Book club: The Photographer at Sixteen, by George Szirtes

by
06 September 2019

Alexander Faludy on George Szirtes’s lyrical and haunting memoir

© Clarissa Upchurch

The author, George Szirtes: prize-winning poet and son of Magda, “The Photographer”

The author, George Szirtes: prize-winning poet and son of Magda, “The Photographer”

MAGDA SZIRTES, the eponymous Photographer, gazes at us from the front cover of the book with liquid eyes. Their mesmeric quality finds a verbal echo in the hypnotic cadences of the text devoted to her — even though her life was one of jarring interruptions, not smooth continuities.

Those who read this book will, perhaps, be at once glad to meet Magda in its pages and guiltily relieved not to have been intimately connected with her in life. Prone to terrible mood swings, and even episodes of domestic violence towards her husband, László, she loved her sons, George and Andrew, with a force that at once ensured protection and threatened suffocation.

Magda surrounded herself with caged birds and domesticated fowl, turning her London home into an aviary, and its garden into a swamp: “She wanted life but she wanted it nurturable, captive, and devoted.” The passion for control extended to the direction of her children’s careers and the selection of a replacement wife for Laci as she sensed her life waning. Not surprisingly, “The question of madness . . . would arise now and then after death.”

This memoir, written by her elder son, George, one of Britain’s most distinguished contemporary poets (holder of the T. S. Eliot and Faber Prizes), never shies away from the painful. The Photographer at Sixteen, however, is fundamentally an exercise in sympathetic understanding, not criticism.

As the book proceeds in reverse chronology from Magda’s untimely death (in London, in 1975), back through her flight from Hungary (1956), her deportation from Budapest to Ravensbrück, and, later, Buchenwald (1944), we see her earlier and later self fit together like a photograph and its negative.

The mother who became neurotically hysterical in face of her adult son’s absence from Sunday lunch had lost everyone close to her to genocide in just two months, when she was 20. The north-London housewife who would not allow her husband to see her naked in the light had, most probably, been repeatedly raped in a German concentration camp.

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A skilled but thwarted professional photographer, Magda artfully coloured in, and razored out, the facial features of others on her light table, reshaping their appearance, just as she would conceal her Jewishness behind a façade of Lutheranism in conversation and official documents. She greeted Szirtes’s gentile marriage and adult baptism with relief: “Now her son would be safe and, Judaism being a matrilineal religion, her potential grandchildren would be even safer.”

Possibly, Szirtes’s narrative structuring of the work “from back to front” is a homage to the Hebrew language’s characteristic mirrored arrangement of text from right to left: a further encoding of identity.

Photos were essential to Magda’s life; they are integral to the book’s structure. Pictures are not separated as plates, but situated in-text. Words flow around them and reveal their meaning.

Structuring the memoir around visual artefacts suggests the influence of Edmund de Waal (who provides a cover endorsement). The latter’s landmark memoir about his own mother’s Russian/Austrian Jewish family (The Hare with Amber Eyes, 2010) has a similar organisational nexus: a small collection of Japanese netsuke carvings — lone survivors of a once extensive family art collection. Both Szirtes and de Waal were artists before they were writers.

The Photographer manifests hybridity in other ways, too. Prose gives way not only to pictures, but also to poetry. Some are verses through which Szirtes wrestled to understand his mother in the decades after her death. Others are birth twins of the memoir’s prose.
 

When she bent over the light-box her face shone
As though she herself had been the source of light,
A moon to a diffuse rectangular sun.
 

Even within the prose, one sometimes detects a poet yearning to break into verse. That is especially so near the end with the frequent alliterative (and rhythmic) allusion to Magda’s ethnically diverse Transylvanian birthplace in trinomic form: “Cluj or Kolozsvár, also known as Klausenburg.”

The incantation disrupts the text, but the slight dislocation evokes the city’s unsettled history: its shifting from Romania to Hungary, and back again under German mediation. Countries or, at least, their borders “migrate”, just as people do.

Although Szirtes has lived in England nearly all his life (and relearnt Hungarian as an adult), there are arrestingly novel arrangements of motif which disclose a writer who has fallen in love with English from without. That is, he sees verbal possibilities that a fully “native” speaker might not: “Photographs are moments of noticing”; “We were Englishing ourselves as best we could.”

Paradoxically, in the closing chapters, Szirtes’s life and voice break in more overtly as he explores remoter events in his mother’s story which he did not witness. Possibly, he thus signals that what is said here about his mother is less secure — inevitably more an act of authorial imagination.

One finishes The Photographer at Sixteen grateful for Magda’s life, and to her son for allowing us into it.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is an Anglican priest presently pursuing studies in law. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.

The Photographer at Sixteen: The death and life of a fighter by George Szirtes is published by MacLehose Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50); 978-0-857-05853-9).



THE PHOTOGRAPHER AT SIXTEEN
— SOME QUESTIONS

 

  1. Szirtes suggests that he felt “a blankness” when he first heard that his mother had died. How is his grief portrayed?

  2. What place do photos have in the memoir? Do they reveal answers, or create questions?

  3. Szirtes describes his adolescent self complaining of feeling like an “extension” of his mother. Why do you think he felt this? Was it fair?

  4. What was your reaction to his mother’s “crazy birthday messages”? Are messages left behind for others always in some way painful?

  5. Szirtes refers to poetry as a “secret and subversive pleasure”. What do you think he means by that? Do you agree?

  6. Why did his mother hide that she was Jewish? How might Szirtes have felt when he found out?

  7. What place has suburbia in the memoir? Why is it so oppressive for Szirtes? Is it also oppressive for his mother?

  8. “We were Englishing ourselves as best we could.” What kinds of problems does the family encounter in this attempt?

  9. As Szirtes moves backwards in history, he finds “ever more maybes and perhapses” in his mother’s story. Is memory always to some extent conjecture? How can we find a “truth”?

  10. Szirtes refers to his mother as several different people: mother, Magda, and as the child before deportation. Most of us do not experience horrors as Magda did, but can we recognise these sorts of transformations in ourselves?



IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 October, we will print extra information about our next book, Plainsong by Kent Haruf. It is published by Picador at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-4472-4044-0).

Book notes

Published in 1999, Plainsong weaves together several stories of lives in the fictional Midwest prairie town of Holt, Colorado. A history teacher, Tom Guthrie, struggles to raise his young sons alone as his wife drifts away from him. Meanwhile, a teenager, Victoria, is pregnant and homeless until two farmer brothers agree to take her in — a task for which they are little prepared. Plainsong explores these stories, and others, in a gentle portrait of town life and the dramas of ordinary people. In doing so, Haruf illustrates both the potential for desperate isolation and also the human capability for generosity and love.

Author notes

Kent Haruf (1943-2014) was the son of a Methodist minister. He spent 30 years teaching English — first in high schools, and later at Nebraska Wesleyan University, where he had been an undergraduate student. His first publication, a piece of short fiction in a literary magazine, was written at the age of 41, to be followed by six novels and much critical acclaim. Inspired by writers such as William Faulkner, Haruf has become known for his intimate depictions of small-town life in the United States. All of Haruf’s novels are set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.


Books for the next two months

November: Walk Humbly by Samuel Wells (Books, 5 July).
December: Circe by Madeline Miller

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