Hungary visit inspires author's latest novel
Most writers establish a baseline while they are in graduate school or shortly thereafter, with scores of discarded pages finally yielding an identifiable voice.
Ayelet Waldman's introduction to readers was a bit more immediate when her Mommy Track series debuted in 2001. Entertaining but hardly weighty, nothing in those books prepared readers — or Waldman herself — for a literary transformation that seemed unlikely when her debut, “The Big Nap,” was published.
“I just managed to do it on a public stage,” says Waldman of the upward trajectory of her work. “It only seems more shocking because the early work of most people gets to go in a drawer.”
Waldman speaks Jan. 27 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Monday Night Lecture Series.
Waldman's forthcoming novel, “Love & Treasure” (Knopf, to be published in April), is in sharp contrast to stories about a young mother solving mysteries while balancing carpools and play dates. Set mostly in Hungary and spanning a century, “Love & Treasure” concerns art and other belongings taken away from Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. There is a love story, but it's almost incidental in a book that mixes reality and fiction.
Waldman admits she goes against the literary advice of “write what you know” in this book.
“There's a tremendous comfort in that; you can write best about things that you know about,” she says. “You don't have to think that hard because the details are right at your fingertips. But that's a prison, because if you live a comfortable life, there's not a lot to say. Yes, everyone has their own traumas, but at some point that becomes really tiresome.”
Waldman started the book a few years ago after visiting a friend, Eleni Tsakopoulus Kounalakis, then the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, in Budapest. At the time, Waldman only knew she wanted to write about art. Little did she know that her research would result in such a rich canvas.
One of Waldman's discoveries was the Hungarian Gold Train. In 1944, with the Soviet Army advancing on Nazi-occupied Hungary, valuables confiscated from Hungarian Jews were put on a train, which was eventually captured by Allied troops in Austria. Some of the valuables on the train — notably Oriental rugs, china, silverware — were taken by high-ranking U.S. officers for their own use; many works of art were transferred to the Austrian government, despite protests from Hungarian Jews. It wasn't until 1998 that U.S. officials released information about the Gold Train, and belated reparations were made to survivors or their families.
“It was just sitting there on the Internet, unplumbed,” Waldman says, noting she found two books about the Gold Train. “My dad didn't know about it, and he's Holocaust obsessive.”
Waldman inserts a few historical figures into her story, including U.S. Maj. Gen. Harry Collins and Rosza Schwimmer, a Hungarian suffragist. There are other bits of history, forgotten incidents and meetings that Waldman stumbled upon during her research. One character, Gizella Weisz, was gifted to her by her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Chabon, who returned from a stint at a writer's colony with a book about a family of Hungarian dwarves at Auschwitz.
“I had learned about them when I was a kid in one my 150,000 classes I took in Hebrew school as an elective,” she says. “But then I had this book with all these photographs and stories, and suddenly I knew where (Gizella) was going to be, at this feminist congress that just happened to be taking place at the exact moment I needed it to happen. ... There's a way that when you're in the zone on a book and you're so into it and the work is going so well, details magically appear when you need them.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.