Category Archives: Szabo Magda

Abigail: Magda Szabó

“Once again, as so many times before, Gina had a sense of being trapped in the chilly, suffocation air inside a bell-jar.”

Madga Szabó’s brilliant novel, Abigail, is set during WWII. It’s Budapest, and life for 14-year-old Georgina Vitay, ‘Gina’, the daughter of a widowed General, has changed. Her beloved French governess has had to return to France, and Gina lives a fairly secluded life with visits to her somewhat unreliable, giddy, vain Aunt Mimó. Gina also has a simmering romance in the form of Lt. Feri Kuncz but since he’s not welcome in the General’s house, meetings take place at Aunt Mimó’s “afternoon teas.”

Gina is stunned when her father announces one day that she is to leave for a boarding school “in the provinces.”

In the past she had been able to persuade him to do almost anything; now he seemed deaf to all her pleadings. He had decided on her fate without discussing a single detail and merely informed her what would happen. If he had given any kind of explanation, anything she could understand and accept, it might have been easier for her to bear the thought of being torn away from her familiar world.

It all happens so quickly and Gina imagines that an imminent stepmother is at the root cause of the upheaval. She’s allowed to say farewell to her aunt but not her friends or the staff. She is not to mention she’s leaving Budapest and Gina isn’t told where she’s going so her destination remains a secret. Gina is unhappy and peevish about her father’s decision which she sees as a betrayal and a rejection, but it’s clear to the reader that the General fears for his daughter’s safety, and as it turns out, his fears are very much warranted.

Gina’s father drives her to the distant Bishop Matula Academy for Girls which is located “almost on the Eastern border.” While the strict school is protestant, there’s the feel of a convent. The building is “like a fortress” with a barred entrance, and the girls must hand over their worldly possessions when they arrive. Soap, towels, a dressing gown, and even a toothbrush are deemed against “regulations.” 

Surely she did not have to be told that such trumpery would be of no interest to a good christian girl.

She is given the plain uniform, her hair is cut, arranged in plaits and tied with a black shoelace.

Gina was now trembling with shock. They have swallowed me whole. I am no longer myself, she thought and her breathing became a rapid pant.

The stricter the school, the more secrets the girls keep between themselves. At first Gina is generously welcomed by her fellow pupils, so at least she has companionship and friends, but she makes a terrible mistake which leads to her being ostracized.

But as the hours dragged by she began to panic. This was something she had not reckoned with: the terrifying self-discipline of the Matula. These girls were not like any other. They had been brought up in their own special world and trained to keep their silence. 

In this tight, oppressive atmosphere, the society between the girls is recreated marvelously. “Those who couldn’t keep up, or didn’t work, were sent away at the end of the year, never to set foot in the building again.” Under strict discipline, these teenage girls study hard and suppress most of their natural behaviour, but like all repressed behaviour it bubbles up, unable to be completely contained. According to tradition, a garden statue named Abigail assists the girls with their various troubles, so many of the girls take their sorrows to Abigail–the statue who leaves notes and and even passes along letters to some of the girls. The girls’ role model is the legendary Mitsi Horn who attended the school decades earlier and flouted the rules by wearing an engagement ring on her finger. Now widowed by WWI, and with her only son killed in action in WWII, she lives close by and occasionally hosts a group of girls.

Gina could easily imagine what Abigail’s friend the eighteen-year-old Mitsi Horn must have looked like in the days when she could still laugh so loudly it could be heard, they said, at the porter’s lodge.

Another great diversion for the girls is the relationship between some of the teachers. There’s definitely a love triangle afoot with handsome young Kalmár in love with Susanna but she seems to only have eyes for Kónig–a middle-aged bumbler whose kindness to Gina only generates contempt. There are disturbing incidents around town and even in the school which indicate there’s an active war resistance afoot. The General’s visits are few; at first Gina is hurt by what she sees as his abandonment but then after she tries to run away, her father is forced to take her into his confidence. Gina, who first saw the school as a punishment, realises it’s a sanctuary.

It’s only January but I can easily call this as one of the best books I will read this year. It’s that good. Gina is forced to grow up and make mature decisions that someone decades older would find difficult. Yes it’s a coming-of-age story, adventurous in parts, but it’s also a story of betrayal, of the value of self-discipline and incredible courage on some many levels. I’ve read 3 Szabó novels now: Abigail, Katalin Street and Iza’s Ballad. Abigail is the best of the three IMO. It’s an amazing tale. 

Review copy

Translated by Len Rix

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Iza’s Ballad: Magda Szabó

Last year I read Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street, a novel, beginning in 1934, which follows the fate of three neighbouring families.  You don’t have to be a historian to know that these fictional characters lived through some tough times, and that brings me to Iza’s Ballad, from the same author. In this novel, it’s 1960, the bad times are over, and Ettie and her husband Vince are living proof… well, let’s back up a bit and amend that by adding that after a case that was a political hot potato, judge Vince lost his job decades earlier. Subsequently Vince & Ettie lived in disgrace, were shunned by former friends and neighbours and forced into a life of extreme poverty. Their first child a boy, died very young, but they had a second child late in life, Iza. Iza, who wanted to be a doctor, was initially rejected by the university due to her father’s political actions, but she was eventually accepted due to the influence of a loyal family friend. Now, under a new political climate, Vince has been  “rehabilitated” and given a pension.

When the novel opens, Iza is working as a doctor in Budapest. At one point she was married to another doctor, Antal and they both lived in the family home, previously requisitioned by the government, and bought with Vince’s rehabilitation money. But something went wrong… Antal and Iza divorced and Iza moved to the city. Now Vince is dying and Iza returns home.

Iza is, by all accounts, an admirable person. No one can understand why Antal and Iza divorced; the reason for the divorce is never openly discussed, and there’s a great deal of speculation among their acquaintances about what could have occurred. Iza is respected by everyone, so when she returns home and swoops up her elderly mother and sends her off to a health spa before whisking her off to Budapest, everyone envies Ettie. Iza is both Ettie’s daughter and her doctor, and in the days following Vince’s death, Ettie, stunned by her loss, is too numb to ask questions and simply complies with her daughter’s directions.

This is a dark, subtle novel…ultimately rather depressing, but it’s an excellent psychological  exploration of the troubled relationship between mother and daughter. We know that there will be trouble ahead when Ettie, who is a relic from another, much harsher era, is shuttled off to the health spa which was the brain child of Antal and Iza in the early part of their collaborative relationship. Here Ettie orders the cheapest menu options, and she trusts that Iza will forward all of her precious belongs and furniture to Budapest. This section is a little heavy-handed as Ettie repeats this, internally, so many times, we know that her expectations are going to be flattened by Iza’s brutal efficiency.

As the novel continues we see these two very different women establish a life together. Iza, a dutiful daughter, checks all the appropriate boxes, advising her mother to eat good food and exercise, but Ettie cannot adjust to life in Budapest and she shrinks into herself.  Iza is mostly oblivious to her mother’s feelings and needs, and she notes that her mother has an “instinctive feudalism” when it comes to dealing with other people.

On one level, this is a novel about a generation gap, and how we fail to see our parents as human beings, how the elderly become a hindrance, but it’s also an illustration of how an admirable human being can also be a horror when it comes to personal relationships. One government official sees Iza as “a splendid woman” who “spares absolutely no effort.” That is certainly true when it comes to Iza’s work ethic, but anyone involved with Iza on a personal level sees a different side. “Iza didn’t like remembering,” and that translates to a blunt, efficient approach to life which allows for no emotional attachment to places, things or even people.  Iza ‘means well’ (and what a treacherous term that is) but fails on all levels to understand her mother’s sensibilities.

She kissed her mother’s hand and face, and let her finger flutter over her pulse a moment. The pulse was strong and regular. Luckily washing hadn’t been too much of a strain. Iza went into the kitchen to heat up supper while the old woman took down the washing line, quickly removing her own things

Readers may have a range of responses regarding Iza. Her professional life is rich, and she’s devoted to her patients, and yet she is missing some of the very necessary qualities that make us flawed human beings. For this reader, there was another intriguing issue to the novel, and that’s how individuals handle poverty. Some of us never really get beyond it, saving every rubber band and paperclip rather than throw it away, and still others have a horror of their past poverty and gild themselves with a patina of the latest, most modern stuff.

Review copy.

Translated by George Szirtes

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Katalin Street: Magda Szabo

“In my dreams I call out to them, but they keep on walking, until finally they disappear from sight.” 

Magda Szabo’s wonderful novel, moves from 1934 to 1968 as it follows the fate of three neighbouring Hungarian families who live in Katalin Street. When the book opens in post WWII, surviving members of the families live, communally, not far from their original homes. These surviviors have been washed through various sweeping events: from normality to fascism and now … “social rehousing” under communism in a depressing Budapest flat “on the sixth floor of a relatively new block.” 

No work of literature, and no doctor, had prepared the former residents of Katalin Street for the fierce light that old age would bring to bear on the shadowy, barely-sensed corridor down which they walked in the earlier decades of their lives, or the way it would rearrange their memories and their fears, overturning their earlier moral judgements and system of values.

[…]

But no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgement. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.

First seen in the 30s, the families are the widowed noble Major Biró and his son Bálint, whose care is overseen by the housekeeper, Mrs Temes; earnest schoolteacher Elekes, his frivolous wife, and their two daughters, Irén and Blanka. Finally there’s the Jewish family, the Helds, with war hero, dentist Dr. Held hoping his medals bring protection for himself, his wife and their only child, the fey, fragile Henriette. After WWII, the Elekes are the only intact family. The Helds have been exterminated, but the ghost of little Henriette lingers over the families, unable to move on, curious about the fates of the people she knew so well.

Katalin street

The novel opens in the 50s with the straggling members of the two surviving families, now three generations deep, living together in the tiny flat with just a few pieces of furniture from their former homes. Mr Elekes, whose belief system has been completely destroyed is taken out for a walk twice daily “as you would a dog.” Blanka, who clearly is disturbed, lives far away on a Greek island, and her strange disconnection isn’t seen as a cause for alarm by her mother-in-law, but the signs of a good “biddable” daughter-in-law. The plot goes back in time to 1934 with some of the story told by Irén and with the narrative also slipping into third person. These characters discover that their morality clashes with ever-changing politics; it’s “no longer safe” to mention friendships or beliefs. A man can be a war hero one day and an enemy of the people the next. A woman can be a good party member one year and a Stalinist informer the next.

If the idea of a ghost as a character puts you off, as it did me, then be reassured. Somehow, in this quiet, melancholic novel, Magda Szabo creates a ghost as a believable character. The surviving characters, haunted, literally and figuratively, cannot move away from their shared pasts, and so it seems perfectly natural that Henriette should remain locked in connection with those she knew in life. She can visit the past and the present, yet unable to help the people she observes, she serves as a witness of the terrible cost these living characters have paid for survival.

In spite of its serious subject matter, there’s a glorious lightness to the novel. Yes, surviving characters are irrevocably destroyed by events that took place, but there’s a playfulness here which pulls the story from depression, and the playfulness is mostly manifested in the ghost of Henriette who is able to visit the home of her past and drop in to visit her loving parents as they go about their daily tasks. Henriette rubs elbows with their ghostly forms but they have the tendency to become disturbingly immature in the presence of their parents.

When they spoke to her they did so as the parents she had known, but if their own parents came looking for them, or if they wanted to be with their parents, they would instantly change and become noisy and boisterous. Mr Held. once so quiet and reserved in his speech, would begin to fret, or shriek with laughter and gabble nonsense;upon which her grandfather whom Henriette would in normal circumstances have been delighted to see, would seize him by the wrists and swing him around until he squealed with joy. Whenever Mrs. Held saw her own parents approaching she would immediately push Henriette away and start to yell, “Mummy, Mummy!” clapping her hands and spinning around.

Henriette shows us an alternate version of time in which the trials of the present are a mere phase. Henriette, who longs to see the people she loved as they once were–happy and optimistic–is perhaps, ultimately, the luckiest character of the lot. The living “ached with longing for the dead,” but at least she can visit the past that the others dream of.

review copy

Translated by Len Rix

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