Hungarian novelist, essayist, poet and literary translator Magda Szabó was born in Debrecen, Austria–Hungary on 5 October 1917. She lived a long, eventful life decorated with outstanding achievements in the field of literature, with several of her books being translated into more than 40 languages, including English. Her perhaps best known work is the 1970 young adult novel Abigail (Abigél).
Szabó graduated from an all-girl Calvinist boarding school in her hometown of Debrecen—she later went on to base her most famous work, Abigail, on her experiences there. In 1940, in the midst of World War II, she got her college degree in Latin and Hungarian. Her love for literature goes all the way back to her childhood, when she would scribble a few lines of poetry on the door frame and recite some of her poems to her mother.
After graduating from university, she got back to her alma mater as a teacher, then moved to the nearby town of Hódmezővásárhely to continue her career in education. All the while, she kept writing her poems.
In 1949, however, an incident made her vow she would never write poetry again.
That year, her poem collection titled Bárány (Lamb) was announced in the newspaper as one of the winners of the Baumgarten Poetry Award, which also carried a 4,000 HUF prize money with it for the winners. However, by the time she got all dressed up in her best clothes to collect her prize, she got a phone call that her award was revoked, and was instead given to a person with close ties to the ruling Communist Party. She was subsequently banned from publishing for not supporting the regime enough.
After the devastating experience it took a while for Szabó to pick up writing again. In 1958, she was eventually allowed to publish her first novel, with the title Tell Sally (Mondják meg Zsófikának), which is about a troubled adolescent girl attending secondary school.
Szabó also chose a teenage girl as the main character of her most successful work, Abigail from 1970. Abigail, despite some misconceptions held even by Hungarian students, is not the titular character of the book—that would be Gina Vitay, daughter of a Hungarian general, deployed away from home on a secret mission in World War II. Abigail is a the mysterious benefactor living in the boarding school Gina is sent to for protection. The book’s success led to the story being adapted into a four-part TV miniseries, which premiered in April 1978 on Hungarian state television.
Despite previously being shunned by the communist regime for almost a decade, Szabó was granted the highest state honour for artists and academics, the Kossuth Award in 1978. She continued to write well into her eighties. Her last book, Békekötés — Hangjátékok (Peacemaking — Audio Plays) was published in 2006, just a year before her death, when she was 89. Many of her unpublished works, such as letters and interviews, were later released posthumously, as late as 2019, 12 years after her passing.
Magda Szabó passed away at age 90, on 19 November 2007 in Kerepes, Hungary.
Just a month prior, her 90th birthday garnered national attention, with multiple theatre performances and other events being held in her honour. She is still one of the most widely read Hungarian authors ever. The English translation of Abigail by Len Rix won the Pen America award for best literary translation in 2019.
Death came to her while she was doing what she enjoyed the most—she died while reading a book in her Kerepes home.