Hungary Magazine

Magda Szabo: female destinies in the turmoil of Hungarian history

Budapest, Hungary – Magda Szabo was one of the most influential contemporary writers in Hungarian literature until her death, in 2007. Her most famous and celebrated novels are undoubtedly The Door, and Abigél (or Abigail in its English translation) widely regarded as a classic in her native Hungary.

Proof of her literary versatility, her other most prominent works include fiction novels such as Katalin Street – which we’ve included in our reading list to survive the Covid-19 quarantine – or Iza’s Ballad as well as poetry like The Lamb, her first published work, and theatre plays, such as King Béla. Magda Szabo also wrote numerous books for children throughout her prolific career.

A protestant and erudite upbringing

Born in Debrecen, the “Calvinist Rome” of Hungary, in 1917, Magda Szabo came from a bourgeois and Protestant background.

The education she received from her father, a highly learned and multilingual man – she conversed with him in Latin, French, German and English – had a significant impact on her writing, but also contributed to turning her into a suspicious element in the eyes of the communist regime soon to be established in Hungary: from the point of view of the communist apparatus, her books quickly became the every symbol of a repressed bourgeois and cosmopolitan culture.

She studied Hungarian and Latin at the University of Debrecen and graduated in 1940. From then on, Szabo became a teacher, first in her hometown and then in a protestant boarding school of Hódmezővásárhely during one of the darkest times in Hungarian modern history. She briefly worked, from 1945 to 1959, at the Ministry of Religion and Education in the early days of the communist regime.

It’s only in 1949 that her life took a different turn, becoming intimately intertwined with the fate of her own country. She was awarded the Baumgarten Prize after the publication of her collection of poems Vissza az Emberig (Back to the Human) – an award that was taken away from her on that very same day.

From this point forward, considered a class enemy by the regime, Szabo was fired from her job at the Ministry while the works of her husband, the poet Tibor Szobotka, were also banned.

Magda Szabo and the New Moon era

This marginialization, that lasted until 1959, shaped Szabó’s literary fate. She joined Újhold, a group of Hungarian authors whose name can be translated in English as “New Moon”, and which gathered some of the most prominent Hungarian writers and artists of that era – including the poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy, one of the founding figures of the movement, the critic Balázs Lengyel, and the poets János Pilinszky and Sándor Weöres, among many others.

Regularly approached by Hungarian authorities trying to convince them to write for the regime, New Moon members gained notoriety by refusing to conform to the communist literary canon. Szabo herself admitted that she often pretended to have lost all inspiration to avoid writing for the regime.

The New Moon writers notoriously made a promise to one another, reported by Magda Szabó herself: they pledged not to have children, so that authorities would not have any way of exerting pressure on them by threatening their families, the most common intimidation technique. Her experience with this group of renegade writers, the danger of cultivating social relationships, as well as the vulnerability of their precarious situation, all have a central part in many of her novels.

Her works often centre around uniquely crafted, yet rather common relationships, either between family members, friends or lovers. The Door tells the story of a relationship between a young and well-cultured writer and her maid, who possesses an almost supernatural strength and whose only weakness is her affection for the former.

In Katalin Street, Magda Szabo emphasizes the loneliness and vulnerability of a human soul in the throes of love: “In everyone’s life there is only one person whose name can be cried out in the moment of death”, she writes.

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The “golden fish”

In the late 1950’s, a period characterized by the “destalinization” phase and the liberalisation of János Kádár’s government, New Moon members were once again allowed to publish their work. Kádár’s cultural policy was organized around the motto “Those who are not against us are with us” and the idea of the triple T, or TTT: “Tiltott, Tűrt, Támogatott” (“Prohibition, Tolerance, Support”).

In 1958, Magda Szabó’s Mural was published, followed in 1959, by The Fawn. These publications marked the beginning of the reintegration of New Moon members in the Hungarian literary landscape, as well as the start of Magda Szabó’s own personal path to individual fame and recognition.

Her writing was introduced to the Western world thanks to German writer and Nobel Prize laureate Herman Hesse: after reading a forbidden translation of one of her novels, he called his publisher in haste to tell him he had “caught a golden fish”.

One of the most famous Hungarian writers worldwide

Magda Szabo eventually became one of the most translated and award-winning Hungarian writers of her generation. Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages, and the awards she received range from the Kossuth Prize, one of the most prestigious in Hungary, to the French Femina Prize for The Door.

But what is the essence of Magda Szabó’s writing, especially of her novels? Two aspects are particularly striking when reading her books: Szabo’s passion for fascinating and multi-faceted feminine characters; and her strong ties with history, both from a personal and national perspective.

Ever since her first novels, Magda Szabó peppered her stories with female characters, which sharply contrasted with the lack of female representation in Hungarian novels at that time.

Not only are her main characters usually women – Eszter in The Fawn, Irén, Blanka and Henriett in Katalin Street, Emerence and the narrator in The Door, Gina in Abigail – but her novels resolutely revolve around female characters who, for the most part, share another feature: their intimate link with history, mirroring Magda Szabo’s own life.

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Female characters at the heart of history

The interweaving individual and collective destinies is own of the hallmarks of her writing. Her three main novels, Abigail, The Door and Katalin Street, deal with the idea of an individual destiny overturned by historical circumstances.

In Abigail, Gina Vitay, a 14-year-old girl from Budapest, is sent to a boarding school in the province of Matula during the Second World War. In the manner of a Bildungsroman, Szabó draws a parallel between the fate of this young girl infuriated by her estrangement from her beloved father and city, and the way Hungarians lived through the war.

Katalin Street covers an even broader period: from the interwar years to the communist regime, three childhood friends, Bálint, Irén and Blanka have to deal with their own loves, friendships and hardships, the inexorable and tragic historical circumstances, as well as with the death of the fourth of them, Henriett.

In The Door, the matter of history transpires in a more discreet way, through the figure of Emerence, one of the main characters, who lived through all the 20th century.

Magda Szabo: “I’ll take all my secrets with me”

But Magda Szabó also keenly addresses her own, personal history in her novels: with An Ancient Well, Für Elise or Old-Fashioned Story, she recollected her own life and put down her memories on paper, as well as the story of her parents and ancestors. And she more often than not gave a central part to Debrecen, her native city, which kept a special place in her heart throughout her entire life.

“I have been teaching in Hódmezővásárhely since September 1942, I have been living in Pest since April 1945. Thirty-three years is a great amount of time, enough for Christ’s entire life story. It was not enough for me to recognize: I have moved. Homeland, of course, till death, is always Debrecen”, she confessed.

But despite being one of the most celebrated and recognized Hungarian writers worldwide, despite what she revealed of herself through her novels and other books, Magda Szabó carried her mystery and her personality away with her, as she herself wrote in Honey-Cakes for Cerberus:

“When I die, I’ll take all my secrets with me, and there won’t be a literary critic alive who’ll be able to get to the bottom of who I was then, which of my personalities, or what was actually true in this or that scene. The mirror I turned on the world will shatter on my death”.

By Louise Ostermann Twardowski

A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian), linguistics and literature in Strasbourg and Budapest, and is passionate about Central European history, culture and literature.