Book Review

Katalin Street by Magda Szabó

when we reminisce we may as well be dead

This is a sad, haunting novel about place and power and totalitarianism.

Magda Szabó is an acclaimed Hungarian writer, and Katalin Street is a 1969 novel recently translated by Len Rix. That it has been translated is a great thing, because this is a powerful, though short, novel that digs deep into many of life’s most significant aspects and it does so in an inventive, appropriate, way.

The first section of the novel is called Places, and is set in the eventual “present” of the novel. We meet a family ravaged by illness and alcoholism living in a small flat and mourning the loss – not a recent one – of their grand house on the eponymous Katalin Street, where they lived during the Second World War. They were evicted early in the Hungarian Communist regime, so their fancy house could be turned into many small flats. One of the daughters of the family, however, is not with them in Budapest, she has instead escaped to warmer climes and is in a dull, mechanical, marriage with a bourgeois man somewhere on an island. This location is kept vague, and it could be Greece, it could be Turkey, it could be further away from Hungary even than that, but it is somewhere with a less progressive attitude towards women. This sister – lonely, sad, alone – is adored by her mother in law, despite her “eccentricities”, because when she isn’t sleeping outside or doing other things that are socially unacceptable, she is so devoid of personality that her docility and blunt obedience make her a conservative’s idea of a perfect wife.

The majority of the novel, however, is episodes from different times within the family (and their neighbours’) lives up to this point. We see their happiest, most hopeful moments, and we see their worst moments, too. Szabó takes us through significant and banal moments to evoke their lives and the changes wrought upon them by vast political change.

Other than the omniscient narrator, there is another person able to float between places and times: Henriette, a childhood friend of the sisters who died a teenager. As a ghost, she can witness the world of flesh as it still exists, continuing on without her, or she can retreat into the sparsely, but evocatively, described world of the dead, where every soul is able to simultaneously appear and behave as they did at every stage of their life. The dead slide between infantile dependence, teenage confusion, adult maturity and old age senility, unless – like Henriette – their shorter lives mean they are stuck in a perennial childhood. Henriette can evoke and inhabit her memories, she can mingle with the other dead – though the sight of her parents regularly slipping into infancy troubles her – or she can haunt the world of the living, sometimes being glimpsed but always being ignored.

Because people don’t believe in ghosts, they don’t believe in the fact that the dead can return, those who see Henriette do not believe it is her. Though they are all haunted by the memory of her and the circumstances of her wartime death (directly/indirectly/partially caused by the sisters), they are ignorant of the fact that they are more purely haunted by her too.

This is the strength of Szabó’s metaphor: she writes about the literary, the psychological, haunting of an individual, of a memory, but then expands upon that by including a literal, disbelieved, haunting. Similarly to the way that People I’ve Met From The Internet takes the familiar trope of the sexed-up-bildungsroman and makes it deliciously contemporary through a focus on the impact of digital communication, Katalin Street takes the traditional exploration of an unhappy adulthood spent hauntingly reminiscing about an unhappy childhood and adds a literal (i.e. supernatural) haunting to expose the deep loneliness we feel when engulfed within happy – or unhappy – nostalgia.

We are always alone, when we reminisce.

When we dwell, when we live in the past instead of in the Now, when the Now is not triumphant, when only the past or the future holds pleasure, we are as a ghost: we are not human, we are not living, we are not alive.

The melancholic reminiscer is as the ghost: gone, undead, forgotten.

By remembering in preference of living, we slip away, we become forgotten, misunderstood and ignored when we do, again, slide through into reality.

Sometimes, in depressive periods of my life, I have felt like a ghost, I have felt gone, forgotten, left behind.

Often the memories I dwell on are unhappy ones, but I did have 2018, that one great year (though maybe 2006 and 2007 were great years too), but the more morose I become because of the past the less I engage with the present. I don’t have a social life, but I used to. I don’t…

I don’t know where I’m going with this, I’ve got a nasty cold and I’m flying on hyperstrong North American non-prescription flu meds.

I’m a melancholic reminiscer, though I am not a ghost.

I need to be outside more: I need to be more alive.

Katalian Street was beautiful. Order it direct from NYRB Classics. is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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