The Photographer at Sixteen
Back in February 2008, George Szirtes wrote something on his blog about poetry that was so intriguing that I copied and kept it.
There is, most crucially, the ghost in language, the feeling that life haunts language in a ghostlike fashion, glimpsed now here, now there, offering a shudder here, a shudder there, but that when you put out your hand through the words to grasp it, it escapes you. Your hand passes straight through it.When I read his poetry, I always thought that I could sense the ghost. It was the spectre of history, of the lingering smell of totalitarianism. I can now see that my understanding was inadequate. Ghosts are people after all. And in this wonderful book, George invites the reader in to meet the most personal ghost of all, his mother - more than three decades after her death. 'Come and get to know her,' he seems to be saying. 'Let me tell you as much as I can about her life. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin at the end.'
And so he does, winding us back through time, unravelling some of the mystery and enigma of a victim who refused to be one, of a survivor who would not be defined by her survival.
He tells her story with respect, tenderness, and honesty. It isn't a sentimental book. It's intelligent and affectionate, capturing the spirit of a forceful personality. Inevitably, her life was haunted by the great crimes of the twentieth century, but the book has more to say. I smiled recalling the shared familiarities of a 1950s Home Counties upbringing. I understood the pressures of intense maternal love while growing up in the shadow of a generation that had seen too much. That was personal to me, but a reader will find many other things to identify with and think about. George starts from his own memories, then steps outside himself and ransacks the recollections of others so he can fill in the story of her life before he was born. Those are the events that shaped her, and were what he needed to know. But they're also part of a collective experience that should never be forgotten.
His mother, Magda, was a photographer. And George's narrative is structured around those everyday ghosts that hang on our walls, sit in frames on our sideboards, or are tucked away in albums, waiting to be retrieved. They catch a moment in time, often ambiguous, demanding interrogation, and are a source of reflection. His intimate thoughts are bound up in those photos. He searches for meaning in each and every one of them – as, I suppose, we all do when one catches our eye and interrupts the progress of our lives with memory.
It's fitting that the penultimate chapter meditates on five photographs, the only reminders of life before tragedy. A fragmentary record of an unrecorded time. And when the ghosts have been properly scrutinised and laid to rest, what is left is language. Language is the vehicle for the imagination, to recreate the senses and emotions of past times, and to cautiously invent what is missing. And as George says, "The trick is to invent the truth."
The Photographer at Sixteen is an original and compelling book. It does tell truth. Truth that we need to hear. And when you reach through the words, the ghost of a life still slips away. You can't touch, but you have felt a presence, one that stays with you.