A woman of substance
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