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Life, Death, Clean Water

Alena Dvořáková

 

Katalin Street, by Magda Szabó, Maclehose Press, 272 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0857058454

Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street, a novel originally published in Hungarian in 1969, is set in Budapest in the period from 1934 to 1968. It tells the story of three families – the Elekeses, the Helds and the Bírós – whose children had become close friends while living on the same street situated on the right bank of the Danube, close to the river, just below the Buda Castle. On the face of it, the narrative proceeds chronologically, starting in 1934 and subsequently jumping forward to 1944, 1952, 1956, 1961 and 1968. Each of the years marks a significant event in the history of the three neighbouring families whose lives are tightly intertwined. The nature of the foregrounded events can only be grasped by reference to large-scale history taking place in the background, such as the 1944 occupation of Hungary by Germany and the subsequent genocide of Hungarian Jews; the 1949 to 1956 period of oppressive communist rule by Mátyás Rákosi, also known as “Stalin’s best pupil”; and the 1956 Hungarian uprising violently suppressed by the Soviets.

The novel’s linear chronology is, however, complicated by multilayered shifts in perspective. Every chapter offers different versions of the same event, moving from a third person omniscient narration, interspersed with some free indirect discourse tracking individual characters, to a wholly parallel first-person narrative in the voice of the novel’s central character, Irén Elekes. We first encounter Irén as a ten-year-old girl, but throughout the novel she also retells her story in retrospect as a married schoolteacher and a mother in her mid-forties. Indeed, the novel can be read as a kind of modernist female Bildungsroman, with Irén as the heroine progressing from dangerous innocence to painful experience while repeatedly “schooled” by twentieth century Central European history – with its harsh lessons in homegrown fascism, war, occupation by two foreign armies, the Holocaust, Stalinist oppression, imprisonment, internal exile and emigration. If Katalin Street is a Bildungsroman, it is one with a largely pessimistic moral: by the time Irén has learned to understand her own and her family’s predicament, her hard-earned insight strikes her as “meaningless, pointless and far too late” – it does not help her either to lighten the lives of others, or to be fully and freely herself.

There is more to the novel than Irén, however. The overall perspective is doubled again by the introduction of an alternative plane of narrative – in parallel to the adventures of the living, we follow the flittering of the ghost of Henriette Held, a sixteen-year-old Jewish girl. In the sections describing Henriette’s afterlife, time is being forever turned back and reconstituted as an eternity of blissful innocence – the Katalin Street idyll before the catastrophe – and also revealed as a fiction produced by a (traumatised) mind. Reality, to such a consciousness – and what other is there after the Holocaust, the novel seems to ask – presents as something to be constantly remade from memories and regrets as well as from intimations of the future. Future events are always imagined in advance and therefore do end up really happening, though not necessarily in the way they have been imagined. What endows this spectrally unstable, circular narrative with poignant reality is the novel’s firm, indeed overpowering sense of place, namely the author’s masterful evocation of (the non-existent) Katalin Street and its three magnificent houses, including all the rooms, furnishings, passageways, fragrant gardens and bomb-proof cellars, as well as the reassuring sounds and vistas that ground the lives and routines of the human inhabitants.

The novel is not moralistic but it does seem to press a moral, prefigured in the admonition addressed to Irén by her fiancé, Bálint: “You never could grasp the simplest facts ... Life. Death. Clean water. Life isn’t a schoolroom, Irén. There aren’t any rules.” The concluding paragraph of the novel expresses the most important of the “simplest facts” of life in the form of a double exhortation: to forgive those who are at least partly to blame for the catastrophes and to do so before it is too late. Learning from Irén’s tardiness means not just accepting the essential sinfulness of humanity – provided it is an authentic expression of an individual’s struggle to follow one’s deepest passions, however wayward – but also abandoning any schoolmarmish demands for justice, lawful reparation and restoration of moral order (no matter how justified these demands may be, individually or historically). The novel has a distinctly Calvinist undertone, which is perhaps not surprising given the author’s own origins. Born in 1917 in the city of Debrecen, the traditional centre of Hungarian Calvinism, she was brought up by a Calvinist father and a Catholic mother (with Calvinist roots), and while she was prevented from publishing by the Rákosi Stalinist regime, worked as a schoolteacher in a Calvinist primary school.

When considered as part of the author’s extensive oeuvre, Katalin Street bears many similarities with both earlier and later novels. In Szabó’s fictions central characters seem to fall mostly into two main categories. On one hand, there are the wayward, wilful people who get into all sort of scrapes, such as the wastrels in Old-Fashioned Story, the blundering simpletons like Irén’s sister Blanka in Katalin Street, the backward country people like Iza’s mother Ettie in Iza’s Ballad or Magda’s headstrong maid Emerence in The Door. And then there are the righteous characters: the hard workers, upstanding citizens and sticklers for rules like Irén, Iza or Magda, who tend to be rational and efficient rather than impulsive but deep down are cowards afraid of life, incapable of opening themselves fully to love and therefore of wholeheartedly embracing the irrational impulses of others. These people tend to enjoy success in their ambitious public lives but privately fail, tyrannising or betraying the “mere humans” around them with life-denying demands for perfect self-control, clear-cut morality and impersonal justice.

Further, the “clean water” admired by Bálint in Katalin Street confirms the central place of water in Szabó’s fiction, especially the water of springs, rivers and traditional wells (such as the one that used to stand at the end of the old Katalin Street). As an elementary force that can only be partly controlled, both life-giving and life-destroying, water figures repeatedly as a symbolic guide to the nature of humanity in Szabó. Assuming different forms, it serves as a source and reflection of true human emotional needs – which is borne out by some of the most poignant passages in Katalin Street, such as Blanka’s yearning for the ice and snow of her home country, or the loss symbolised by the gradual disappearance of the Danube behind a row of newly built houses in Katalin Street.

Also recognisable in Katalin Street, however, is Szabó’s weakness for the melodramatic, especially for the artful plotting of coincidences to bring about a supposedly fated tragic incident. Her fictions have undeniable evocative and psychological power but sometimes their insistence that “character equals fate” makes them curiously old-fashioned, like reminiscences of late Victorian fiction (especially Thomas Hardy). When read alongside Imré Kertész’s novels dealing with the Holocaust, especially Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990), Katalin Street sometimes feels inauthentic: too enamoured of its domestic melodramas and fateful ironies to pay attention to deeper truths, among them the dubious political implications of its “love over justice” moral.

That Szabó should become so popular in English only in the past fifteen years – and on the basis of a handful of works which are arguably not even her best – remains a literary-historical puzzle. After all, the author established herself as a poet first in the late 1940s. Her second collection, Vissza az emberig (Back to the Human, 1949) won her the Baumgarten prize, which was, however, immediately withdrawn for political reasons. In the late 1950s, after Rákosi’s removal from power, she started to publish adult and children’s fiction as well as poetry; and in the early 1960s her novels became popular not just in Hungary but also abroad, especially in Germany and Czechoslovakia, where they quickly acquired a readership and a reputation which, owing to the author’s prolific output, continued to grow for decades.

For whatever reason, the early 1963 English translations of two of Szabó’s books – her first children’s book, Tell Sally (Mondják meg Zsófikának, 1958), and the early adult novel The Fawn (Az őz, 1959) – failed to provoke a sufficiently wide interest, and thus did not open the door to further English translations in the way this happened in other countries. The difference can be easily grasped from the following comparison. By the early 1990s, for example, the total of seven different volumes of prose by Szabó (four adult novels and three children’s books) had been translated into French, ten into Czech and seventeen into German (some of the latter in multiple translations). Both the German and the Czech translations included not just the three powerful early works Freskó (The Fresco, 1958), Az öz and Disznótor (Slaughtering the Pig, 1960) – followed by the more mature Pilátus (Iza’s Ballad in English, 1963), Katalin utca (Katalin Street) and the Hungarian favourite Abigél (1970) – but also the autobiographical family saga Régimódi történet (Old-Fashioned Story, 1977), which is widely considered Szabó’s masterpiece (together with her 2002 memoir Für Elise). Even the Italians, who seem to have discovered Szabó first in 2005, have since managed to produce more translations than there are in English.

Moreover, as far as I can see, the recent wave of English appreciation was only set in motion by Szabó’s rediscovery in French – thanks to the new or newly revised, highly acclaimed translations of the novels Az ajtó (1987), Katalin utca, Pilátus and Abigél by Chantal Phillipe under the titles La Porte (2003, Prix Femina étranger), Rue Katalin (2006, the 2007 Prix Cévannes), La Ballade d’Iza (2009) and Abigaël (2017). True, Az ajtó first appeared in English as The Door in 1995, in a translation by Stefan Draughton, but the novel only attracted wider attention when retranslated in 2005 by Len Rix and awarded the 2006 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Katalin utca or Katalin Street has also been translated into English twice, first by Agnes Farkas Smith in 2008 and more recently by Len Rix again, in a translation awarded the 2018 PEN Translation Prize. In 2015 Pilátus came out as Iza’s Ballad in an excellent translation by George Szirtés. And finally, a first English translation of Abigél (by Len Rix) is yet to be published and is currently expected in the autumn of 2019.

It would be tempting to ascribe Szabó’s recent English success purely to the superior quality of the new translations but the history of her reception in continental Europe suggests there is more to the divergence than that. But what else is there to explain it? Could it be the fact that in the English-speaking world, “minor” foreign languages and literatures coupled with translation prizes have only recently become a more widely acknowledged part of the literary mainstream?

Some may find it rather refreshing that even in this era of increasing globalisation – which affects the literary trade and market as much as everything else – literary history should still move at various speeds and along diverging pathways in different languages, cultures and countries. But if these pathways diverge too much – and I would argue this is, to a great extent, the case with Szabó – does this not undermine our notion of the universality of literature and its values?

Let me conclude with a personal anecdote, in order to illustrate how our notions of literary value may be tested by Szabó. As many more of her works are available in Czech than in English, I set out to hunt down as many of the Czech editions as I could on my recent trip to Prague. But it turns out that Szabó, even as she is being hailed as a novelty in English, is on her way out as a literary presence in the Czech Republic – this in spite of a 2011 Czech re-edition of The Door (Dveře, 2004) that cleverly tried to capitalise in advance on the 2012 film adaptation of the novel featuring Helen Mirren. Not even the film, however, managed to do the trick: copies of Szabó’s novels are being withdrawn from libraries and are not always easy to find even in second-hand bookshops. I did manage to locate used copies of the Czech editions of The Door, Old-Fashioned Story and the teenage novel The Masquerade Ball (Álarcosbál, 1961): at two euros each, that is a quarter of the price of a second-hand copy of a Henning Mankell thriller. Unable to lay my hands on a copy of Abigél (A Statue of Sighs), I tried the Prague Municipal Library. But even there Abigél had been withdrawn. On my way out empty-handed I passed the peculiar sculpture called The Idiom by the Slovak artist Matej Krén which has been a central feature of the library foyer since the late 1990s. It is a tower made of approximately eight thousand glued books (mostly ex-library copies) marked by a tear-shaped opening in front: this makes it possible to stick one’s head inside and look down into the tower, as if it were a well – a well of knowledge, supposedly, rather than of Szabó’s clean water. (There is a mirror inside that creates an illusion of infinite depth.) And just as I was stepping past this work of art, lo and behold, there it was: in the “statue of books” I caught sight of a copy of A Statue of Sighs! I could scarcely believe my eyes: it was slotted in there as a brick in Krén’s tower, passionately desired but unattainable; transformed from a book – that may be opened and read, and thus might bring the word alive – into a dead weight, forever shut up, in the tower of literature that merely represents the idea of literary value but no longer embodies it and enlivens it.

For a minute or two I stood there and crazily considered the idea of actually pulling the novel out of its place in the stack, in full sight of the security guards and regardless of what it might do to Krén’s sculpture. But a respect for rules soon took over and I argued myself out of the impulse. Which of course means that I woefully failed Szabó’s test of character, in Katalin Street and elsewhere: I proved to belong not with her wayward, wilful heroines, courageous enough to follow, no matter what the consequences, the promptings of their mad desires; but rather with the schoolteacherly, convention-bound, well-meaning but generally uninspired, reasonable cowards. The old spirit of revolt had gone. I wonder if that is why there are no longer enough Czech readers of Szabó …

Alena Dvořáková is a translator, editor and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree and, most recently, the novels City of Bohane and Beatlebone by Kevin Barry. She is currently at work on a translation of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. She regularly contributes reviews and essays to the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz).

1/4/2019

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