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The Photographer at Sixteen Reviews

The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes

The Photographer at Sixteen

The Death and Life of a Fighter

George Szirtes

4.20 out of 5

5 reviews

Imprint: MacLehose Press
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Publication date: 7 Feb 2019
ISBN: 9780857058539

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.

  • The Sunday TimesMust Read
4 stars out of 5
Ian Critchley
10 Feb 2019

"a beautifully written and utterly compelling narrative"

...this wonderful memoir can be seen as his attempt to unearth and capture her life. Unusually structured, the book works backwards from the moment of Magda’s death, using Szirtes’s own memories of her, and those of his father and brother, as well as photographs and other materials, to piece together a fascinating portrait... Even if the book’s narrative was confined to just these momentous events, it would be remarkable, but Szirtes uses his poet’s eye to build images and details that bring his mother superbly to life... Although sometimes frustratingly fragmentary, this is a beautifully written and utterly compelling narrative.

Reviews

4 stars out of 5
1 Jul 2019

" George Szirtes’s exceptional The Photographer at Sixteen "

George Szirtes’s exceptional The Photographer at Sixteen is concerned mostly with the brief life of his mother, though he refrains from mentioning her name until halfway through the narrative. He affords his decent and honourable father the same respectful treatment: he is telling their stories backwards, discovering what kind of people they were in the tumultuous years before his birth. This method never smacks of contrivance. It is, rather, an act of love.

4 stars out of 5
Blake Morrison
16 Mar 2019

"a brilliant, scrupulous portrait"

Szirtes doesn’t milk the drama. He is as interested in telling how his parents established themselves in England (dropping their plan to go to Australia when Magda failed her medical) as he is in reporting his first-hand, eight-year-old’s experience of the Hungarian revolution; as committed to recalling the G Plan furniture in their suburban London homes as he is to describing Ravensbrück. And the writing is always scrupulous, worrying away at how far you can know anything, least of all a mother who was such a paradox...Knowledge is partly invention, Szirtes says, memory is mostly invention, and “knowledge of another is invention in the highest degree … I don’t make it up, but the person at the core of it all still has to be constructed and understood in terms of invention. The trick is to invent the truth.” It may be a trick but it’s one he pulls off brilliantly in this compelling memoir.Szirtes doesn’t milk the drama. He is as interested in telling how his parents established themselves in England (dropping their plan to go to Australia when Magda failed her medical) as he is in reporting his first-hand, eight-year-old’s experience of the Hungarian revolution; as committed to recalling the G Plan furniture in their suburban London homes as he is to describing Ravensbrück. And the writing is always scrupulous, worrying away at how far you can know anything, least of all a mother who was such a paradox ... Knowledge is partly invention, Szirtes says, memory is mostly invention, and “knowledge of another is invention in the highest degree … I don’t make it up, but the person at the core of it all still has to be constructed and understood in terms of invention. The trick is to invent the truth.” It may be a trick but it’s one he pulls off brilliantly in this compelling memoir.

 

4 stars out of 5
23 Feb 2019

"In an unflinching memoir, George Szirtes describes his mother’s bitter despair on finding that all her family had perished"

This exquisitely told memoir is crammed with similarly evocative and occasionally deeply unsettling images. As Szirtes carefully peels back layers of history, he brings his mother not exactly back to life. As we learn in a dramatic opening chapter she had taken her own life (an overdose) and the ambulance rushing her to hospital was involved in a crash, so she died, aged 51, at a road junction. But he offers us various fragments of her often painful life, putting them together not always gently but honestly, and in so doing he hopes to heal the wound of her death.

5 stars out of 5
Miranda Seymour
25 Jan 2019

"a courageous and remarkable achievement"

Reading the Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes’s delicately forensic exploration of an impossibly passionate mother whose abrupt death...it becomes clear how little overtly dramatic content counts, compared with the sensibility — and, above all, the impulse towards honesty — of the writer... Like WG Sebald, the German-born writer known for his meditative juxtaposition of words and images, Szirtes makes careful use of photographs within his text; unlike Sebald, he subjects each to a piercing analysis... Szirtes has made her monument. It is a courageous and remarkable achievement. I’ve read no memoir that moved me more.