The Egg and I: Why is 1945 US bestseller topping Czech readers’ lists?
For several decades now, one of the most popular books among Czech readers has been The Egg and I by American writer Betty MacDonald. The 1945 memoir about life on a chicken farm in the Northwest has been largely forgotten in the United States, but here in Czechia, it still continues to top readers’ lists. What has caused this somewhat unexpected popularity? And how come it has lasted for nearly eighty years? Czech literary theorist Jiří Trávníček decided to explore this unusual phenomenon in his new book called Betty a my (Betty and Us).
“Along with teaching us that lamb must be cooked with garlic and that a lady never scratches her head or spits, my mother taught my sisters and me that it is a wife's bounden duty to see that her husband is happy in his work.
"First make sure that your husband is doing the kind of work he enjoys and is best fitted for and then cheerfully accept whatever it entails. If you marry a doctor, don't whine because he doesn't keep the hours of a shoe clerk, and by the same token if you marry a shoe clerk, don't complain because he doesn't make as much money as a doctor. Be satisfied that he works regular hours," Mother told us.
This is the opening paragraph of The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald, a lightly fictionalised and highly funny account of the years she spent as the young wife of a chicken farmer on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.
The first-time author published her novel in October 1945 and it became an instant success, selling a million copies in less than a year. The film version, released just a few years later in Hollywood, was hugely popular as well.
MacDonald went on to write another eight books, including the hugely popular Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle children’s series, but none of them reached the success of her debut novel.
The Egg and I in Czechoslovakia
After the Second World War, the Egg and I was translated in over 30 languages, including Czech. Today, more than 70 years later, it is still extremely popular among the Czech readers.
Jiří Trávníček, a literary theorist who has been examining the reading habits of Czechs, was intrigued by the somewhat unexpected popularity of the book and decided to study it in greater detail.
“Betty MacDonald has come up several times in our research as the most popular and most read author in Czechia, especially her book The Egg and I.
“We have carried out four large studies, in which the book always came on top. It was actually more popular than the author herself, even though she made the top ten in each of the surveys.
“So I decided to explore the topic in greater detail, interviews with her readers. All in all, it was a fascinating phenomenon.”
The Egg and I was published in Czechoslovakia in 1947, only two years after its US release and just a few months before the Communist takeover.
Vladimír Žikeš, its publisher, managed to put out three editions. Already back then, the book was a huge success. But it was only in the 1970s that The Egg and I became a true bestseller, says Jiří Trávníček:
“It was the translator Eva Marxová who was responsible for its reprint in the early 1970s, and she also pushed for other books by Betty MacDonald to be published. It was only during the so-called Normalisation that the book was published in really massive print runs.”
Appeal to female readers
From the very beginning, The Egg and I mainly appealed to female readers, who praised its quirky sense of humour and irony. However, they also enjoyed the insight into American life and the implicit critique of women’s domestic roles, says Mr. Trávníček:
“It is the story of a woman who keeps going in spite of difficulties. She accepts the harsh conditions of the chicken farm, imposed on her by her husband, but she gives him a piece of her mind by telling her story.
“For me, there is an implicit protofeminism in the book, not in its concept, but in the story of the main protagonist, and this provided the readers with some sort of support.”
Another reason why a US author associated mostly with the Pacific Midwest region resonated so much with readers in Communist Czechoslovakia was the limited choice of foreign books available on the market at the time, he says:
“It did play a role, but only to some extent. In the 1970s and 80s, strong stories of women from behind the Iron Curtain, such as Erica Jong or Sue Kauffman, were already available to Czech readers.
“But I still think that Betty MacDonald offered Czech readers something else. It was the way she described American reality in the 1930s, specifically the kind of technologies she had on the farm.
“The readers would wonder: Look what they had in the 1930s. We don’t have that even today, in the 1970s and 80s.”
But perhaps the strongest factor behind Betty MacDonald’s lasting popularity in Czechia is the fact that it has been nurtured by its readers, who have been her books down from generation to generation, says Mr. Trávníček.
“We interviewed a woman who has read The Egg and I maybe 50 times. She grew up with her mother and grandmother and they would entertain themselves by quoting passages from the book.
“So she was basically forced to read it in order to understand them. Now, despite having no literary ambitions, she has decided to write a kind of fan fiction in the style of Betty MacDonald, situated in Karlovy Vary.”
The unexpected popularity of the Egg and I is a phenomenon that has also been noticed by Betty MacDonald’s US biographers. Somewhat surprisingly, it was also mentioned by the famous US writer Philip Roth, in his 1985 novel The Prague Orgy.
The Egg and I and Philip Roth
The book, based on Roth’s own experience, is set in the mid-1970s Czechoslovakia and follows the journey of his alter ego Nathan Zuckermann to Prague.
In one of the scenes, he is confronted by the Czech minister of culture, who believes The Egg and I is a literary masterpiece:
Out beyond the heavy city traffic I am unable to tell if we really are on the airport road. Can they be taking me to jail in a limo? I always seem to end up in these large black cars. The dashboard says this one is a Tatra 603.
“Sie sprechen Deuisch, nicht wahr?” Novak asks me.
“Kennen sie Fraulein Betty MacDonald?”
We continue in German. “I don’t,” I say.
“You don’t know Miss Betty MacDonald?”
Guilty of conspiring against the Czech people with somebody named Betty MacDonald. Thus I conclude my penance.
“Sorry,” I say, “1 don’t know her.”
“But,” says Novak, “she is the author of The Egg and I.”
“Ah. Yes. About a farm — wasn’t it? I haven’t read it since I was a schoolboy.”
Novak is incredulous. “But it is a masterpiece.”
“Well, I can’t say it’s considered a masterpiece in America. I’d be surprised if in America anybody under thirty has even heard of The Egg and I.”
While Philip Roth’s hero back in the 1970s has hardly remembered Betty MacDonald, her books in communist Czechoslovakia were being published in massive print runs.
Today, nearly 80 years since its first Czech edition came out, The Egg and I is still in print. And although the interest of young generations in the book is dwindling, Jiří Trávníček says its long-time popularity is likely to last for some time:
“Her books for adult readers are mostly read by women over the age of 45. We can see that the book doesn’t appeal that much to the generation of 35 and below. However, I think it is very strongly rooted in this country and that the family transmission will continue, even though it will wear out over time.”
The Egg and I is not the only foreign book that has enjoyed more success in Czechia than in its home country. Another such example is the US writer Robert Fulghum, who has even published one of his books first in Czech and only then in English. However, none of his books have ever achieved the same cult status as the 1945 memoir by Betty MacDonald.