Egon Hostovský, "a European among the sprinklers"

Egon Hostovský

For Czechs, the 20th century was a turbulent time. Independent Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918 only to later fall victim to the two great tyrannies of modern history – Nazism and communism. Many Czechs fled their country during the 20th century so that they could live as free people, and often simply to save their lives - including Egon Hostovský, one of the most distinctive and significant modern-day Czech writers, who fled his country twice, first to escape the Nazis, and later the Communists.

In 1949, a year after the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, Egon Hostovský left his country, for the second time, to live in the United States. He was a respected Czech writer whose psychological novels often explored the lives of people in search of their identity; outcasts and misfits. Over the phone from Massachussets in the U.S., Egon Hostovský's son Paul (born in 1959 to Egon and his third wife) says that for his father, life in America was not easy.

“I don't think he was entirely comfortable in this country. I think he stayed mostly with his Czech friends and the Czech community which was largely in New York. In the suburbs of New Jersey, he was like the European among the sprinklers, you know. He didn't fit in. And I don't think he was ever truly comfortable in that environment. I am sure that he missed the life that he knew in Prague before the war, and his friends and certainly his family all of whom perished in the holocaust.”

Egon Hostovský was born on April, 23, 1908, to a Jewish family in Hronov, eastern Bohemia. His father owned a small textile factory and wanted Egon to take over the family business one day. But Egon published his first book, a collection of short stories, at the age of 17 while still studying at a local secondary school. Three years later he published the novel, “Gheto v nich”, or “The Ghetto Within”, which even then featured the central theme of Hostovský work. Professor Vladimír Papoušek, of the Institute of Bohemian Studies at the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice, is a leading expert on Hostovský's work.

“He created a sort of a logical scheme in his work; in his novels from the early 1930s he picked up some themes, most notably the theme of a person who becomes an outcast, a nomad who never finds a solid base in life. In his later works he expanded on various versions of this ostracism, of the search for home that is nowhere to be found.”

In 1937, Egon Hostovský joined the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry. When Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany in the spring of 1939, Hostovský was on a lecture tour of Belgium and managed to escape to the United States. There, in 1942, he published one of his best known novels, “Sedmkrát v hlavní úloze”, or “Seven Times the Leading Man”. The novel was critical of Czech politicians and the Czech government in exile, and alienated him from the refugee community in the United States.

“The Czech exile community never really accepted this significant Czech writer; at the time he was more appreciated by English-speaking intellectuals who tried to help him to reach English-speaking readers. One of them was Graham Greene who recommended his work for translation and they eventually became friends; among the others were writers and intellectuals Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford.”

In a publication commemorating Egon Hostovský's 50th birthday, Graham Greene gave an account of their first encounter ten years before.

“My first meeting with Egon Hostovský had some of the flavour of his own works”, Graham Greene wrote in 1958, “a complex flavour of black humour, melodrama and despair. It was in Prague during the week of the Communist Revolution. Hostovský came into my hotel room straight from a last meeting at his Foreign Office with his beloved chief Masaryk – who was to suffer a defenestration a few days later. We sat on the bed finishing my bottle of Scotch whisky and the streets outside were noisy with processions of trade unionists, shouting away their freedom.”

In the United States, Egon Hostovský worked for Radio Free Europe but never stopped being a full-time Czech writer. He never mastered the English language and all his novels had to be translated from Czech which was one of the reasons he never became a star novelist in the United States. Meanwhile, Egon Hostovský's novels were banned in Czechoslovakia. One of his most important books, “Všeobecné spiknutí”, or “The Plot”, did get published in Prague in 1969, in the aftermath of the brief period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring. Egon Hostovský never visited his native country again, and died in New Jersey in 1973. A year later, his wife Regina established the Egon Hostovský Award, a literary prize for proscribed Czech writers which was awarded to such Czech authors as Ludvík Vaculík, Ivan Klíma, Egon Bondy and others. After the fall of communism, his daughter Olga Castiellová Hostovská undertook the task of publishing his collected works. But she says that Czech readers had by and large lost interest in her father's books by then.

“Egon Hostovský’s books have been translated into 15 languages including Arabic and Japanese and people from more than 20 countries had a chance to read them. At the beginning of the 1990s when I wanted to start publishing Hostovský's collected works in 12 volumes, none of the established Czech publishers was willing to take on this task. Only one newly-established publisher believed he would be able to manage it. He wasn't. Two other publishers had to help. The first volume was published in 1994 in 6,000 copies. The last one was published in 2002 in 600 copies.”

Egon Hostovský's son Paul carries on in his father's literary tradition. The author of several collections of poetry, Paul Hostovsky says that growing up in a home full of books was important.

“I don't think that my writing has been influenced by his work per se, meaning by the books that he wrote. But the fact that he was a writer, that he wrote – that influenced me. I grew up among books, books were important in our home; this was what my father did for a living. I knew he was a writer, and I think that encouraged me later on to write. I remember my mother saying to me, ‘shsh, shsh, quiet, daddy's writing’. So there was this great respect for when he was working in his room and the typewriter would go, ‘tap-tap-tap-tap’.”

More than 35 years after Egon Hostovský's death, his novels bear witness to the troubled times he lived through. In an autobiographical sketch in the late 1960s, Egon Hostovský explained what he was hoping to achieve through his work.

“During my lifetime I have witnessed activities of great personalities, and I have been touched by great historical events. I am able to talk about Josef Stalin and Billy Graham; I saw in person Nikita Kruschev shoulder to shoulder with president Eisenhower, and I saw and even heard Elvis Presley; I can talk about the astronauts and the Beatles, about war in South Asia and the remarriage of Elizabeth Taylor. Haunted by all these experiences, I have been trying, independently of psychiatrists, to find a key to our troubled times and to build in my literature a place of spiritual security for myself and my readers.”