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Talking to the Past—Part I: George Szirtes

She died in 1975. He, the son, was newly married, with his own new son, trying to scrape together a living for his new family. What did he know of his mother?

“I knew nothing then of her past, of anything that had happened to her and all she had survived. Nor did I know much about my father and his close brush with death. I had no sense of them as heroes or powers or even as people in their own right. They were my parents. They did not speak. I did not ask. What was it I was supposed to feel, after all? For whom? For her? For me?”

George Szirtes’ memoir/biography of his mother Magda, The Photographer at Sixteen (London: Maclehose, 2019) begins with the moment of her death in an ambulance in a London traffic jam. From her suicide, caused by depression and decades of ill health, Szirtes begins to work backwards in time like an archeologist, uncovering layer after layer of her life. Using family snapshots and a tape recorded conversation with his father, László, as reference points, he begins to discover the woman who became his mother and the man who became his father. He describes their two decades in London as refugees, struggling to build a life for themselves and their two sons, and then their earlier years in post-war Hungary, as they tried, and ultimately failed, to fit into the ever-shifting Communist system.

In London, the Szirtes family were among countless refugees accepted during and after World War II, living in cheap housing, underemployed, torn between gratitude for the country that took them in and a lingering love for the nation they had fled. Magda, who suffered from heart problems, soon found herself unable to work, and eventually felt trapped in London’s suburbia. Knowing that she wouldn’t live long, she even tried to set up her husband with the woman she thought he should marry after her death. There were several hospitalizations and suicide attempts before the successful suicide in 1975.

In 1956, when the Russians invaded Hungary to quell growing protests by anti-Communists, fascists and anti-Semites took to the streets searching for Jews. Even his standing as a longtime Party member and high-ranking member of a Ministry couldn’t protect László Szirtes. One night he and his wife Magda, both Jews, walked across the border into Austria into a refugee camp with their young son George and a few belongings, hoping to emigrate to Australia, but ending up in England instead.

Still working backwards, the outbreak of World War II finds Magda in Budapest, trying to make a start as a photographer, which became her lifelong love. But then she is betrayed as a Jew and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, although, miraculously, she is one of few women who will survive. Szirtes wants to press on backwards before the war years into her youth and then into her childhood, but he can’t. “A fog settles at this point and I can’t see through it.” All that remain are “five early family photographs that she brought with her.”

So he finishes the book by writing about these five photographs, all studio portraits. “There is nothing spontaneous about them. They are carefully posed for the purpose. But what is that purpose?” He gazes at the first photographs of his mother, the one on the cover of the book, when she is a teenager. He describes and interprets her eyes, her smile. She has “a sexualised edge. . . She is on the threshold of something.” And then he begins to converse with her. “Talking to you when you were fifteen was like talking to a wildly sensitive animal, all fur and shudder. Whenever I tried to touch you, you recoiled.” He accuses her of flirting, then of muttering to him. She retorts:”You know nothing. You are of no help to me.” In the end, Szirtes imagines he and his teen-aged mother walking out of the photographer’s studio together into the street.

I would take a better picture of myself, she says. It would make more sense to you. I wouldn’t gaze at you like that. I wouldn’t want to hurt you. I wouldn’t even try to interest you. Then I could love you from a distance without being your mother. As she reaches out to take me by the arm I begin to pull away.

The Photographer at Sixteen is a remarkable homage to one ordinary woman’s surprising life of bravery through war, imprisonment, decades of illness, and exile, told with great love and growing admiration for what she had endured and sacrificed along the way.

The danger of going backwards, Szirtes realizes, is that you are always aware of what is to come. He looks at a photograph of his mother at age twelve or thirteen, smiling, and dressed vaguely like Minnie Mouse. It’s 1937.

Is this picture an image of “happiness”? It would be good to think so. . . Nothing dreadful has happened yet. . . Within three years her life will change. Within a year she will be so ill the rest of her life will be affected by it. Two years after that she will be in Budapest as a young apprentice photographer. Four more years and she will be in Ravensbrück.

There are so many ways to talk with the past, but the use of reverse chronology is rare. This biography in reverse does help the reader share the very same sense of discovery as Szirtes feels as he uncovers new facts about his mother, but it’s disconcerting in other ways. Our minds are so trained to expect to see cause before effect, that it can be hard at times to read a book in which the reverse is constantly happening. The only really notable example of a novel that uses reverse chronology is Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991), his odd autobiography in reverse of a Nazi war criminal.

In Talking to the Past—Part II, we’ll look at a completely different way of communicating with one’s past relatives when I look at Edmund De Waal’s Letters to Camondo, just released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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