What a lovely memoir by a much-loved Australian, a migrant’s famous daughter, a comic character familiar to us all in the comfort of our living rooms. A woman who has lived with one or two human conditions (obesity and homosexuality) that have been much in the public conversation over the last couple of decades. Magda has dealt, or not dealt, with fat throughout most of her life, going up and down according to time and circumstance, having put behind her the paternal obsession with sporting prowess. Then, there is her own paternal obsession.
‘If you had met my father, you would never, not for an instant, thought he was an assassin,’ so Magda Szubanski begins her story, sure to be an opening line to be used in future quizzes. Unlike most autobiographies by famous people, Reckoning has substance beyond the writer’s fame, and an easy style well-suited to this brilliant performer.
Magda with her father Peter. Photo courtesy Magda Szubanski
It is clear that this book, if nothing else and there is much else, flows from a fine intellect, and her resolution of personal and family problems are tackled and put together in flowing and meaningful prose. (Allow me a small quibble, pedant that I am, my partner often tells me, tending to privilege style over content: Magda, perhaps over-exposed to Californian style, confuses ‘careen’ [tilt a vessel on its side to repair or clean barnacles off its bottom, as did Captain Cook in October 1770 in Ship’s Cove] with ‘career’ – travel at full speed, now so often muddled that U.S. grammarians have given up, which seems sad and feeble, no credit to our American cousins or the profession of ‘dictionary writers’.)
Magda makes much of ‘coming out’, from not so long ago, less so about obesity. The latter, on occasion, she has demonstrated to be within her possible control. She was clutched by a “great hunger” from her teens, a desire to eat, cravings that could never be satisfied. In 2009 she wore a little black dress on the cover of the Australian Women’s Weekly, having lost 26kg after a year on weight-loss. But Magda was afraid it would be “fleeting.” And it was. In regards to her sexuality Magda left it until it really ceased to matter, at least to us on the outside, no matter how problematic it may have seemed to her, but perhaps it is always different for public figures.
Beyond these leitmotifs, there is the unspoken past of her father, Peter, who grew up in Poland during World War II. The Szubanski family were part of the Polish resistance, but there was also a murderous truth. Peter (Zbigniew) had lived with those memories since 1943. He had been recruited into an execution squad, memorably named Unit 993/W Revenge Company — tasked to discover and kill Nazi collaborators. Before the targets were executed there was a ritual — they would be ambushed, read a list of their crimes and then shot, point blank. Zbigniew had done this a dozen times. He was 19. Magda remembers Peter as a humorous and joyful man, but he had tried and failed to write his own autobiography many times, the memories were alive in him. As Faulkner says, the past is never dead, it’s not even past.
As an aside, in research for my family memoir, The Premier and the Pastoralist (Wakefield Press 2011), I learnt that there was much to be proud of in the enlightened nature of many South Australian pioneers, that Philip Levi was a founding trustee of the Adelaide Club — in contrast to the Melbourne Club where prominent Jewish families were once blackballed from membership despite their success and huge contribution to public life in Victoria.
Szubanski’s fine memoir, written with great style, adds another layer to our history — another startling migrant story. Of herself, a star of the screen, and of her father and his war of revenge against the murder of Polish Jews, and its destruction of his own innocence.