Magda Szabó (1917-2007)was Hungary’s foremost woman novelist (it is not me who placed the gender qualification in that title!). All I know about her is that The Door is a very fine novel and makes me want to read more of her novels – a desire sadly thwarted by the lack of English translations.
While The Door is classed as a novel, I am sure there are enough elements of biography in it as to make little difference. The un-named narrator is a female writer who lives with her academic husband, the two of them being so wholly absorbed in their work, that a hired help is required to clean and maintain the house they live in. They put word about their neighbourhood that they are looking for someone reliable, and before long, a former classmate tells her of an old woman who works for her brother, telling the narrator that “Emerence was someone with a bit of authority; she hoped the woman would take us on, because frankly if she didn’t warm to us, no amount of money would induce her to accept the job”.
Eventually Emerence gets in touch, a tall, big-boned woman, “powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and radiating strength like a Valkyrie”. She listens to what is required of her and responds that assuming someone could vouch for the two writers and assure her that they were unlikely to brawl of get drunk, then they might be able to discuss the matter further. In the meantime, the couple pass her in the street from time to time without gaining a clue about Emerence’s response to her “interview”. A week or so later, she turns up at their house and tells them that she will take on the job and start the next day, and will tell them in a month or so what her wage would be.
In Journey by Moonlight, the Hungarian writer Antal Szerb has produced one of the most memorable novels I have read for some time. When I finished it, I turned back to think about what to write in this review and was immediately drawn back into whichever part of the story I landed in, beguiled by the quality of writing and the narrative pace. Ostensibly about the marriage between Mihaily and Erzsi, it would be incorrect to describe this as merely a novel, for it is also a series of statements about existence, relationships and our place in the world.
Mihaily and Erzsi are newly-weds and we join them on their honeymoon in Venice. We rapidly learn that Mihaily is a vague, other-worldly man, who seems barely planted on the earth.
Even during the first week of the honeymoon he finds himself one night wandering the back streets of Venice for in a sort of dream, not returning to the hotel until dawn. At one point we read a beautifully ironic and sarcastic letter to Mihaily from Erzsi’s ex-husband Zoltan, giving him instructions on how to care for Erzsi and perfectly describing Mihaily’s character:
If I were a woman, and had to choose between the two of us, I too would have chosen you without hesitation and Erzi surely loves you for being just the sort of person you are – so utterly withdrawn and abstracted that you haven no real relationship with anybody or anything, like someone from another planet, a Martian on earth, someone who never really notices anything . . . who never pays proper attention when others speak, who often seems to act out of vague goodwill and politeness as if playing at being human.
I’ve enjoyed looking at some Telegram books recently, and found Metropole in a local bookshop. In this unusual novel, Hungarian linguist Budai travels to Helsinki for an international conference but inadvertently is placed on a flight to an un-named and unidentifiable city, where he finds himself whisked away to an hotel without his baggage. He finds himself unable to communicate with the hotel staff despite trying several languages, and because he is so tired he decides to accept the room he is offered and to sort out revised travel plans in the morning.
So begins this labyrinthine tale of abandonment in a foreign city, every traveller’s nightmare, where nobody can recognise your language and your passport has been retained by your hotel, you have no baggage and only a limited supply of money. Karinthy has made a wonderful job of describing what happened to Budai over the next few days, and the world he creates is sufficiently Kafka-esque for it to hit all the right buttons in the nightmare stakes.
The city Budai finds himself in is vastly over-crowded. Budai is pushed and shoved every time he steps outside and returns from his exploratory expeditions bruised and aching. The shops are full and endless queues form in cafeterias and shops. Customers have to find what they want, then queue to pay for it and queue again to pick it up (echoes of Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road in times past). It is the same in the hotel. Budai is unable to make his problem known to the hotel staff owing to their knowledge of only their own language and as Budai makes sign language or draws little diagrams, the staff are already looking over his shoulder at the next customer.