Posts Tagged ‘Magda Szabo’

katalin street

Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix (2017)

A few months ago. I said I intended to read more books in translation, I’m aiming for one book a month, that didn’t seem too ambitious. This is a book I bought a few months ago, a literary novel by an author I have read twice before, I didn’t feel it would take me too far outside my comfort zone. Having already greatly enjoyed The Door and Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó I was really looking forward to Katalin Street, recently reissued by the gorgeous nryb classics. In many ways this novel is every bit as good as both those – though it is a more nuanced, complex novel.

Moving back and forth across more than three decades, it tells the powerful story of Hungarian middle-class families before and after The Second World War. The writing is brilliant, recalling in unsentimental prose, events viewed from a position of nostalgia by those unable to free themselves of their past. The opening section of the book is rather slow, but worth sticking with – the middle section of the book quite extraordinary, beautifully written.

“In everyone’s life there is only one person whose name can be cried out in the moment of death.”

The novel opens to the world of a concrete apartment block, from where the residents are able to look out across the Danube to a place where they lived in former, better days.

“The apartment was on the sixth floor of a relatively new block on the left bank of the Danube, with views across the river. From its windows they could see their old house. Its façade had been covered in scaffolding for several months now, undergoing redevelopment along with its immediate neighbours. It looked like a childhood friend who, either in anger or a spirit of fun, had put on a mask and forgotten to take it off long after the party had ended.”

A Soviet style block, in a world of social and political change. Here Szabó conveys with chilling perfection the stark, depressing, hopelessness of a place with which you feel no connection. This is a novel about hauntings, the past, people and places – the memories which we are unable to shake.

Katalin Street in Budapest; a street of gracious family homes before the Second World War. Here three families lived side by side, the Elekes, Helds and Birós whose lives are naturally intertwined. The children of these families grow up together, playing games, running in and out of each other’s homes. Sisters; Irén and Blanka, vie for the attentions of Bálint the son of the Major. Henrietta Held the little daughter of the Jewish dentist is adored and petted by them all.

The war brings terrible change to these families, torn apart by the German occupation, the Elekes are the only family to survive intact. The Elekes family struggle with the new reality, and with their feelings of guilt over the deportation of the Held parents during the war, and the terrible senseless death of Henriette who they had been supposed to be caring for.

“Mrs. Held came toward them, then suddenly stopped, leaned over to inhale the scent of a crimson rose, and declared, “We shall live here till the day we die.” That was the one sentence spoken on that day that had stayed in Henriette’s memory. She had no idea what it meant. She had no idea what life was, or death.”

Henriette watches them from her place in the afterlife – that she shares with her parents, the man who killed her and others from her too brief life. Bearing witness to the changes that have taken place and the impact her death has had on those left behind.

After the war, as young adults; Blanka lives in exile, while Irén and Bálint are promised to one another, he’s a doctor now. Homeless under the new regime – he comes to live in the tiny apartment with the Elekes and he and Irén enter into a lengthy and ultimately unsatisfying engagement. Bálint is changed by the past, haunted by Henriette – his life spirals out of control and he is transported by the regime to the countryside for several years. Irén and Bálint are stuck in the past, unable to move forward with their lives, they are rooted in the past more than the older generation appear to be.

“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 or tranquillity. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.”

Bit by bit, the truth of exactly what happened and why is revealed as the further forward in time the narrative moves, the more the characters appear to look back.

Katalin Street is a more challenging work by Szabó than either The Door or Iza’s Ballad. The opening section is a little confusing, several characters introduced across a couple of pages with no explanation of the connections they each have to one another. Two, first person narrators and a third person narrative with shifting viewpoints make for a complex structure. Still, for those who like me loved those other two novels available in English translations, Katalin Street must be essential reading.

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izas ballad

 Translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes

Last year for Women in translation month I read The Door by Magda Szabó – I hadn’t meant to leave it so long until I read Iza’s Ballad, which I already owned when I read The Door. I’m not sure if there are any more works by Magda Szabo available in English, though I am sure there is someone who can tell me.

witmonth2017This translation by George Szirtes is from 2014, but the novel first appeared in Hungary in 1963, and is set in around 1960. The novel opens in a traditional small town in Hungary, later moving to the rapidly changing city of Budapest. For people of the older generation, the war and earlier government oppressions live long in their memory – their world was shaped by such events. So many of these past events are shrouded in silence – and the reader only gradually pieces together the history of these characters – very ordinary people, who we find have done small extraordinary things.

The novel begins with a death, Ettie’s husband Vince dies from cancer in a clinic, the news brought to Ettie by Antal her former son-in-law. Szabó portrays Ettie’s bewildered grief with utter perfection, she expects nothing more from life now – and in her weary sadness is relieved by the arrival of Iza – her capable, doctor daughter from the city – where she moved following her divorce from Antal.

“Everything has changed,’ the old woman thought. ‘I can’t tell what is what any more, only that nothing is as it was.”

Iza is a very managing type of person, Ettie may not have any vision of her own future – but Iza does. She tells her mother that she will come and live with her in Budapest – and Ettie is overwhelmingly grateful that she won’t be alone, proud to be going to live in her doctor daughter’s city apartment. Following Vince’s funeral, Iza packs Ettie of for a week’s holiday while she organises everything. Wearily Ettie agrees to leaving the packing up of her things to Iza, and prepares to endure a week’s holiday she doesn’t want. She keeps herself from complete despair by imagining how she will look after her busy daughter’s city apartment, cook for her, place all her lovely things in the apartment to make it look like home.

Upon her arrival in Budapest, nothing is as she had imagined it, only a few possessions have made it to the city – everything else has been disposed of by Iza. The dog Captain, who had lived with Ettie and Vince for years, has stayed with Antal who has bought Ettie’s old house – and Ettie misses his reliable presence. The grief stricken old woman doesn’t want to blame Iza for anything, she feels she must be grateful, unable to speak of her grief and bewilderment.

“She sat in the armchair and tried to cry silently, afraid that Iza would hear her through the thin walls and come in and accuse her of being ungrateful. As indeed she was. The girl had told her she would sell the house and anything inessential, and it was her fault for not thinking it through, not including everything that would make a dwelling look harmonious, comfortable and attractive.”

Ettie finds herself unwittingly annoying Iza when she tries to help – poor Ettie gets everything wrong. Iza has a daily housekeeper – Teréz, and Ettie is soon made aware that her help isn’t wanted – she isn’t allowed to cook, she makes coffee the wrong way. Iza tells her mother with great patience that this is her time to rest – she hasn’t brought her to Budapest to work. So, the old woman sits in her room, looks out the window and tries not to get in Teréz’s way. In time, she starts to venture out into the city – so unrecognisable from the days of her one visit on her honeymoon – riding the trams and sitting in the park. Slowly, Ettie becomes more and more diminished with this new life she is unprepared for. Iza is enraged when in her desperate loneliness Ettie invites an ageing prostitute to tea who she meets in the park, as delighted as a child to have made a new friend. Iza’s world is a very tightly controlled one, and Ettie can’t adjust to it – married for fifty years to Vince their life in rural Hungary has been all Ettie has known, every shabby item in their home had a story – Ettie’s life had always been one of physical work and support.

In a later part of the novel we have some of Antal and Iza’s story – another story of things unsaid – shaped by Hungary’s history. It’s an extraordinary story, one of hardship, determination and political activism. As a student during the war, Iza had smuggled grenades in her bag. Antal, educated thanks to a scholarship, had been befriended by Vince – Iza’s father – a judge who had once had his job taken from him after he refused to convict a group of peasants.

“She didn’t stay a word until they reached the edge of the wood, then stopped and looked at him again and spoke very clearly as if she wanted to emphasize every word to him. ‘Politics will be my life as long as I live, she said.
He knew it was crazy but at that moment he was sure he would marry her.”

Iza’s Ballad is a sad, deeply poignant novel, there is an inevitability to the ending – and like The Door, the characters will live long in my memory.

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the door

(Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix)

Only my second read for #WITmonth, but what a fantastic read it was. I had originally planned on reading Iza’s Ballad also by Magda Szabó which I have had in paperback for months, but as I was away from home I read The Door on kindle instead. As far as I am aware (correct me if I am wrong anyone who knows differently) Iza’s Ballad and The Door are the only works by Magda Szabó available in English.

Magda Szabó was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary. She was initially a poet, but was prevented from publishing for political reasons in the 1950s – a fate shared by the narrator#witmonth of The Door. She began writing again, novels this time, and in 1978 was awarded a major literary prize, again something which happens to the narrator of The Door. This novel first published in Hungary in 1987 was an international success, and was made into a film starring Helen Mirren – which I am now anxious to see.

“I know now, what I didn’t then, that affection can’t always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways; and that one cannot prescribe the form it should take for anyone else.”

The novel opens with a powerful dream sequence, the narrator haunted by the recurring dream of a door, a locked door, a door she is unable to open. There is no one to help her, and eventually she is awoken by her own screams.

The narrator of The Door is unnamed – sometimes titled ‘the lady writer’, struggling to cope with both her writing and her domestic tasks she appears to be a thinly veiled portrait of Szabó herself. Having been silenced for years for political reasons, she is now able to write again, and seeks help with running her home from the caretaker of nearby apartments. Set over a period of about twenty years, The Door is the story of the relationship between the writer, and the woman who becomes her housekeeper.

Emerence is an already elderly woman when she arrives with good recommendations to see if she wants to work for the writer and her husband. Emerence explains how she doesn’t wash the dirty linen of just anyone, and seeks reassurance that her prospective employers are not likely to be involved in any drunken brawling. She further explains that once she has seen just how dirty her new employers are – she will inform them what her salary shall be. It is on such unusual terms then, that Emerence begins her long and stormy relationship with the lady writer, and her husband, whom Emerence devotedly calls the master.

“No formal agreement dictated the number of hours Emerence spent in our house, or the precise times of her arrival. We might conceivably see nothing of her all day. Then, at eleven at night, she would appear, not in the inner rooms, but in the kitchen or the pantry, which she would scrub until dawn. It might happen that for a day and a half we would be unable to use the bathroom because she had rugs soaking in the tub. Her capricious working hours were combined with awe-inspiring accomplishments. The old woman worked like a robot. She lifted unliftable furniture without the slightest regard for herself. There was something superhuman, almost alarming, in her physical strength and her capacity for work, all the more so because in fact she had no need to take so much on. Emerence obviously revelled in her work. She loved it.”

Emerence lives in an apartment within sight of the writer’s own house, she entertains her nephew, the Lieutenant colonel of police, and her neighbours on her porch, where later the writer herself will be entertained, she never lets anyone inside her home. Guarding her privacy jealously, she comes and goes as she pleases from the writer’s home. When the writer finds a stray puppy and decides to take it on, it is Emerence who the dog slavishly follows and obeys, pledging his own unspoken canine allegiance, with which the writer is never able to compete. Emerence works all the time, when the snows come to Budapest, she abandons the writer for days at a time to clear the snow from the outside of other homes. She takes her caretaking responsibilities seriously, and she never seems to slow down.

“She was like someone standing in strong sunlight on a mountain top, looking back down the valley from which she had emerged and trembling with the memory still in her bones of the length and nature of the road she had travelled, the glaciers and forded rivers, the weariness and danger, and conscious of how far she still had to go. There was also compassion in that face, a feeling of pity for all the poor people below, who knew only that the peaks were rosy in the twilight, but not the real meaning of the road itself.”

Emerence is secretive about her past, stubborn and frequently difficult, she is generous, but refuses gifts from her employer. As time passes, the writer gradually begins to learn something about Emerence’s past, the sadness at the center of her life, the love she lost. Although dismissive of writing as work, she insists on having copies of her employer’s books, which she has no time to read. The present of a small plaster dog that Emerence gives the writer and her husband is the unexpected cause of a big falling out. Emerence stops working for the writer, and everyone predicts she’ll never go back. It is the persistence and diplomacy of the writer herself that persuades Emerence to return.

Over the years that follow, a relationship develops between the two women, which begins to look like friendship. However, friends can sometimes let each other down. The two have each been dependent on the other for years, when Emerence falls ill, and the writer finds herself suddenly in demand by media and foreign delegations.

I absolutely loved this book, Emerence is a wonderfully memorable character, the ambiguity of the relationship between these women is fascinating. I was drawn quickly into the small world of this neighbourhood, over which Emerence reigns. Szabó is a writer I very much want to read more by. I am very much looking forward to Iza’s Ballad, and am currently undecided whether to squeeze it into this #WITmonth or leave it for a rainy day.

(FILES) A picture taken 27 October 2003

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