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Posts from the ‘George Szirtes’ Category

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.

Recently Read – Two from Full Circle Editions



Full Circle Editions is a small publisher based in East Anglia that has produced sixteen books since it began operations in 2008. I’ve written about two of their books before: Audio Obscura by poet Lavinia Greenlaw and photographer Julian Abrams and After Sebald: Essays and Illuminations. I’ve recently finished two more of Full Circle’s handsome, well-designed books: Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (2009) edited by Giles Foden and The Burning of the Books (2014), a poem sequence by George Szirtes with photocollages by Ronald King.

Going to a university to “study” creative writing is a vexed topic lately. Can writing even be taught? Maybe not. But almost uniformly, the contributors to Body of Work agree that something important happened to them during their time at the University of East Anglia’s writing program. Body of Work is a rich testament to the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia, where W.G. Sebald taught for most of his professional career. The fifty or so essays each address in one way or another the experience of attending the UEA as a writing student or serving as a faculty member – or, in numerous cases, doing both. While the bulk of attention is paid to the department’s long-term head Malcom Bradbury and the influential teacher Angela Carter, there are several essays on Sebald: Rebecca Stott’s “Dust, Like Pollen,” Luke Williams’ “A Watch on each Wrist, Twelve Seminars with W. G. Sebald,” and Andrew Motion’s “After Nature and So On (W.G. Sebald).” A partial list of some of the other contributors gives an idea of the importance of the UEA writing program: Mohammed Hanif, Amit Chaudhuri, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Lodge, Marina Warner, Adam Mars-Jones, George Szirtes, Richard Holmes, and Rose Tremain. Body of Work ought to be required reading for any writer thinking of heading off to a graduate writing program.

Szirtes Burning 1-001

Full Circle Editions is an outgrowth of Circle Press, founded in 1967 by artist Richard King as a way for artists to publish limited edition prints and books. In 2008, Circle Press published The Burning of the Books, a limited edition with fifteen original etchings of photocollages by King  and a poem sequence by Szirtes, inspired by Elias Canetti’s 1935 novel Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fe, in English). A trade edition of this became the first title issued by Full Circle. King’s images consist mostly of faces, body parts, and texts, jumbled together in combinations  that often recall classic Surrealist photocollages, although the opening double-spread is a clear homage to Picasso’s Guernica. Szirtes describes his poems “as a kind of marginalia” written around Canetti’s book. In fourteen poems, Szirtes beautifully addresses some of the complex topics found in Canetti’s story of a book-obsessed scholar who marries his ignorant housekeeper with tragic results.

Szirtes Burning 2-001



Skimming Waterlog 2 – The Poetry

…no one could tell where the land ended and the sea began…

Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition contains essays, artwork, and poetry inspired by W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Some of the poems originated in the Waterlog exhibition, components of larger artworks, while several poems appear only in this accompanying monograph.

marcus-coates-bittern.jpg Marcus Coates, Britain’s Bitterns c. 1997, 2007

Marcus Coates is a performance artist whose work often deals with the animal world. His piece in Waterlog includes a poem of eleven stanzas called Britain’s Bitterns Circa 1997 Population 11 Breeding Males. Hollis had his original poem translated into a Norfolk dialect before turning it into a song (both versions are included in the book.). As Brian Dillon’s introductory essay Airlocked indicates, visitors to the exhibition heard a recording of Coates singing “a song that seemed to have been carried on the air from the past, with a warning for the future.” A vitrine in the exhibition hall displayed eleven bittern specimens from the natural history collection of Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.

We were born a’fore tha wind
We taught tha reed ter sway
In all tha fen Oi need no friend
Oi ‘ll hev moi loves ter lay


Sebald spends most of pages 154-160 in The Rings of Saturn describing how Dunwich, an important port during the Middle Ages, now lies “below the sea, beneath alluvial sand and gravel.”

One cannot say how great was the sense of security which the people of Dunwich derived from the building of [their] fortifications. All we know for certain is that they ultimately proved inadequate. On New Years Eve 1285, a storm tide devastated the lower town and the portside so terribly that for months afterward no one could tell where the land ended and the sea began.

alec-finlay-life-buoy.jpgAlec Finlay Life Buoy (Circle Poem), 2006

The Sunken Bell, a project by poet and artist Alec Finlay, metaphorically offers up life buoys to the sunken residents of Dunwich in the form of circular poems painted on directly on the buoys. Waterlog also includes what is – for Finlay, at least – a considerably longer poem of four stanzas – or sixteen lines. Also called The Sunken Bell, it imagines the churches of Dunwich:

St Bartholomew’s, St John’s, St Martin’s, St Michael’s,
all sunk; they say you can hear their bells toll
in the tide. Let’s cast a new bell from molten flame,
sink it deep, before the sea covers the land.

George Szirtes’ 1999 poem Backwaters: Norfolk Fields (for W.G. Sebald) is reprinted from his book An English Apocalypse (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2001).Its twelve rhymed stanzas describe natural scenes of melancholy beauty and a city that is both a “gerontopolis” of the elderly and, now, somewhat inexplicably, a haven for immigrants (“Surely you/ don’t think this is America …?”)

Think back of the back of beyond “beyond. End
of a line.The sheer ravishing beauty
of it as it runs into the cold swell
of the North Sea, impossible to comprehend.
The harsh home truisms of geometry
that flatten to a simple parallel.

Like all of Szirtes’ poetry, Backwaters is densely imagistic and rich with themes that weave in and out. It’s a complex, multi-voiced piece that I have enjoyed re-reading many times.

Matthew Hollis’ poem East is (like Szirte’s poem, it was only included in the monograph) echoes Sebald’s themes of the impermanence of the world. Like Sebald, Hollis uses a vocabulary that can verge on the extinct, as can be seen in this extract:

In time, we may refound,
and tell ourselves
we build to build it better. But to walk the strandline,
littered with cuttlebone and uprooted wrack,
is to recognize how little lies within our gift;
how everything else
is in struggle:
the sand sedge clutching for footholds and threads,
the sanderling robbing the tide,
the gabions and groynes shouldering a surge
that cannot begin to be held.


Waterlog (London: Film & Video Umbrella, 2007).

Poetry In the Sphere of Sebald

I have run across several books of poetry that acknowledge or reference W.G. Sebald. None of these books seem to me to be truly “under the influence” of Sebald, but in various ways they quote him, refer to his writings, or acknowledge common ground.

Skinner Salt Water Amnesia cover

Jeffrey Skinner’s volume of poems Salt Water Amnesia (Keene, NY: Ausable Press, 2005) begins with epigrams by Fernando Pessoa and Sebald. The source for Sebald’s quotation is not identified, but I assume it is from Austerlitz: “Only gradually did it dawn on me that I would never again be able to write home; in fact, to tell the truth, I do not know if I have grasped it to this day.”

Skinner’s poems often meditate on death, memory, familial alienation, language and place.The first three sentences of the prose poem Sky Caps: “This morning when I looked out the window I was once again surprised by the ocean.That’s what I get for living so long in the Midwest.The absence of salt water: a kind of amnesia.”In many of his poems Skinner has a natural way of free associating and permitting unsettling juxtapositions to arise and send the poem off in unexpected directions, forcing the reader to continually reassess his or her assumptions. To continue with Sky Caps, for example, the poet, fumbling for the word to describe the wind-blown waves (whitecaps), can only come up with the word “skycaps” at first. For a mysterious and exquisite moment, this allows the image of an airport baggage carousel to be superimposed over the poet’s vision of waves ceaselessly coming ashore.

Skinner teaches at the University of Louisville.The first edition of Salt Water Amnesia is a very handsome volume from Ausable Press (named for the Ausable River in the Adirondacks). It is bound in black cloth with green stamping on the spine and bears a dust jacket design from a painting called High and Dry by Gregory D. West that wonderfully captures the juxtapositions which are so crucial to Skinner’s writing. 

Szirtes English Apocalypse cover

In An English Apocalypse, the 2001 book of poems by the Hungarian-born poet and translator Georges Szirtes, is Backwaters: Northfolk Fields, a series of twelve linked sonnets dedicated to Sebald.Backwaters: Northfolk Fields is Szirtes multi-paneled panorama of life in a provincial backwater – “…this far, flat/kingdom with its glum farmers”.

Szirtes’ Norfolk is a place laden with history but with no apparent future, even though it is populated with immigrants from all over the globe – “surely you don’t think this is America…”. It is the home of odd tinkerers, butchers who know your name, the dying “country aristocracy,” and “the old in their gerontopolis.” The overriding presence, though, is the North Sea, “impossible to comprehend.”

The first edition of An English Apocalypse is a paperback with a painting of the same name by his wife Clarissa Upchurch on the front cover. Szirtes is a terrific poet and in a later post I’ll deal with his (and other) elegies to Sebald.

Finally, Srikanth Reddy’s first book of poems, Facts for Visitors (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) opens and closes with two poems called Corruption and Corruption (II). According to his Notes at the end of the book, these poems “occasionally adapt, or ‘corrupt,’ language and ideas from St. Augustine’s Confessions, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and Simone Weil’s essay ‘Forms of the Implicit Love of God’.”

Both of the Corruption poems are brief prose poems – less than half a page long – and each consists of a single restless paragraph. Corruption, for instance, starts on the subject of psalms, moves to the history of ink, then to the phosphorescent qualities of dead cuttlefish, concluding with the brief sentence: “You can read by this light. ”If nothing else, Reddy’s interest in arcane knowledge is a very Sebaldian trait.  The first edition of Facts for Visitors was issued in black cloth with iridescent blue lettering on the spine (that simply doesn’t photograph).It appears to have been published without a dust jacket.Reddy currently teaches at the University of Chicago.