Tag Archives: Hungary

Abigail by Magda Szabó (transl. Len Rix): Coming of age in 1940s Hungary

Cover imageI’ve yet to read Magda Szabó’s The Door despite having enjoyed both Katalin Street and Iza’s Ballad. Abigail is very different from either of those, not least in its length, but it comes billed as the most popular of her novels in her native Hungary. Set in a girls’ boarding school, it’s about Gina whose officer father sends her away to the other side of the country in 1943 on the eve of the German occupation.

Fifteen-year-old Gina has a head full of glamour and romance, spending much of her time with her frivolous aunt, cultivating her crush on a lieutenant. Inexplicably, her beloved father has decided to send her to a strict Protestant boarding school, squatting on the edges of a town that resents it. At first, Gina enjoys being feted as a novelty, thinking herself superior to these provincial girls intent on finding ways around their school’s draconian rules. When she carelessly lets slip one of their more arcane rituals, Gina feels the full force of her schoolmates’ fury. Desperate to escape, she devises a plan which ends in failure. Perhaps she should leave a note in Abigail’s pitcher, another ritual she’s sneeringly dismissed, but which has resulted in surprising results for other girls. When her father suddenly appears, she’s faced with a sobering reality. He brings news which chimes more with the dissident placards left around the town proclaiming the war a disaster than the school’s resolute patriotism, telling her that the secrecy of her whereabouts is paramount to her safety. Gina realises she must make the best of things, finding her way back into the affections of her schoolmates and devising entertainments that frequently land her in trouble. Life outside the walls of school becomes more dangerous as the Germans set their sights on occupying Hungary. Things come to a head when Gina’s cover is blown but Abigail comes to the rescue.

According to its press release, Abigail is the most celebrated of Szabó’s novels in her homeland – it’s even been adapted into a rock opera, still performed in Budapest, apparently, which is slightly mind-boggling. It’s told from Gina’s perspective, many years after the tumultuous six months in which she learnt that appearances can be deceptive. Szabó summons up the claustrophobia of boarding school life vividly – the spitefulness of adolescent young girls, bored and forced into piety, or the semblance of it, is painfully believable. Their tiny, tightly controlled world is in stark contrast to the bloody drama unfolding in their country, most evocatively demonstrated as the girls watch a train full of soldiers, bound for the front. Szabó tells her story well, pulling its thread of tension taut as Gina’s danger becomes apparent and neatly tying up loose ends in its final chapter. Not my favourite of her novels, but certainly well worth reading.

Maclehose Press: London 2020 9780857058485 448 pages Paperback

Five Days in Budapest and a Bit of a Book

I’ve been wanting to go to Budapest for some time. I remember it popping up on the departure board at Munich station when H and I caught the train down to the Dolomites for a walking holiday a few years back. Then we hopped on and off the Hamburg to Budapest train last year but veered off from Bratislava to Vienna. We’d thought about another, shorter railway journey Margaret Island (Budapest)taking in the city but plumped for a long weekend break instead. The trip seemed to be jinxed in the weeks running up to it: first thanks to Ryanair’s fit of cancellations (we were lucky) then a health crisis for H’s father who, fortunately, was well enough for us go after all.

Spending much of our first day on Margaret Island, slap in the middle of the Danube which divides Buda from Pest, was a much-needed laid back start after all that stress and finally getting to bed at 2 am after the flight. It’s a large and lovely area of green space, beautifully planted with trees just on the autumnal turn with squabbling red squirrels running up and down them. There’s a splendidly kitsch musical fountain at one end which knocks the Las Vegas Bellagio’s into a cocked hat. Hard to do it justice but, as ever, YouTube comes to the rescue.Museum of Applies Arts (Budapest)

The following day we crossed the river and wandered around leafy Buda, taking the cog railway a little way into the hills. Back over the Danube to Pest after lunch in search of a bit of culture we headed for the Museum of Applied Arts, unfortunately closed for renovation but it was enough just to see the outside. Readers of this blog who’ve followed my travels House of Art Nouveau (Budapest)around the Baltics, Central Europe and Antwerp will know that I’ve a weakness for Art Nouveau architecture, the more extravagantly flamboyant the better. It’s the sheer bonkersness of it all, and you can’t get more bonkers than the Museum of Applied Arts, although there are many rivals for that in Budapest. The rather more restrained Bedő House, whose upper floors house a museum, is an excellent example of the Secessionist architecture we’d seen in Vienna last year but if it’s extravagance you want – and I did – the former Török Bank fits the bill nicely. Impossible to walk very far in Budapest without coming across yet another extraordinarily ornate building. If you fancy seeing a little more outrageously exuberant architecture you might like to visit this Pinterest site.

Sunday seemed like a good day to visit the Great Synagogue but apparently every other tourist in Budapest had the same idea so we went to the Orthodox Synagogue instead. I’d expected it to be Orthodox synagogure (Budapest)somewhat spartan but it turned out to be anything but with its gorgeously painted walls and stained-glass windows. On to the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre, our only bit of culture thanks to the glorious weather, housed in a beautiful, converted Art Deco cinema. Capa famously documented the Spanish Civil War as did his Polish photographer wife, Gerda Taro, who was killed in action. Sadly, Taro doesn’t get much of a mention at the centre. I remember reading Susana Fortes’s novel based on their lives, Waiting for Robert Capa, which tells their story from her point of view, and enjoying it very much.

With the museums closed and another bright shiny autumn day in the offing, we decided to spend Monday morning in City Park after a brief visit to Heroes’ Square in front of which were parked a huge number of police vans and cars, a reminder that Hungary is not quite the free and easy state it might appear when walking its capital’s streets. We spent our last evening wandering around both sides of the river, marvelling at the gorgeously lit Parliament, Parliament (Budapest)a palace of democracy, over which hung a huge harvest moon. Five days, and we’d barely scratched the surface of this lovely city with its elegant tree-lined boulevards. We need to come back to visit at least one of its many baths, take the Children’s Railway around the Buda Hills and eat more fabulous cake at the stylish Cover imageDunapark.

And the book? Not much luck with reading on this holiday. My first book was pleasant enough but hardly worth mentioning. The second was Louisa Young’s Devotion, the third in a series which began with My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You set against the backdrop of the First World War. Young moves her characters on to the interwar years taking some of them to Italy where Il Duce is on the rise. Unlike the first two, both of which I loved, I found it a little difficult to get into and am contemplating giving it up.