[New York Review Books; 2020]
Tr. from the Hungarian by Len Rix
“The change that came about in her life robbed her of so much it was as if a bomb had destroyed her home,” begins this novel from 1970 by Hungary’s Magda Szabo. Abigail sets out as a coming of age novel, the 14-year-old Gina Vitay swept away from her luxurious life in Budapest to a stark, fortress-like girl’s boarding school in the provinces. It’s the Bishop Matula Academy, known as the Matula. The magic of Abigail is that the schoolgirl story is a kind of sleight of hand covering a different story of much more import than Gina’s travails. Abigail is a wonderful read, full of mysteries and surprises, all set off, like the Harry Potter books or Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, by the strange, self-enclosed world of the boarding school. Yet the way it beckons to a more adult story is what makes it topical. Fans of Szabo’s The Door (NYRB, 2015) will feel a similar clang of realization at the end of Abigail, as Szabo reveals the mechanism within the supple vessel of her narrative.
Gina’s unhappy transition happens in the fall of 1943. Her father is a general in the Hungarian army, and Gina’s crush is on a handsome army officer. Her concerns are entirely personal: the loss of her clothes, combs, and jewelry on entering the austere school and her belief that the only reason her father could be sending her away is that he’s about to remarry. Gina thinks the Matula is a joke, with its emphasis on piety, decorum, and self-control. After initially making friends, Gina falls out with her entire class by rejecting one of the school’s sly traditions. At the beginning of the school year, all the girls “marry” a random item in the classroom, and then carry out a secret study of whatever it is. Gina doesn’t see the humor and refuses to “marry” an empty aquarium. Her classmates then cut ties with her. They shun her so completely that they bury some pastries she gives them, rather than eat anything that comes from her. Gina thrashes against her outcast status and the sudden upending of her comfortable life.
The Matula is an insulated space, full of rules and rituals, with hardly any acknowledgement of the outside world. Once Gina makes peace with her classmates, she enjoys an idyllic solidarity with the other girls, and they’re all in constant close companionship. The students for the most part revere the school and are grateful for the fine education they’re getting. Szabo characterizes the whole group of girls to which Gina belongs by showing the ways they look after each other, the games and fantasies they collude in, and their preoccupation with the love lives of their deaconess Susanna and their teachers.
Very little discloses the wartime setting. An unknown person has been writing anti-war slogans around the town, but the girls are almost always behind the walls of the Matula. When Gina encounters the graffiti sentiments, she hardly knows what to make of them. The so-called “dissident” who leaves these marks seems more interesting to the girls because of his ability to escape detection, rather than because he has something to say. Within the shelter of the Matula, the girls are kept from confronting anything ugly. The girls are also prevented from expressing anything negative. Gina wants to tell her father how miserable she is when she first gets to the Matula, but the deaconess (a guardian role, like a resident assistant in a dorm) Susanna forbids her. “Your father the General is battling with the problems of the whole country, and he should hear only cheerful, positive things from you,” she tells Gina. The letters the girls write home also must only express bland good thoughts. Though the Matula girls are also forbidden to lie, a strict censorship is enforced, and they have no way to put into words anything that’s not uplifting. Gina struggles with the strictures on her speech to the extent that she tries to run away, but all in all the girls seem to feel that the Matula’s demands are not unreasonable.
The novel rushes along full of the gleam and wonder of the school outings and the thrill of Gina’s late-night intrigue as she meets up with her Budapest beau. Gina eventually comes in contact with an unknown person, who gives her a job of switching out some baptism certificates for four of her classmates. By now, Hitler’s army is inside Hungary, and anti-Jewish laws are in effect. While the Axis powers are losing the war, they’re still managing to massacre Hungary’s Jews. Szabo says none of this, letting us hear only Gina’s vague understanding that “the religion your parents belonged to was now a matter of terrifying importance,” which put you “at a disadvantage, or even in danger.” These sentences ring terribly false. Gina is in the midst of a catastrophe that she’s been robbed of the language to comprehend.
At this point, Szabo lets us see the Matula very differently. Has it been sheltering the girls or blinding them? Is their piety giving them the strength they need to be good people, or is it enforcing habits of unquestioning obedience? And while we’ve stuck with Gina’s point of view this whole time, ultimately it’s not her choices but the deaconess Susanna’s that matter. It’s actually the adults in the story who can influence the outcome. They’ve been there all along as background or props and come to the fore in the last pages. Szabo manages this astonishing transition, where the story she’s wrapped us up in whisks away, and we have to rethink all we’ve been told. What a pleasure it is then, on finishing the book, to turn back to the first page and read again that Gina felt “as if a bomb had destroyed her home.” What had been adolescent hyperbole is now a real bomb, promising real destruction and death.
I ran to Abigail, having felt blown apart by Szabo’s The Door. The Door is a simple story of a writer and her maid, but the reader’s understanding of who these people are and what underlies their conflicts transforms completely through the course of the book. Abigail is a lighter read than The Door. The former may masquerade too earnestly as an adventure novel, especially when the narrator swoops in with a glimpse of Gina’s future, as if to assure us that everything will turn out all right. But the same magic is at work in both Abigail and The Door, Szabo pulling the story aside to show a very different set of concerns. It seems an almost otherworldly gift, for a writer to be able to construct so carefully one engaging story, while creating behind it another way to view the action. This is what Henry James does, especially in Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors, and he’s rightly called “the Master.”
Szabo is a fleet, modern writer, and leaving James aside, I recommend reading her beside another Hungarian novelist, Imre Kertesz. In the Nobel laureate’s Fatelessness, a Jewish teenager survives Auschwitz and deals with the aftermath in silence, as his neighbors essentially tell him to quit whining about it. Kertesz’ Gyorgi, who barely knows he’s Jewish but is sentenced to death for it, makes a perfect pair with Szabo’s Gina. Both try to make sense of themselves in a world where anything disturbing is shut out. We may live in very different times, where access to information is overwhelming. Nevertheless, what we do with our knowledge is up to us. Szabo’s Abigail is a moral — though not moralizing — book. Our actions have consequences, and if we behave like children, we may be treated like cattle.
Angela Woodward is the author of the novels End of the Fire Cult and Natural Wonders, and the collections The Human Mind and Origins and Other Stories. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, Agni, American Chordata, the LA Review of Books and elsewhere. Her many awards include a Pushcart Prize and the Fiction Collective Two Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize.