Kabdebó Lóránt Magda Szabó [in: Salve scriptor! Tanulmányok, esszék Szabó Magdáról. Griffes Grafikai Stúdió, 2002.] 2002
Kabdebó Lóránt
Magda Szabó
Magda Szabó
[in: Salve scriptor! Tanulmányok, esszék Szabó Magdáról. Griffes Grafikai Stúdió, 2002.]

Magda Szabó first wrote poetry, she is a successful playwright, her essays have opened up new horizons on the Hungarian literary tradition, her travel memoirs are a fortunate combination of personal experience and topographical knowledge. She is, moreover, an astute and elegant translator of Shakespeare (Two Gentlemen of Verona) and Galsworthy, but she has really made her name as a writer of fiction. Many of her novels have been translated into thirty three languages including Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and some even in more than one version, like Az ajtó (‘The Door’) in German; the French translation of Mózes egy, huszonkettő (‘Moses One, Twenty-two’) (titled: 1 Moses 22) was published nine times. Readers’ surveys in Hungary prove that she is one of the most frequently read of Hungarian writers.

Magda Szabó has continued a tradition that regards writing as an act of moral resolve; what is observed and experienced summons a moral response in the writer, and turns her rage into narrative. In her early works, written for her desk drawer during the Rákosi-regime, Freskó (‘Fresco’), published only in 1958, and Az őz (‘The Fawn’) only in 1959, it is the moral impulse that is at the centre. Lately, however, her traditional, realistic rendering of the world has turned into a self-examination of varying orientations, as in Az ajtó (‘The Door’, 1987) and, especially, in A pillanat (‘The Moment’, 1990), in which she relies on a postmodern box of tools to do away with history itself.

She belonged to a group of writers who began writing during the Second World War, discovering each other in the first days of peace after the war, and who took the Bloomsbury writers as their exemplar. Despite all the horrors and violence of the German and Russian occupation of Hungary in 1944-1945, these writers claimed Europe to be their spiritual home. The group was named after a short-lived literary journal of the late 1940s, called Újhold (‘New Moon’). Indeed, this word and all it stood for, 206symbolized a secret bond implied by their internal exile during the years of Stalinist dictatorship; it also, however, became the target of attacks against them. Among those who belonged to this loosely-knit circle were Ágnes Nemes Nagy, János Pilinszky, Géza Ottlik, Iván Mándy, and Miklós Mészöly, all of whom have achieved an international reputation. When their first volumes appeared in 1946-1947 they did not fail to win the more prestigious literary awards established before, and, still existing for a time, after the war.

Their elders, and such literary critics whose judgments have ever since stood the test of time, praised them. In 1948, however, there came the political turn that swept away prize-givers and recipients. Today, most of these writers have once again been recognized by way of prominent awards. Magda Szabó has received the highest literary honour in Hungary, the Kossuth Prize, and the Corvin-chain, is a member of the Széchenyi Academy of Arts, member of European Academy of Art, Literature and Humanities, and has received an award (in 1992) from the Getz Corporation of the United States for services rendered to Hungarian writing. Owing to the upheavals they lived through, their careers can hardly be said to be typical; for they did not – or rather, did not only – have to struggle to express their talent, but had to persuade others to accept their integrity in a political atmosphere which promoted a contrary set of expectations – and which also made use of brute force to realize them.

To this day, Magda Szabó to be found conscientiously associates herself with her origins, with the images of family and native town that define her own moral countenance. Debrecen: an old town of peasant citizens right in the centre of the Hungarian plain, the Alföld, without the protective surroundings of marshes, mountains, or city walls – which, during the century and a half of Turkish domination, had to pay tribute by turns to the Prince of Transylvania, to the Habsburg King, and again to the Turkish Sultan – to escape that state of political acclimatization, which today is called “Balkanization”. It was with a strong sense of duty that the conservative, Calvinist burghers of the town guarded their rich Eurocentric culture and civic liberties. “It was an honour to be a citizen of Debrecen. One had to take an oath as a citizen, the law demanded that, and those accepted as citizens could have ‘Citizen of Debrecen’ inscribed 207on their coffins. They had rights, but duties as well,” writes Magda Szabó.

The city has a monument to the memory of those Hungarian Calvinist preachers who were sent to the galleys in the 17th century by the Habsburgs, the Catholic kings of Hungary. In 1991 Pope John Paul II laid a wreath of appeasement on it. Indeed, one of Magda Szabó’s ancestors was among those so condemned. She herself is an alderman of her church; this year on her seventy-fifth birthday she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Debrecen’s Calvinist Theological Seminary, and the University of Miskolc.

It was in this city, in the first half of the twentieth century, that the alderman in charge of the theatre and the arts conversed in Latin at mealtimes with his daughter; when her parents, rightly or wrongly, forbade the girl to go to the cinema she, familiar with stills of the film, would compensate by writing down the story of the film as she imagined it. In the course of this childhood Magda Szabó learnt the regimen by which she and her husband, later, when the Iron Curtain had descended, were to spend the week: a day speaking German, then English, then French. This was of value not only in terms of practice but in affirming their intellectual freedom.

Debrecen, “The City of Durability” – this university town, with a population of 200,000, is today both praised and mocked by the phrase. This durability, however, may have sustained Magda Szabó when, as a student, she witnessed Hitler’s occupation of Vienna, and later when, as a young teacher, she lived through both the Nazi and the Soviet occupation of Hungary.

She started with writing poetry and took to writing novels only in the “reticent years”, and was writing only for her desk drawer. Indeed, it was the poet who taught the novelist how to write. She endowed the future novelist with the experience essential to her craft – personal involvement in her themes – and the awareness that the individual fate has to be put in perspective. Everyone’s personal history is at one and the same time a repetition of those of others, Magda Szabó maintains: “It is a general mistake, I think, to regard any one of us as an original, a hitherto never seen, unique phenomenon; the most that can be said is that we don’t know our predecessors, that we haven’t yet come across the documentation of the relationship. We have all appeared previously, whether in our details or in our manifestation, or in the themes voiced by certain artists of centuries past – it is simply that we do not know our grandfathers.”


Just as the poet recorded her wartime experiences in two volumes, Bárány (‘Lamb’, 1947) and Vissza az emberig (‘Return to Man’, 1949), the novelist was to continue in this vein when reflecting upon the countless and often hellish situations posed by life.

Magda Szabó as a novelist appears to stand in a literary tradition whose members include Thomas Hardy, François Mauriac, László Németh, and perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis, either as immediate precursors or as fellows, related not in their style but rather in that they express a common view of the relationship between the author and the work. Magda Szabó steps out of history and, in analyzing her own stories, conveys both to herself and to the reader the message that what is happening has happened before. On a first reading, her novels seem off-the-cuff not in form, which is always precise and bound by classicism, but in terms of the enthusiasm with which the author appears to approach the given theme. It is as though she has come across her subjects while writing and cast them while still fresh onto paper so as to record and understand them. A reading of her life work, by contrast, leaves one with the impression that each novel of hers has fallen into a preordained place, as if this type of literary career had been predestined at the moment of Magda Szabó’s birth. Equally characteristic are her virtually random choice of theme and archetypal certainty as regards the twists and turns of a novel. It is an idiosyncratic – almost capricious – “direct hit,” as it were, a hit with inevitable results. One critic has referred to the “ancient formula” of the Magda Szabó novel which, like the Oedipus tale, moves to ever deeper and more complicated mysteries, focusing its attention onto more and more frightening traps. Her novels develop like clockwork: each word uttered, each gesture enacted, is a necessary part of the whole.

Magda Szabó is a tough writer expecting retribution, in whose novels sin enfolds the transgressor and elicits a compulsion to admit to sinning. Rather than await justice from the outside world, she lays her trust in the power of inner accountability within the soul. She is essentially a Calvinist. It is not the liberating sensation of a Roman Catholic confession that resounds in her novels, but rather the sombre catharsis entailed in accounting to a congregation, in public confession, and in self-incrimination.

Her novels are the drawing up of accounts of distorted individuals; all around her, at the time of various dictatorships, generations were com209pelled to act without regard to what their hearts, their beings told them. A great deal of hurt and self-destructive passion surges within her characters, who are nourished less and less by their own beings, and more and more by motives embedded in the collective subconscious.

Her novels describe the various states of malevolence between individuals. They are full of mutual fear, furtive mutual observation, accumulated injuries, and premeditated injury (such as in Freskó). Eventually there comes the moment when the characters open up; confessions flow out like lava, individuals try to redress what can no longer be salvaged, to put an end to their years of reticence (Az őz, the ending of Pilátus, 1963). In Katalin utca (‘Katalin Street’, 1969), Magda Szabó reflects on the passing of the years, on adulthood, with the consequent loss of the island of childhood and the happiness that was once to be had in togetherness. Nonetheless, as Mózes egy, huszonkettő (‘Moses One, Twenty-two’, 1967) underscores, the members of each new generation yearn for this island, where they can live without fear, alongside one another, in mutual respect. But relationships can neither be rationally planned nor can behaviour towards each other be programmed; this is the theme of A Danaida (‘The Danaid’, 1964) and Pilátus (‘Pilate’).

All the same, her novels ultimately acknowledge the need for intimate relationships; it is precisely the absence of such relationships that lead to tragedy. This conviction, too, nourishes the ideal whereby the past is revived to new life. The past, however, retains and avows its past ness. Such is the case with the re-enacted past portrayed in Katalin utca and with the memoirs she has written, Ókút (‘The Ancient Well’, 1970), Régimódi történet (‘An Old-Fashioned Story’, 1977), and Megmaradt Szobotkának (‘He Remained Szobotka’, 1983). Indeed, this is also true of Abigél (1970), a novel she wrote for a younger audience.

Mutual attraction and even a sexual bond is not enough to sustain a relationship; the breakdown of the relationship between the Western diplomat and the highly educated, humanist Central-European woman in A szemlélők (‘The Spectators’, 1973) is evidence of this. The miracle occurs when two individuals do break through the wall between them and go back and forth into each other’s worlds as in Régimódi történet, Megmaradt Szobotkának, and ‘The Door’. The tragic motif, however, is that not even then can they really help each other – whether the causes be external or inner differences – and they finish up tying each other’s helping hands. In the end, the individual is still left to his own devices. The question that lingers is whether this, too, is inevitable.


Even in distilling individual histories from biographical events, mosaics of memories – indeed, document able events – and turning them into narrative, as in Régimódi történet, her mother’s history, and Megmaradt Szobotkának, her husband’s, Mrs. Szabó sees to it that behind the thrill of discovery there is always a historical model or archetype to be found. That which happens has happened before. Even the titles of her novels allude to this: Pilátus, A Danaida, and Mózes egy, huszonkettő. Beyond its literal meaning, Ókút is an allusion to Thomas Mann’s “infinitely deep” well, the idea that history as it progresses repeat itself even on the individual level. In the titles of her other novels, one finds the possibility of repetition and, as a consequence, of comparison.

Magda Szabó’s most distinguished novels may well include two early ones, the two apotheoses of otherness, Freskó and Az őz; the pillar of her midcareer, Régimódi történet, in which she retrieves, is it were, the individual living entirely in the confines of family and history; and her two most recent works, ‘The Door’ and A pillanat. The first two novels recount torrid personal vengeance, involving two heroines simultaneously ostracized due to two types of circumstance. In one case, this is due to middle-class pretensions, the gap between a family’s well-to-do past and the reality of poverty; in the other, in “socialism”, precisely because of one’s gentlemanly past. The two women break with their respective families and move into the distinctive province of art. Corinna, in Freskó, is a painter, and Eszter Encsy in Az őz, triumphs as well, as an actress. Corinna’s triumph is exclusively of a moral nature. Her art has value only in her own eyes; her art was disowned by the cultural policy of the dictatorship. Her triumph in the face of her disintegrating, indolent, conformist family is indeed real. Eszter Encsy, meanwhile, has seen success as an artist and with the appearance of her autobiography, a pack of lies re-written in keeping with the formula prescribed by the regime, but it is her triumph which destroys her inner world, including her love. The demon of destruction possesses her and, in spite of herself, she unravels everything that she wants to tie. Régimódi történet, by contrast, represents a retrieval of the past that Corinna and Eszter have discarded; here, the individual cannot live without the past of her family and community. This book presents the resurrection of the Hungarian professional middle-class, its very existence denied under socialism; this is true also of the play based on the book, as well as of the 211series now being produced for Hungarian television. It is not, however, the uncritical creation of something heroic, it is simply the documented discovery of a lost social ambience. Perhaps it was in translating John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga into Hungarian with her husband, that she realized the virtual absence of the middle-class family in Hungarian fiction. She does the same in Abigél, her “novel for young people,” that describes the apotheosis of a Calvinist secondary school during the German occupation of the Second World War. As a television series it was to educate generations of Hungarian viewers as a cautionary tale.

A short précis of ‘The Door’ would make it look meaningless. As against the heroines of her previous novels, it is a servant who has the lead role here, as if Magda Szabó had chosen to redirect the spotlight from Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The novel relates the confidential relationship between a successful woman author and Emerenc, her charwoman. Emerenc earnestly hopes that the lady writer is worthy of her trust, so that she can reveal to her more and more about her past and present life. The writer is on the defensive, however and is increasingly inclined to isolate herself – even though curiosity overcomes her as well. Emerenc’s secret is that none may enter her home. Both began their lives in surroundings where mutual responsibility was something given, pure and simple. This memory yields the tact with which the writer-protagonist, after all rebuffs, misgivings, and attempts at retaining distance, nonetheless returns, as it were, to Emerenc’s confidence – indeed, to an ever more inner circle of trust.

By this time, Emerenc has become a maid of all work and advisor to those living in a well-to-do street. Yet she increasingly withdraws from the outside world. She allows no one into her home, into which she gathers the cats she has taken in out of pity. All in immaculate cleanliness. It is actually here that the novel begins. What would happen, however, if Emerenc were to become ill, perhaps terminally, and could no longer look after herself? She wants to die alone in her spotless lair, even if it means rotting away; for her symbolic secret – the cats she has cared for out of compassion – is not to be seen by anyone while she is still alive. It is a zenith of trust that leads her to share her secret, to let the writer see her sanctuary.

Emerenc even serves as an example for the writer to follow. She has allowed a wretched, vain old maid, whom she has taken under her wing, to die; indeed, she has helped her prepare for suicide. She too expects to be treated this way. She wants to live only as long as there is meaning to her life, not in miserable humiliation at another’s mercy. And here is her 212real secret: Emerenc wishes to live in the sight of others only as long as she can retain her dignity. She does not want to be tormented while half-dead. Her relationship with the outside world lasts only while every one of her words – rare though they are – actions and gestures are resolute acts, while each and every manifestation of her being is a meaningful and useful complement to her surroundings. Then others can demonstrate their real concern – by leaving her alone. This is what she wants, and she has entrusted the writer with the responsibility of seeing to that her wish is granted.

What happens once Emerenc does become ill, shuts herself in and is incapable even of moving? Her spotless home is infested with stench and filth. Her neighbours want to rescue her. The writer joins in the effort. It is at the writer’s request that Emerenc finally opens the door, they storm her lair, take her to be disinfected and then to hospital. The writer doesn’t even have the time to keep track of further developments; she’s busy with a TV appearance, a presentation of awards, an official journey to Greece. As for Emerenc’s home, that too is fumigated and the furniture burned, the cats scatter in all directions. All that she has feared has come to happen: she has been humiliated. The writer, nonetheless, acts out one more torturous comedy. She calms Emerenc down in hospital by telling her that nothing has happened – that her home awaits her safe and sound. Emerenc, however, recovers and prepares to go home. She must be told the truth. The writer dares not do so, and entrusts a helpful acquaintance with the job. Emerenc cannot and does not survive this breach of faith.

All the trials the writer has come through successfully count for nothing, for she fails the real test. Because she has feared to let another person live and die according to her own maxims, her triumphs are annulled. She is left with a recurrent dream, that of the opening door, which is to be her eternal punishment and suffering – the fate of a traitor.

‘The Door’ describes the linking of two different personalities. The first, that of the writer, is explosive and passionate but nonetheless in need of understanding; the other, that of the servant, is introspective and doggedly insistent on sticking to her own decisions. It might also be said that the novel measures up two types of intellect: civilized humanism and ancient-archaic integrity.

Ultimately, however, this is more than the struggle of two individuals to understand each other; the conflict veiled by the plot actually amounts to an inner struggle. Emerenc is a moral genius in the Kantian sense who is part of us all. She has been through the hells of human experience, recollects the barbaric and tragic events of fate, is capable of essential move213ments only, is generous, and in her every relationship she seeks to defend and develop her own dignity. It is as if Luther’s words, “Here I stand, for I can do no other,” echo about her.

The novel is more than the struggle of two types of persons for mutual understanding. The duel, which is part of the action, is really an inner struggle. Emerenc and the fictional writer are then two sides of the same person. A human being fragmented into roles uses it as a search for the self, for the Emerenc that lives in all of us. How often we too smash down the door of our “Emerenc” being, yet we know the “Open Sesame”: human dignity. Both our own dignity and that of others, for the two are one and the same – inseparable. Emerenc is at once the other – she who entrusts herself to us – and ourselves. We are equally responsible for both.

With ‘The Door’, Magda Szabó took a thematic step away from heroines wrestling with history to the articulation of a moral phenomenon that exists outside history. Prior to this novel, there was a historical precedent to be found behind each of her narratives. Emerenc, however, is archaic morality herself, her story is of necessity pathos. Yet Magda Szabó has had enough of history; for it has trampled over her more than once. It has brought her no consolation. Therefore she breaks her relationship with history; the absence of history means that every story can be told in as many ways as there are characters. Her historical plays are essentially such new interpretations. The creation of the Hungarian nation-state and the conversion to Christianity have been previously written about heroically or with pathos. Magda Szabó simply creates frivolous stories: her situations must be accepted because nothing else can be done.

Her novel, A pillanat (‘The Moment’), confronts every kind of stylized history. Magda Szabó, turning the story of Aeneas inside out, takes merciless revenge on every kind of power, she gives the reader occasion to roar with laughter. In playful mien, but with unyielding hatred, Magda Szabó looks back upon a mendacious world.

Upon a mendacious world, or the mendacious world? Considering Magda Szabó’s ethical and poetic orientation, one may observe that she has validly articulated every sort of lie, as well as the inner and outer force behind the humiliation of human dignity. The poetic radiance of the work, and the enlivening beauty evident as the writer formulates her thoughts, all attest to this.

Her Creusa – contrary to legend – does not die in Troy, but rather it is she who kills her husband, Aeneas, and it is she who lives through adven214tures in her husband’s name. She is a woman in the role of a womanizing hero. Indeed, she becomes a merciless and methodical adventurer, a triumphant cheat given to resolute action – and an unhappy woman. The moment referred to by the novel’s title is that in which destiny offers a human being something other than the status quo – the chance to turn a schematically preordained, doomed life into a success. Owing to the circumstances, however, this moment offers not completeness and self-fulfilment but a triumph that is merely a path of escape. In return, Creusa must drag about her own unhappiness; she can realize this success only by patronizing and taking advantage of others, by regarding them as objects to be used. A woman seeking love, she finds herself doing not what she wants to do but is bound for the rest of her days to play the role of a man who can offer no love. The ultimate consequence is that she scorns the means of her success and, likewise, herself. Hell is not the underworld where Aeneas sought her, but lives within the liberated Creusa. Her successes are merely illusions; each new success is simultaneously a new defeat.

With this novel, Magda Szabó has liberated herself from all that bound her art during her career. In it, history ceases to exist; heroes and heroines are inessential, and as a result pathos also disappears. There remains a bitter disillusionment, of such basic force that it resounds with optimism – with the ecstasy implied by the freedom of play, the deconstruction of history, and the riddance from the story. The author whose impulse toward vengeance had until now compelled her to write classical works in a particular national tradition, has cast away every forced constraint. If earlier Magda Szabó donned the realist mask of the mythical heroine in her struggle for individual freedom, now she has concealed her despair behind the ardour of postmodern playfulness.

[ Digitális Irodalmi Akadémia ]