George Szirtes’s first book of poems, The Slant Door (1979) was joint-winner of the Faber Prize. He has published many since then, his collection, Reel, winning the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2004 for which he has been twice shortlisted since. His latest is Mapping the Delta (Bloodaxe 2016). His memoir of his mother, The Photographer at Sixteen, was published by MacLehose in February 2019. and won the East Anglian Book Prize for Memoir and Biography and was shortlisted for two other prizes. His many translations from Hungarian include László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, Sándor Márai’s Conversations in Bolzano and Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad. László Krasznahorkai won the Man Booker International in 2015 for which he shared the translator’s prize with Ottilie Mulzet. Married to artist Clarissa Upchurch, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the English Association.
Below, he talks about his recent memoir, The Photographer at Sixteen, with Jonathan Taylor.
Interview with Jonathan Taylor
JT: Please can you tell us a little about the writing and research process behind The Photographer at Sixteen? How did the memoir originate? How long did it take you? How did you decide it was finished?
GS: A little background as to the origins of the book. It began after a conversation in Budapest in the summer of 2015 at the time the Syrian refugees were encamped at the Keleti Pályaudvar (the East Railway Terminal). An English friend was passing through on his way to Georgia. The trains were delayed and we spent several hours in the great heat moving from café to café. The subject came round to our families. I told him the story of my mother and he told me to write a 200pp book within six months. I had occasionally played with the idea but, being more or less instructed to write it I resolved to do so.
My mother had been dead precisely forty years. I had written a number of poems about her – particularly in The Photographer in Winter (1986) – but there was much more story than got into the poems. In any case poems are not stories and their way with material is quite different. I hadn’t written anything like it before and didn’t know where to start so I thought I’d start with what I knew at first hand. That could be supported by the series of taped conversations I had with my father following her death. I had already transcribed those. There was my brother too to consult. Having decided to start at the end I decided to tell the story backwards. The short introductory chapter titled 'The Diver' explains the attractions of that. There are various technical difficulties in writing a story backwards but at least I was going to be starting with something I could feel reasonably confident about.
The research was going to be mainly about the period before I was born. This included reading on the Hungarian Holocaust and, since my mother was born in Transylvania, on how it worked there. I read about Ravensbruck, visited Penig, my mother’s second concentration camp, and was given wonderful help by the archivists of the camp there. I was already reasonably informed on the course of events in Hungary from the late 19th century onwards but I backed that up with more specific reading.
The other material I had ready to hand were photographs. I already had a well-established interest in ideas about photography, and my mother was herself a photographer. In terms of broad research, the first part of the book is essentially personal memory, the second part closely based on my father’s account, the third a study of a few specific studio photographs of my mother and her family.
The book was going to end with the earliest photograph of my mother. It was never going to be a straight biography. It was first and foremost an attempt to understand her in herself but, as I discovered, that could only be done by reconciling my memories and feelings about her with what her history seemed to say.
JT: How difficult was the book to write?
GS: Going backwards was hard in a technical sense. Trying to write about her through the lens of the relationship was harder, especially as I myself would only be present in the first part. I didn’t quite know at the beginning where that would go. It evolved, I suppose. Having got to the point before I was born I had to stop and ask, now what? Same again at the end of the second section after which I had very little information to go on. The very end is a sort of dialogue between me and her imagined voice as she hears me thinking about the photographs of her as a child. Maybe it was the tact involved in working the relationship through that was the hardest thing and that was mainly a matter of negatives: no melodrama, no sentimentality, no resentment, no self-indulgence and, above all, no distortion. That is why the question of ‘invention’ became ever more important. If the plotting of a life involves moving between relatively stable historical points, the joining up of those points (why particularly those points? why join them this way rather than another?) becomes as much a matter of invention as of certainty. Controlling the invention and being clear about what is or what is not invention is difficult but it was important for what I hoped would be the truthfulness of the book.
JT: Perhaps unusually for a memoir, you include extracts from poems by yourself and others as part of the narrative. What do you think are the overlaps and differences between poetry and memoir?
GS: I think poems in general work differently from fiction. I say fiction because memoir is a form of story telling, in other words invention. Poems crystallise and discover events within events rather than trace the sequence and consequences of actions. Few people read a poem to discover what happens in the last line. But there is – or should be – room in stories such as a memoir for the stopping of the momentum and a change in the quality of the voice. At any rate I hoped there would be.
JT: What do you feel you learnt about yourself, your mother and your relation with her by writing the memoir?
GS: I wonder sometimes what I learned from it. I think I became ever more aware that I was, in effect, inventing her and that what I was inventing would not in fact be her in herself or as she saw herself. There was an element of disillusion in that process, a constant suspicion of myself as her interpreter. What was I really understanding? Was it myself? I don’t mean me as a subject but me as some kind of operator of the spirit (a phrase I use about her in the book, I think.) At the end I was both relieved and troubled. I was not sure anyone would be interested enough to publish it and finding an agent and a publisher was a relief, as were the nice reviews. Maybe others understand the book better than I do.
JT: Did you have an intended reader in mind while writing?
GS: I never have an intended reader of anything unless a poem is specifically addressed to a specific person and even then it assumes unspecified others might read it. To see it in retrospect I now suppose its natural readers would be those who share some of the background or have some interest in it for other reasons – because they have something to do with refugees, war survivors, Central Europe (the book was for a while an Amazon no 1 bestseller in the Austrian-Hungarian section of its lists), Jews in general and perhaps mothers in general. But that is only in retrospect not in intention or execution. Besides, the book is, in some respects, a very intimate document. There are no substantial descriptions of places, there is no substantial exploration of historical processes. It says the bare minimum about what may lie out of shot.
The very phrase ‘out of shot’ tells you something. My ‘camera’ is rarely more than a few feet away from her. There is a poem in the original The Photographer in Winter sequence (in the 1986 book) where I as the narrator follow her onto a bus and watch her as a spy might. At the end of the poem I ask her to pose for me and tell her to freeze. I become a little like the David Hemmings photographer character in Antonioni’s Blow Up. I suspect that such a role-playing process is central to The Photographer at Sixteen. But that is another retrospective view.
You might also wonder about readers far closer to me: the family and friends of my parents. But I have very little family left. Most died in the war and those who survived – including friends - were mostly dead by the time I started writing.
JT: At one point you declare that ‘the trick is to invent the truth.’ What kind of model of ‘truthfulness’ do you think The Photographer at Sixteen embodies?
GS: Inventing the truth is the phrase that came to me as I was writing and I realised as I wrote it that I was articulating something I had always felt. I wanted, and still want to believe that the principle of invention may be a work of truth born out of love but I am suspicious of my desire to believe that. We want to hear the word 'love.' We want to be reassured by it. We want to love and to give love. But love is an idea as well as a state of being. The problem is that while I am sure that there really is such a thing as love, I know that the moment you touch it as an idea it retreats or changes shape. My mother was desperate to be loved and to give love on her own terms. Her close family was the object of the kind of love she had to give. That love was intense, devoted, overwhelming, sometimes destructive. The invented truth had to allow for that and to come as close as possible to being a product of love. There remains the idea that the truth, as invented, might be a product of love. Let us at least propose that. That is the truth I was after.
JT: Do you think memoir is always belated, comes on the scene after the event, even too late? How does memoir relate to the present and future, as well as the past, for you?
GS: This memoir came long after, in fact forty years after, my mother’s death. Of course there were the poems but even they only started ten years after she died. I don’t know if I could have written the memoir earlier. I didn’t think to do so and maybe would not have, had not the visiting friend insisted that I should.
Its relation to the present and future is complex. I have not reread it since its publication though I have read a few short excerpts at events. In most respects it is now simply the past. Now I am left here thinking I could write more in prose: a book about my father, one about our time in Budapest watching a state of affairs fall apart in 1989, and one I have long meant to write about British professional wrestling (I don’t mean as a wrestling fan) which would be about masks and courage and comedy at a certain time in England. Whether I get to write any of those (I have started two of them but with no great sense of certainty) is a matter for the future. Those books, if written, will not be free of the presences moving around The Photographer at Sixteen.
About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk