10. 05. 2017. 07:20

Katalin Street by Magda Szabó (An Excerpt)

translated by Len Rix

On the centenary of Magda Szabó's birthday, we're happy to give you an excerpt from Len Rix's new translation of 'Katalin Street' recently published this Autumn by New York Review Books.

None of them had ever got used to the apartment or grown to like it. They just put up with it, as with so many other things.

It was the place that sheltered them from the rain and the heat of the sun, nothing more: a cave, if slightly more comfortable than a cave. An air of neglect hung over everything, defying the best efforts of Mrs. Elekes to keep it clean. Hopelessly untidy herself, any semblance of order or homeliness she might impose would be short-lived, evaporating within minutes under the influence of some mysterious force that followed her around. The glass selected at random by a guest would always be the one she had given the most cursory wiping over, or failed to wash at all. A man reaching round for an ashtray would invariably light upon one overflowing with ash and cigarette stubs, which she had forgotten to empty.

The apartment was on the sixth floor of a relatively new block on the left bank of the Danube, with views across the river. From its windows they could see their old house. Its façade had been covered in scaffolding for several months now, undergoing redevelopment along with its immediate neighbors. It looked like a childhood friend who, either in anger or a spirit of fun, had put on a mask and forgotten to take it off long after the party had ended. Bálint, Irén, and Mrs. Elekes would often linger on the balcony, staring across the river, even after more houses had been built along the embankment. But if either Mr. Elekes or Kinga joined them, they would immediately turn away and pretend to have some particular business there.

Living in the apartment depressed them profoundly—so many flights of stairs to climb, the rooms so tiny!—and they desperately missed their garden. Besides, they all had personal sources of grief, Mr. Elekes in particular. Apart from his granddaughter, Kinga, everyone was extremely attentive to him. It was as if, with the coming of maturity, they had taken to heart all those injunctions about the virtuous life that he had showered on his former pupils, and they enveloped his days in a wearying solicitude. With his formidable strength of will he had learned to look after himself. He had always enjoyed educational handicrafts, so he made paper bags and boxes for a cooperative, and he worked away on his typewriter—short articles on pedagogic problems tapped out with two fingers. From time to time Irén would announce that she had sent one of them off to an important educational journal and it had been accepted. He never commented. He knew perfectly well that his articles had nothing new to say, certainly nothing of relevance in the present climate, and that these supposed honoraria, pitiful as they were, had been taken from the housekeeping money. The notes would be placed in his hand for him to touch and promptly returned whence they came.

The furniture was all from their former home, with one or two exceptions. A great many pieces had had to be sold off when they moved, to fit the smaller space. Mr. Elekes continued to sit beneath the bust of Cicero, quite why, he was no longer sure, since the contents of the desk and its drawers were now Irén's. Twice a day he would be taken out for a walk, as you would a dog. But despite his longing for the smell of the sun, the wind, and the water, he was always conscious that the person taking him was short of time and had rather more important things to do than trudge along at a snail's pace with him beside the Danube, and soon he would politely ask to be taken home. When Irén took him out she always bought him a little treat—in the summer an ice cream or roasted ear of corn, in winter a slice of baked pumpkin or some hot chestnuts. Whatever it was, he nibbled at it with loathing and impotent shame.

He was the only one who had any patience with little Kinga. She was always getting in people's way and no one else had time to waste on her, so it totally demoralized her when he too could no longer see what she was doing, even when she stuck her tongue out at him or made the donkeyears sign at passersby from the balcony. He had no status in her eyes: she was far too sure of his affection and felt no need to strive for it. It was Bálint that she attacked with her sentimental effusions. But he never returned her affection. He would tell her, rather sharply, to go and find her father, and not to forget that she was Pali's daughter, not his.

Meanwhile Mrs. Elekes floundered despairingly in an ocean of dishwater. Irén and Pali occupied two of the rooms in the apartment and it was all too much for her. It drove her to her wit's end. On the one hand, given her lack of strength and energy, the apartment was dauntingly large; on the other, compared with the house in Katalin Street it was mean and cramped, and she was deeply ashamed of it. Moving through the rooms she was permanently conscious of the absence of objects and items of furniture that had either been disposed of or had simply disappeared. Deprived of her attic, her basement, and her larder with its built-in cupboards and drawers, she would sometimes collapse in total bewilderment, a monument of impotence.

She missed her daughter Blanka too, so much so that on days when a long-expected letter failed to arrive she would curl up in misery. She would stand in the narrow entrance to greet the postman with a look that made him lower his eyes, as if it were his fault that the stupid envelope the old woman had been hoping for hadn't come. She thought of Blanka more and more often, with an ever more desperate longing, and she increasingly dreaded the moment when Irén would finish work and arrive home.

They all dreaded it, even Mr. Elekes. He might not be able to see what was happening, but he was always aware of his daughter's return, coming in, greeting the others—how exhausted she was, what a difficult day she'd had at school— and immediately setting about putting things in order, like a robot. Mr. Elekes, Bálint, and Kinga would watch in silence as she made her way from room to room, straightening a book here, repositioning a vase there. Her mother, who felt she had already worn herself to death over the housework, often longed to snatch up the tablecloth and throw it and everything on it out of the window. The silent daily warfare over the table, the library, the precise distance between two objects that she had never mastered in all these years was infuriating and humiliating.

But when Irén began to shout, their reactions were very different. Mr. Elekes listened to the raised voice, the altered, unnatural tone, with a deep sense of shame. His wife, almost beside herself with terror, racked her brains to think how they might have offended her. Bálint simply watched with interest. Seeing the expression on his face, standing in a corner smoking and gazing at her with something close to amusement, always stopped her in her tracks. She would instantly change her tone, often bursting into tears and apologizing to everyone, always with the same refrain: she was getting old, she was exhausted, her nerves were in shreds. Her lack of self-control, her shouting, gesticulating, kicking off her slippers, and her constant complaining were in fact more upsetting than even Blanka's former sins. From Blanka, after all, her father had always expected some sort of delinquency or base conduct, if not quite everything that happened later.

Kinga, who had never known Irén to be any different, listened in amazement when her grandparents talked about their former home and her mother's childhood. The Irén who supervised her homework was the mother she knew— even if one who seemed permanently surprised that this little girl was actually hers—and that Irén showed small resemblance to the wonderful personage who shone so brightly in the old people's reminiscences.

Bálint, when he found himself in the apartment, was bored and bewildered most of the time. It was a constant source of surprise to him how little difference it made that he now lived here, and how vain had been the hope that by marrying Irén he could escape the unreality of his life. The number of items that Mrs. Elekes had saved from his former home was small. There were several ornaments and objects from her former home too, but none of them conjured up the magic he had been hoping for. Irén's new abode had turned out to be nothing like the one in Katalin Street, and even here he was haunted by the sense of being somewhere else. The marriage to Irén had showed him that she yearned and pined for Katalin Street just as much as he did, that she had not found it, and neither had her parents, who were locked in the same hopeless quest to recover it. Only Kinga lived without expectation, in cheerful innocence, not forever yearning for the voice of some long-lost person. She knew nothing of the world beyond this apartment in Budapest, and reminiscences that had no bearing on herself she thought both dishonest and stupid.


Translated by Len Rix


The new translation of Katalin Street is available now from New York Review Books.


Magda Szabó (1917–2007) was born into an old Protestant family in Debrecen, Hungary’s “Calvinist Rome,” in the midst of the great Hungarian plain. Szabó, whose father taught her to converse with him in Latin, German, English, and French, attended the University of Debrecen, studying Latin and Hungarian, and went on to work as a teacher throughout the German and Soviet occupations of Hungary in 1944 and 1945. In 1947, she published two volumes of poetry, Bárány (The Lamb), and Vissza az emberig (Return to Man), for which she received the Baumgartner Prize in 1949. Under Communist rule, this early critical success became a liability, and Szabó turned to writing fiction: Her first novel, Freskó (Fresco), came out in 1958, followed closely by Az őz (The Fawn). In 1959 she won the József Attila Prize, after which she went on to write many more novels, among them Katalin utca (Katalin Street, 1969), Ókút (The Ancient Well, 1970), Régimódi történet (An Old-Fashioned Tale, 1971), and Az ajtó (The Door, 1987). In 2015, the first American publication of The Door was named one of ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review. Szabó also wrote verse for children, plays, short stories, and nonfiction, including a tribute to her husband, Tibor Szobotka, a writer and translator who died in 1982. A member of the European Academy of Sciences and a warden of the Calvinist Theological Seminary in Debrecen, Szabó died in the town in which she was born, a book in her hand.


Len Rix is a poet, critic, and former literature professor who has translated six books by Antal Szerb, including the novel Journey by Moonlight (available as an NYRB Classic) and, most recently, The Martian’s Guide to Budapest. In 2006 he was awarded the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize for his translation of Magda Szabó’s The Door (also available as an NYRB Classic), which was one of The New York Times Book Review’s ten best books of 2015.