Readings — From the September 2017 issue

An Education

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By Magda Szabó (1917–2007), from Katalin Street, a novel that was published this month by New York Review Books. Szabó was the author of The Door and the recipient of numerous literary awards. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix.

Even as a child it never ceased to astonish me how little either of my parents understood me. My hard work, my desire to get on, my strict sense of duty, and my self-discipline meant to them merely that I was a success, that I was perfect, the one child whom they could hold up as their achievement, both to the world and to themselves: “See, everyone, this is Irén, who combines the very best of her parents — hardworking and punctilious like her father, promising to become every bit as attractive as her mother, without the social awkwardness of the one or the fecklessness of the other!” My achievements, my praiseworthy efforts, my unremitting application, were taken simply as evidence that I wanted to please them, to make their difficult lives a little easier. Sitting at the supper table, I would look on in constant amazement: at the tear-strewn face of my younger sister, Blanka (the evening was the only time my father had for administering the daily discipline); at my mother, in a grubby housedress just a shade too frivolous for the wife of a headmaster; at my father, in his meticulously correct suit, fixing everyone with his eye from behind his plate as if from behind his desk. Did it never occur to them that it was for myself that I wanted to succeed, without the least consideration for whether it made them happy or not?

I had no difficulty noticing that my mother preferred Blanka. But when she lost her temper with her, there was something frenzied and indiscriminate about the way she pummeled her. It wasn’t the way you would smack a child to discipline her; it was more like an attack on another adult, a sister rather than a daughter. But I was never jealous of Blanka. I had adored her from the moment she was first held up for me to see. She was an ideal companion. My father went through torments to make her learn her lessons and reach the minimum grades to pass in all her subjects, and the contrast made me stand out all the more for my application and industry. I was the role model held up to her time after time. And yet, when she looked at me, her eyes shone with that inexplicable expression of fidelity and joy that only dogs are capable of. My father was immensely proud of me, and so, too, was my mother — though in her case the feeling was qualified by the fear that the girl who was being so strictly brought up might one day apply some of the same discipline to her. But no one was ever as proud of me as Blanka.

At this stage Blanka and I still slept in our parents’ bedroom. One night I woke with a start and watched my father, in the glow cast by the little lamp on the bedside chest, as he made his way around the room, pulling out drawers. The chaos in my mother’s drawers had to be seen to be believed. Knowing that my father hated it when she left things lying around, the moment she heard his footsteps approaching she simply threw whatever was on the floor into the first drawer or onto the first shelf that came to hand — never back in its proper place.

On that particular evening my father was hunting for a button to go on his shirt. He had searched in every place he could think of, walking back and forth by the light of the bedside lamp. I sat up in bed and watched him, but he didn’t notice me and carried on moving around the room. I couldn’t see my mother’s face, just her bare shoulders and her back: Even in sleep she was a figure of beauty and repose. I knew very little about sexual matters at that age, but I sensed that my parents were able to give each other some deep happiness during the night that was far more intense and fundamental than the bitter squabbles of the day. Blanka was sound asleep, and I could see very little of her face.

I have no idea why, but at that moment I felt a love and pity for my father that I had never felt before, or have indeed since. Perhaps it was the night, and the silence, that helped me understand how deeply lonely he was, how heavy the thoughts that weighed on his drooping head.

When he started rummaging again in drawers that he had already been through, it broke my heart. I knew how hard he worked, how exhausted he must have been. So at last I whispered: “It’s in the kitchen, in the bowl on top of the kitchen scales.” He put down the shirt he had been holding, looked at me, nodded once or twice, but said nothing, obviously not wanting to wake the others. There was no praise for the help I had given him. Instead he put his hands together and placed his head against them, telling me to go back to sleep. I didn’t. I waited for him to come back.

When he did, he was holding the little display card the buttons were fixed on. He found a needle and thread and started to sew. Without saying a word I got out of bed, went over to him, and took the shirt and the needle out of his hand. He stood beside me and watched as I worked. I was still very small then, but very skillful, and every bit as orderly, precise, and methodical as he was. The light from the bedside lamp cast shadows on the wall and they followed the tiny movements of my hand. All was silence, apart from the barely audible breathing of my mother and Blanka. He stood there as I worked.

When I had finished he whispered his thanks and left the room. I went back to my bed and snuggled down, feeling suddenly very tired. It didn’t surprise me that he had gone back to his study. He often stayed up late, writing articles for professional journals or poems for special occasions, and sometimes letters. What did surprise me was finding him standing beside my bed again. I looked up at him anxiously, a sick feeling in my stomach: Perhaps my work hadn’t been up to standard? Every failure distressed me: I couldn’t bear imperfection in the most trivial things. All thought of sleep vanished.

There was a slip of paper in his hand. I had no idea what he wanted. Perhaps he wanted to give me a kiss and go to bed at last. But he made no move; he just stood there holding the paper. In the light of the bedside lamp it took on the same surreal gleam as the shirt. It occurred to me that perhaps, for some strange reason, he wanted me to see what he had written on it, to read the letter, or whatever it was on the slip of paper. I reached out and his fingers let it fall to the bedcover. When I saw what it was, the blood rushed to my face.

As the headmaster of the school we attended it was he who had introduced the practice of giving out gold and black cards of commendation or blame. We collected these cards and handed them in at the end of the year. Our teachers then counted them up, and those who had the most golds were given a special prize. At speech day the winners were brought up onto the podium in the middle of the school courtyard to stand beside my father and be rewarded with a book. Parents could also ask for a gold or black card for a pupil whose behavior at home had been exceptionally good or the reverse, and they regularly made requests for the former, to acknowledge the domestic accomplishments of their daughters. In our house there was certainly no shortage of opportunities to do this. Even as a young child I regularly did more than enough, taking full adult responsibility for my mother or for Blanka. But my father was anxious to preserve his impartiality. He had often asked for black cards for Blanka, but never for a gold one for me.

And now there was this letter in my hand, addressed to my teacher: “Dear Sir, My daughter Irén has sacrificed her sleep to perform a task with special diligence and care. Please consider her for a gold commendation. Respectfully yours, Abel Elekes, Parent.”

We looked at each other — he with that little half-smile, the one I so seldom saw, softening his craggy features, and I, completely unsmiling, suddenly very upset and close to tears. Every year since I had been at the school I had stood beside him on the podium and he had shaken my hand. At the end of every year I had listened to the applause and savored the sweet taste of success as he presented me with a book. But that year my hopes had been dashed. I had missed a whole quarter because of scarlet fever and had struggled to make up what I had missed. My marks were all outstanding, but for three months I had been out of school and had no opportunity to gather cards. The letter brought with it all the pain of an old wound opening: that he should only now, for the very first time, be prepared to help me in this way, despite the fact that I had always been so attentive and good, forever tidying up after my mother and Blanka. He should have been asking for gold cards for me every day.

“Are you happy?” he whispered, and once again that little half-smile lit up his face. “You’ve been such a good girl tonight.” I made no reply. He took that as a Yes, and switched off the light so that I wouldn’t see him getting undressed. I was still awake when I heard his breathing become regular and I knew he had fallen asleep.

I was unhappy as only a child can be. The letter was still on the chair beside my bed, where I had laid out my carefully brushed clothes and fresh underwear for the morning. I fumbled around for the piece of paper and brushed it onto the floor.

The next day I handed it in to my teacher. I was given a gold card in exchange and dropped it in the bag where I kept the others. Every student had an identical bag, made by their mothers according to a prescribed pattern. Mine had been made by my father when I was still in a junior class. Blanka, who, very occasionally, when she was bored, liked to imitate me, saw the bag in my hand and took out her own. She had five gold cards. Lord knows how she had come by them — she never collected that many in a whole year. Now I thought a bit more kindly toward my father than I had the night before: What torments he must have put himself through to get her — on five separate occasions — to the level where she could perform so well! Or perhaps he had finally gotten through to her that she should pull herself together and they were for exemplary conduct.

She took out her cards and arranged them in a pattern. She was thrilled with them and counted them over and over again, unable to believe that there should be so many. Anger and bitterness swept over me, and something happened that very rarely did between us — I shouted at her: Why was she trying to annoy me, showing off with her crummy little cards? She knew absolutely nothing, her work was useless, and I wasn’t going to come first this year despite all my hard work just because I hadn’t been able to collect all the cards I needed.

She made no reply — she was used to being scolded. She just picked up her things and took herself off. I saw little of her for the rest of the day. Then, without any warning, she was bright and happy again. She became her usual silly and boisterous self, and surprised me by sidling up to me and giving me a kiss. I pushed her arm away — I couldn’t bear to be near her that evening, however hard she tried to placate me. Deep inside I knew she was not to blame for my anger toward her. We had another squabble shortly afterward. It was as if the devil had gotten into her. She kept trying to grab my school satchel, and that made me nervous. Like my father, I always kept my belongings spotlessly clean and tidy, and I couldn’t bear anyone fiddling about with them. I pulled her away from my bag, she took fright and screamed yet again, and our father demanded to know what was the matter with us and what was the explanation for this noise.

Finally, all was quiet. My mother was standing in front of the mirror trying on a shawl. Her hair was piled up on top of her head and fixed with a large comb, and she was wondering how she would look as a flamenco dancer. Blanka gazed at her in rapture. I suspect that my father and I were both somewhat embarrassed.

The next day we handed in our commendation cards. I had no expectation of the outcome: I knew I wouldn’t come first. When, during the final lesson of the day, my name was finally called out, I was filled with delirious joy, rather like the drunkenness that adults experience. For a moment I thought they had taken pity on me. They must have said in the staff common room that it didn’t matter how many gold cards Irén Elekes had collected, she had always come first of the list, so let her do it again; she should be there without the cards. I went up to the teacher’s chair, my ears ringing. “What a way to keep your things!” the teacher smiled. “Dear, oh dear, Irén.”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. He could see that I had no idea what he meant, and shook his head. He emptied the contents of the bag out in front of me and they immediately fell into two piles, as if arranged by invisible hands. One lot lay smooth and shining on the table, the other was greased, stained, smeared with chocolate and ink, and torn. Five moldy gold cards were jumbled up with my immaculate commendations. “You seem to have made a mistake and brought your sister’s as well,” the teacher added. “You must never mess about with these cards.” And he swept them up together and returned them to me.

That year Klári Kálmán came first in the class. The lesson dragged on: Never in my life had one lasted so long. At break I was the first to leave. I went straight to Blanka’s room. My little sister was standing in the corner, her back to the door. She was being kept in, I was told by her classmates, as a punishment for misbehaving yet again: She had forgotten to bring her commendation cards.

I went up to her. She must have sensed that someone was close behind her because she turned around. When she saw who it was, she blushed and smiled. Nobody could smile the way Blanka did.

My father had brought me up to be self-disciplined, and even as a child it rarely happened that I lost my self-control. Some inner principle always told me what I could or couldn’t do. But now, for the very first time, my rage completely overwhelmed me. I grabbed the cards, ripped them to shreds and hurled them in her face, at her body, at her feet.

“Idiot!” I yelled. “What do you think my bag is? A dump for your toys? For you to hide your dirty rubbish in? Don’t you think I have enough to cope with right now?”

She made no reply. She didn’t lower her gaze. She looked straight at me, the tears welling up in her eyes: a look of sorrow and reproach. I had to knot my fingers together to stop my hands from shaking. I had suddenly realized what she had been hoping to achieve when she stuffed her own cards into my bag. Unobservant as ever, she hadn’t noticed that the pupil’s name and grade were all printed on the bag, and that there was simply no way that I could have won first prize with the help of her wretched little commendations.

We stood face-to-face. I had no idea what to say next. Her classmates were making a terrific din, and one of them ran out to find their teacher. I heard her shouting down the corridor that the older Elekes girl was yelling and using bad language.

Now I was the one who sensed that there was someone standing behind me. Blanka’s eyes told me who it was. I didn’t have to turn around. I already knew: but not what would come next.

“What happened?” my father asked. “What’s going on here?”

“I cheated,” Blanka replied. And without a second thought she turned her back to us and knelt down facing the corner, the way she did in church during mass. In our school, being made to kneel was the worst punishment of all. Father did not ask her to explain, nor did he ask me. He took me by the shoulder, forced me down to the floor among the torn-up commendation cards, and stood behind us for a few minutes. Then I heard him shut the door behind him. Never before, in all my life, had I had to be punished. I wept so hard in my shame that I could no longer see either the wall or Blanka. But I felt her there, because after a while she leaned over and kissed me.

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