergence of a religious cult leader in the Polish émigré community of Paris in the 1840’s, including literary icons such as Mickiewicz and Słowacki. Messiahs was originally published in 2007 while its Polish translation came out last year.

In 1981 Spiró published a novel called The X-es (Az Ikszek), which is set in a Polish theater company at the end of the 18th century as the country is being torn apart by its more powerful neighbors. Fluent in Polish and having translated plays by Polish theater greats Stanisław Wyspiański and Witold Gombrowicz, I asked Spiró how his close relationship with Poland, its history and literature came about.

“I started learning Polish in early 1970, the last year of my studies. I studied Hungarian, Russian and Serbo-Croatian literature in Budapest. I decided then not to try to live from literature – it was impossible anyway, my first novel appeared in 1975, and they staged one of my plays for the first time as late as 1978 . . . and there was no way to earn much money by literature. I have chosen Slavistics (Slavic Studies) as my regular job and have been teaching at various universities from 1978 till now. Later on I learnt some other Slavic languages too,” Spiró said.

But as the subject of his first Polish-based novel testifies it was the country’s theater that truly fired his imagination. “In 1972 in Kraków I saw a play by Wyspiański – A November Night – staged by Andrzej Wajda in the Old Theatre. I was deeply impressed by it, and fell in love with Wyspiański. Later I translated three plays of his into Hungarian. In 1974 I read a book published in 1956 by Ossolineum, entitled ‘Theatre reviews of the company called X-es’ (Recenzje teatralne towarzystwa Iksów). This gave me the idea for my first Polish novel.”

In 1978 he translated Gombrowicz’s play The Marriage for the Kaposvár Theatre in a performance directed by theater director and conductor János Ács that Spiró described as outstanding. “Otherwise Gombrowicz has not influenced me too much. I like his Yvonne, appreciate his Ferdydurke, but some other Polish authors – first of all Tadeusz Borowski – are closer to me,” he said. “Tadeusz Borowski is one of the greatest writers ever born, as important as Varlam Shalamov, and even less known in the world.”

Learning Polish and other Slavic languages was, and still is, a matter of necessity, as many of the writers Spiró reveres most have barely been translated from their native language. “There is Stanisław Wyspiański, whose works have not been translated into other languages. I have read one of his plays in English, and six in Russian, that’s all, as well as three in Hungarian. For me he is the greatest playwright after Shakespeare.” Only a single play by Wyspiański, The Wedding, appears available in English translation.

Other Central and Eastern European writers he feels remain unfairly neglected include Russian writer Andrei Platonov, whose short stories he particularly treasures. In English, at least, Platonov has had some work translated recently, though the claim that his Russian generally defies translation is a good argument for reading it in the original. Fellow Hungarian Zsigmond Móricz is another writer Spiró feels should be more widely known.

“There are quite many brilliant writers who have sunk to the bottom of the sea. Why are they not translated and advertised? They are too deep, too human, their truth is unpleasant. Readers want to escape from reality, and these writers do not help them.”

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