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Hostovský, Egon

(1908–1973), novelist. The youngest of eight children, Egon Hostovský was born in Hronov, a northeast Bohemian town of about 30,000 people, into a family that owned a small factory. He left university in 1930 to work as a journalist and editor at various publishing houses; he was also one of the editors of the Kalendář českožidovský (Czech Jewish Almanac) from 1931 to 1937. By his mid-twenties, he had already established himself as a major writer, and his Žhář (The Arsonist) won the state prize for literature in 1935.

Although his family was assimilated, Hostovský began pursuing an interest in Judaism in his teens. Jewish themes are common in his earlier works, most notably in his 1928 debut Ghetto v nich (The Ghetto inside Them) and the 1937 novel Dům bez pána (House without a Master), about a dysfunctional Jewish family struggling with the cryptic legacy of their father, who, on his deathbed, speaks to his assembled children in Hebrew—a language none of them understands.

On a book tour in Belgium when the Nazis occupied Prague in 1939, Hostovský remained abroad to initiate his “first exile,” eventually working for the Czechoslovak consulate in New York. In his wartime novels, Jewish themes evolve into the larger problematic of exile in a hostile world. In an interview near the end of his life, Hostovský described the influence of the philosopher Jindřich Kohn, who had seen Jewishness as a question of “memory” and Czechness as a question of “will”; for Hostovský, the exiles of the modern world also occupied two homes, one in their memory and another by choice.

Hostovský mixed well-constructed plots, using elements of detective and spy novels, with skillful analysis of the emotional isolation of his protagonists and their confused efforts to understand their own sense of alienation. This combination, in Listy z vyhnanství (Letters from Exile; 1941); Sedmkrát v hlavní úloze (Seven Times the Leading Man; 1942), and Ukryt (The Hideout; 1943), helped make him the premier Czech émigré author and one of the most translated Czechs of his day—even though his neurotic, pessimistic, ineffective, and paranoid characters sparked the ire of émigré politicians and writers, who called for more positive heroes struggling against fascism.

Hostovský returned home after the war, but his generalized distrust of politicians and phrasemongers made him singularly incapable of welcoming the Communist coup in 1948 (the setting for his clever and penetrating novel Nezvěstný [Missing]; 1951). He secured a diplomatic post in Norway, but resigned in 1949 (“I considered it immoral to serve a government I was afraid of”), beginning his second exile. In 1950 Hostovský settled in the United States, where he spent much of the rest of his life. After his successes of the 1940s and 1950s, including translations of his work into more than 10 languages and a film version of his Půlnoční pacienta (The Midnight Patient; 1959), Hostovský’s life grew harder; his magnum opus, Všeobecné spiknutí (Universal Conspiracy; 1961), was a commercial failure, and he felt increasingly out of touch with the spoken Czech language. His struggles with emotional depression and the difficulties of exile are described with both charm and resignation in his memoir Literární dobrodružství českého spisovatele v cizině (The Literary Adventures of a Czech Writer Abroad; 1966).

Suggested Reading

Egon Hostovský, Spisy, ed. Olga Hostovská, 17 vols. (Prague, 1994–2002); František Kautman, ed., Návrat Egona Hostovského (Prague, 1996); Antonín Liehm, The Politics of Culture (New York, 1968), includes an interview with Hostovský; Vladimír Papoušek, Egon Hostovský: Člověk v uzavřeném prostoru (Prague, 1996); Jiří Pistorius, ed., Padesát let Egona Hostovského (New York, 1958); Rudolf Šturm, ed., Egon Hostovský (Toronto, 1974).