It was January in Budapest and I don’t speak Hungarian. The cab driver had grey hair, grey eyes and a GPS mounted on the dashboard. I pulled Magda Szabo’s novel, Katalin Street, out of my bag to show him the title. I had practiced how to pronounce it: “Kat” pronounced like “salt,” not “cat,” and “usca“ instead of “street.” “Kawtalin Usca,” I tried, pointing at the book. He nodded and typed the name into his tablet. Three Katalin Uscas appeared. He asked me something I couldn’t understand, tried his few words of English, and invited me to sit up front in the passenger seat, closer to the map. Two of the streets looked fairly close to the Danube, one did not. In the novel, the three families with shared backyards on Katalin Street have a view of the river, at least, they did before new buildings blocked the view, and everyone grew up, was killed, or escaped.
I try to explain to the driver that it must be the street closest to the Danube, since the characters in the book lived near the river. Another cab driver is summoned. I point at the author’s name on the cover and try out my pronunciation again. “Magda Szabo?” They’ve never heard of her. But I can tell that my driver is enjoying my interest in Hungarian literature, and with the help of the other driver, he explains that the two Katalin Streets by the river may look close on the GPS, but they are actually 25 kilometers away. I think he is also trying to tell me that they are not even inside the city limits. I still want to go to the street closest to the Danube. The book ends in 1968, and the city limits may have changed in fifty years—everything sprawls, even in what used to be called the Eastern Bloc. But despite the exchange rate in my favor I can’t afford to take a taxi the 50 kilometer roundtrip, so I point to the Katalin street nowhere near the river. My driver, whose name is Akos, thinks I have made the right decision.
I am not so sure. I’m only in this city for three days—why spend one of them looking for something in a book that was published more than forty years ago? I don’t go on tours of writer’s houses, and this isn’t even Szabo’s house. But I understand how places can become talismans and secret keepers, and the characters in this novel hold onto Katalin Street with an obsession that undercuts nostalgia.
My sisters and I inherited a small house on a river when my father died, and it makes no sense to have held onto it for more than a decade. It’s four hours from where I live, too far to go for the weekend. We have to rent it all summer just to pay the mortgage, and it is not winterized. But my younger sister and I are holding on, despite the fact that we could rent a cottage for an annual vacation for less than it costs to keep the house in the family. This is the place I drew maps of as a child, dyeing the paper with tea to make it look like ancient parchment instead of the typing paper my father used, another anachronism. I brought my own children to the house on the river when our summers were longer. It is where we put handfuls of my father’s ashes in the water. Now I have a little more than a week there every year, in the off season, before the water is really warm enough to swim. I use that time by the river to write my own books. Talismans and secret keepers are the stock-in-trade of a novelist. As Szabo writes, “Everything that had happened was still there, right up to the present, but now suddenly different.”
We drive out of central Budapest, where chain stores press close together opposite the towering Dohany Street synagogue with its domes and marble arches. The garden of the Heroes Temple can be seen from the street. More than two thousand corpses are buried there. Identical black gravestones inscribed with the years 1944/1945 lean close together. Time and dates are subject to guesswork and erasure in Budapest, where the horrors of the twentieth century still exert their pressure. As we drive east, toward what would be called the outer boroughs if we were in New York, the landscape homogenizes into Soviet era apartment blocks, light industry buildings with outdoor piping weirdly reminiscent of the imagined factory in The Lorax by Dr Seuss. We pass a modern stadium advertising a Rod Stewart concert, and commuters making their way to the metro. The men’s faces are as puffy as their jackets, the women wear belted coats, high boots and bright lipstick. The only waterway in sight is the one Akos is navigating, his taxi a glowing blue dot in the river of exhaust.
Time, guesswork and erasure. That’s what Katalin Street is really about. In the opening pages, Szabo writes of her characters, “Time had shrunk to specific moments, important events to single episodes, familiar places to the mere backdrop to individual scenes, so that, in the end, they understood that of everything that had made up their lives thus far only one or two places, and a handful of moments, really mattered.” Szabo published the book in 1969, and it was reissued in 2017 by the New York Review of Books in translation by Len Rix, who brilliantly conveys Szabo’s blunt, poetic prose into English. Szabo began as a poet, awarded the prestigious Baumgarten Prize in 1949. Her prize, however, was withdrawn on the same day. She was declared an enemy of the state and fired from her job. She became a teacher and started writing fiction, for adults and young people, as well as plays, and in 1959 she was awarded another top Hungarian literary honor, the Jozsef Attila Prize.
In her unforgettable novel, The Door, these ironies do not escape the protagonist, a writer who has long been silenced and then, after years of obscurity, is suddenly celebrated. Katalin Street was written nearly twenty years before The Door, and the structure is very different. Reading The Door was like unwinding a tightly wrapped ball of string. Katalin Street is a weave of fibers, each color representing a different character moving in a linear spiral through time. The book begins in 1934, with the arrival on Katalin Street of the Helds and their daughter, Henriette. They share adjacent yards with the Biro and the Elekes families, and from the first time the children meet, there is an immediate recognition of the joining of their lives, as in a fairy tale, including holding hands in a circle, a sing-song game which repeats as a refrain throughout the novel. The Helds are Jewish, and as the novel jumps to 1944, the parents are taken away and the others are left to hide and protect Henriette, which they fail to do through a series of foolish errors.
By the time Szabo gives us the particulars of how this beloved child meets her death, we have already met Henriette as a ghost, who finds nothing in the afterworld to be as she expected, and is frustrated and confused by the changes which unfold in the ongoing world of Katalin Street. Since all of the characters share a circular sense of time, the presence of a ghost character seems natural and even expected. The only surprise is the one shared by Henriette as she continues to visit the family members as they age, the war comes to an end, and the Soviets take over Hungary for what must have looked like forever in 1969.
How could everyone have ended up like this?
The ones who remain among the living move to a modern apartment where they watch their old house undergo “redevelopment,” just as Balint undergoes “rehabilitation” when he is brought back to his job at the hospital after being fired in a mock trial years earlier. The view of their old house from the balcony of the new apartment, Szabo writes, “looked like a childhood friend who, either in anger or a spirit of fun, had put on a mask and forgotten to take it off long after the party had ended.” The loss of place is equivalent to the loss of self, and each of the former residents is profoundly disconnected by their dislocation. Though, in fact, they have only moved across the river, all of the characters are “locked in a hopeless quest to recover [Katalin Street]” which binds them ineluctably together.
It had started raining, and the cab driver turned off the main road into a damp suburb. The houses were two stories and neat, presenting their closed gates to the street. Most of them looked as if they had been built in the fifties or sixties, with one exception: a house with a wide driveway on the corner, so newly built the bricks looked scrubbed clean, with a large for sale sign propped out front. Akos stopped the car to point to the street sign, Katalin Usca. I nodded. The whole street was only one block long. I got out of the car, leaving my bag so he would understand I wanted him to wait for me. I had no idea what to do. I took a picture of the street sign. I walked the block, silent in the middle of a weekday. I could glimpse gardens behind the houses, but they were small, and none of them joined up the way they did in the novel. Akos saw another cab parked on a side street, with a couple in the front, clearly married, two small dogs swarming over them. They affirmed that this was the only Katalin Street around here. He stopped a delivery person across the way who spoke English. She had never heard of Magda Szabo, and when I explained that I was looking for a street in the book, she smiled and shrugged. This was Katalin Street, all right.
I realized for the first time that Szabo may have had no actual street in mind when she wrote the book. Katalin is a common Hungarian name that translates to “Katherine” in English. It could have been no more than the way the word sounded on her tongue, a secret homage to a friend or a favorite cat. I had been so caught up by the world she created it no longer seemed fictive. I had created my own Katalin Street, convincing myself that by seeing the houses Szabo saw I would draw her ghost close to me, as Henriette does with the characters in the novel, whose faces soften when she touches them, but cannot recognize her as the ghost she has become.
I asked Akos to drive around the block once more. After all, we had come all this way. If I placed a wooden fence between two of these narrow plots and removed some of the newly built garages, I could see the fence slats that Balint had left loose for Henriette to slip through if there was danger. I can imagine seeing light off the river through stalks of winter hedges at the foot of the garden. I can see the back of Henriette’s house with their possessions strewn on the lawn, pulling the girl foolishly toward them in the dark. The sudden beam of the soldier’s flashlight.
Like Henriette, I placed myself in Szabo’s world with such total conviction that I believed Katalin Street was a place a person could take a taxi to look at. I felt my laughter start to build, and shook my head at myself, knowing that Akos would have no idea why I suddenly started cracking up in the earnest silence of the front seat. He was trying so hard to help, but I had fallen far down the well of fiction, past all sense of reason. But isn’t that why we read novels? To inhabit places as real as our own and hand over responsibility for what happens there to the author. I was just as consumed by a longing for Katalin Street as the characters in the novel.
I can’t remember a time before I felt what I now understand as “sehnsucht.” A German word, difficult to translate, it is the longing or craving for something unattainable that may exist only in our imagination. The object of desire may be unnamable, but it is knowable through that very longing. I felt it often as a child, though I hadn’t yet learned the word to express my yearning. As the tail of the past grows longer, sehnsucht can become a rope to hold onto as that familiar tail wraps around our legs in the dark, tripping us up, landing us in the same old mess again and again. Sehnsucht has something to do with that faith in the invisible world which is required of a novelist, and guides us through our work more than we know. Szabo divides her novel into three parts: Places, Moments and Episodes. What else is there? I rode in a taxi but I was driven here by sehnsucht. My own river house, those words from a childhood song that seem so familiar, though I have never really heard them, sung by the children in the book: “The cherry tree leans over/Casting a long dark shadow/Where the dark little girl/Sits below . . .”
The only person I saw on Katalin Street was a teenage boy walking home from school, neatly dressed with a dark blue backpack. He opened the gate to one of the houses, and Akos looked at me. Maybe I wanted him to ask the boy about the book, as he had with the taxi driving couple and the delivery person.
I didn’t need to talk to that boy, I already knew who he was: Balint was coming home from school, just as Henriette had planned.