The door

Magda Szabó, 1917-2007

Book - 2015

"The Door is an unsettling exploration of the relationship between two very different women. Magda is a writer, educated, married to an academic, public-spirited, with an on-again-off-again relationship with Hungary's Communist authorities. Emerence is a peasant, illiterate, impassive, abrupt, seemingly ageless. She lives alone in a house that no one else may enter, not even her closest relatives. She is Magda's housekeeper and she has taken control over Magda's household, becoming indispensable to her. And Emerence, in her way, has come to depend on Magda. They share a kind of love--at least until Magda's long-sought success as a writer leads to a devastating revelation. Len Rix's prizewinning translation of T...he Door at last makes it possible for American readers to appreciate the masterwork of a major modern European writer"--

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FICTION/Szabo, Magda
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1st Floor FICTION/Szabo, Magda Due May 2, 2024
Psychological fiction
New York : New York Review Books [2015]
Main Author
Magda Szabó, 1917-2007 (-)
Other Authors
L. B. (Len B.) Rix (translator), Ali Smith, 1962- (writer of introduction)
Physical Description
ix, 262 pages ; 21 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

MAGDA SZABO, who died in 2007, was one of Hungary's most important 20th-century writers. Not that most of us Anglophones would know it, as very little of her work has been translated into English. "The Door," her best-known novel, which appeared in Hungary in 1987, was initially translated by Stefan Draughon and brought out here by an academic publisher in 1995. Subsequently translated into French, the book won the Prix Femina Étranger in 2003 and was beautifully retranslated by Len Rix for British publication in 2005. A decade later, New York Review Books Classics - acting, yet again, in its capacity as the Savior of Lost Greats - has now delivered this version to an American audience. If you've felt that you're reasonably familiar with the literary landscape, "The Door" will prompt you to reconsider. It's astonishing that this masterpiece should have been essentially unknown to English-language readers for so long, a realization that raises once again the question of what other gems we're missing out on. The dismaying discussion of how little translated work is available in the United States must wait for another venue; suffice it to say that I've been haunted by this novel. Szabo's lines and images come to my mind unexpectedly, and with them powerful emotions. It has altered the way I understand my own life. A work of stringent honesty and delicate subtlety, "The Door" is a story in which, superficially, very little happens. Szabo's narrator, like the author a writer named Magda (in interviews, Szabo suggested that the novel was only thinly veiled personal history), follows the intricacies of her intimate filial relationship with her housekeeper, Emerence. In doing so, it exposes the rich inadequacies of human communication even as it evokes the agonies of Hungary's recent history. When Emerence first comes to work for Magda and her husband, they have recently moved into a large apartment, following Magda's political rehabilitation in Communist Hungary: "For 10 years my writing career had been politically frozen. Now it was picking up again and here, in this new setting, I had become a full-time writer, with increased opportunities and countless responsibilities." Emerence chooses Magda and her husband, rather than vice versa - "I don't wash just anyone's dirty linen" - and while it emerges that the two women are from the same rural region, the formidable Emerence remains a mystery, of near mythical proportions. At their first encounter, "she was washing a mountain of laundry with the most antiquated equipment, boiling bed linen in a caldron over a naked flame, in the already agonizing heat, and lifting the sheets out with an immense wooden spoon. Fire glowed all around her. She was tall, big-boned, powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and she radiated strength like a Valkyrie. Even the scarf on her head seemed to jut forward like a warrior's helmet." Emerence's strength is imposing (in addition to her housecleaning, she sweeps the snow for 11 buildings on their shared street), as is her reserve. Animals of all kinds gravitate to her; people in the neighborhood rely on her, look up to her and are grateful for her charity. But in return, she remains stern and aloof. "Although she looked after us for over 20 years," Magda recalls, "during the first five of them it would have taken precision instruments to measure the degree to which she permitted real communication between us." Eventually, however, through a series of exchanges both emotional and material, the two women become close in spite of their great differences. Emerence sustains Magda through her husband's grave illness. She encourages the couple when they adopt a dog, then names him (Viola) and trains him so that she is his real mistress. She relies on Magda for help when awaiting an undisclosed but important visitor. She introduces Magda to her trio of close friends, who surround her like the three Fates. She bestows upon Magda and her husband a number of gifts that they resist at their peril. And, through all of this, tempestuous, the two women repeatedly argue and reconcile. The greatest intimacy Emerence shares with Magda is to permit her to cross the threshold of her home, to witness her secrets. It is a unique privilege: Although Emerence entertains a great deal on her porch, she never allows anyone beyond the front door. "You're going to see something no one has ever seen," she explains, "and no one ever will, until they bury me. But I've nothing else you would value ... so I'm going to give you the only thing I have." Even before Magda enters what she terms "the Forbidden City," she is past the point of no return: "It wasn't easy to accept that from now on I would always have to consider Emerence. Her life had become an integral part of my own. This led to the dreadful thought that one day I would lose her, that if I survived her there would be yet another addition to those ubiquitous, indefinable shadow-presences that wrack me and drive me to despair." Emerence is as practical, anti-intellectual and hostile to the church as Magda is abstracted, literary and religious, but in spite of their radical dissimilarities, both women are aware that friendship has its costs. Magda's dead mother hovers over the narrative, the clearest of her "shadow-presences." Emerence's life has been marked from early childhood onward by brutal losses, a trail of tragedy and sacrifice that may explain the locked front door. Questions linger, too, about Emerence's own shadow, about what she may have done, or not done, through Hungary's darkest years. The dog Viola - as vivid and fully realized a character as any human, a truly great literary dog - is essential to their love for each other. Their treatment of this creature is a manifestation of their disparate experiences. THROUGHOUT THE NOVEL, Szabo SOWS plentiful allusions - to Book 6 of Virgil's "Aeneid," to Shaw and E.T.A. Hoffmann, to the Fates of Greek myth and the Bible, even to "Gone With the Wind" - that lend Emerence a superhuman significance. She may be a mere housekeeper, but she is also an indomitable icon. It is a stature, Szabo implies, of which Emerence is not unaware, which makes the onset of her human frailty, the advent of true old age, perilous and tragic. When that time comes, Magda and Emerence understand differently what it means to care lovingly for an ailing friend. An unintended, heart-breaking betrayal inevitably ensues. The novel opens with a brief chapter about Magda's recurring nightmare, years after Emerence's death: the nightmare of the closed door. It sets a highly dramatic tone that, in literal terms, is not borne out by the ordinary events that follow. But there is nothing simply ordinary about the friendship between these two women. Set on the stage of a single street in mid-20th-century Budapest, theirs is nothing less than the account of humanity's struggle to love fully and unconditionally, a struggle that is perhaps doomed. As Szabo's narrator reflects: "Humankind has come a long way since its beginnings and people of the future won't be able to imagine the barbaric early days in which we fought with one another, in groups or individually, over little more than a cup of cocoa. But not even then will it be possible to soften the fate of a woman for whom no one has made a place in their life." 'You're going to see something no one has ever seen,' a character says, 'and no one ever will, until they bury me.' CLAIRE MESSUD'S most recent novel is "The Woman Upstairs.".

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [February 1, 2015]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this poignant but long-winded novel by the late Hungarian author Szabó, a writer recounts her decades-long relationship with-and eventual betrayal of-her enigmatic and emotionally volatile housekeeper. The story opens in postwar Hungary, narrated from old age by the protagonist, who remains unnamed for much of the novel. After having their careers "politically frozen," the narrator and her husband (also a writer) begin to work again and seek out domestic help for their new home in Budapest. They hire Emerence Szeredás, a local peasant with an air of authority and "strength like a Valkyrie." Though Emerence initially proves an antagonistic worker-attacking the narrator's belief in God, for instance-she eventually develops a deep affection for, and reliance upon, her employers. Over the years, she reveals secrets about her childhood and her peripheral involvement in Hungary's troubled political past, ultimately inviting the narrator into her apartment, which she notoriously-and suspiciously-protects. Szabó is a master tension builder, and Emerence's demise (foretold in the novel's opening pages) is heartbreakingly rendered. But an abundance of unnecessary detail weighs down what is otherwise a lucid and politically intriguing character study. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved