‘Katalin Street’ by Magda Szabó (Review)

As the year draws to a close, I seem to be posting at a furious rate, thanks largely to some time off work.  All good things must come to an end, though, and today sees my last review post for 2018 – with a look ahead to the coming year.  This latest choice will be out in a couple of weeks, yet it’s actually taken around fifty years for it to make it into English.  Better late than never, I suppose – let’s see what you all have to look forward to next month 🙂

Katalin Street (translated by Len Rix, published by MacLehose Press) is an early work by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó, best known for her 1987 novel The Door.  It follows a group of neighbours through several decades of turbulent history, focusing on the relationship between the emotionally restrained schoolteacher Irén Elekes and Bálint Bíro, a boy next door who becomes a doctor.  What could be a fairly mundane story of lovers eventually overcoming adversity becomes something very different in Szabó’s hands.  She creates a dark, depressing tale in which nobody seems happy, even when the lovers get together.

The core of the story is Katalin Street itself, or at least three adjoining houses whose inhabitants are closely connected.  When the Held family moves in to the street in 1934, their young daughter Henriette is taken under the wing of Bálint, Irén and her flighty sister, Blanka.  From the start, the special bond between Bálint and Irén is clear, but the younger newcomer comes to see the older boy as a protector and finds her place in the group. As the years pass, the happy childhood they share gives way to the difficulties of life, whether personal or political, and the novel begins to show the slow disintegration of the families, the street and their relationships.

The novel consists of a series of snapshots, each focusing on a short period before catapulting us forward in time.  1934 gives way to 1944 and the menace of transportations; then we move on to 1952 and the early Communist era, before spending a night in 1956, where the city is in uproar.  Finally, we arrive in 1961, with the surviving characters coming together, exhausted and devoid of joy.  The story switches between Irén’s personal description of events and a third-person narrative focusing more on Bálint, with each section revealing more of the events hinted at near the start of the book.

Hungarian history, including the brief glimpse of the Second World War and the build up to the Soviet crackdown of 1956, provides the backdrop to the novel.  We see the effect these events had on the people, especially the young, with Bálint and Irén representatives of a damaged generation:

On the other hand, if those who had died had taken something fundamental away from him in their dying, then I would probably never be able to give that back to him, not because I didn’t love him, or because I wasn’t trying hard enough, but because there was no way in which I conceivably could: it was simply impossible.
p.171 (MacLehose Press, 2019)

Katalin Street shows little people caught up in big events, yet it’s by no means the Holocaust book I (and many others) might have expected.  Where many writers would use their characters to explore the history, Szabó does the opposite.  She’s far more concerned in the people than in the events, and fleshes out her main characters as history rolls by.

At its core, the novel sets out Bálint and Irén’s love story, warts and all, showing their struggles in a relationship thwarted by bad timing.  However, there’s a growing sense that they were wrong for each other anyway, with the link between them owing more to nostalgia than true love.  Bálint is happy enough when forced to leave Budapest, but on his return he finds that he is unable, and unwilling, to escape from his past:

He had struggled on for so long on his own and finally come to see that without us he would never find what he had always wanted, something from the time when the two of us were children.  Only through us could he make his way back to Katalin Street.  We were the only ones who remembered that time when everything in his life held hope and promise. (p.250)

The irony here is that when all the obstacles have finally been removed, very little remains of the feelings the couple once had for each other.

While the structure of the novel might seem fairly straight-forward, there’s a lot more to it than the above suggests.  The initial scenes actually show us the results before the events leading to them, with one chapter gathering the surviving characters in a dreary apartment, and another paying a visit to the exiled Blanka’s.  It’s also here that we first encounter Henriette’s ghost, the thread that will hold the book together.  A constant presence, she’s able to visit both the present and a past she has constructed for herself in another realm, the Katalin Street of her childhood.  Thsi concept allows the reader to compare what the characters were and what they’ve become, or degraded into.

Katalin Street is my first look at Szabó’s work, and it’s an atmospheric, absorbing novel.  The writing is wonderful throughout, with Rix (translator of Antal Szerb amongst others) doing his usual excellent job.  One of the most impressive features of the novel is the characterisation, with each of the writer’s creations vivid and very humanly flawed.  Quite apart from the tragic couple, there’s Blanka and her thoughtless nature, Mr. Elekes, unable to cope in a world gone mad, and the enigmatic Henriette, a young girl watching over them all.

The only slight criticism I’d make of the novel is the time it takes to get into the main story.  While the initial scenes are interesting and add to the effect of the later parts, stretching them out for more than fifty pages delays our introduction to the characters.  This makes it hard to really care initially, and even makes the book a little confusing.  Irén speaks for the reader when she says:

So what do you really know about us?  Or about her?  Her?
What  you do know is fragmentary and superficial, and even where it is true things aren’t quite as you imagine them to be.

As a result, after the first half of the novel, despite its obvious merits, I still wasn’t sure if I liked it.  However, it does gradually get there, coming together nicely, and it’s definitely worth persevering with.

An excellent story of life thwarting love, Katalin Street is a book I suspect I’ll be revisiting at some point.  It may not be the cheeriest of books, but sometimes that makes for the best literature, and it’s certainly encouraged me to try more of Szabó’s work.  All in all, it makes for a fitting end to this year’s reviewing…

…but the new year is just around the corner 🙂


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