By page 10 of Reckoning we are already sitting by a deathbed with a Polish Catholic priest, administering the last rites to the author’s father in his mother tongue. Magda Szubanski is one of Australia’s most adored comic actors but her first book is not funny and is not trying to be. This memoir – about inherited trauma and arrested development in suburban Melbourne – reveals the sombre interior life of a figure best known, and loved, for her silliness.
Szubanski’s father was a teenage resistance fighter in Warsaw during World War II. At 19, he joined an execution squad, assassinating Gestapo agents and collaborators point blank. Later, he was a prisoner of war. He married and had three children in Britain before immigrating to Melbourne, but the shadow of the war intruded on the psyche of the inquisitive youngest child, the author, from an early age. Reckoning tells Szubanski’s life story to date – including her struggles with her weight, depression and sexuality, as well as her career successes – as she grasps the horrors of the recent past.
Szubanski can write stunning prose. In a scene where she meets her mother’s cousin Molly in Scotland, she writes: “She took a deep, hard suck on her Silk Cut, the purpose-built creases of her wizened face pulling tight around the fag end like a drawstring bag.” The portraits of her parents are vivid and empathetic and her writing is particularly strong when describing her early-adulthood adventures in counterculture. As an alienated, confused teen in the 1970s, Szubanski understands the seductive pull of ideology. As the daughter of a Pole, she understands its catastrophic consequences.
Reckoning is a heavy book and at times there are strains and creaks. There are some overdeveloped sections in the childhood and adolescent years, romanticised descriptions of forebears overseas and some jarring skips in mood. But the book’s flaws reflect the fevered mind and oppressed conscience of the author. In one passage, Szubanski explains her love of Gothic architecture: “The extreme excitability of the mediaeval soul always seemed a good fit for my own emotional lability.”
Nearly every memoir is described as “brave” these days but Szubanski has earned the word. She must know, more than most, that the public does not willingly accommodate a third dimension in its celebrities. The result of her efforts is an affecting story of family intimacy – soulfully and sensitively told. SR
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2015 as "Magda Szubanski, Reckoning". Subscribe here.