"You like my kids, huh?" I asked one night as we stood on the balcony of the apartment I'd been renting, subsidized by NYU, on the fourteenth floor with a view of the Empire State Building and its coloured lights. But Görbe just sucked his cigar and looked at me as if the question was a trap he wasn't going to walk into. I scratched the back of my head. "Well, you see, it's just that I was . . . Well, it's weird that you'd be so friendly to me just because fifty years ago you dated my aunt. A celebrity like you."
Görbe looked at me then as if he wanted to throw me over the balcony. "The reason I'm so friendly," he growled, "is because you're such an asshole."
I looked at him and tried to laugh.
"You're bumping your head on the glass ceiling of your mediocrity. And you're wide awake to itwhy your agent doesn't return your emails; why the writers at NYU show no interest in you; why New York leaves you cold. Most people can look away from that, dream up excuses'Oh, my agent is just busy'; 'Oh, the writers at NYU are all self-important dickheads'; 'Oh, New York is so superficial'but not you, right? You know better than anyone you're not going to make it, and you can't hide it from yourself."
I think I spluttered. I had no idea how to respond. And then, in a moment I'll never forget, Görbe reached for my hand. It was the weirdest gesture. I tried to pull back from it, but the touch was so lonely, so childlike, it seemed more for his sake than mine, and when I gave in to it Görbe seemed to shrink, to fall into himself, clinging to me in the Manhattan night with the cavernous streets below, snow drifting past. For some reason I felt the need to say something reassuring to Görbe, to whisper him an apology for the world "Everything will be fine, you'll see"when in fact it should have been him apologizing to me.
It was partly because of that conversation, but mainly because of my curiosity about Zella, that the next morning I went into the archives at NYUcombing through old copies of the Times, Observer, and even the Postto piece together Görbe's story. My aunt said he'd been a prominent children's author during the communist era, as far as prominence went in those days, and he'd certainly had no trouble, as far as she or any of their mutual acquaintances could say, with the Soviet authority. "In fact," she admitted, "he helped me out with his connections when I needed it." As for his books, she said they "were like a utopia." The children in them wanted to stay inside a dream, to realize a better world, and the communists liked that. "The kids were the proletariat," she wrote, "at least according to the communist reviewers." The waking world was the world as it is; and dream was the world as it could be. It was a pretty simple-minded interpretation, like most of them, but it saved Görbe. In other words, he had a good life under the Partymade enough money, had a nice apartment, ate and drank well. So nobody was really sure why he left. "As for his wife," my aunt's letter said, "I met her only once. She was just like Görbe except worsedreamy, childish, never comfortable among adults. In fact, what seemed good in him seemed somehow bad in her. But maybe I was just jealous."
There was almost nothing in the archives about Zella. For all the publicity given Görbestarting with his defection from Hungary, played up relentlessly in the press, and by Görbe himself as an "escape towards the dream" (so much for the communist utopia)there was only one article that dealt at all with his wife. Sure, there was a mention here or there, a comment about them having better "food and medical care and lifestyles" in the U.S., and a statement by Görbe saying his "private life" was "private" when asked in the early 1970s about how he and Zella were adjusting to New York. But that was pretty much it. There was nothing about their home life (not even one of those lousy spreads, so common with children's authors, where some reporter visits them at home to prove that he really is a joyous family man with kids and a wife and colourful wallpaper and a house filled with constant storytelling); nothing about his career from "her" point of view (one of those pieces where the wife comments on her husband's zany writing process, his odd schedules, his fun-loving ways with the kids in the park); in fact nothing about Görbe having a wife or any home life at all. Zella's public appearances, rare in any case, stopped entirely after 1975, as did any mention of her on Görbe's part. His entire persona was public, and, as such, especially after days and days of reading about it, totally put on, or so it seemed to me, for maximum publicity.
Excerpted from Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy. Copyright © 2013 by Tamas Dobozy. Excerpted by permission of Milkweed Editions. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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