Tag Archives: Magda Szabo

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

Books to Look Out for in January 2019: Part Two

Cover imagePart two of January’s preview kicks off with a debut from a former Waterstones bookseller: When All is Said by Anne Griffin. Over the course of a single evening, eighty-four-year-old Maurice Hannigan raises five toasts to five different people all of whom have changed his life in different ways, all of whom are now gone. ‘Exquisitely written and powerfully felt, When All is Said promises to be the next great Irish novel’ say the publishers and it seems that both Donal Ryan and John Boyne agree. It sounds like a very appealing way of telling a story to me, and I have a weakness for both debuts and Irish writing.

Rebecca Kaufman’s The Gunners follows six childhood friends who become like family to each other, playing together and finding their way from childhood into adult life. Then one of them stops speaking to the others and won’t say why. Years later, her suicide forces them back together for her funeral where the truth about what happened between them is finally faced. ‘This is a generous and poignant novel about the difficulty – and the joy – of being a true friend’ according to the publishers. I do like a novel that revisits childhood friendships; lots of potential for dark secrets and character development.

I read Magda Szabo’s Iza’s Ballad on holiday in Antwerp and regretted it. It’s a book that deserves more attention than a short city break allows. I’m determined that won’t happen with Katalin Street which follows the sole surviving family of the three who grew up together on the same street in pre-war Budapest, picking their story up in the Soviet era. ‘Magda Szabo conducts a clear-eyed investigation into the ways in which we inflict suffering on those we love. Katalin Street, which won the 2007 Prix Cevennes for Best European novel, is a poignant, somber, at times harrowing book, but beautifully conceived and truly unforgettable’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for more of the quiet understatement and elegant prose that struck me in Iza’s Ballad.Cover image

Gerald Murane’s Border Districts takes us somewhere entirely different. A man moves to an isolated town intending to spend his last years casting his mind back over a lifetime of reading and considering which characters, metaphors and lines of glittering prose have caught in his memory. ‘Feeling an increasing urgency to put his mental landscape in order, the man sets to work cataloguing this treasure, little knowing where his `report’ will lead and what secrets will be brought to light’ say the publishers. This is the first book by Murane to be published in the UK, apparently, which seems surprising given he’s a literary star in his native Australia. Kim at Reading Matters is a big fan.

Lightening the tone a little after two rather sombre sounding novels, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer sounds darkly humorous. Korede’s sister has issued yet another cry for help after ridding herself of her third boyfriend. Korede jumps to, disposing of the body, but alarm bells start to ring when Ayoola begins dating the man Korede’s had her eye on for some time. Ayobami Adebayo has called it ‘Disturbing, sly and delicious’ which is what’s caught my eye with this one.

‘Delicious’ is a word which may well apply to Pascal Pujol’s Little Culinary Triumphs set in Montmartre where Sandrine is eager to set up a restaurant and willing to go to any lengths to do so. ‘A carousel of extravagant characters follows: the giant Senegalese man, Toussaint N’Diaye; the magical chef, Vairam; the extravagantly flatulent Alsatian, Schmutz and his twelve-year-old daughter Juliette—IQ 172!; the alluring psychologist and Kama Sutra specialist, Annabelle Villemin-Dubreuil’ promises the publisher but all does not go well, apparently.

Cover imageI’m ending this preview with Diane Setterfield’s nineteenth-century set Once Upon a River which sounds like a piece of good old-fashioned storytelling, entirely appropriate for January evenings. A stranger knocks on the door of a riverside inn, badly injured and holding the body of a drowned girl in his arms. Hours later, the girl revives. Who is she, and how has she survived? It’s been over twelve years since the publication of Setterfield’s debut, The Thirteenth Tale, the book for which she’s best known, and I’m sure this one will be eagerly anticipated.

That’s it for January. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis if any take your fancy and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Three Days in Antwerp and Half a Book

Centraal Station, AntwerpH and I missed our winter break this year and were both champing at the bit for a weekend away by the time March arrived. Malaga sprang to mind, recommended by a friend as somewhere to explore or to sit in cafes and watch the world go by but the flight times didn’t work for us. Instead we plumped for Antwerp, anticipating gloomy skies but interesting things to see. What we got was a gloriously sunny, warm weekend plus a trip to one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. After the success of last year’s railway adventures, we decided to travel by train. Not very different from flying in terms of time but so much less painful and if you’re going to Antwerp you arrive at one of the city’s finest sights: the stunning Centraal Station, a veritable cathedral of train travel. As usual we walked our socks off exploring the city but I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow account, just the highlights. Art Nouveau, Antwerp

Regular readers may remember that I have a weakness for Art Nouveau architecture. I have no idea why – it doesn’t sit well with my taste for most other things, free of frills and fuss. Perhaps it’s the sheer bonkersness of it all, and there was plenty of that on show in Zurenborg, a short, sunny Saturday morning walk out of the centre with a pit stop for pancakes. Some of the original residents had shown restraint but others had gone for flat-out competitiveness of the ‘if you insist on having an outlandishly tall tulip on top of your gable I’m going to have an astrolabe on my roof’ variety. Not so mad as in Riga, but close. Interestingly, someone recently decided to slot a starkly modernist building amongst all those twiddly bits, just the kind of house Modernist building, AntwerpI’d choose to live in. There’s a lovely little square in Waterloostraat, a street over from the more flamboyant designs, with a four seasons theme echoed in motifs in each of the houses. We spent the rest of Saturday exploring the medieval centre whose brick buildings with their stepped gables reminded me of Amsterdam, not so far away.

Sunday was museum day. We trotted off dutifully to Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), housed in an impressive, large modern building, which is all about Antwerp and its way of life. Opened in 2011, it has several permanent exhibits including one on food which, unsurprisingly given our mutual devotion to our stomachs, was the one we enjoyed most. After spending lunch listening to some great R&B, soul and blues tracks at a nicely laid-back cafe on our square we headed over to the Museum Plantin-Moretus which is one of those ‘if you only do one thing…’ places. It’s the house of the sixteenth-century printer Christophe Plantin, bang next door to the apartment we’d rented. The house, and its lovely courtyard garden, is well worth visiting for its own sake but the displays devoted to Plantin’s life and work are fascinating. A shrewd business man, he was also a humanist, printing, publishing and selling books which disseminated the ideas of this extraordinarily exciting time including – very riskily for him – bibles in the vernacular. The company he founded printed its last book in Antwerp in 1876, nine generations later reminding me of our own John Murray. There are many beautiful, crisply printed manuscripts to admire but the most moving exhibit for us both was the two printing presses thought to be the oldest in the world. Without those and people like Plantin, the Renaissance ideas on which the foundations of the modern world were built could never have reached a widerGrote Markt Antwerp audience, influencing readers who in turn developed new ideas. I’ve visited many excellent museums but this one tops the list; worth travelling to Antwerp just to stand in front of those printing presses.

Yet more sunshine for our last morning. After a final stroll around the Grote Markt, lined with gorgeously decorated guild houses, we finished the holiday with a leisurely lunch in a sunny square, marvelling at our luck with the weather. A great weekend: not what we’d originally planned but it’s hard to imagine that a few days in Malaga would have been more Cover imageenjoyable.

And the book? It’s Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes, in which Iza whisks her recently widowed mother off to the capital. There’s a terrible disconnect between these two: Ettie is lost in the city, always doing the wrong thing and missing her beloved Vince terribly while Iza, busy with her job as a doctor, seems to want to tidy messy emotions away. It’s a quiet, subtle book which, I’m sure, would repay prolonged concentration, not something which suits a city weekend with lots of travelling. I finished it shortly after we got back and was left feeling I hadn’t done it justice. Short stories next time, maybe.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in August 2015

I am ChinaNot as spoilt for choice as I’d expected for August paperbacks but there are some excellent treats to look forward to including Xiaolu Guo’s ambitious, Baileys Prize longlisted I Am China, a jigsaw puzzle of a love story, chock-full of well-aimed barbs fired at Chinese politics past and present. Iona Kirkpatrick has been sent a package of jumbled documents, some scrawled almost illegibly on scrappy bits of paper. She’s a translator and the package is from a publisher with very little explanation of what the documents are about or what they plan to do with her translation. She begins to realise that the papers form a love story between Chinese punk musician Kublai Jian and Mu, his poet lover. Gulou’s novel takes some getting into but don’t let that put you off – it’s well worth the effort, a book that leaves you with much to think about.

As does Michel Faber’s compelling and unusual The Book of Strange New Things set on a different planet from our own. It opens with a journey to the airport, obviously not any old airport. Both evangelical Christians, Bea and Peter Leigh are about to face their first real separation, one that neither of them can quite comprehend: Peter is to be propelled into space to become a missionary on Oasis, a settlement set up and run by a shadowy multinational corporation. They bid each other a passionate farewell. The knowledge that Faber had written this novel while his wife was dying put the whole thing into a different perspective for me.

Sue Miller writes the kind of quietly insightful novel, often set in small-town America, of which I’m very fond. At the core of her writing are relationships between men and women – their passions, joys, and tensions – the ways in which they manage the constant round of compromise and negotiation, or not. When a new Miller appears on the horizon it’s like a date in the diary with an old friend, something to look forward to and savour. There’s usually a hook on which she hangs her subtle explorations and in the case of The Arsonist it’s the burning down of summer houses in the small New Hampshire town of Pomeroy. A Cover imagethoroughly enjoyable novel from a writer of reliably good emotionally intelligent fiction.

I’ve not read or reviewed the following three novels but I like the sound of all of them particularly Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad in which a widow moves from her rural home to her daughter’s in Budapest. Iza can’t get the hang of how things are done in the metropolis nor find a way to fit into the life of the daughter she’s never really known. The publisher’s blurb tells us it’s about ‘the meeting of the old-fashioned and the modern worlds and the beliefs we construct over a lifetime’ which sounds interesting territory to explore to me.

As does that of Kim Zupan’s The Ploughmen which sees a seventy-one-year old serial killer finally awaiting trial interrogated by a low-ranking officer in the sheriff’s department who is trying to extract details of Gload’s many murders. Valentine Millimaki has drawn the short straw – the overnight shift – putting yet more strain on his troubled marriage. An oddly intimate connection springs up between this disparate pair. According to the publisher’s blurb things take ‘a startling turn with a brazen act of violence, a manhunt, and a stunning revelation that leave Gload’s past and Millimaki’s future forever entwined’. Not the kind of billing that’s usually up my alley but this sounds quite riveting.

Cover imageMy last choice, Jamie Kornegay’s Soil,  is also set in small-town USA with an environmental scientist turning to farming in the Mississippi hills. Within a year it all goes to pot when a corpse appears on his family’s property. With his marriage in tatters and convinced he’s been framed, the farmer finds himself caught up in maelstrom of deception and obsession. The blurb describes it as ‘The Coen Brothers meet Crime and Punishment – with a Mississippi twist’ which is enough to get anybody’s attention. We’ll see.

That’s it for August. I’ve reviewed the first three but a click on any of the last three titles will take you to Waterstone’s website if you want a more detailed synopsis. And if you fancy catching up with my August hardback choices here they are. This is my last post for a couple of weeks – H and I are off to explore the Baltic states. No doubt a few books will be read along the way.