The Photographer at Sixteen


REVIEWED BY GILL LOWE


George Szirtes (MacMacLehose Press: 2019)

For years George Szirtes wrote poems about his mother, trying to capture her mind and spirit. Here, in prose, he acknowledges the impossibility of recovering her: ‘I am interested in her so I go on inventing her, inventing a truth I can believe in. I invent nothing factual’ (142). He seeks to understand her contradictory, fascinating complexity. Identity is at the centre of this book. Each time the Transylvanian city where Magda Nussbächer was born is mentioned, it is in three languages: Cluj (Romanian); Kolozsvár (Hungarian); Klausenburg (German). These diverse names represent shifting territorial and political power. As a young girl, Magda left Romania to train as a photographer in Budapest. Here she met Lázló Schwarz. Arrested as a Jew in 1944, she was interned in Ravensbrück and, later, in Penig, Buchenwald. Surviving terrible suffering, she and Lázló were reunited, married, and George and András were born. Having changed their name to Szirtes, the family escaped the 1956 Hungarian uprising, fleeing to England.


The book’s subtitle ‘The Death and Life of a Fighter’ sets out Szirtes’ organisational choice. He reconstructs the chronology of his mother’s life by telling it backwards. He starts by quoting from the poet Anthony Hecht who imagines a diver emerging feet first from ‘water/ That closes itself like a healed wound’ (5). Rewinding a film is the analogy. Szirtes hopes working backwards might allow healing and begins in 1975 with his mother’s death by suicide.


At the end of the book he reprises the figure of the diver reeling backwards and upwards onto the high diving board; the water has miraculously healed, ‘the hole has closed’ (201). He likens this re- wind to a conjuring trick. His mother seemed to say ‘Conjure me’ but he cannot recreate her; to do this would be magic. He knows he is often guessing, checking facts but filling in where there are gaps, imagining where there is no certainty (‘ever more maybes and perhapses’ 173). He takes on this challenge with a grave sense of responsibility, care and love, wishing to return to an innocent ‘perfect unwounded beginning’ (5).

Looking is central in this book. Szirtes scrutinises the photographs he has of Magda, speculating about her character, observing that these images fade but that they oust live ones; ‘they stand still and never change’ (20). He includes a poem about a photograph ‘filled with retrospect’ (61) which captures only one still moment in his parent’s life.


Photograph c.1957/8 courtesy of George Szirtes