01. 08. 2007. 09:48

"I don’t like bearing grudges"

An interview with Magda Szabó

"This was a pledge we had made together. We knew very well that we could not have children. If we did, we would expose ourselves to the regime. And this was a generation which did not want to get involved in a phoney game." – Magda Szabó (89) talks to writer János Háy.

Everyone knows that you are so devoted to your readers that you will do anything for them. I feel that this sets you apart from other Hungarian writers. How is your relationship to readers different from other people’s?
Apart from being a writer, I also have a decent, ordinary profession: I am a teacher, that is what I was trained as. I always knew that when I started teaching in a class, those children would be different. I never took myself so mortally seriously as some of my colleagues, but I still managed very easily. It has always been like that. No matter whether I am dealing with small children, students or adults, I never had any difficulty talking to people.

When you first came to Budapest just after the war, in ’44, you instantly made contact with the New Moon group, this extremely powerful generation who have become legendary. How did you find them?
I was appointed to work in the ministry where several of them worked at the time, the Ministry of Religion and Public Education. I was in charge of offering the state secretary up-to-date information at any time about what they called "young literature" – the literature of the new Hungary, which we were supposed to represent.
You mean there was a state secretary who cared about such things? It is unimaginable today to find such a ministry…
Well, I don’t work there any more, either…
This means that at that time all of you were rather close to the fire. It looked as though you might have a powerful influence on literary events and processes. Yet at the end of the 1940’s the entire group was silenced.
After ’49, it was practically impossible for any of us to publish anything. I first became visible again in 1958. Up until that time a part of this country conspired against letting us make our voice heard. This did not surprise me, I was pretty well-informed about politics. I was the daughter of the one-time cultural councillor of the city of Debrecen. How could I have expected the new communist leadership to like me? I was not one of their ranks. Why would they want me to represent Hungarian literature?
How did you find out that opportunities had come to an end?
The more agile members, the young men, always sussed out what was going on. Also, we had friends among the older writers and magazine editors, and they told us in secret that they were not allowed to publish us any more. We accepted the status quo, and the power-holders did not manage to force any of us into a deal of any kind, as we did not have families or children to be blackmailed through.
It is an astonishing fact that practically none of the New Moon generation had children. Looking back today it is hard to understand how writing could be so important and so powerful as to lead to such a decision.
This was a pledge we had made together. A joint undertaking of the New Moon people. We knew very well that we could not have children. If we did, we would expose ourselves to the regime. And this was a generation which did not want to get involved in a phoney game.
There was a ten-year gap, and then in 1958-59 two important prose works came out, almost directly after one another: Oz (The Fawn) and Freskó (Fresco). Miklós Mészöly once said that everyone was taken by surprise because they had thought they could only expect lyrical poetry of you. Did you work so much in secret that even your colleagues were unaware what you were brewing?
Do you think I could possibly have told them that I am writing a novel about a painter who simply chooses a subject matter to work on instead of obeying what the newspapers tell her to do? If you ever read Fresco, you know that by the standards of that age my Annuska is a "terrible" character, functioning, as she does, in a rather unconventional way. No, I did not want to make it known what I was working on, because it might have brought danger on other people.
You like to feature tough women. Is this based on your own personality, or are you simply attracted to controversial types of women?
This is the type of woman I kept coming in contact with, throughout my life. If I was near my mother, if I was near my family members, this was the case. No one could call me conventional, either.
In the West, you became a successful writer within a flash – at one time you were probably better known there than back home.
My novels found their way to Herman Hesse in MS, and he recommended me to the German publisher Insel. I was not allowed to travel, but I was sent the press review, and in it I could see that I was given a tremendous lot of attention. And as for Hungary, the literary decision-makers probably felt that it would be rather disgraceful if they attacked me, so they did not.
In this country, where jealousy is a very common trait, did not your success breed ill feeling among your colleagues or among the New Moon people?
In the eyes of my New Moon friends, whose opinion I valued, my success was the first flicker of freedom. Balázs Lengyel said, "the fact that they did not kill you might mean that we will also soon get the go-ahead."
This was shortly followed by the Attila József Award, a sign of official recognition. Did this or any other award ever have a major effect on your life or work? How does a writer relate to recognition?
That depends on the writer. It is an internal decision how to perceive it. When I got the Attila József Award, I heaved a deep sigh and said to my husband, okay, I am not doing the cooking today, let’s go and have lunch out. But often awards are also associated with sorrow. For me the Attila József Award is linked to my father’s death.
Perhaps the most important breakthrough in your life was the French Prix Femina. I am sure everyone thought, at least at first, that this was some sort of a feminist prize.
Even though I told people enough times that it had nothing to do with what is called feminine literature. It is awarded by a female jury, but not only to female authors – Jorge Semprun was among the recipients as well as Virginia Woolf. To my mind, there are no such categories as female writers or male writers. There are only writers. I am not attached to any sort of ideology, not even to feminism.
You have no ideological attachments, and you were never really involved in politics, even though your novels clearly reflect a bourgeois value system.
A writer must never be involved in politics in the same way as a politician. These are two totally separate things. Writers have a different job to do. It is up to them to make people scared if they have taken the wrong path. A writer doesn’t necessarily need to die for the sake of truth, but they must serve it at all costs. This is what all honourable writers do.
The Door was a hit all over the world, as well as in France. At the same time, it was Für Elise that brought you recognition at home and re-activated your entire oeuvre.
It was possible once more to follow my writing.
Do you think it was your success abroad that raised the barriers at home?
Yes, certainly. I am sure it played a great part. Although it is also true that after I wrote The Moment in 1990, I did not publish another novel.
You talk about your family history in a number of your books, but in Für Elise this is done from a completely new perspective. Why did you think that it was time to present, say, the marriage of your parents as it was in reality, rather than through the slightly idealised view of the child?
I had reached the age when one comes to understand what takes place in a marriage and gets an insight into the hardships and misery that both parties suffer. I could finally understand both my father and my mother very well indeed. It was time to depict the past from a different angle.
I have a feeling that Für Elise is more than just the history of your past – it is also your current interpretation of personal history after you had subjected much of your own life to consideration. At one point you say, in a way which is slightly reminiscent of Kertész' Fatelessness, that "whatever must happen is bound to happen." Are you trying to say that it is hopeless to shape our destiny?
It is always about a given situation that I say that whatever must happen, will happen. If all the prerequisites are ready, why should something not happen? This is the case with works of art as well. If a novel is not sound from an aesthetic point of view, then I have not done a good job, and there is something missing; but if I have worked well, the thing is bound to happen. You are bound to be drawn into my magic circle, and you will come to know and love the rules of this magic circle.
Let’s remove the question from the world of literature and put it more generally. So, the question is whether I accept that things just happen to me, or do I have the power to shape things?
Well, go ahead and shape them if you feel you can. I never could. I had no talent to do that. It would have taken a more hostile person and a more evil person than I am. I always put myself in the place of the other party and thought it was better if I stepped back.
You may not have managed to shape your destiny as much as you would have liked to, but I see that even as a child you refused to put up with humiliation.
That’s right, I was a natural born fighter. If I had a life before this one, I must have been a soldier. What do you think is the most important thing about a writer’s personality? You must not lie. Even if it means your undoing, you must not lie. You can find the form of expression that allows you to get away with telling the truth, but that is what you must do. Anyway, in this country, it has always been the writers and not the politicians who have kept people’s spirits up. In the various great epochs it was always the writers who told people what should be done.
At times when the writers who played a dirty game were better rewarded in this country than you, did you not feel some degree of temptation to move in that direction?
You mean me? Listen, my great-great-grandfather was a galley slave! He was supposed to compromise, but he refused to – he let himself be sold onto a Spanish galley. Protestants have the power to wait. They have always had to wait, as long as they have been around. They try to improve things, and if they fail, they just wait around, but not compromise.
You have often called The Moment your best novel – in the context of that work can you feel the moment when you have to make a decision this way or that?
Certainly. I can always feel when the moment has come. I also know that if I don’t write a new novel real quick, that is the end of me.
My feeling is that if you don’t write another novel real quick, that is the end of your readers.
What you say is true, because when they have read all my works, everything I have written so far, and come to the end of it, they won’t know what to read. What will they do if they don’t get a new book from me? Will they start all over again? That is impossible. That cannot be. Only I did that with Karl May. I read Winnetou all my life – every time I finished the last volume I just went back to the beginning. He was a man with a lovely character.
There is a sentence I must read out from Für Elise: "I sought the character of Winnetou in every man’s personality."
Did I deny that? You see, I did not.
I stand no chance then. I am not even an Indian. Joking aside, when is Für Elise going to have a sequel? When are you going to start, and how long will it take to write?
My family has given me some time to rest, but now it is time to start again. The only worry is that I may have to go abroad, and when I am abroad, my only job is to be charming, but I get no time to work at all. And of course, work always comes first with a writer.

János Háy

Previously on HLO

Magda Szabó is 88
Magda Szabó: The Door - our review

A short story and an excerpt from a drama by János Háy

On the
New Moon generation of writers

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