Coming of Age Inside “A Bell Jar”: Magda Szabó’s “Abigail,” Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix

By Gabi Reigh

hbg-title-9780857058515-25“Creativity requires a state of grace,” Magda Szabó wrote in her 1987 novel The Door. “So many things are required for it to succeed—stimulus and composure, inner peace and a kind of bitter-sweet excitement.” Szabó’s life was not short of excitement, “bitter-sweet” or otherwise. She lived through the Second World War (which provides the setting for several of her novels, including Abigail) and through the communist era, when her work was censored for not conforming to the aesthetic of socialist realism. Abigail is the third novel to be translated into English by Len Rix, who also brought us her novels The Door and Katalin Street, which won the PEN Translation prize in 2018.

Unlike Katalin Street, which focuses on the lives of several inhabitants of a street in Budapest and spans several decades, Abigail tells us the story of a brief formative period in the life of a young girl living in a Hungary on the brink of German occupation. In this coming-of-age novel, Szabó’s most popular in her native Hungary, we see Gina Vitay, the daughter of a general in the Hungarian army, wrenched without explanation from her life in Budapest and sent to an isolated boarding school in Eastern Hungary. On her arrival, Gina initially struggles to adapt to her new life as she is bullied by her classmates and yearns for her old freedoms. She resents her father for sending her away to Matula school, a place that makes her feel that she is “no longer herself.” However, as she begins to understand the realities of war and the dangers threatening her outside this cloistered environment, she comes to terms with her situation and learns to moderate her behavior and show empathy towards others:

All my life I have been a wild thing, Gina reflected. I am impatient and impulsive, and I have never learned to love people who annoy me or try to hurt me. Now I shall try to learn these virtues and I shall do so for the sake of my father: for him I shall seek to be gentle and patient.

Gina’s mysterious protector at Matula comes in the form of Abigail, a statue that magically helps the schoolgirls in times of need. An element of intrigue is introduced as to the real identity of Abigail, an enigma which is resolved only at the end of the novel, challenging Gina’s assumptions about the adults around her.

Szabó  gives us a nuanced presentation of her heroine; while we sympathize with her feelings of restriction and her alienation from her peers, that “pack of young puppies” relentlessly punishing her with their “petty cruelties,” she is also a typical self-involved adolescent who misjudges those around her and values appearance over substance. As a former teacher, Szabó was well placed to observe the dynamics of the girls’ relationships and her portrayal of school life is perceptive and witty. While the characters of Gina and her schoolmates are vividly drawn, the teachers and their lives are more two-dimensional, but this arguably immerses us into the teenage heroine’s perspective, blind as she is to the complexity of adult relationships.

Gina’s gradual coming of age is drawn convincingly; as she matures, she begins to see the adults around her in a new light––those who seemed dashing and heroic are exposed as self-important and narcissistic, while the kind and unassuming, although initially despised, ultimately prove to be moral and humane. Szabó’s use of prolepsis heightens the rapid changes taking place in the girl’s mind as she is growing up, reminding us of the way one reevaluates events with the passing of time and the way their real significance is often hidden from us when we initially experience them. As Gina leaves Budapest for her new school, the intrusive narrator tells us that she will relive this memory “much later, when there were no more secrets to distract her, and her eyes were no longer blinded by misery to such important new experiences.”

There is plenty of humor and intrigue in the novel, especially after Gina is finally accepted by her peers as part of the group. The mischievous pranks they play on their teachers, their speculations about their love lives and their own romantic fantasies portray their youthful exuberance and their determination to enjoy their lives despite the “medieval freakery” of the boarding school. But despite the hopeful resolution at the end of the book, what stayed with me was the initial claustrophobia and loneliness Gina experiences when she first arrives at Matula, “the sense of being trapped in the chill suffocating air inside a bell jar.” After breaking a silly rule in one of the girls’ games, she becomes an outcast and is punished for refusing to conform to the rule of the majority: “Gina the despised, Gina the traitor, Gina the girl who was too proud to be married to an aquarium!”

The atmosphere of the school seems to mirror the war-torn world it seeks to shut out, where outsiders are set upon and anyone who shows kindness, such as their teacher Kőnig, is perceived as weak and also becomes a target for mockery. When interviewed by Diána Vonnák for Asymptote, Len Rix comments that he admired Szabó’s work for its “great dramatic and moral power” that she can “have you roaring with laughter or fighting back tears,” a fitting description of Szabó’s ambivalent evocation of school life. Describing the process of translating Szabó’s work, Rix writes that: “The attentive translator, like a good valet, has to do a lot of discreet tidying up. I also spend a lot of time breaking her ‘over-long’ sentences into units more manageable to the Anglophone ear.”

The result is very satisfying and engaging and fits the pace of the narrative, which, with its unravelling mysteries, often reads like an adventure story. I have admired Rix’s writing since first reading his translation of Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. Vonnák argues that, like Szerb, Szabó  has been deemed “passé as a modernist author” as her work was “overshadowed by the so-called prose turn and a strongly postmodern approach to language and narrative” employed by other writers of the period. Reading this engaging translation in the light of Rix’s commentary on his craft, one cannot help but wonder what other English translations of her work might sound like, and whether a less “tidy” version might make her prose appear more experimental and innovative.

Abigail reads like an enjoyable, often humorous coming-of-age story, but, in Rix’s words, Szabó also “moves us deeply with her moral and psychological insights and thus shows us more of what it means to be fully human.” Despite having a narrower focus than Katalin Street, Abigail’s microcosmic world exposes the dynamics of herd mentality, people’s potential for cruelty, as well as their capacity for kindness and selflessness.

Szabó, Magda. Abigail. Translated by Len Rix. MacLehose Press, 2020.

Gabi Reigh translates contemporary Romanian literature as well as literature from the interwar era as part of her Interbellum Series project. As part of this project, she has translated Poems of Light by Lucian Blaga and the novels The Town with Acacia Trees and Women by Mihail Sebastian.

Leave a Reply