Review: Drusilla Modjeskaon Susan Varga

The Insects and the Trees

Reflections on reading Susan Varga’s Hard Joy: Life and Writing

Susan Varga was a child of five when she left Hungary for life in Australia. It was December 1948, the Communist regime was in power, the Iron Curtain was about to fall, and on the train that day, there were seven of them: her mother Heddy, her sister Jutka, her brand-new stepfather – whose name they were travelling under – his brother, his wife and their baby. As they approached Austria, the border guard came to check their documents, their passports stamped Never To Return. ‘What is your name, Miss?’ he asks the young Suszi. She punches her fist, and says, ‘I know. I know it, I know! But I’ve forgotten.’

‘A heavy silence. The guard puffs up his cheeks and looks down his nose. Then he closes the carriage door, walks down the corridor and out of the train.’

Susan Varga tells this story in the short, powerful prologue to her memoir Hard Joy. Was it a memory? Or was the memory of the guard, so vivid in mind, created from the story Heddy would later tell her? It had been Heddy who’d got them all onto that train, and who’d done the hard grind of procuring the documents. And it was Heddy who’d schooled the children in their new name. Could salvation be snatched from them in an instant by the vagaries of a child’s memory? The child whom Heddy had swaddled and protected through the last, brutal years of the war, the child she’d born in October 1943, refusing the option of an abortion despite the escalating horror, the forced deportation of Jewish Hungarians that would soon take her husband, Suszi’s birth-father, to the Fertörákos labour camp where he died. By the time the Nazis were in retreat the following winter, the infant Suszi was so weak that she, too, would have died had Heddy not made the hazardous journey to the liberated zone in search of clean water and medicines that saved her life.

That day on the train at the border when the guard walked on down the corridor, Varga writes: ‘Silence in our compartment. A few miles further into Austria, we draw breathe and dare to celebrate.’

Hard Joy. A title that makes you stop and think. And not only for the opening preface of war and escape. Even when danger is left far behind, joy is rarely straightforward. Hard Joy: Life and Writing is the full title.

There is the hard joy of writing, which any writer will recognise; not only the long hours at the desk, but the journey writing can take us on, as we come to understand our small part in the larger scheme of things. And there are the hard joys of life, the joys we mistake, the things we run after, hoping they will be joys. And there are all the things we avoid, thinking that avoidance will bring joy, not knowing, or not yet, that the hardest joy of all may be to turn and face them. Face the paradox, enter the space between the past and the present, the expressed and the repressed. Hard joy.

For many years the young Susan Varga bought Heddy’s line that she was only a baby during the war, and that once it was over she began to thrive again. Heddy was the one who suffered, not her. But even with Hungary cast into the past from the safety of Australia, it remained for Susan ‘a place of fear, shadows, danger’. She would be in mid-life before she turned to face that past, with the hard joy of writing Heddy and Me, her memoir of 1994.

The challenge of writing, Deborah Levy says in The Cost of Living (2018), is ‘to climb between the apparent reality of things, to see not only the tree but the insects that live in its infrastructure.’ Memoir is an invitation – both for the writer, and for the reader – ‘to discover that everything is connected in the ecology of language and living.’ An invitation to see ourselves, our own small lives as part of that wider ecology, the larger histories, Levy’s infrastructure, in which we all exist.

And that is what Susan Varga achieved with Heddy and Me, a breakthrough book not only for her, but the writing of Australian memoir. Hard Joy widens the lens, looking back across the span of seventy years to consider those fundamental human questions of what makes us, and who makes us. To what extent do our roots, our origins form us? Can we escape them and start again? What does it mean to be an immigrant to this country?

These are the questions we are invited to consider in Hard Joy, and how they unfold through a life recalled, the drama enacted over four acts, replete with stories and photographs that draw us back to the moment. And, most significantly, poetry.

Being of the same generation as Susan Varga, and a friend of the last decade, this essay is less a review than a reflection on reading Hard Joy – for it tells the story not only of her own life, her own hard joys, but the changing ecosystem in which she became a writer – and so many others of us too – the ways in which the tensions between looking forward and looking back played out over a generation. The things we did see in youth, and the things we did not see; the things we refused to see, and those that we were blind to. The insects and the tree.

So there they are, this family of seven, newly arrived in Sydney. The smells are different, the light, the air, the clothes people wear, their restrained gestures. And tea served in ‘bleak cafes’ and ‘coloured with milk!’ Australia.

Act One has begun.

Elizabeth Bay
A fading boarding house. Two crammed rooms.
A sliver of sea. We heat the baby’s milk
on a gas ring. Are asked, politely,
to leave.

Heddy is not deterred. She had managed to get her first husband’s feather business going again within months of the war ending. She had fought to get back the house that had been theirs, and as soon as they were in and she’d reclaimed the possessions she could, there was a clean cloth on the table, perfectly set. For Heddy, such things mattered. When Gyuszi Weiss – soon to be her next husband, step-father to her daughters – first saw the apartment where they were living in Budapest, and the children in pressed dresses, he was impressed. He’d have opted to stay in Hungary, there were businesses to rebuild, a life to re-make, a redemptive family. No one married for love then, Varga writes; ‘Love was not appropriate for survivors of the carnage.’ Gyuszi had returned from Mauthausen to find his wife and two sons had been killed in Auschwitz. For six months he sat stunned in a room.

There was no way Heddy was going to stay in a country that had ‘tried to kill us all’. And Heddy, being Heddy, had managed to get some money out of Hungary before the war, enough for the cramped house that fitted all seven of them. Practical Gyuszi set about building another business. The next house is better, the seven can separate into two houses, and Heddy can get her mother Kato out of Hungary to live with them, a grandmother who had once sung on the Budapest stage.

The young Suszi sets about being Australian. With no English, it was a bumpy start. In kindergarten she walks into the boys’ toilet and so is so shamed that she refuses to return.

Another school. Another suburb. Another house.

Primary School
One day English is THERE –
My magic passport, my New World,
I can tease, joke, make a friend.
In the dim grocery shop, I can buy –
now that the grocer understands me –
meat pies for lunch, musk sticks
and liquorice straps for the way home.
So new, exotic! Then on a magical
unmarked day, normal.

Normal is born, Suszi becomes Susan, the Australian school girl, who writes the best stories in Mr Lowry’s class, along with Jonesy, her friend, an adopted boy for whom normal is also not so normal, and who grows up to be Robert Dessaix. His books are of ‘derring-do with pirates and galleons on the high seas’ written in special blue ink. Susan’s – or so she says – were less tidy, ‘Enid Blyton knock-offs’ – one of them called Seven Arrive, a ‘true’ story of escape from the wicked Communists­. No mention, not a word, of the Holocaust. It was Mr Lowry (and Jonesy alongside) who planted the ‘seed of her writing life’.

At her next school Susan becomes the rebel girl, no normal for her, that’s how normal the normal had become, and with a small group of other rebel girls she produces ‘an alternative magazine to the boring school magazine’. It includes something about the sex life of frogs and oh what a fracas that caused! All very normal for the 1950s Anglophone world of post-war respectability – I recognise it well, albeit from a distant school in England – that era when ‘layers of shame’ and the need to escape were both embedded in the ‘repression and blandness, good manners, manufactured school spirit, Queen and country.’

And there is Susan at eighteen. Two photographs. In one she is dressed for her first ball with long white gloves, perfectly bourgeois, splendidly normal, her hair sprayed into a helmet of submission. In the other, she sits in a chair wearing white high-heels, her legs crossed, with an insouciance only an eighteen-year-old can achieve – and an expression that says she is far too sophisticated for this respectable normal. Behind her is an apprehensive Heddy; a perfect North Shore house, lamps and paintings and linen brought from Hungary. A successful husband. And this rebel daughter. Why were they not happy? With Heddy at the helm, their new life in this new land had been created with a speed that left them ‘bewildered’. And in the background, a dark past ‘threatening to engulf’ them.

For Susan, escape came at Sydney University, where she was drawn into the radical orbit of the Sydney Push – as so many rebel girls were – with its rejection of everything bourgeois, and its rhetoric of freedom: so many freedoms, freedom of every variety, and especially sexual freedom. It was a time of intense energy, with many of those around her also on a trajectory of escape. There were the children of refugees who had come to Australia for sanctuary, not all of them Jewish, making the journey from Europe at the end of the war. There were the Australian-born escaping the repressive strictures of the suburbs, the rural towns, the schools that misapprehended them. And there were those – like me – who came here because we could. (In the late 1960s, if you travelled on a British passport, there was no need for visa, or even a stamp in that (once) powerful document. The White Australia Policy reigned until 1973. That recent.)

Hard Joy catches it all, the energy of Sydney University in the 1960s: the freedom, the sex, the dances, the plays, the dramas, the parties, the pub bars. The centripetal force of the Push, those hard-drinking, always talking, always debating, radical men. There were a few women who could meet them on that terrain, but for the rest there was the inevitable bewilderment when free turned out to be not so free. Whose freedom? Freedom for what? At what cost? Decades later, some of the old Push men could still be offended if anyone mentioned the irrefutable fact of just how masculine-dominated those freedoms were. They’d come to be the only ones who doubted it. But at the time, in the early 1960s before feminism changed the narrative, it was the women who were caught in the paradox of all that was promised, and all that was withheld.

The young Susan – an ‘inchoate rebel’, she calls herself – was swirled into the centre of it all, when George Molnar, a major figure in the Push, declared his interest in her as his next woman. She was nineteen, a first-year student; he was coming up for thirty, and a lecturer in the Philosophy Department. He was a brilliant thinker who could debate anything and everything, but would fall at the first emotional hurdle. ‘A quintessentially Jewish intellectual who couldn’t hold a drink,’ Varga would write in an obituary many years later, ‘trying to fit into that hard-drinking, womanising, gambling world.’ Hopeless at drinking, he was good at gambling – and at drawing women to him. The problems started when the mind – his mind – had to contend with the heart – his, as well as hers. The young Susan with her tumbling hair – no more spray for her – fell in love ‘with his persona, with the possibility of learning from him, with the whole deliciousness of being nineteen and the most intelligent man on campus saying he was in love with me.’

It might just have been another Push affair – there were so many of them, romance played down in the elevation of radical freedom – were it not for the fact that George Molnar had also lived through the war in Hungary. Unlike the infant Susan, he had been ten, and very much sentient, when he and his mother survived that last, terrifying winter in the Pest ghetto, with nothing but icicles to keep them alive. Yet George rarely spoke with Susan, or very little, about that shared history, those ‘carnage years’ when he was a boy and she was a baby, that winter when both would have died had it not been for his mother and the icicles, and Heddy making that trek to find a doctor.

It was a love affair – if that’s the term for it – that was as disturbing as it was significant, the two of them drawn together by the power of a history denied. The repressed returning – only to be repressed again.

I should disclose here that I knew George Molnar a decade later, when I was first in Sydney and feminism was underway, but with me, a naive Anglo girl from England who needed educating, he did talk of those years, not a lot, and mostly the big history, but sometimes also about his, and his mother’s, survival – which is how I know about the icicles. It was when I asked how it felt, how it actually was, losing his colour-vision from malnutrition, his hands cramped from the cold of the icicles, that he shut down. Nothing more to be said. Reading Hard Joy made sense of a man I dismissed with the arrogant – and ignorant ­– judgement of youth.

Susan did not last long with George, the most intelligent man on campus patting her like a pet, the closest he could come to expressing the love he professed. She kept on moving, as one did back then, more friends, more lovers, more adventures, and through it all, and despite his never-ending propensity to talk at and over her, she remained a friend to George. Many years later, she would be one of those who sat beside him in hospital after he collapsed on the steps of Sydney University’s Fisher Library, never to recover consciousness.

And so Act One continues. And so do the adventures of a sexual rebel, a roller-coaster ride, until at twenty-three she marries Anton, an altogether different kind of man, a student of veterinary science, who liked roaming the back-blocks of Queensland, sleeping beside rivers. A thinker outside the Push, a retreat, a way of keeping the dangers at bay while still enjoying her Push-men friends. Such sexy photos of her dancing with them at the wedding party. Another new start, this time in Anton’s home country of Holland – another family, another unreconciled history. Another past, another present. More stories, more conundrums, more paradoxes. By the time Susan returns to Sydney, Whitlam is in power, the marriage is in a limbo of neither being, nor not being. The next iteration of love that is said to be free.

Heddy and Gyuszi are living in a house with a pool. Susan stays with them and throws a party. Poor Heddy. I’m old enough now to look at the photo of a Push man, in tight budgie-smuggler bathers under a large stomach talking to Gyuszi, and feel a kind of generational shame. Her ‘clashing worlds.’ Gyuszi is putting a good face on it.

International Women’s Year
Whitlam’s comet in brief trajectory
A Government was listening!
We were young, or youngish.
We marched in the streets one day,
Wrote submissions the next.

The writing seed is given over to the writing of submissions. Actions and words. Which matters most? Another binary we looped ourselves into. With Whitlam in power, the past was resolutely consigned to the past. For Susan, now in her thirties, it was a time of widening experience with all those submissions, the possibilities of an opening job market. It was also, she writes, ‘the most tumultuous and vivid years of my life.’ She was ‘not inclined’ to dredge too deep – the ‘dissolution’ of her marriage, her ‘half-arsed and random affairs’ – the Push-influence lingering on, at odds with the new discourses of feminism. More fractious arguments, more wearying dilemmas. Yet, for all the messiness, they were vivid years, and although I knew her only as a name back then, I recognise it all too well. The chaotic shared houses we lived in, the cachet of that wild and edgy life, the changing cast of characters, the friendships, some that endured, most passing in the tumult. And most of all the paradox of those ‘radical’ years when we thought we saw it all, and yet saw so little.

‘I was drawn to people living on the edge,’ she writes. ‘I was impressed by their daring, their flouting of convention and, above all, the edgy way they lived their lives. I was indulging my own dangerous streak by knowing them: a form of living vicariously. Maybe I was too conventional to live in the dangerous wilds they inhabited.’ The saving paradox perhaps. The privilege of class and whiteness. That North Shore home with its paintings and table lamps; the security of it, despite the persistent tension with Heddy.

There were many within that ecosystem for whom there was no security, no background resilience. For them, or some of them, the edginess of the edge could become a chasm, and the chasm could become a fall. When it was a friend who fell hard, someone known who died, someone she wanted to protect, what then? And when it was an Aboriginal friend who fell? Or should I say, an Aboriginal woman she thought was friend, such was the chasm of class and race that existed between them well before the woman died? In writing of it, a terrible death made vivid, she presents us, her readers, with the confusion of it all, the visceral realisation of a damaged, unequal ecosystem. Another dark past.

The personal is political, we would say, back then. And it is.

But how does that play out beyond the slogan?

Within the Tumult – as Varga calls Act Two – we should not underestimate the work she – and they, her edgy friends – were doing. The projects enabled by those submissions. The video collectives, the voice given to those who did not have a voice, the refuges for women escaping violence, the film projects that were a prelude to Film Australia. And nor should we underestimate the the Green Bans that saved Darlinghurst’s Victoria Street from the developers, though it did not save Juanita Nielsen from their murderous corruptions. Susan was there, with the Green Ban activists and her old Push friends, on the street and on the roofs, as the deadly drama unfolded.

It makes for sobering reading, taking me back to that time with the amazement of age meeting youth. Admiration for the courage, the fearless energies, that force for change. And alarm at how easily edginess and fearlessness can become self-punishing. Unlike today’s youth protesting for the very existence of the planet, we were a generation – perhaps the last – which could look forward, however naïvely. ‘We could afford to dream, to think.’ A fortunate generation, we might say, and from one perspective we were. From another we were damaged, though we wouldn’t have thought to use the word of our (not so) radical selves. All of us, in one way or another, were scarred by the war we were born into, or in the aftermath of. And by the layers of shame, the need to escape imbued in us from the regressive respectability of a 1950s Anglo-centric education. (I am not drawing false equivalencies between those who survived the Holocaust, and those of us whose fathers fought with the Allies, with all they saw and could not speak of. There are many degrees of damage.)

The time came when enough turmoil was enough, and it was time to think more, dream less. For Susan Varga, it was time to face the past.

I woke up
on a morning somehow different
washed my face in cold water
gouged sleep from my eyes
and walked away.
Some Years Passed
I cleared the horizon

tasted solitude
breathed long and deep
and saw riding toward me
on a white charger
a Princess

Enter the ‘elegant blue-stockinged, riding-booted’ Anne Coombs, writer and country girl who knows the ways of the city; practical, sensible – and romantic.

At 45 it is landfall. The next, very different Act, begins.

When Susan plucks up the courage to tell Anne the long-supressed secret of her desire to write, Anne says is that all, she’d been expecting something awful. So, she says, when are you going to get started?

When Susan hunts up more courage, this time to tell Heddy and Gyuszi the truth of her love for Anne, Gyuszi says Can’t you just be friends? He complains of a sleepless night. A deep breath. And then the new present is accepted, respected.

Everything shifts.
Another order of love. A move to the country.
Soil for the writing seed to grow.

The tempo of the narrative changes, as Susan asks Heddy to speak to her of Hungary, of all that had happened, that long-held dark silence. Their weekly sessions are recorded, and transcribed. Sitting across the table, Heddy talks of it all, of Hungary and the war, of the man she married and their honeymoon in Italy, the man who knew what was coming, the father Suszi never knew. And her sister Jutka, sent to stay with a family member who had married a Christian. The brutal stories that had come with them to Australia, that had twisted into them, a burden of guilt and resentment that had welded them together and forced them apart.

During those months of Heddy speaking, and Susan listening, the engulfing shadow begins to lift. Suddenly Heddy’s fixation on things – her attachment to lamps and chairs and table-cloths – falls into a pattern that no longer need be denied. Past and present realign. And when she, with Anne, returns to Hungary, a first visit back to the landscape of Budapest, retracing the perilous steps Heddy had taken to save the life of the infant Suszi. It was 1990, the Soviet empire was collapsing. Buildings were still pock-marked by shrapnel from the war. The place was a mess, old friends of Heddy would say, the remnants of family who had remained. But none of them envied their Australian life. There were new freedoms to celebrate, there, in Europe. No need for escape to some distant country.

Australia. Could it be so easily dismissed? What did it all mean, the life left behind, the life re-made?

Reading Hard Joy sent me back to Heddy and Me, the book that broke through the silence and faced the past. The book that grew from the seed planted all those years before. A memoir that opens the imaginative space that allows us to inhabit the doubled perspective of the insects and the tree. A memoir that encompasses the largest of the large, and the smallest of the small. And everything in between.

Heddy and Me was published in 1994. It sold well for that time, and was short-listed for several prizes, but it didn’t receive anything like the attention its significance deserved – not only for the story it told, but for the way it was told. Perhaps because of its timing ­– with the Cold War over, the Berlin Wall down – the history it spoke of was thought to be over. ‘The End of History’ was being seriously proposed; the triumph of the democratic West. A time when, as a polity, maybe, we did not want to look back, and did not think we needed to.

By the time Heddy and Me was published, Susan and Anne were living in the country, two hours from Sydney. In the hallway of their house were ‘objects of past and present worlds’. Susan and Heddy would speak often, rarely ‘about anything important’, but they were comfortable together. They liked each other. Outside Susan’s study window was ‘a huge and ancient gum, and in from of it, a European tree that is starting to lose its leaves for autumn.’

And so ends a book that I hope will soon be republished as the classic it is. An Australian classic.

Susan Varga was writing the last draft of Heddy and Me when she was invited to a Child Survivors conference in Canada. Research into intergenerational trauma was still in its early stages, and at first Susan thought she’d been so young it wouldn’t apply to her. But she went, and it was transformative. ‘Everything I have known and written about shifts focus,’ she wrote in Heddy and Me, one of the few passages she quotes again in Hard Joy. ‘It is only a small shift, like viewing a scene through the tracery of a tree, then moving a few inches to see the panorama clear.’

She was excited, she was frightened. But at last she was on her way to understanding her life-long ‘sense of displacement’ and the ‘omnipresent sense of threat’ that had had her living an uncomfortable in-between-ness, here but not here, Hungary hovering. The conference also let her acknowledge the resilience – given to her by Heddy – that had seen her through those tumult years. And the ‘will to find meaning and to make things work’ that would come more and more into focus.

Reading Hard Joy, I understand again how very important that understanding of inherited trauma has been in the changing ecology of language and meaning in this country. For Susan Varga the perspective widens on that other deep question of what it means to be Australian, to live, and write, with that huge and ancient eucalyptus outside her study window? To live not ‘in the country’, but ‘on country.’

She doesn’t accept the ‘exceptionalism’ of the Holocaust, and nor does she make false equivalences. You don’t have to look far, as she says, to see the brutality, the carnage of history – and of the present. The many forms of cultural and racial erasure that continue, here in this country, and across the world. As we now know, the trauma of those who survive can determine the trajectory of a life.

For Susan Varga, this understanding, her lived experience, would be the underpinning of her words and her actions, her books, and the philanthropic work of the next two decades. To find meaning and make things work.

Hard Joy reminds me – shocks me – how recent that shift in our ecology of language and meaning has been, not only individually, but collectively. Its political significance in the ways we can go forward as a country. And the depth of resistance from those who cannot, or will not, turn to face the past.

Although I have dwelt on the first half of this memoir, letting myself travel back to the turmoil of those times, Hard Joy is less a book of reminiscence than a book for our critical times. Written in the worst years of Coalition government, the deliberate cruelty meted out to asylum seekers, the refusal of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the widening of the Gap, it was published within a month of the 2022 election. I read it with hope for what this country could be if we can stand to face the past, and free the voices of the future.