Monday, April 23, 2018

Did Magda Szabo Visit Katalin Street? A Fortepan Essay

Vizivarosi Budapest, 1953/  Photo Credit:  Fortepan:Poto:Nagy Gyula.  

Fortepan is an online archive of Hungarian pictures taken by amateurs in the twentieth century.  All phographs are licensed by a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0 License.  The archive houses an extraordinary collection of pictures of ordinary life in Hungary and is searchable in many ways.  The picture above, for example, taken from Pest, is of Vizivaros (Water Town), which is the area below the Castle on the Danube in Buda.  It is also the general area in which Katalin Street is located.

Occasionally Fortepan publishes a photo-essay on a particular topic.  Last year, they published a beautiful piece on Magda Szabo entitled Járt-e Szabó Magda a Katalin utcában?  (Roughly, "Did Magda Szabo Go to Katalin Street?)  The piece was edited by Kiss Eszter and Barakony Szabolcs (Images) and was based on research by Buda Atilla

I put the page through Google Translate.  Google Translate is a wonderful tool, especially for people who  don't read Hungarian.  But of course, it has limitations.  I tried  to smooth out some of the places where it garbled, mainly by putting various words and combinations of words through Gooogle Translate again to get a different  context.  What follows is my loose translation, using  Google.  Sometimes, the meaning was clear.  Sometimes it could be relatively easily recovered.  And sometimes, I had to give up and cut.  My thanks to  the authors of this beautiful photo-essay.  My apologies for any mistakes my clumsy mechanics made.  And of course, all errors and typos are my own.

Note:  the passage from Katalin Street quoted at the end comes from the Len Rix translation.

Did Magda Szabo Visit Katalin Street?

One hundred years ago, on October 5, 1917, Magda Szabó was born [in Debrecan Hungary]. In the Fortepan archive we looked for pictures of the life of the author and the characters she created.  We have paired personal recollections, leaflets and novels with real and fictive sites. We looked at what the city was like when Magda Szabó was a child; how Budapest recovered from the blood and ruins [of World War II}; where she found a home, work and love; and how Budapest appeared in her writings. Some pictures were easy to identify, despite the changes in the name of the writer: others evoke the mood of the times.  Twelve images in the footsteps of reality and the creation of the writer.  


Magda Szabó first visited Budapest  in 1933 [with fellow students from Debrecan].  "When I left the train with the girls, I thought I was choking. I was overwhelmed by the traffic” she later said.  “I really discovered the city as a college student. . . .  I was traveling with a map, a guidebook, as if I were abroad. . . .  I went down the Flórián square under the rocks to see the Roman bath. I went through the museums. I searched for golden oaks on Margit Island and I sat down to write poems. [...] I once brought flowers to Petőfi Sándor street, put them under the memorial plaque and ran away. . . .   The poet Kosztolányi was  dying. . .I sat in the unfamiliar city in the garden of an unknown hospital on a bench, trying to make up my mind to go inside. . . .   I wanted to be there near the poet, at least once.”

Fotó: Fortepan / FORTEPAN

Szabo’s arrival in Budapest re-appears in many of her works.  In the book Katalin Street, the six-year-old Henriette Held moves with her parents to the never-before-seen capital, and the bridges and the unknown noises cause her anxiety, just as they did for Szabo.  The novel’s description of Katalin Street recalls the area around Vízivárosi [the area in Buda below the Castle walls]—Fo utca, Corvin and Szena ter, although it adds fictional details to the original. There was a church on the street, a sculpture in front of it, an old Turkish hollow near it, and . . .  the river flowed behind the bank of the Danube. The facade of the rusty, quaint houses looked out into the street, and the gardens full of flowers and wildlife faced in the direction of the Castle. Here lived side by side the Helds, the Elekes and the Biro family.


Magda Szabó moved from Debrecen to Budapest in the spring of 1945 after the Second World War, that "she might be really a writer now." "For us. . .  liberation was the most wonderful experience. I once wrote that the sun never burned like then, and the blue color was never so blue in the sky and the river never ran so fast. It was indescribable. . . .  In my bag were bread and bacon, poems and faded plays. . .. .  They disappeared at the railway station.’’  ‘Young Lady Cromwell’  [Puritan Debrecan was known as Protestant Rome] lived in my personality—strict, humorless (because she could not forget her dead) and was determined to do so.”  

(Fotó: Fortepan / FORTEPAN)

The new life began on the ruins, and it was an exciting and strange time for Katalin Csandy, the protagonist of Danaida. The school girl’s memories of the countryside collide with the post-war reality around the Nyugati [Western] Railway Station while she looks for a new home in Podmaniczky Street. "Katalin did not know Budapest well enough. . .  and although she did not have to leave the station, she was still frightened. The little she saw of the ill-lit city did not resemble the place she remembered: her school had once brought up students fot an excursion, and they all had fallen silent at the lights when they came to the student hostel.  Her abandoned birthplace was more solid and it was clear in post-War Pest that the damage done at home could not be compared with what Pest had suffered. In the middle of the street next to the railway station a kilometer long, multi-meter high pile of debris had been dumped, with a red train on its side, in which the ruin and scraps were frozen in the evening [...] This image remained in the post-siege of Budapest forever: people standing on top of a pile, with heavy radiation over them, and scraping debris around the clock in a crude little red-and-white fitting day and night. "


Hold utca 16 was Magda Szabo's first home in Budapest where she lived with two girls in a co-lease. She enjoyed the freedom. "No one here told  me when I could use the  bathroom, and I could buy books from my own job." But for a long time the city remained alien to her: "I lived in a barren, unheated apartment, I was in a ruinous building, the world was unknown and brittle. [...] But, of course, youth always triumphs on the ruins, spiritually, and in deed."   She lived here until 1948 and then moved to the flat of the elegant, educated and one-time womanizer Tibor Szobotka. Magda Szabó was not too communicative.  "It was so secret that my co-owner and partner,Gizike, did not know, until the driver arrived . . . and said  'Miss Szabo is asking for two suitcases and saying that she probably will not sleep at home because she married this morning.' Eyewitnesses said the response was enormous. [...] Do not say that I do not have the feeling that my privacy is really privacy."

Fotó: Fortepan / Budapest Főváros Levéltára. Levéltári jelzet: HU_BFL_XV_19_c_11 / FORTEPAN

An espresso café near Hold utca was Szabó and Szobotka's favorite venue, "big fish were painted on its walls, in a sea-green with green lighting; we named the place the Fish." The café was later a wedding hall and the square was called Ságvári Chapel (today the square of the Vértanúk). Although the Protestant Cromwell girl from Debrecan felt she was on dangerous ground, she was always there at the appointed time. She was scared and angry, as the room of the "the blond, blue-eyed, young Basti type”  was full of lovers and he forgot his writing.  He had asked for her hand saying "Do not be afraid. . . .  You do not tolerate a rival, no memory, no shadow, no dream, no reparation instead of losing anyone, or continuing. You're a pretty demanding girl, but you get it. You are neither reparation nor continuation, you are life.” 


The mysterious wedding took  place on On June 5, 1948.  Magda Szabó's witness was László Bóka, Szobotká's Devecseri Gábor. Gizike knew nothing, but Ágnes received a detailed account. The day started as usual  "I came into the office at eight, I went home at eleven o'clock, I came back and worked at twelve. Then the Boss came out and told us to go to the Yugoslavian reception. My colleagues did not even look at me.  The dress was special:  Agnes, it was wonderful !!!!  Dark blue balloon cloth, white hat, skirt almost to the ankle, full-bodied, curly, huge white blouse, red nylon bag, red sandals, high red antelope gloves. "


The couple lived for 12 years in  Szobotka's apartment—a difficult time.  It was only because of accuracy and a system that Szobotka’s lovers avoided each other in the   stairwell of the flat in the square of Veszprém. After the request, only Magda was left. "That's when we lunch at Gundel that day," she said, "not to deny it now. The women have disappeared, the past has come to an end, everything that has ever been, vanished, destroyed, I am the only one.  But then I will be hurting us both, every minute.  I listened and listened, to   myself (my genes), the Puritan Szobotka, the wail of my own, and I was tempted to lie in a bed where half Budapest was a guest, but I knew this sentence was a test now: now it measures me to blame my own law for the sake of our love and now we measure how much I like it. 'Pay the check,' I said. - Let's go home.' At Attila utca, where we lived later for twelve years, I went to the bathroom to undress. I found a blue robe, his belt, I pulled it up, and the whirlwind that caught him did not look like any of the memories of my life. Perhaps I felt something like that when I was born out of my mother's body when I started to live."


After receiving the Baumgarten Prize, which was revoked a few hours later, and after being kicking out of the ministry in 1950 and the district school in Szinyei Merse Street, Szabo faced the problems of the Rakosi era.  Daily, she taught the children of Jews who  had been deported or relocated.  Home visits became social work. Sometimes she did not find anybody except the housekeeper at home and told her that "the little boy who had woken up at night  had slipped down the staircase calling, Aunt Magdi, tell Aunt Magdi.’ Or in another house, a child said 'you can’t let her in, because she still has a client, they have not done yet.'". 


Kerulet [city sectiton] VI. after Kerulet VIII, the new school, and the neighborhood proved to be a great thing. "My youth novels, as I have been teaching for a long time at the Horváth Mihály Square, and I have been walking around the square for so many years and in almost every house, almost always quoting the eighth district [but] without any stories related to my pupils themselves.”  She taught at school in 1956 and thereafter. "Our school was close to the Kilian barracks, many of our children lived in the area, the school was getting mined, our students died, and the disadvantaged parents just left home," she said later in an nterview. After  the appearance of [her first novel] Fresco in 1958, the air cooled at the school and colleagues were afraid they would be written about. The children did not welcome Aunt Magda's writerly ambitions. "When  Fresco appeared, I was known as a Teacher Szobotka in the School, but the parents soon realized  who I was and sent me copies of Fresco to sign.  I did not really want this book for eleven-twelve-year-old girls, so everytime I gave back a signed book, I added ‘kids, do not read it.’  I had a pupil, a good, smart little boy, Erika Bazsó, who was blood-red, dancing around in anger, and crying, 'Is not  aunt Magda ashamed of writing a book that her own class can not read?'  I was the head of the classrom, I laughed at myself, there was some justice in what the kid said.  Of course, this is not the only reason I started work elsewhere.  It was also because of Móra Kiadó and Éva Janikovszky who wanted me to write about what I see in my civil work.”


  At the corner of Tavasmezo and Koszoru, there is an overturn in the Danaida novel, though Magda Szabó changed the streets of the area in the novel.  The already mentioned Katalin Csándy moves from Podmaniczy Street to Józsefváros. "She always liked Mak Street [...]. In this part [of the city] it was still clear that the capital was formed by the mingling of separate small spaces [and] that this district was a miniature country town sometime and then part of a giant body. She liked the old mill in Mák Street, which had recently made into baths, but she felt as if ghosts had rented the machines and were still grinding every night, as in a fairy-tale.  She also like Kozorut Kozt, where Gypsies lived.  At the corner of Pest Street and Kozorut, there was a figure of Christ, which in 1953, no one had reguilded or repainted:  he was the same as himself, but still was honored by a few flowers or candles, sometimes with a single little wreath. Here, the sweeper was worked in vain, it was always drenched, noise, bustle, and even smokers in the garden in summer, forgotten old plots with lots of flowers; he took the fresh bunches of flowers to sell to at the trolley stop of the great street in the formerly independent city."


Although Magda Szabó "has learned to live in a world capital," she has remained a country girl, a fan of the Hajdúság, Csongrád and Békés regions. She was always relieved to go to the countryside: Pest lacked the Debrecen dust under her teeth, the whirling whirlwind around the Great Church. When they left Tibor’s apartment, they chose one on Júlia Street because it reminded them of Debrecen—especially the statue of Csokonai.  Szabo said that when she had to describe the skies in her books, she imagined the heaven above the small streets of Hódmezővásárhely, or what she had seen from their home in Füvészkert street in Debrecen. At the same time, her youth novels, such as Danaida are said to be located in [Budapest] Józsefváros--the Horváth Mihály Square area. And how important was that after all?  Szabo wrote in Katalin Street, that time “so firmly rounded off and parceled up in youth” becomes “ripped apart” by “advancing age. . . . For the inhabitants of Katlin Street, “Time had shrunk to specific moments, important events to single episodes, familiar places to the mere backdrop of individual scenes, so that, in the end, they understood that of everything that had made up their lives thus far only one or two places, and a handful of moments, really mattered,  Everything else was just so much wadding around their fragile existences, wood shavings stuffed into a  trunk to protect the contents on the long  journey to come."