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:
As the car raced steadily eastwards, she could see nothing but the work of autumn going on in the fields, the occasional white homestead in a distant smallholding, a few thinly wooded copses or isolated clumps of beech trees dancing in the breeze, and murky canals filled with water the color of copper.
Gina’s inner reaction to this outer change—she feels “as if a bomb had gone off in her life”—points both to her passionate nature and to the larger political backdrop: the year is 1943, and Hungary is at war. But the greatness of the Plain is nothing so incendiary, or world-historical. It lies elsewhere on the continuum, on the far side of the sublime: the greatness of what is simply there.
Readers of Magda Szabó’s other books will not be surprised to learn that, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, Abigail has just that kind of steady, inevitable, and quietly de-stabilizing greatness. The Door, Szabó’s psychological masterpiece from 1987, first appeared in the U.S. in 2015, nearly a decade after her death, and was promptly named one of the year’s best novels by The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
The translations that followed, Iza’s Ballad (1963) and Katalin Street (1969), confirmed her Chekhovian mastery of character and detail, and if Len Rix’s adroit new version of Abigail (1970) offered only more of the same, that would be more than enough. But, remarkably, Abigail enlarges our sense of Szabó’s achievement. In addition to the many books for grown-ups she published in the period of “goulash Communism,” she wrote celebrated novels for young adults, and from this side of her oeuvre, she draws a proper adventure story. The resulting synthesis of innocence and experience, youthful thrills and mature restraint, put Abigail in rare company—a kind of Mitteleuropean cousin to Jane Eyre and Huckleberry Finn.
Sentence to sentence, Abigail has a kind of steady, inevitable, and quietly destabilizing greatness.
The theater for Gina’s exploits is the Bishop Matula Gymnasium—”the strictest school in the whole world,” “austere and charmless,” a “monochrome” vista of uniformed girls. Its architecture, all thick walls and locked doors, underscores the monastic seriousness of the place, as does the director, Gedeon Torma, with his flowing black Snapery and perpetual scowl. The other authority figures are equally distinct, even as their students remain a blur. We meet the class tutor Péter Kalmár, an ardent patriot with the face of St. George; Susanna, a soft-hearted deaconess; and a hapless pedagogue named Konig, “the sort of person you could imagine writing long meditations on the full moon, or the charms of an especially good dinner.” As a counterbalance, we meet the titular Abigail, a statue who stands at the end of the garden and, legend has it, offers aid to any girl who leaves her a note.
For us, the quirks of the Matula feel both persuasive and soothingly familiar; they fit right into the canon of boarding-school novels. Convention demands, too, that this cloistered setting strike sparks from Gina herself. Her early days at the Matula show her to be bright, resourceful, and independent, but also impulsive, stubborn, and self-absorbed. The question, it seems, is whether she’ll stamp her will on her surroundings or whether she’ll conform to the undifferentiated mass of girls processing toward chapel like “an elongated swarm of identical blue insects.”
Szabó is too much on the side of life, though, to allow this storybook struggle to proceed unchecked. No sooner has Abigail established its genre elements than it sets about subverting them—or rather, conscripting them in the service of a higher adventure. Early on, glimpses of that drama intrude. “Regulation blackout paper” covers the school windows. Air-raid drills interrupt sleep. And when Gina attempts a daring escape back to Budapest, she runs smack into reality, in the person of the local stationmaster: “Don’t you know that since the start of the war there’s been only one train a day?” To some extent, we realize, the spell Szabó’s been casting is the product of Gina’s wishful thinking, the pacifying fairy tale she wants to believe she’s in.
Our sense of other characters, too, comes into deeper focus. Is Susanna’s moral virtue always moral? And when Kálmar champions the fatherland—isn’t he supporting Hitler’s Axis? Soon Gina’s own father, the object of her hero-worship, returns to Árkod and reveals himself to be a rather more slippery figure—not only an army general, but the leader of a covert resistance to the regime of Admiral Horthy. He has sent Gina away, he tells her, not because he’s busy defending Hungary but because the Matula’s thick walls and locked doors will keep her safe should his sedition be discovered. In this light, Gina’s protests against the school start to look childish, even selfish. And the hive-minded girls of her class? Perhaps the very things that have summoned Gina’s contempt—their reflexive solidarity, their ability to adapt—are also necessary tools for survival.
The plot that reconciles Gina to the Matula girls is ingenious, and its hinge is the titular Abigail. After her father’s confession, Gina asks the statue to help her make amends with her classmates, and, as if by a miracle, help arrives. Eventually, through notes to and from Abigail, Gina will come into contact with the private struggles of the other girls at the academy—the girls she once set herself above.
Perhaps the very things that have summoned the protagonist’s contempt are also necessary tools for survival.
As the novel goes on, the war draws nearer and the regime’s spies close in on Gina and her father. Yet the most formidable suspense comes to center on the statue itself. If Gina is too old for fairy tales, then who stands behind Abigail, receiving her missives, dispensing her mercies? Or, Gina wonders, was she constantly being replaced by a new Abigail, like the Cumaean Sibyl? She changed, too. A fresh young priestess would always take over, don the dread robes of the underworld, and continue the tradition. Are you old or young? A woman or a man?
The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski used to recount how his Eastern Bloc audience read his books about doomed dictatorships abroad as allegories of the teetering dictatorship at home. In reporting on the Shah of Iran and the Emperor Haile Selassie, he had found a way to talk around the censors. This same fervor for masks and codes is at work in the authoritarian world of the Matula, where girls act as “living screens” for each other and write two different versions of each essay: one for the teacher, and one to be circulated among themselves. In this spirit, the statue of Abigail, a nexus of public and private resistance, would have been legible to readers in 1970s Hungary as a symbol of anti-Communist defiance. But Szabó’s vision is too richly dialectical to be limited to any one fixed story. In today’s revanchist Hungary, as in the nationalist-consumerist West, it’s the communitarian and feminist valences of the Abigail legend, “the concept of neighborly love, not to mention compassion and the spirit of forgiveness,” that seem most subversive.
For a while it seems, wonderfully, that Abigail might lift off, Moby-Dick-like, from the planes of narrative logic altogether—that standing behind the statue might be no one, or everyone, a collective subject called into being by the force of girls’ needs and the strength of girls’ desires. Szabó isn’t quite that indifferent to our hunger for resolution; in due course, she completes the grand design of her plot, engages the sublime forces of catharsis. But what will linger with readers of Abigail, 50 years after its first publication, is this sense of greater openness, as if its high adventure and its deep realism were never really in tension after all. As if reality, could we see it with eyes as clear as Magda Szabó’s, might start to converge on the miraculous. Or the miraculous to appear inside the real.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of City on Fire