Author's page

Magda SZABÓ
( 1917 - 2007 )

» Fresco (1958)
» The Fawn (1959)
» Birthday (1962)
» Lala the Fairy Prince (1964)
» Katalin Street (1969)
» Old-Fashioned Story (1971)
» The Door (1987)
» Für Elise (2002)
» Dear DogCat: Letters to Éva Haldimann (2010)

Biography

1917 born in Debrecen
1935-40 obtains a teaching degree in Hungarian and Latin at Lajos Kossuth University, Debrecen
1940-45 teaches at the Dóczi Protestant Girls Boarding School, Debrecen; then in Hódmezővásárhely
1945 civil servant for the Ministry of Religion and Public Education
1949 awarded the prestigious Baumgarten Prize, only to be denied her; dismissed for political reasons
1949-1958 not allowed to publish
1950-59 teaches at a primary school
1959 to present freelance writer
1985-90 member of the European Academy of Science; honorary citizen of Debrecen
She died on 19. November 2007.

Fresco
1958

Initially a poet, Magda Szabó turned to fiction during the years of her forced silence. In this novel, an old-fashioned puritanical family s four generations have gathered together for a funeral; through their tense and dramatic inner monologues, Fresco exposes the family members secret prejudices, lies, self-deceptions and conflicting roles. In the thirteen hours of the novel, related in as many chapters, most of the historical and social changes that took place in the past eighty-five years are revisited. The central character, the young painter Annuska, went to Budapest to escape from this environment, but it is only now, when she travels home nine years later, that she finds herself free of the suffocating atmosphere of her past.

The Fawn
1959

The second of Szabó s novels is about a leading actress, Esther Encsy, born to impoverished gentry, and growing up under grim circumstances in rural Hungary. She relates her life in a series of first-person interior monologues that range non-chronologically from childhood to the present day. The protagnoist has experienced both social and emotional exclusion, and led a continuous and unrewarding struggle for existence and for love. The deep scars on her personality, in the end, relegate the single-minded, resolutely self-reliant woman to a life of a loveless solitude. The fawn of the title, the pet of a sweet-natured but hated childhood friend, Angela, stands as a metaphor for the inability to love. Angela was given both protective love and a comfortable life things unattainable for Esther and therefore craved with an ever-more destructive passion. Esther begins to tell her story from her first love, a university lecturer whom she later learns is Angela s husband. She is torn by the competing demands of self-sacrificing altruism and jealous love. The monologue emerges as a kind of explanation to the man, who has been mortally injured in an accident. In the unfolding story, jealousy rooted in childhood traumas is embroiled with the love she desires but cannot attain even as an adult. This precipitates a fateful conflict in the actress s mind: she cannot experience love as her jealousy and perennial exclusion is projected onto Angela, till events are driven by Esther to a tragically logical conclusion. The novel provides a vivid picture of Hungarian society and history during the inter-war years and the Fifties, which had a devastating impact on the lives of most people in this part of the world, bringing on major distortions of character and personal tragedies for many. Esther Encsy s story is not intended as a historical parable but as a striking and sensitively drawn, true-to-life portrait of a heart-breaking life. Hailed when it was first published, and still popular with Hungarians readers to the present day, this is a book that combines most of the typical elements that have characterised the author s subsequent works, giving a gripping, psychologically and socially convincing portrayal of a woman s fate.

Birthday
1962

A substantial proportion of Magda Szabó’s oeuvre comprises books written for children and adolescents. Over the five decades of her writing career, she has found ways of speaking to very different generations. She created a poetic world accessible even to toddlers in the first of her fairytale novels, Pixy Lala (1965), or in the poetic tale of a naughty little sheep, Laurence Lamb (1958). To this day the trio of novels that she wrote for younger teenage girls, Tell Young Sophie (1958), Masked Ball (1961) and Birthday (1962), continue to find readers and is regularly being reprinted, while Abigail (1970), an adventure story about a 17-year-old girl at a Calvinist girls’ school near the Hungarian border during World War II -- well known through a TV series based on it-- is the most widely read of all her books—a classic example of how a good book knows no age boundaries. Birthday tells an intimate story of self-discovery by a young Budapest girl, Bori (‘Barb’) Illés. Poor, but with a decent home, she impatiently awaits her fourteenth birthday, hoping her family will have realised that she is grown up and will give her as a present the party dress and high-heeled shoes she has been longing to wear for so long. The wishful thinker is disappointed by a brand-new winter coat long before the season for wearing one has come round, even though her mother, who is the concierge for the block of flats in which they live, was only able to buy it by taking on extra work. The disappointment is only made worse when at the theatrical performance for which she has been given a ticket as another present Bori unexpectedly makes the acquaintance of a new tenant from the same block of flats, 29-year-old engineer Tibor Sós, who for his part sees the girl with her hair still in plaits for who she is. Bori’s adored girlfriend, the slightly older Sylvia (she wears pretty dresses and has a boyfriend), has hopes of being able to get closer to the engineer, whom they nickname Rudolf, having pegged him for a possible husband, and she encourages Bori to behave and dress in an adult fashion in order to win him over. Bori sets her heart on buying the costume she has in mind by the time “Rudi” returns from a work assignment outside the country on which he is dispatched. She takes on a summer vacation job, though doing none of the housework, being spoiled by her mother, despite paternal disapproval. The long-awaited Christmas finally comes round, and Bori asks for the summer earnings she has lent Silvia, so that she can finally get the silver and blue dress and also buy presents for her parents and siblings. Silvia, however, swindles her by giving her an envelope stuffed with slips of paper and not money. The story reaches a dramatic climax when Bori’s mother, while out buying the dress her daughter covets, as a surprise Christmas gift, is knocked down by a trolley-bus. The family’s life is thrown into complete disarray. Bori’s father is not happy about his daughter, whom he considers irresponsible and selfish, do the housework, let alone take care of the block of flats, but her classmate, the ever-obliging and reliable Jutka Mikes, refuses to take the job because she knows it’s time for Bori to show what she can do. And indeed, the teenager is plagued by guilt for having been so selfish, for not having understood that dresses will not make her grown-up, rather than the way she cares about others and makes life easier for those who need help. She takes over her mother’s work both at home and in the apartment block and, with the help of her classmates even wins a competition for keeping the tidiest stairwell in the district. The end of the novel not only shows that Bori has turned into a thoroughly grown-up young woman, but it also dangles a real Rudolf, in the person of the engineer’s younger brother.

Lala the Fairy Prince
1964

Lala the Fairy is one of the greatest juvenile novels of Hungarian fiction. In the figure of Lala, Magda Szabó has created a lively and original boy, whose adventures she relates with a great writer’s bravura for plot. Love and intrigue, justice and fraud, reason and magic are all present in the novel, where the fairies take all sorts of enchanting pills (for instance they can change their shapes by taking ‘converters’ or become invisible by taking ‘nonvideors’), but of course there are harmful and manipulative drugs as well, naturally serving evil. Full of exciting turns, the novel is governed by a sense of humanity and the power of the imagination. Lala the Fairy is the ten-year-old son of Iris, the Fairy Queen, and is much more independent and open-minded than the rest of the fairy children. Iris had been presented this child by the magic fig tree, and since he has no father, she is in the process of encouraging Captain Amalfi to ask her for her hand. Aterpater, the wicked wizard, intervenes. Intending to grab the power for himself, the wizard ruins the lovers’ plans, and in this, he is greatly helped by Lala’s dangerous adventures. The fairy boy has just made friends with humans on the seaside, something he should not have experienced as of yet, and moreover, he asks for permission for a girl and her uncle to reside near the Fairy Empire, where traditionally no-one should stay. He has even lost his mother’s sceptre. Aterpater learns that Lala has a human heart, which means that he should be expelled from the country, so he blackmails the helpless queen and forces her to marry him. All along, however, he neglects the affairs of his country, which collapse into disarray, and order is only restored by such figures as Justin, the guardian of justice, and Omikron, the teacher of the fairy children. When Captain Amalfi and another innocent fairy are expelled, Lala leaves the empire, and Justin and Omikron feel their strength weaken. At this moment Chill, the chemist, finally decides to take a step that changes the whole story. Magda Szabó’s style is characterised by her linguistic inventiveness and her power of presentation. Her juvenile novel remains an exciting reading, as it explores the eternal questions of power and justice, while her figures, given full character in only a few phrases, encounter countless unexpected situations. Magda Szabó’s novels have been translated into more than thirty languages.

Katalin Street
1969

Belonging to the first generation of post-World War II writers, Magda Szabó portrays a world dominated by the digestion of the experience of the war. In this novel, there is a sharp line between the era of peace, the world of Katalin Street embodying the myth of childhood, and the time after the devastation of the war, rendering the present unreal and irrelevant. The author links the unusual story first with Spots then Points of Time and Episodes without actually introducing the characters. The realistic portrayal is blended with the imagination: the reader has to take it for granted that the dead come back and are better at finding their way in the present than those who are alive. In the novel, the Elekes family has moved into an unfamiliar new flat, and somehow all of them find themselves displaced. Blanka, their younger daughter, now probably deranged, lives on a Mediterranean island with her husband and mother-in-law, otherwise utterly alone. Meanwhile Henriett, whose death is only vaguely referred to at this point, comes visiting these places from the afterlife. But the other world is also portrayed, where the dead (if they are parents as well) can change their figures to become children or adults, alternately. From now on, the story of the past unfolds linearly, told by the central character/narrator, Irén Elekes. Back in the early 1930s, in Katalin Street (in Buda) there are three families living next door to one another, the family of the schoolmaster Elekes, the dentist Held and the officer Bíró, and four children grow up together: the serious and rational Irén Elekes, her younger sister, the unpredictable Blanka, blessed nevertheless with a natural goodness, and the shy Henriett Held, all of whom are in love, to a different extent, with the somewhat older, serious and promising Bálint Bíró. In 1944, the Jewish Helds are deported, and however much the friends try to shelter Henriett, she gets shot with the rest of her family. This takes place on the exact day of Irén and Bálint s engagement, and Irén never confesses that she is partly to blame for leaving Henriett s escape route unattended, explaining why Blanka, unaware of the secret, could board up the hole in a fence the escape route. And of course, it never occurred to Bálint to offer a marriage of convenience to the Jewish girl. After the murder of the Held family, all relationships and scales of values disintegrate. Bálint is captured during the war, and when he finally returns home, he never bothers to propose to Irén, yet goes on to live off the Elekes family. Blanka becomes a political informant, betraying Bálint, leading to his expulsion from the country. Later, during the Revolution, the tables are turned; Blanka s life is endangered, and Bálint, freshly rehabilitated, helps her to leave the country. Meanwhile Irén gets married, but when Bálint reappears she quickly divorces and marries him except by this time both of them are utterly exhausted. With minute psychological observations, empathy and sense of drama, Magda Szabó shows the protagonists with modern narrative technique, from more than one angle; she also demonstrates how even well-wishing intellectual families could display great social incomprehension and indifference towards the Jews and the dangers which they faced.

Old-Fashioned Story
1971

Magda Szabó began a series of works chronicling the history of her own family with the publication of the short novel Bygone Well in 1970. This was followed by Old-Fashioned Story (1977), which by recounting the story of the author’s mother, Lenke Jablonczay, presents a history of the decline of two eminent Trans-Tiszan families with roots that go back into the distant past. The novel is a patch-work stitched together in part from the mother’s recollections and in part from the memories of more distant relatives and acquaintances, but also in no small measure from various contemporary personal documents (letters, diaries, a housekeeping book, the short stories and poems of those concerned). The tale is set around from the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century and centers on Debrecen, the city where two of the narrator’s great-grandparents, Kálmán Jablonczay Sr., scion of a wealthy land-owning family, and Mária Rickl, the plain but sensible daughter of an equally prosperous family of merchants, get married against the wishes of their respective parents. The married couple’s happiness founders when the young husband prodigally squanders his fortune, and his wife takes charge with an iron grip as the head of the household, overseeing the upbringing of her three daughters—the three Fates—and her only son, Kálmán Jr. The Jablonczay blood, with its feckless extravagance and worthless pledges, has been passed on to Kálmán Jr, who in fleeing from his mother on one occasion spends a short time in the village of Füzesgyarmat (a place that will later be associated with the family of the author’s father) and becomes involved in a swift, passionate love affair with the gorgeous and sensual Emma Gacsáry, a granddaughter of the famous Calvinist preacher Dániel Síró. The young woman soon becomes pregnant, and while she has an appreciable dowry, in Mária Rickl’s eyes she will always remain the Calvinist whore who has foisted herself on a pious Roman Catholic family, while Emma’s grandmother, the similarly strong-minded matron Rachel Bányay, is also unwilling to having anything to do any longer with the fallen woman. Damned but legally joined in wedlock, the young couple spend carefree years far from their families. Among their children is the narrator’s mother, Lenke, the novel’s main protagonist. After Kálmán Jr. has managed to run through his wife’s inheritance, he begs his way back into the favour of his strict, unyielding mother, and for a short time she tolerates the presence of his family in the back wing of her house. The sight of her husband’s fecklessness induces the headstrong Emma to run away with her family, little suspecting that by doing so she will bring them all to the brink of ruin, setting them adrift. Mária Rickl takes from her ne’er-do-well son, Kálmán, his one surviving child, four-year-old Lenke, and banishes the child’s parents to a family property just outside Debrecen. She has no wish to see hide-nor-hair of her detested daughter-in-law or any of her subsequent grandchildren. Her main goal in bringing up young Lenke is to “exorcise” her of all the bad traits of her shameless mother and spendthrift father, as a result of which Lenke has to endure a particularly severe upbringing in her formidable grandmother’s home. While the narrator sketches in the circumstances that shaped the fates of her mother Lenke and her other ancestors, she also draws on various documents to provide a precise picture of the historical and social conditions of the time. Genuine facts are seamlessly interwoven with passages that the writer has imaginatively supplied, and the plot is ingeniously paced to deploy a succession of colourful scenes and figures. Growing up into a lovely, bright and sweet young woman, Lenke manages by near-fabulous means to win her grandmother’s love. The humiliations and traumas of her childhood, however, leave irremediable scars that will torment her for the rest of her life. These emotional shackles tragically prevent her from finding fulfilment in wholeheartedly unselfish love. The most she can do is accept the devoted love that she is offered by the polished and engaging Elek Szabó, the author’s father, along with her children’s love and understanding. Thus the rebellious dreams Lenke Jablonczay nurtured during childhood and adolescence seem vindicated to some degree.

The Door
1987

The autographically inspired novel portrays two women living up to their respective strict and rigorously-maintained principles, the writer Magda, and her housekeeper, Emerence. Neither have children, but Emerence’s greatest, most cherished secret is that during World War II she looked after the daughter of a Jewish couple. In a dramatic scene, when this girl, now grown up, promises to visit her but cannot, Emerence ruins all the food she has prepared for the feast she had planned. Magda then plays the role of the long-lost child. She promises that in case Emerence should become disabled, she will mercy-kill her cats. When the event comes, Magda is prevented from fulfilling her promise, but tells the dying old lady a white lie. Emerence’s condition improves, but ultimately she dies of the burden of truth and her disappointment. The Door, now the best-known of Szabó s works, won the Prix Femina Étranger in France in 2003, while in 2006 its second English translation was short-listed for the Independent newspaper s Foreign Fiction Prize in the UK. The first-person narrator, a successful female author who bears a passing resemblance to Szabó herself, advertises for a housekeeper and meets Emerence Szeredás. From the start, it s clear that the housekeeper turns the tables on the writer and her husband. Emerence thoroughly grills her potential employers to make sure that she is dealing with a respectable married couple before finally accepting the post. She then puts her considerable energies into keeping the house running smoothly over the next twenty years. Like the female characters in other works by Szabó, the main protagonist of The Door is boldly portrayed as an almost mythical figure. She lives according to her own rigorous set of rules, to which she cleaves to the end of her life, and those people with whom she comes into regular contact adapt to her without too much effort. She does not let them get close to herself, whereas their lives, including their most intimate secrets, are imperceptibly and unintentionally open to her scrutiny; it is Emerence who decide where the boudaries lie, just as she decides what jobs she will take on, and when, in the households that are entrusted to her. The accustomed routine of Emerence s life begins to take a new turn as she gradually finds herself growing closer to the writer. The two eye one another suspiciously from a distance, and at times clash in heated rows, but the special love and concern they have for one another become evident at the darkest and loneliest moments of their lives. When the narrator s husband undergoes life-threatening surgery, Emerence stands by her and, in her own dour but caring way, helps her through the difficult period, while also confiding to her the grim ordeals of her childhood. Because of grinding poverty and her mother s helplessness, she and her siblings contemplated running away from. When Emerence left the two younger children on their own for a moment, a flash of lightning struck them; her mother then committed suicide. The resulting lifelong guilt feelings have made the housekeeper eternally ready to help others, and particularly fond of animals. A dog that both women care for draws the growing bond between the author and Emerence even tighter, to the point that the housekeeper reveals more details about her life and her love. World War II and Hungary s post-war decades provide a weighty backdrop to her dramatic fate; the fact that she has stood her ground attests to an archaic moral strength that is alien to modern man. In the end, she reveals her most closely guarded secret: in her own home, to which no visitors are admitted, the otherwise so immaculately house-proud Emerence keeps nine cats. She does not like the thought that after her death these animals, which have become so habituated to their room, will be dispersed, and she requests that a doctor should be asked to help put them down painlessly. When Emerence becomes seriously ill, however, not opening her door to anybody for weeks on end, the narrator goes against the promise she has made to the housekeeper, by getting a locksmith to open it and let a doctor into the dwelling. The intruders are met by an indescribable filth and stench, and while the writer hastens to bring TV reporters to record the scene, the seriously ill woman is rushed to hospital and her home is disinfected. Though the woman author acted out of concern, Emerence regards these actions as a betrayal. The bond between the two is irreparably shattered, and the housekeeper dies knowing that the secret of her intimate world has been laid open by the very women she trusted. The most dramatic moment in the relationship between the two occurs when the writer is preparing to accept the Kossuth Prize, the Hungarian state s highest recognition for artistic achievement. She sets off for the ceremony practically from the bedside, unsure whether she will see the old woman alive again. Years later, the narrator still looks back on her decision with a shudder. The metaphor that gives the book its title is presented to the reader in the first chapter. In a dream the narrator is standing before a door that, she alone has the power to open and yet she cannot unlock it to help her loved ones. The story of The Door is thus an allegorical fable, door signifying the way to love, the capacity for love, the key to which Emerence has offered the writer-narrator in vain. The book testifies to an understanding of that tragic failure. A recent English translation of The Door, which appeared in the UK in October 2005, garnered glowing reviews from critics. For The Scotsman Allan Massie wrote: No brief summary can do justice to the intelligence and moral complexity of this novel. I picked it up without expectation or enthusiasm. I read it with gathering intensity, and a swelling admiration. I finished it, and straightaway started to read it again. It is unusual, original, and utterly compelling. Paul Bailey, for the Independent newspaper, noted that the book tells a great deal about the sufferings of 20th-century Hungary through the heart and mind of a single fearless woman , while Tibor Fischer in the Daily Telegraph noted: On the one hand The Door is about a writer's difficulties with her charlady, hardly promising material for a novel, and yet Szabó manages to conjure up as many cliff-hangers as an Indiana Jones film. Translator Len Rix, on winning the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize in July 2006, was congratulated by the jury for A timely and quite brilliantly echoing achievement, one that, when we read it, makes us larger than ourselves.

Für Elise
2002

Some thirty years after first novelising her childhood memories in An Ancient Well, the octogenarian writer committed herself to a lengthier summation of her life. The story of Für Elise takes place between 1917 and 1935, tracing the heroine s life up to her matriculation. Szabó s parents ensured that their bright and wilful daughter would enjoy an exceptional childhood. However, young Magda was not an easy child to handle. She had a difficult time at school; her conservative teachers did not like her, and she responded with acts of defiance and revenge. In Szabó s passionate prose we picture the imaginative schoolgirl, deeply versed in antiquity, grittily willing to stand up for herself, and making her first acquaintance with love as she approaches her school-leaving examinations. Since it appeared in 2002, this autobiographical novel has established itself with Hungarian readers as one of the best known and most widely read of Magda Szabó’s works. Following in the footsteps of two earlier volumes in her family chronicles—Bygone Well (1970) and Old-Fashioned Story (1977)—Für Elise relates her life from childhood through the years she spent as a pupil at a prestigious girls’ school. After the First World War, the Szabós, a family of the highest standing among the gentility of the cultivated city of Debrecen, decide to adopt four-year-old, Cecilia Bogdán, an orphan whose parents died trying to escape from the Voivodina region in the new state of Yugoslavia, sanctioned by the Treaty of Trianon. She is at first looked on with jealous rivalry by Magdolna, the narrator of the story, who is the same age, and it does not help that the two little girls are complete opposites, not just in external appearance but also character. It is not long, however, before blonde, shy, reserved Cili and black-haired, excitable, quick-witted, forthright Magdolna love and accept one another for what they are, like true sisters. Although it becomes clear as the story moves on that the two girls drift tragically far from one another, this is a novel of development that would be unimaginable without the presence of the heroine’s foster sister. Growing up in a stimulating, solicitous environment, and acquiring a classical education at a very early age, Magdolna finds herself forced into continual rebellion by the strait-laced Calvinist traditions of the school she attends. The main plot of the novel is in fact the story of these sometimes outright funny, sometimes distressingly forlorn revolts. This portrait of the micro-history of Debrecen’s Calvinist intelligentsia, with subtle renderings of the growing minds and psyches of children and the unselfish, forward-looking ways in which their parents behave, unfold a realistic yet entertaining sequence of events. For children who have been raised on intellectually liberal principles, the stimulus to acquire knowledge that is given by the family milieu runs into conflict with attempts to live up to the expectations of a strict religious education, as does the model set by the mother in suppressing her sexuality. Novels that fall into the hands of the adolescent girls awaken an early interest in sex in them, and finally the father is driven to providing the ever-more timely enlightenment they require. The breadth of the subjects covered by the successive episodes of Für Elise reflects the fact that it subsumes not just the psychological acuteness of a novel of development but the meticulous description of a historical setting as well. The novel thus offers a broad panorama of individual and wider socio-political frustrations in post-Trianon Hungary, giving through the dawning realisation of the politically naïve young Magdolna an accurate sense of the microhistorical processes that led to the Second World War. The most outstanding example of that is the way the high-school girls are allowed to choose pen pals in friendly neighbouring Austria in order to practice their German language skills. Daydreamer Magdolna instantly seizes the opportunity and, paying no heed to her father’s misgivings, and not least in the hope of being able to form a romantic attachment, starts exchanging letters with a young Viennese trader by the name of Fritz (later Wilhelm) Lehner. Even though she finds the correspondence with this kitchen equipment salesman rather boring, it is nevertheless deemed praiseworthy in the eyes of her fellow pupils. In Vienna a few years later, Magdolna finds out there never was a trader called Wilhelm Lehner: she had been exchanging letters all the time with a Captain Lehner, whose job was to gain intelligence from post-Trianon Hungary (“Lehner’s last postcard was of Hitler in some sort of uniform: that too rather annoyed me, as I had asked him for a postcard, but one of Willy Forst, who had made a big impression on me in one of his films”). With its epic scope, Für Elise wealth of characters and stories remind one that Magda Szabó, this most accomplished of writers, is regularly extolled by literary critics for her controlled but satisfying stories. Told in the first person singular, the novel repeatedly points to the intimate bond that once welded its two heroines, Cili and Magdolna, almost into a single person (“the two of us form a real whole”). That symbiotic breathing together as one is tragically sundered in this first volume of the planned two-part work. Still, the lines that Cili composed to Beethoven’s Für Elise of the book’s title --“think of me when I am gone”—are the threads that weave this intimate story.

Dear DogCat: Letters to Éva Haldimann
2010

The loss of a spouse is a key motif of Magda Szabó’s letters, too—which, as clarified in the Hungarian subtitle of this book, were provided to the publisher by Éva Haldimann. The death in 1982 of Magda Szabó’s husband, the exceptional and lamentably neglected literary scholar and Anglicist Tibor Szobotka, marked a tragic break in the writer’s life. Magda Szabó and Éva Haldimann first exchanged a letter in 1970, on the German publication, in Haldimann’s translation, of Szabó’s novel Katalin Street (Katalin utca). Szabó delivers more than just niceties in the thank-you letter she sent on this occasion. Born teacher and maximalist that she was, by the second paragraph she delicately but precisely points out two of Haldimann’s minor errors of translation. This, along with the two personalities corresponding here, serves to make Dear CatDog: Letters to Éva Haldimann a compelling read. Even Szobotka makes an appearance, in two letters he wrote and that weave a complementary voice into a slowly developing friendship; and after his death, the burden of mourning and solitude that has befallen Szabó turn these two women’s correspondence into a veritable novel of letters, a sort of Cat’s Play (Macskajáték)—an allusion to both a novella and a play written during the same period by the legendary Hungarian writer-cum-playwright István Örkény and that centers on the letters and telephone calls between two sisters, one in Budapest and the other in Bavaria. That being said, the friendship between Szabó and Haldimann is rather akin to one between a dog and a cat, and hence the volume’s Hungarian title: Drága Kumacs!—with kumacs being a word invented by Szabó, and meaning, albeit a bit clumsily in English, “dogcat.” In the wake of Szobotka’s death, the two women’s letters are woven through and through with playfulness, pet names, and self-irony. In comparing the two volumes, it becomes clear just how differently the postcommunist period of the early 1990s affected Szabó and Kertész. Szabó, who for her part was by then in her early seventies, viewed these years through an increasingly bleak prism indeed, what with her waning popularity and the deaths of one friend and acquaintance after another. But then, at the turn of the millennium, there came yet another internationally successful work. The volume’s final letters capture the essence of this bizarre period that, for Szabó, was simultaneously one of gratitude and of burden. The most intriguing aspect of Dear DogCat is surely the confessional tone that erupts from the pen of Magda Szabó and that stands in stark contrast to Kertész’s furtive, essaylike style. On the one hand, Szabó—what with her long life and her Protestant frame of mind—is the paragon of closed sternness. But alongside the statuelike figure there exists another Magda Szabó, one with a positively fiendish sense of humor, unaffected sincerity, pains, and fears. On this book’s most intimate pages, Magda Szabó, childless woman that she was, relates her saddest traumas. Dear DogCat is at once a portrait of a career and of an age; and, indeed, it is a veritable novel of letters.

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