The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes

Reviewed by Rob Spence

This remarkably compelling memoir is, surprisingly, the first prose publication of George Szirtes, one of our most distinguished poets. At its centre is the disquieting life of his mother, Magda, and its culmination in an ambulance accident following a suicide attempt at the age of fifty-one in 1975.

Szirtes, in a bold and very successful flourish, relates his history backwards, startling with the death, and moving, in a series of short, poetic vignettes through his mother’s life, finishing with her very early years as the daughter of secular Jews in Transylvania immediately after the First World War. We learn early on that Magda trained as a photographer, and the passages through which the author reconstructs his mother’s life are almost photo-like in their capturing of a brief moment, illuminating the extraordinary life and times of the subject.

In his poetry, Szirtes often dwells on details of his own life, remarkable enough in itself, though not so much as his mother’s. Born in Budapest 1948, he was just eight when the events of the Hungarian uprising unfolded in 1956, leading to the family joining the desperate exodus from the country. The description of the departure, dodging Soviet patrols in streets where bodies lay in gutters and hanged from lampposts, makes for intense reading, but worse is to follow as we trace Magda’s life back through the wars years as she is incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camps of Penig and Ravensbrück. The backward-facing structure of the narrative allows the slow reveal of the horrors suffered on both sides of the family in the war years; somehow their inevitability adds to the poignancy of the history, and Szirtes’s restrained, delicate prose is the perfect medium for the purpose.

Photographs feature strongly in the book, often sparking the commentary that Szirtes provides, focusing frequently on the domestic detail – a rented TV set, an incongruously colourful sofa, a reel-to-reel tape recorder – that characterised the new life they forged in England after their escape. Magda is bemused by the English character, never fully adapting to her new environment, but fiercely protective of her children. Some of the detail used by the author stems from reminiscences recorded by his father, László, whose devotion to his wife is evident in everything he does.

Naturally, the author’s first-hand knowledge of his mother’s life ceases when we arrive at his early years, and the second half of the book is more of an imaginative reconstruction than the first. The author is disarmingly frank about the process: “I am inventing her again,” he writes, “inventing a truth I can believe in. I invent nothing factual. I don’t make it up, but the person at the core of it all still has to be constructed and understood in terms of invention. The trick is to invent the truth.”

The truth that Szirtes invents is one that the reader believes in absolutely. Given the subject matter here, this volume could easily have ended up as one of those “harrowing memoirs” that crowd the bookshop shelves. But Szirtes preserves the mystery of his mother’s life, accepting the sheer impossibility of inhabiting another’s experience, whilst rendering that experience through the prism of his own life, and producing an utterly affecting and profoundly original account of an existence filled with passion and tragedy, illuminated by brief flashes of joy.

I cannot remember reading a memoir or a work of autobiography that handles its subject matter with such poise and dexterity as this. By writing with compassion and tenderness about his mother, George Szirtes also manages to give us an insight into twentieth-century history that outweighs many academic accounts of those tumultuous years.

Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro

George Szirtes The Photographer At Sixteen (Maclehose Press, 2019). ISBN 978-0857058539, 205pp, hardback.

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