Abigail by Magda Szabó

It might help here to expand our vocabulary of greatness. There is the transporting greatness of cathedrals—greatness in design and execution, in order wrested from chaos. And there is the engulfing greatness of a flood or fire—chaos unleashed. When we in America speak of greatness in a work of art, we tend to mean some admixture of these two. The greatness that confronts 15-year-old Gina Vitay at the start of the novel Abigail, by the late Hungarian writer Magda Szabó, is altogether different.

The only child of a widowed army general, Gina has been raised in Budapest by a French governess and an aunt rich in romantic visions and “fierce perfumes.” Gina feels worldly beyond her age; on holidays, she has “experienced the furnace that was Sicily and stood on the edge of a glacier.” Now, though, as her father drives her to a girls’ boarding school in the distant city of Árkod, she encounters for the first time Hungary’s Great Plain: