Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Snapshots of a Captive Subject
The Financial Times

Miranda Seymour  JANUARY 25, 2019

“We seem to be born of secrets,” muses the author of this unforgettably sad book. “But isn’t everybody?” 

 What is it that makes a memoir exceptional? How does one invent the truth? Reading the Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes’s delicately forensic exploration of an impossibly passionate mother whose abrupt death, aged 51, in an ambulance crash in 1975 brought release from a life she could no longer defy, it becomes clear how little overtly dramatic content counts, compared with the sensibility — and, above all, the impulse towards honesty — of the writer. 

 Evocative narrative sequences are the hallmark of Szirtes’s poems. His parents haunt them, as do his recollections of a carefree Budapest childhood that ended on the day in 1956 when a stray bullet ricocheted off little George’s toy watch, while corpses dangled from the lampposts lining the streets in which he played. 

 There, or at Ravensbrück, the brutal camp from which his young Romanian-born mother was transferred to the horrors of Penig (near death from starvation, she would be rescued by a bewitched US officer in 1945), might have seemed obvious points at which to open Magda’s strangely triumphant history of torture, flight and survival. Szirtes, having pondered and reflected on his subject for a quarter of a century, opts for a subtler approach in The Photographer at Sixteen. Time is upended. We move from the moment of Magda’s death back towards her birth, enlightened by consequences that could never have been foreseen. 

Like WG Sebald, the German-born writer known for his meditative juxtaposition of words and images, Szirtes makes careful use of photographs within his text; unlike Sebald, he subjects each to a piercing analysis. The sad heroism of his hardworking Hungarian father Laszlo — all Magda’s love was reserved for her sons, all her darkest suspicions for a husband who adored her — is stressed both here (tenderly clasping his wife’s wasted form for a family snap, while his huge owl-eyes steadily meet the camera’s gaze) and there (as he clowns for her in a zoo, playing at being the captive he truly is). 

But it is Magda who emerges from these tiny images as the actual prisoner, struggling to manufacture magic from her confinement in a coldly colourless London suburb. (The open spaces of Australia had long been her dream.) Nothing escapes her son’s observing eye. She called George “little squirrel”, her only consolation. She baked him cakes “like a real mum”, dressed him like royalty. Examining the neat north London kitchen in which she perches, tiny as the pet sparrow she inadvertently crushed underfoot, Szirtes remembers the room’s disquieting feel: sticky as the grey gingham vinyl peeling from its surfaces. 

 “It sticks to her too. She is trapped in it . . . Displacement hits you later than you expect, just when you think you have settled down . . . Your body is not where it ought to be . . . It is as if you had ghosted in but left your soul behind.” 

 Here, following the abrupt end of Magda’s short, harsh life, the memoir has already begun its backward spool, an appropriate term for the history of a woman who specialised since girlhood in photographic improvement (there is nothing new about airbrushing). Unknown events pull the reader back to the gates of Ravensbrück, a place that Magda’s son denies his imagination the right to describe. Hints are dropped, of whippings, starvation, public rapings, full-body shaving, bromide-laced coffee to keep the female prisoners hygienically barren. Szirtes scarcely comments. A handful of bleak facts suffice. 

Criticism — Magda was plainly impossible to live with — is withheld. “It is her desperation I am describing, not her selfishness,” writes Szirtes. What emerges, present in every line, is the magnetic force of Magda’s personality, her hunger for a happiness that focused on the success — always under her direction — of her sons. Courteously opening doors for female teachers or strolling through Wembley’s staring streets in tight shorts and white shirts, Magda’s sons “were a laughing stock, but not to her”. Love was always a threat. How could they love her as she loved them? 

 “The tide is sweeping her away from me,” the author states. Not so. Szirtes has made her monument. It is a courageous and remarkable achievement. I’ve read no memoir that moved me more.

 The Photographer at Sixteen, by George Szirtes, MacLehose Press, RRP£14.99, 208 pages

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