Excerpt

Abigail

Magda Szabó (trans. Len Rix)

January 27, 2020 
The following is an excerpt from Magda Szabó's novel, translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix. 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. In 2015, the first American publication of her novel 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. Len Rix is a poet, critic, and former literature professor.

The  change that came about in her life robbed her of so much it was as if a bomb had destroyed her home.

Her first loss was Marcelle—the Marcelle she had always addressed as “mam’selle,” though she had never thought of her as simply the young Frenchwoman who for 12 years had slept in the room next to hers and had brought her up. Marcelle had become much more than a governess or mere employee. Just to be in her presence was usually enough for Gina to forget that Marcelle was not actually a member of the family, someone who could never truly replace the mother she had lost at the tender age of two. Marcelle always knew what Gina was struggling to express, what was really on her mind, the thing she could only stammer about incoherently, and there were moments when Gina felt as close to Marcelle as she did to her father. Whenever the governess was assailed by homesickness, or Gina reacted negatively to something said or done, Marcelle would tell her to be glad that at least she had a father by her side, and one who loved her more than anyone: she, Marcelle, had long ago lost her own parents, and now she had to earn her living from the one thing they had taught her, her mother tongue. She never failed to add that, if that was to be her lot in life, then how lucky she was to have found a home with Gina and her father. Though she had never married, it was as if here at the Vitays she had a family, or at least a daughter, of her own. Marcelle was the sort of person you would always miss when away from home as you would a real parent, and Gina knew that she was so very good to her not because she was paid to be but because she truly loved her.

But Marcelle was no more: she had gone back to France. Gina’s father, the General, had said it was impossible for her to stay a moment longer, and he surely knew best. He would not have sent her away if he had not been absolutely obliged to. He knew as well as anyone the nature of the bond he would break in forcing them to part. But there was a war on, he explained: Marcelle’s and Gina’s countries were on opposing sides, and it was impossible for the young Frenchwoman to continue living with them. When there was peace again she would be able to return and they could carry on with their lives where they had left off. She had left all her belongings behind; they had simply been packed into trunks and moved down to the cellar.

But Auntie Mimó wasn’t French, and even if Marcelle really had to go home, why was it necessary to send Gina away to a boarding school? Why couldn’t her education be overseen by her aunt? When she asked her father why, if he insisted on her being under constant supervision whatever the cost, his sister couldn’t just move in with them, the General shook his head. If she hadn’t been so busy clutching at every straw in the hope of being allowed to remain at home, she too would have recognized that Auntie Mimó could never be a successor to Marcelle: she was quite unsuitable. However much Gina loved her aunt, she had made fun of her on many occasions and had often thought that at 14 she was actually more grown up than her aunt was, even if the latter was a widow and by now over 40. But the moment it became clear to Gina that she would be parted from her too, the thought of losing her as well as Marcelle somehow enhanced her image. She forgot the many times she had giggled at Auntie Mimó’s efforts to preserve her long-vanished youth, her desperate need to be the center of attention when in company and the anxious interest she would take in every new item of fashion or cosmetics in the hope of a miracle. Gina also forgot just how quickly she and Marcelle had realized that those famous afternoon teas, the afternoon teas with ballroom dancing that Auntie Mimó held every Thursday and which no amount of pleading could persuade the General to attend, were arranged not for the reason her aunt gave— to provide an opportunity for her little motherless niece to make herself known, to help her learn how to conduct herself in society, and to practice her dancing. No, Auntie Mimó was simply out to enjoy herself, to show off her new clothes and her ever-changing hairdos, to dance, and, with luck, to find herself a husband. That was why the guests on those occasions were generally old enough to be Gina’s father (or even grandfather), with scarcely a young person in sight. Marcelle was no doubt right when she declared that it was not at afternoon teas and dances that a young girl would learn that fundamental something she would later need to know in adult life; and she had surely been proved right that time they found Auntie Mimó in floods of tears because her hairdresser had cut her hair badly. Life undoubtedly calls for dignity and self-discipline, and for a person to be able to react to things in an adult way it was necessary to distinguish between what was merely unpleasant and what was truly bad, especially in wartime, when all over the world people were dying in their tens and hundreds of thousands. A badly cut lock of hair was an utterly trivial matter.

On the other hand, it was at one of Auntie Mimó’s famous afternoon teas that Gina had met Feri Kuncz, and had not failed to notice that, almost to the point of rudeness, the lieutenant had had eyes only for her. She was moreover to receive an unexpected and perhaps somewhat premature gift—the alarming, almost too joyful realization that she had fallen in love with him, and that she wanted one day to become his wife.

Father and daughter: they loved each other with a passion and both felt the world complete only when they were together.

This business of Feri (it was the only thing she never had the courage to tell her father about) was, most unusually, something that Marcelle did not approve of. Her aunt, from the moment she spotted what was developing between Gina and the lieutenant, had been altogether more understanding. It was she who explained to Gina that there is nothing more innocent and beautiful than the blooming of first love, the memory of which—even if it did not end in marriage—would always burn brighter than any other, and how happy she was to be the guardian of this pure, noble and entirely mutual attraction. Happy she certainly was. But Marcelle did not like Feri, and she liked this association with Feri even less. Not long before the General’s announcement that she would have to go back to France she had told Gina that she would have to tell him about it—about everything, the regular Thursday afternoon meetings and the whispered exchanges. Her father had repeatedly said that Marcelle, rather than his own flighty sister, should be the one to keep an eye on Gina. No one from the officers’ mess should be allowed to come anywhere near her: that was all it would take for one of them to start trying to court her. In the end Marcelle kept her counsel. She was too busy preparing for her departure and the actual moment of separation. As things turned out, she might just as well have told him. Along with the governess and Auntie Mimó, the lieutenant would also soon disappear from Gina’s life. If she were no longer in Budapest, how could she keep up the connection with him?

So now there was no Marcelle, and by tomorrow there would be no Auntie Mimó either, or Feri Kuncz. And with them, plucked away as if by a bird, her life at the Sokoray Atala Academy would have gone too. That fact was no easier to bear. She had been a pupil there ever since she had been old enough to go to school. She knew every brick in the building, every nook and cranny. It was an old and prestigious Budapest school for girls, and the staff were highly qualified and conscientious. Whenever Auntie Mimó invited Gina to one of her tea dances, to celebrate the Feast of St. Barbara or St. Nicholas, the headmistress always granted her leave, and it seemed no less natural that she should be allowed regular visits to the theatre and the opera. Often (for they had a season ticket) the General would join them at the performance, sitting behind them in the box Gina shared with Marcelle and her aunt. The door would open, a cold draught would caress her back and neck and the crimson-carpeted floor would creak gently as her father took his seat. More often than not his arrival gave her more pleasure than the performance itself. When she turned to greet him, it was into her own face that she smiled: her own gray eyes gazed back at her from beneath eyebrows shaped almost exactly like her own. Even their hair, in its fineness of texture, was alike, though Gina’s was brown and his was now graying. Their facial features, their mouths, even the shape of their teeth, were the same: father and daughter. In all the 14 years of Gina’s life, although neither of them had ever expressed it in such elementary terms, they loved each other with a passion and both felt the world complete only when they were together.

And that was why it was so impossible to fathom his sudden decision to send her away to a boarding school in the provinces the moment Marcelle had gone. In the past she had been able to persuade him to do almost anything; now he seemed deaf to all her pleadings. He had decided on her fate without discussing a single detail and had merely informed her what would happen. If he had given any kind of explanation, anything she could understand and accept, it might have been easier for her to bear the thought of being torn from her familiar world. But her father had clearly not been telling the truth when he made his announcement. His reasons—that it was time for her to acquire greater self-discipline than she could learn from a governess within the walls of her own home; that the country air would be so much better for her; that he would henceforth have less time to spend with her and would feel happier if her upbringing were placed in the hands of only the very best teachers—were simply not worth thinking about. The villa on Gellért Hill stood high above the Danube and the city beyond. Where could the air have been healthier than here, in their large garden on the upper slopes? And what greater self-discipline be acquired than what Marcelle had instilled in her? More upstanding governesses? As if he had not personally chosen the best possible school for his daughter. No, for once he was not telling the truth. He simply did not want to have her in the house. And that could only mean that Auntie Mimó was almost right. For months she had been telling Gina that her brother had changed. He had grown more irritable, more reticent, and the amount of time he claimed to be spending on his military duties was quite implausible, in fact beyond belief. No, there must be a woman involved, she had said: one day Gina would see the truth, when he suddenly took the plunge and married. And perhaps the new wife wouldn’t want her around. Was it so impossible that her father should love some new woman more than his own child?

Gina was very much her father’s daughter. After hours of fruitless pleading she abruptly fell silent. There were no more questions, no more complaints. The General, who knew her every bit as well as if he were her mother, understood what depths of hurt and hopeless misery lay behind her restrained silence. When she gathered her things together the night before she left there was not the slightest hint of tears and no great emotional scene. Even without Marcelle’s help the packing did not take long, so few were the possessions she was allowed to have with her in the new school. Her father, it now became clear, had already visited the provincial town in question and had told her that the pupils were issued with their own clothing and equipment. All she would need to take was her underwear and her dressing gown; everything else would be supplied when she arrived. Before she finally shut the lid on her suitcase she ran her eyes slowly around the room, then stuffed her favorite toy, the spotted velvet dog, deep down between the nightdresses. Then she had second thoughts and put it back. It too would have to stay. Her adaptation to this unfamiliar new world would have to be total. The textbooks, the exercise books, everything would be completely new. So far she had been at a state school, now she was being sent to a religious one, where the books, and even the blotting paper, would be different.

That day they went on a round of farewells, first to her aunt and then to the cemetery.

When she learned the reason for their coming Auntie Mimó’s fit of hysterics was a model of its kind. She was outraged, of course, by the fact that Gina was to be taken from her side, but also because it was only now that she was being told. The girl was leaving the very next day, and no one had said a word! Listening to the endless torrent of reproaches Gina felt utterly wretched, though there was nothing that she herself could have done differently. The moment she had learned from her father what was in store for her she had wanted to fly to her aunt for comfort and consolation, perhaps even help. But it had been impossible. She had run to the hallway to telephone her but had not finished dialing the full six numbers when her father was standing behind her and lifting the receiver from her hand. “You must tell absolutely no one,” he said, addressing her not in his usual tones but as to a soldier receiving orders. “I will take you to visit Mimó, but there will be goodbyes to no one else—not your girlfriends, not your acquaintances, not even the domestic staff. You will never mention the fact that you are leaving Budapest. We’ll shake hands on that.” Gina gave him her hand, but she could not bear to look him in the face, so upset was she that this too was being denied her, the chance to vent her grievances, the precious moments of parting, the fond words of farewell that she would have exchanged with Feri.

That woman is pitiless. For the first time in his life my father is being weak.

It was the first time Auntie Mimó had ever really fallen out with her brother. When it became clear that he was unwilling even to let her know where he was taking the girl (“You’ll be writing to her every five minutes, or sending her parcels, and you’ll be calling on her every other week. I’m not telling you, Mimó!”), she rose to her feet, thanked them for their visit and expressed the desire not to see her brother again for a good long while. Then she burst into tears, covered Gina with kisses and rushed out of the room, weeping ever more angrily. They left the house in such haste that Gina did not even have time to whisper a message for her to pass on to Feri. This was especially worrying. On the previous Thursday afternoon she had known nothing of her father’s plans and had parted from the lieutenant with a promise to see him there next week. He would look for her in vain.

From her aunt’s her father took her to the cemetery, where they stood in silence before her mother’s grave. Gina imagined that this valediction might be rather different from those previous occasions when they had gone there, as they always did before going away for any length of time. Was he perhaps bidding farewell to her dear departed mother, saying a last goodbye to her before embarking on a new life altogether?

That evening was, to all appearances, like every other since Marcelle’s departure. They dined, the General sat by the fireplace to read, Gina pulled her stool under the standard lamp and took out her book. She stared at the lines but made nothing of the text; she did not even turn the page, she was merely pretending to be reading. Soon she became aware that there was no susurration of turning pages coming from behind her either; no reading was in progress in the depths of the great armchair. She caught her father’s gaze. Talk to me, was the message written on her face. Tell me what you intend to do, and what all this means. Whoever it is you want to bring here, I will love her. Your taste and your choice can never be wrong. How could anyone you love be a stranger to me, or someone I would choose to hate? Tell me what you have in mind. Don’t shut me out of your life. Don’t force us to live apart just because there is someone else. I won’t get in the way or make difficulties. I’ve always loved you too much for that. It’s still not too late. Don’t send me away! Make that woman understand that I will be a friend, not an enemy. Speak to me, father!

“You are going into a very different world,” he said. “It’s strange to think how often you’ve been to Switzerland and Paris and Italy with Marcelle, and with me to Vienna, and yet you’ve never lived in the provinces. Please try to bear with it.”

She made no reply. What could she possibly have said? The book slid from her lap onto the carpet. Up there on the hill the evenings were cool, even in summer. Now, though it was only the first of September, they already had the heating on. The electric fire with its imitation logs glowed a bright red.

“There is no other way,” he continued. “Please understand that, Gina. There really isn’t. If Marcelle had been able to stay the situation would have been different. Marcelle was sensible and responsible. But nowadays I am hardly ever at home. Mimó is superficial and frivolous. You cannot depend on her for anything. I have to send you away for a reason I simply don’t wish to talk about. I am no happier about it than you are, believe me.”

The girl looked at the fire, then held out her hands towards it, to warm her fingers. In her mind she had already decided what that reason was, the one he refused to discuss. But if he wasn’t going to mention it, then she too would say nothing. The unexplained reason would console her father well enough in her absence, and everything would work out very nicely. If you were sent away to a boarding school in the fifth year of your secondary education you would almost certainly stay there till your leaving exams and come home only for the holidays, so why would you change again after that? “You’ve never lived in the provinces. Please try to bear with it.” What kind of place could he be taking her to, if he had to give her such a warning in advance?

“Tomorrow we have to be up early, so do get to bed,” the General said. “I will take you there myself, in the car.”

They both stood up. Her father drew her into an embrace and held her face against his. How sad he is too, Gina thought. How much it hurts him that I am leaving. That woman is pitiless. For the first time in his life my father is being weak.

She ran up the stairs to the second floor, where the bedrooms were. In every window the shutters were closed, as required in wartime. With the view of the city and her own garden blocked, her room now felt quite alien, as if it were no longer hers, as if she had not lived and slept there since the day she had been born. Feeling like a guest in her own bedroom she sat down uncertainly on the edge of the bed and stared at the pattern on the quilt: red cups of poppy flowers on grass-green silk, as on a lawn. Feri’s words, “Ginny, little Ginny, little fairy girl,” flitted to and fro in the silence, like butterflies over the poppy-covered material. The temptation to creep back to the telephone in the hallway and try to call the lieutenant assailed her once again. Soon it was irresistible. The General was still sitting by the fireplace in the drawing room and the staff were having supper in the basement: no one would hear her making the call. She got as far as the door, then turned back, feeling utterly helpless. It reduced her to something like despair that she was incapable of breaking her word even when what she had promised had been so incomprehensible, so inhuman and so totally unacceptable. She went back to the bed and tried to imagine where she would lay her head the following night, and what her new bed and surroundings would be like. But it was impossible.

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From Abigail by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, New York Review of Books. Copyright © 1970 by Magda Szabó. Translation Copyright © 2020 by Len Rix. All rights reserved.




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