A woman of sub­stance

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Reck­on­ing: A Memoir By Magda Szuban­ski

It is decades since Magda Szuban­ski es­tab­lished her­self as one of the great fig­ures of Aus­tralian com­edy. From the early days of The D-Gen­er­a­tion and Fast For­ward, through the bar­rier-break­ing Big Girl’s Blouse to the daz­zling or­di­nar­i­ness of her Sharon Strz­elecki in Kath & Kim, Magda is one of those ex­tra­or­di­nary co­me­di­ans in whose case the line be­tween sketch com­edy and char­ac­ter act­ing, as well as be­tween laugh­ter and some un­dreamt-of poignancy, gets hard to draw.

She has made Hol­ly­wood hits such as Babe, been the face of Jenny Craig, and is adored by the Aus­tralian public. And through it all there has been the un­canny sense of a clown of ge­nius that makes most forms of in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism look like a fee­ble, flut­ter­ing thing.

Now she has writ­ten a memoir that will daz­zle ev­ery kind of reader be­cause it is a driven, ut­terly se­ri­ous book (what­ever in­ci­den­tal laughs there may be in it) be­cause it is in a cen­tral way about Szuban­ski’s quest for her fa­ther and the enigma of a moral and his­tor­i­cal in­her­i­tance he be­queathed to her like a tragic hero’s curse on the house that in­her­ited him.

Her Pol­ish fa­ther was a war hero; her Pol­ish fa­ther was an as­sas­sin. We be­gin as he lies dy­ing and Magda gets her fa­ther, who has al­ways been in­sou­ciant about re­li­gion, to see a Pol­ish priest, and her fa­ther is not de­ri­sive of him and ad­mits the man is not an idiot. The priest preaches at his fu­neral and says that God is the only true bi­og­ra­pher.

An old lady tells Magda — and who would dis­be­lieve her? — that her fa­ther was the bravest of the brave.

He de­fended Jewish chil­dren and Pol­ish peo­ple when he was barely an adult. He es­caped from Poland in the to­tal dark­ness of a sewer, feel­ing the crunch of corpses be­neath his feet. And yes, he killed peo­ple, suf­fer­ers of what­ever frailty flesh is heir to, in his fight against the Nazis. And so the ques­tion rises like the smoke of sac­ri­fice: if evil is done to you, if evil is to be strug­gled against, are we jus­ti­fied in do­ing evil in re­turn? Or is that too por­ten­tous a term for the jus­tice of war?

This is the ques­tion that hovers and broods over the whole of Szuban­ski’s Reck­on­ing, even though it is pre­dom­i­nantly the story of her life (and in part her bril­liant ca­reer). And it com­pli­cates it and gives it a weird, un­earthly moral pro­fun­dity as well as an odd, slightly un­hinged de­tec­tive-story qual­ity as Magda, like the Miss Marple of her own moral be­wil­der­ments, crosses the world over and over as she tries to come to terms with where she comes from and, there­fore, who she is.

Her fa­ther em­i­grated to Bri­tain and from there to Aus­tralia. He put the dark mat­ter of Poland, God’s fa­tal play­ground, be­hind him. He smiled, with­out sen­ti­men­tal­ity, at the world. He pushed his daugh­ter into sports, into ten­nis, he tried — and seems to have suc­ceeded — in mak­ing her into a war­rior in the sense of some­one who would be ready for what­ever bat­tle the soul might have to face.

In prac­tice, much of Reck­on­ing is pre­oc­cu­pied with the splen­dours and the mis­eries of

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