My father taught me to read when I was four, and I never stopped. But reading, to me, promptly suggested emulation: writing verse, mostly love poems to older women. At six, I wrote them to Gabriela, the pretty, fourteen-year-old upstairs neighbor, who paid scant attention to them or their author. My father was Hungarian; my mother, a member of Yugoslavia’s Hungarian minority. We lived in Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, and I was a fiery Yugoslav patriot. This despite the fact that my parents had me learn German as my first language from a German nanny, so as to start me out along cosmopolitan lines; that my second language was Hungarian, which they spoke around the house; that Serbo-Croatian was only my third, picked up from the other kids in the street.

So much to set the scene for my boyhood reading. Sad to say, though, I can’t remember my very first reading at all. My father loved books, and...


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