The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes | Book Review

The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes | Book Review

“Displacement hits you later than you expect, just when you think you have settled down and become part of the world all over again. That is when it begins to ache, when a certain inarticulable desolation creeps in. Your body is not where your body ought to be (…). It is as if you had ghosted in but left your soul behind.”

“Life, as learned, was composed of relatively brief episodes, each seeming an eternity at the time, none of them suggesting stability, let alone permanence.”

The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes is an exceptional memoir.  It constitutes an exploration of Szirtes’s Romania-born Hungarian – Jewish mother’s life.  The book also provides a compelling commentary on Europe’s darkest chapters from the 20th century and its consequences on a singular life.  

This memoir is a beautifully written, profoundly moving and extremely thoughtful portrait of one woman living through the tumultuous times of the European history. The narrative is a mixture of delicate, sharp prose intertwined with Szirtes’s poetry. Throughout the book, tape recordings photos, letters, and historic facts are used to (re-) construct the life of Szirtes’s mother, Magda (Magdalena).

There is also an exploration of the multifaceted identity – a complex idea especially for the ones, like Magda who lived in Central and Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Magda was ethnic Hungarian, yet Romanian by birth, born to secular Jewish parents. Magda’s identity was partially created by the political and frequent border changes. As her identity and status kept changing throughout her life, it left indelible marks on her feeling of belonging, loss and lack of security.

The book traces Magda’s life backwards; this form has been inspired by Anthony Hecht’s poem ‘The Venetian Vespers’ in which the poet imagines snippets of life backwards.

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