Review: The Door – Magda Szabó

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.

The stage is now set for what turns out to be a long-lasting and life-changing relationship. Emerence possesses a natural authority and a finely-guarded sense of privacy.  She works extremely hard, but only when she chooses to, but she excels at the things she does and soon becomes indispensable.

Magda Szabó and her husband

The narrator gradually finds out more about her and Magda Szabó’s skill is in recounting the history of Hungary through Emerence’s life.  It turns out that Emerence has survived terrible times, the Stalinist period, the siege of Budapest, the Nazi invasion and later, the communist government which pried into every corner of people’s lives seeking control.  Emerence is enigmatic – she never tells a whole story, but only releasing fragments as her relationship with her employers matures and strengthens.

She is highly independent and tells her employers what she thinks of their writing.  At first this seems an anti-intellectualism, but later we see that life has been so tough on her that anything not linked to physical labour and the struggle for survival seems trite and pointless to her (it was brave of Magda Szabó to present this alternative view of her art with such ferocity).

The narrator and her husband get more involved in Emerence’s life, but always only at a distance. Emerence opens her doors just a crack at a time.  She is completely unconcerned about the opinions of others, whether praise or blame, and has developed a cynicism about the highest of motives, having been let down so many times during her life.

Some of the things that come out are revelatory.  During the war, when Jews were escaping Hungary, one young family were unable to take their new-born baby with them on the journey across the mountains, and Emerence, who was working as maid at the time, agreed to adopt the baby as her own and to return to her home village, where her father badly beat her for bringing home the child, believing it to be hers.  Emerence of course was unable to set the record straight, because identifying the child as Jewish would have caused “its head to be bashed against a wall”.

Door and Window - Memphis, TN (by Amie V)
We realise that we are dealing with a unique character here, for this is just one story among many, Emerence being almost a cipher for the history of Hungary, with every episode of its troubled past being written deep into Emerence’s life.  We in the West can hardly understand how the catastrophes of mid-20th century central Europe affected the people who live there, and we see in Emerence a blood-line of suffering which formed a character hard as nails, but always ready to move out to help her neighbours and relatives.

While saying at the start that The Door is at least in part biographical, I have been unable to find any reference to the reality of Emerence.  Maybe she really existed or perhaps she was a composite for many people.  Perhaps she was just an idea in Magda Szabó’s mind, to personify the effect of decades of suffering on so many anonymous people.  Whatever the truth of the matter, The Door is full of insights, and I found myself recognising people and situations in my own life which resonated with Emerence and her troubles.  The narrator didn’t choose Emerence, and nor did Emerence seek her our, but something was going on which formed a life-changing relationship.

For this is the value of great fiction – we find ourselves saying “Ah, yes”, and perhaps understanding something we didn’t quite get the hang of before.  I would place this novel at the top of my list (yet to be compiled) of “great books”, one of those few books which I borrowed but must now purchase for my shelves so I can remind myself about Emerence, one of the most memorable characters of fiction.


A video tribute to Magda Szabó can be seen here

The image of Magda Szabó and her husband comes from a Hungarian blog Ecet és Olaj

The image of a door and window comes from flickr user Amie V

12 comments to Review: The Door – Magda Szabó

  • A question: you mention the sheer damn awkwardness of some relationships. Does the book explore the relationship as a friendship or a servant/employer situation? It sounds as though it’s written as a sort of friendship that grows over time–however, with Emerence as a servant, the employer/servant relationship is diametrically opposed to friendship. Or at least the friendship can only go so far. Is that issue explored? Just curious.

  • Tom

    Thanks for the comment Guy – Well, it starts of as a servant / employer relationship but over the years turns into an almost familial love, the depth of mutual commitment exceeding even that of most friendships.

  • Great praise Tom. It sounds like the exact sort of book I’d like.

    I was thinking the other day of your focus on European novels in translation, and realised how little 20th century European work I’ve read. Camus, WG Sebald, Milan Kundera, Herman Hesse are the ones that spring quickly to mind. Most of my novel-in-translation reading is (has been) South American and Asian (mostly Japanese). I really should explore the Europeans more.

  • Tom

    Thanks for commenting. I think this book would appeal to a wide range of people. I suppose Australians will inevitably be drawn to their geographical neighbours books rather than those from the other side of the world.

  • Thanks for the review. I love European Lit in translation, esp books by eastern Europeans and women. The only Hungarian author whose books I’ve read is Sandor Marai.

  • I love this book and have great pleasure pressing it into other people’s hands. I’ve been trying to goad John Self into reading it for a while, as he tried and gave up a while ago. Perhaps your great review might push him a little closer…

  • Tom

    Well, I think its up there with some of the greats of European books – a quality novel which goes beyond telling a story to providing insights into how people work. Thanks for the comment.

  • [...] Door by Magda Szabo .  A Common Reader reviewed this book.  Magda Szabo is a Hungarian writer.  I’m familiar with only one [...]

  • A definite one for the TBR pile, it sounds very good.

    What did you think of the translation? I appreciate you likely don’t read Hungarian so can’t comment directly, but did it feel natural? Fluid?

    Lovely question by Guy. Still, between your comments and William’s I’ll have to pick it up. I’m keen to read more Hungarian fiction anyway, why not start with the best?

  • Forgot to ask, Kinna, if you see this what did you make of Sandor Marai? That’s not an author I’m familiar with.

  • Paul

    I can highly recommend Len Rix’s translations of Antal Szerb – Journey By Moonlight being a particularly fine novel.

  • [...] you to other reviews which better reflect the wider consensus on it. There’s an excellent one here from Tom at A Common Reader (an excellent blog by the way, and Tom’s opinion is worth taking [...]

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