By G. David Wallace
By Andrew S. Grove
Warner Books -- 290pp -- $26.95
If Andy Grove had grown up in America, who knows whether there would be an Intel Corp. today. As president of Intel in the mid-1980s, he was instrumental in a bet-the-company decision to abandon the memory-chip market--a huge business under attack by Japanese companies that produced better and cheaper chips. Intel could have stood its ground. Instead, it chose to focus on microprocessors, a much smaller business linked largely to the fledgling PC. Most of the U.S. companies that stuck with the memory business are now the stuff of trivia quizzes for tech buffs, while Intel is the world's largest chip company.
So what does the boyhood of Andrew S. Grove, chairman of Intel, have to do with this? As told in Swimming Across, Grove's fascinating and moving memoir, his first serious dream was to be a writer, not a businessman. But the political repression in his native Hungary quashed his writing ambitions. Young Andris Istvan Grof devoured C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series and Wild West novels by German writer Karl May. Inspired to try his own hand at writing, the 12-year-old published his occasional observations on daily life in a newspaper for young people. But one day, the Communist authorities in Budapest imprisoned Grove's uncle, a journalist, and the editors at the youth paper began rejecting Grove's articles. "You just don't write as well as you used to," the editors told him. Grove, living through his second cycle of repression after the Nazi occupation during World War II, figured out that the real problem was his uncle's arrest. "A career in journalism suddenly lost its appeal," Grove writes.
A few years later, Grove tried fiction. He wrote a story entitled "Despair," based on the experiences of a close friend. Grove called it the most exciting moment of his life when his classmates and teacher loved the tale. But when he showed it to a famous writer in hopes of getting a recommendation for publication, Grove got back a terse note suggesting that the story be modified to reflect how, in real life, the Communist youth organization would have saved the protagonist from succumbing to despair. At that point, says Grove, "I was glad I liked chemistry."
And so chemistry it would be--leading to a career in the chip industry. But as formative as his literary misadventures were, Grove's personal tale, which stretches from boyhood to his arrival as a college graduate in California, contains more powerful anecdotes. As kindergartners in 1943, Grove and his Jewish classmates were so unaware of their heritage and the Nazi policies that they carried out mock persecutions. The children created a game by making a ring of chairs, then dragging selected children into the ring, chanting: "They will put the Jews in the ghetto, they will put the Jews in the ghetto."
It wasn't long before Grove understood that life was no game. His father, who had jointly owned and operated a thriving dairy business, "disappeared" while serving as a conscripted laborer for the army. Air raids became common. A summer interlude in the country was cut short when word spread that the Germans were about to round up the Jews in the area. "We don't serve Jews" signs began appearing in Budapest shops. Grove and his family had to wear yellow Stars of David. Finally, Grove and his mother went to live with friends outside of Budapest and blended in with the Christian community.
When the German soldiers were replaced by Russians after the war, the torment didn't cease. A soldier raped Grove's mother. His father miraculously returned, emaciated beyond recognition, but the Communist government nationalized his dairy business. Grove's father prospered for a while running a state husbandry operation, before falling out of favor and being forced to find a new job at one-fourth the salary. Finally, with the Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Grove set out with another young friend on a perilous run, mostly at night, for the Austrian border. His escape to America is the most dramatic and compelling part of the book, heightened, like the rest of his story, by a spare, matter-of-fact tone.
Fortunately for Grove, the farmer who guided him to the Austrian border for a fee and the young Americans who cleared him for passage to his new home after an initial rejection were not the only helpers he encountered along the way. Teachers, in particular, provided him with plenty of encouragement. The title refers to a metaphor used by his physics teacher, who once told a room full of parents that life was like a lake and that all of their sons were trying to swim across it. "Not all of them will swim across. But one of them, I'm sure, will. That one is Grof." As Grove concludes his memoir, "I am still swimming."
Grove seems to spin his tale effortlessly, but it took a long time before he would even consider telling it. Only when he was named Time's Man of the Year in 1997 did Grove finally reveal publicly a few snippets of his background. Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes, helped inspire Grove to tell his whole story. And both books strike the same chord--of surviving extreme adversity and ultimately being liberated by opportunities in America. McCourt's book is more literate, but Grove's may prove to be more in tune with the times. As his ship of Hungarian refugees entered New York harbor, Grove surveyed the city before him. "These houses have not heard bombs or artillery, not ever. I marveled at this." Those houses have now confronted something not so different. Since September 11, it is comforting to think that there are people walking among us who have persevered through events far worse than what Americans are likely to face now.
Wallace is an assistant managing editor for technology coverage.