An actress relates her own drama.
Award-winning Hungarian writer Szabó (1917-2007) makes her country’s turbulent history the backdrop for her second novel, published in 1959 and newly translated by Rix. During one fateful day in 1954, theater star Eszter Encsy, a woman consumed by hatred and bitterness, recounts the story of her life to someone whose identity is slowly revealed. She was shaped, she shows, by an impoverished childhood in prewar Hungary, the brutal war that broke out when she was 15, and the Soviet takeover in 1948, which turned Hungary into a puppet communist state. Her father was a lawyer, “refined, easy-going, exceptionally cultured,” but prone to giving free advice and turning away potential clients. Instead, he happily devoted himself to horticulture. As the family devolved into poverty, they became, Eszter admits, “a public disgrace.” Supporting the family fell to her mother, who offered piano lessons; and carrying out all the household chores fell to Eszter: “Mother had to take special care of her hands, so I did the shopping, I cooked the supper, I chopped the firewood and dealt with the laundry.” She felt “utterly insignificant” to her parents, who were devoted only to each other; she had no friends. “Everyone hated me,” she recalls, describing herself as “a bad classmate, sour, irritable and riddled with envy.” Her jealousy was focused especially on her classmate Angéla—beautiful, wealthy, and kind; her benevolence incited Eszter’s rage. Eszter boasts that she lies “so easily I could have made a career out of it,” which, as an actress, she actually did; but her confessions of cruelty and spite, of the betrayals and hypocrisy she witnessed, of the hurts she experienced, hardly seem lies but rather evidence of desperate need. Among the many tormented women who people Szabó’s other novels, Eszter stands as most deeply and irreparably wounded by a traumatic past.
A bleak, shattering tale.
Pub Date: March 28, 2023
Page Count: 288
Publisher: NYRB Classics
Review Posted Online: March 13, 2023
Kirkus Reviews Issue: tomorrow