A poet's memoir of his mother that flows backwards through time, and excavates a shard of European history - a deeply honest, tender and yet unsentimental autobiographical journey.
When you run the film backwards the figure in the pool emerges and lands neatly back on the diving board while the water beneath her heals. So, if we run life backwards, we move from its the end to its very beginning.
In July 1975, George Szirtes' mother, Magda, died in an ambulance, on her way to hospital after attempting to take her own life. She was fifty-one years old. This memoir is an attempt to make sense of what came before, to re-construct who Magda Szirtes really was. The Photographer at Sixteen moves from her death, spooling backwards through her years as a mother, through sickness and exile in England, the family's flight from Hungary in 1956, her time in two concentration camps, her girlhood as an ambitious photographer and her vanished family in Transylvania.
The woman who emerges, fleetingly, fragmentarily - with her absolutism, her contradictions, her beauty - is utterly captivating. What were the terrors and obsessions that drove her? The Photographer at Sixteen reveals a life that is at Magda Szirtes from the depths of the end to the comparable safety of the photographer's studio where she first appears as a small child. It is a book born of curiosity, guilt and love.
In this extraordinary, hybrid book - part memoir, part history, part poetic journey - Szirtes re-makes the life of his mother, tracing her childhood in Europe's darkest period to her life in Britain after the Hungarian uprising. He brilliantly captures how sometimes it's those closest to us who remain the most mysterious.
A truly remarkable book about identity, image and memory. It is fiercely compelling.
Unforgettably sad . . . Szirtes has made [his mother's] monument. It is a courageous and remarkable achievement. I've read no memoir that moved me more. - Financial Times
The writing is always scrupulous . . . Knowledge is partly invention, Szirtes says, memory is mostly invention, and 'the trick is to invent the truth.' It may be a trick but it's one he pulls off brilliantly in this compelling memoir. - Guardian
GEORGE SZIRTES' many books of poetry have won prizes including the T. S. Eliot Prize (2004), for which he was again shortlisted for Bad Machine (2013). His translation of Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (whom he interviewed for The White Review) was awarded the Best Translated Book Award in the US. He is also the translator of Sandor Marai and Magda Szabo. The Photographer at Sixteen is his first venture into prose writing of his own.