Anne Sebba

A life in pieces

In an unflinching memoir, George Szirtes describes his mother’s bitter despair on finding that all her family had perished

When the poet George Szirtes returned as an adult to Budapest, the city of his birth which he had left as a child with his family in 1956, he experienced what became an abiding fantasy. He imagined his mother going back to the family flat but, instead of sitting down in a chair, she carried on walking through the wall until she emerged as a plaster statue:

At that moment I realise… that Budapest is absolutely crammed with statues that were once people, people who had simply walked through the walls and become stylised allegorical figures, that this was their fate, hers, and mine too, come to that.

This exquisitely told memoir is crammed with similarly evocative and occasionally deeply unsettling images. As Szirtes carefully peels back layers of history, he brings his mother not exactly back to life. As we learn in a dramatic opening chapter she had taken her own life (an overdose) and the ambulance rushing her to hospital was involved in a crash, so she died, aged 51, at a road junction. But he offers us various fragments of her often painful life, putting them together not always gently but honestly, and in so doing he hopes to heal the wound of her death.

It is only at the end that we have all the pieces — or, at least, as many as Szirtes himself has to share with us. By telling the story of his mother’s life backwards, finishing with a creased photograph of her as a sturdy two-year-old in a white romper suit and big bow alongside her beloved brother, Dezsö, Szirtes has performed a sort of conjuring trick. He has conjured Magda (we learn her name only halfway through her story) back onto the page, and compares the process to imagining a diver emerging feet first, dry legged, landing back on a high diving board or rewinding a spool of film, appropriate since his mother was a photographer.

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