The Hungarian Despair of Magda Szabó’s “The Door”

On a recent cold, rainy Friday afternoon, I met my friend, whom I’ll call Nell—a small, compact, unflappable person with a halo of gold hair who ran away to join the circus when she was young. Nell was reading a book. When she raised her eyes from the page, she looked like someone who had stepped back from the curb at the very last moment before being hit by a bus. The book she was reading was a paperback novel with a pale gray cover, by the Hungarian writer Magda Szabó, called “The Door.” It was first published in Hungary, in 1987, then here in 1995, and was reissued last year, in a new translation by Len Rix. A few weeks ago, in The New York Review of Books, Deborah Eisenberg referred to the “white-knuckled experience” of reading it. Writing about “The Door,” in the Times, the writer Claire Messud, who, like Eisenberg, found the book mesmerizing, went so far as to say, “It has altered the way I understand my own life.”

Magda Szabó, who died in 2007, at the age of ninety, was one of Hungary’s best-known writers, although very few of her works have been published in English. (This year, The New York Review imprint will also publish a new translation of “Iza’s Ballad,” from 1963.) She was born into a Protestant family in Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city, in the northeast corner of the country, and went to university there. After graduation, she taught classics at a Calvinist girls’ school. In 1945, she began working in in the Ministry of Education, and two years later she married Tibor Szobotka, a writer who was the Hungarian translator of James Joyce and George Eliot, among others. The couple had no children. Her first book of verse, “The Lamb,” was published that same year. She followed it with a second collection, “Back to the Human,” and in 1949 was awarded the Baumgarten Prize, one of Hungary’s most prestigious literary awards. The prize was rescinded on the same day: she had been named as an “enemy of the people” by the recently installed Communist Party.

Szabó was fired from the Ministry. During the Stalinist rule of Hungary, from 1949 to 1956, she was not allowed to publish her work. Since then, her books have been published in forty-two countries; in 2003, the French translation of “The Door” won France’s Prix Femina Étranger. In Hungary her novel “Abigél,” which was published in 1970, was made into a popular television show, in 1978, and was ranked sixth in Hungary’s version of “The Big Read,” which followed the BBC model of the hundred favorite books of all time. Other books in the top ten included “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Lord of the Rings.” In 1999, at a cold windy day at the Budapest Book Fair, long lines of people waited at an outdoor booth for Szabó to sign copies of her book. The other day, my sixteen-year-old daughter was lamenting the end of “Downton Abbey,” which had occupied many Sunday nights of her childhood, and we found an article online called “Downton Abbey: What to Watch Next Now That It’s Over.” If there was a similar article about what to read once you’ve finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, “The Door”—though it lacks the scope of those books, coming in under two hundred pages—might top the list.

“The Door” is about a writer, who is the narrator, who lives in a village in Hungary, with her husband, who is also a writer. Their work has been banned; before the start of the book, the ban has been lifted. Now that she will be able to write again, and there will be other demands competing with her household for her attention, the writer realizes that she will need domestic help. Almost immediately, she is presented with an older woman, Emerence, who is the kind of person who would affectionately be called “the Mayor” in a small town. She cooks and cleans for people in the village, she minds children, she sweeps the snow off the street in winter. She knows everyone’s business. She holds court on the scrubbed porch outside her house. No one is allowed past her closed front door, although a smell of disinfectant leaks out over the lintel.

The narrator learns that she is not interviewing Emerence for a job; Emerence will decide, in due course, whether she will work for her. After all, she doesn’t do everyone’s dirty laundry. While the novel is set in a village, and is populated by various village types, like a parable—the kind cop, the good nephew, the sad seamstress—only four characters, three of them human—the narrator, her husband, and Emerence—figure in this story. Indeed, we learn very little about the marriage, or the narrator’s husband, nor about her husband’s seemingly grave illnesses. Instead, the book is dominated by the narrator’s intense interest in ferreting out the details of Emerence’s story and Emerence’s passionate attachment to the fourth figure in the story, a dog, who has been inadvertently acquired by the writer and her husband when they find it abandoned on Christmas Eve. (I have some affinity with this part of the story, having acquired two cats in a similar manner.) The dog, whom Emerence insists on calling Viola, although it is male (later we find out why), immediately attaches itself fervently to Emerence, and the narrator—who really does not care a whit about the dog—is jealous at any deep affection that is not aimed in her direction.

As in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Szabó is writing about a writer who despite domestic and other difficulties—some of which are historical predicaments that affect domestic life—is trying to write, and like those books, “The Door” revolves around the relationship of two women, one of whom is telling the story and may or may not be a reliable narrator. Like Lila, the brilliant friend in the Neapolitan quartet, Emerence is a mystery to the writer, impenetrable, existing with her secrets behind a locked door, a woman of extraordinary gifts—there are hints of this throughout the novel—who has chosen to fetter her own wings.

Those who clean other people’s houses for a living or help raise children learn many secrets. For a long time I relied on one person whom I thought of as a friend to clean my house, and another to help raise my children. In the first instance—I thought—the relationship was straightforward, but it was not. In the second, I knew it was not. By the time my youngest child was in her care, my marriage was breaking up and she witnessed scenes and was the receiver of confidences. There were moments when my child was with her when I did not know where she was, exactly. I insisted that those moments must cease and when she refused, I removed my child from her sphere. (Did I really ever think my child was in danger? No, it was the principle of the thing, I told myself, a phrase I find myself falling back on when the ground under my feet is shaky.) She vanished from our lives for a time, to the distress of my child, who quite rightly thought then that she was left in the care of two squabbling children.

I thought of this time, now past, reading “The Door.” To read it is to feel turned inside out—as if our own foibles have been written in soap on the mirror, to be read when we wake up from the trance of our own self-importance. In a short introduction, the British novelist Ali Smith suggests that Emerence may indeed be Hungary itself. If so, the novel is also about how despite our own wishes to be free of history, our own agency is curtailed by our time and circumstances: in the novel, Emerence’s great calamity would have occurred, after all, whether the narrator was there to witness it or not.

The book, which closely parallels events in Szabó’s own life, begins and ends with a dream; it reads like one, too—a fever dream, the shadow of a shadow. When I read the Ferrante series, in one fell swoop, it seemed to me as I sped from book to book as if Lenu and Lila were two halves of the same person, one that went forward, and the other who remained in the landscape of childhood, with access to the past’s terrible power. “The Door” is a bone-shaking book. At moments of crisis—-one involves an actual bolt of lightning, another, the consumption of a stupefying meal—the reader experiences a sensory ricochet. It is as if you are watching someone being run over by a car—bad enough—and at the same time you are the victim under the wheel, and then, triply implicated, also the driver of the car, backing up to run over the person in the road once more. It’s hallucinatory and confounding. Reading, you think: this can’t be happening. And of course, it isn’t happening. It’s a book. But is it? Did it?

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