On July 31, 1975 – in the midst of an uncharacteristically hot English summer – Magda Szirtes, a Jewish Hungarian survivor of World War II, took an overdose in her North London home. The ambulance dispatched to revive her was delayed by a minor traffic accident on the way, and she died.
A small, sad, slightly absurd domestic tragedy – one that could have easily slipped, like countless others, between the floorboards of a cataclysmic century – except that Magda’s son, George, then a penniless young teacher, would go on to become one of Britain’s pre-eminent poets and translators. Over time he would learn about the larger circumstances of her early life. He would be moved to visit her home country (and his birthplace). And he would venture to recuperate, first in poetry and now in prose, something of the character of her life and fate.
The result is a love letter from a son to his mother, rendered unrequited by her absence. It’s a detective story, too, since the final suicide note discovered by George’s father in the wake of Magda’s death was only the last in a series. Responding to the suicide of Primo Levi in Turin at the age of 67, Elie Wiesel said of most lauded literary survivor of the Holocaust that he “died at Auschwitz forty years later”. In The Photographer at Sixteen, George Szirtes goes in search of the initial blow that struck his mother down. He then traces the slow course of its damage over time.
All this makes the work sound like a high-toned misery memoir, but it isn’t. Szirtes, winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize for poetry and the Man Booker International Prize for translation, has no truck with the naked theatrics of grief. Instead, he uses his considerable dual gifts – the gift of language in the first instance, and the gift of subordinating one’s own self to another self in the second – to substantiate the ghostly presence of a powerful personality and a physically striking woman:
“I have no wish to submit her to retrospective analysis,” he writes:
I want to report her presence and register it as it moved through life by moving back into her own past with her. I want to puzzle over it and admire it while being aghast at it. I don’t want to be certain of anything. I don’t want to come to conclusions.
A challenging act of filial love, this: to record without judgement, to feel his mother’s pain without embalming himself alongside her in historic hurt. And yet he manages to do so, using a method that seems counterintuitive but turns out to be both aesthetically rewarding and respectful to the mystery of Magda’s past.
As Szirtes explains above, he does so by running the memoir in reverse: starting with his own relationship with his mother and then moving her backwards, away from him, away from England, away from her husband and back into the partial and incomplete record of her wartime and pre-war existence. He releases her into history like a fish freed in the river from which it was caught.
Magda Szirtes was Romanian by birth, Hungarian by cultural affiliation and Jewish by dint of immemorial ties of blood. She grew up in a middlingly prosperous middle-class family in the regional Transylvanian city of Cluj, before leaving school at 14 to become a photographer’s assistant, a hand-colourist of black-and-white film, and a would-be photographer herself.
Budapest, home to Robert Capa, László Moholy-Nagy, André Kertész and Brassaï, was a world capital of photography when she arrived in the city as a strikingly attractive teen. But her socialist sympathies and Jewish background made life in the wartime city increasingly fraught. Even after she had met László Szirtes, the mild, gentle man who was to become her husband, she lacked protection from larger events.
Those events saw her spirited away to the women’s concentration camp of Ravensbrück, along with 150,000 others in 1944, and then to Penig, a satellite camp of Buchenwald. When liberation by the Allies came to these camps in April 1945, Magda was one of 80 women left in the sick bay after the SS authorities initiated a final death march to Theresienstadt. Her son reports that when Magda was rescued she weighed 38 kilograms.
George Szirtes’ imagination glances off Magda’s camp experience; there is simply too much hurt and pain for that time to be fully countenanced. What’s more, those events constrict her life in ways that deform its broader arc.
What he does do is linger, beautifully, on her slow return to health:
There is food, a carefully gradated increase in diet, the return of taste and smell. The touch and feel of knife and fork and spoon and plate. The relative softness of cloth, the simple cleanliness, followed by the slow rediscovery of the body as pleasure, the rediscovery of the autonomy of one’s own self.
No, the real bitterness resides not in the camp experience, but in its aftermath, when she returns home to discover her mother and brother were murdered in Auschwitz, her father vanished; her former neighbours indifferent to so much loss.
For George Szirtes, born in Budapest in 1948, the family she established so quickly – and which was obliged to flee to Britain in 1956, following the Hungarian uprising – formed a kind of bulwark against that loss. But it was not, could not, be wholly successful. The compassion the author expresses in these pages is shadowed by guilt: that as a child and young man he refused so much of her need, to be generous, to be affectionate, to be in control of events. The universal rebellion of adolescence is here recast as an unwitting cruelty to one who had already suffered too much.
As a work of recompense, however, the work achieves its end and more. It does honour to Magda Szirtes: it recalls her not as one who was sick or damaged or dying but as “a woman in her prime”.
MacLehose Press, 240pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "George Szirtes, The Photographer at Sixteen". Subscribe here.