The first book of Hungarian literature that I mentioned on this blog was The Melancholy of Resistance (1989/1998) by László Krasznahorkai in February 2017. Here’s another one, about which I’ve been hearing a lot: The Door by Magda Szabó. Cynthia Zarin of The New Yorker calls it “a bone-shaking book” and Claire Messud of The New York Times says “it has altered the way I understand my own life”. Originally written in 1987, it was translated into English by Zimbabwe-born Cambridge-educated Len Rix in 2005.
Born in Debrecen, Austria-Hungary in 1917, Magda Szabó began her career as a poet. In the 1950s, she disappeared from the publishing scene and made her living by teaching Latin and Hungarian and translating from French and English. She began writing novels in 1958. In 1978, she was awarded the Kossuth Prize, the most prestigious literary award in Hungary. She was married to writer and translator Tibor Szobotka (1913-1982). Magda Szabó died in 2007. While active, she was labelled an enemy to the Communist Party and her works and those of her husband faced censorship under the regime. But Szabó’s popularity continued and she attracted a wide readership. Apart from poetry and novels, she wrote dramas, essays and memoirs. She is the most translated Hungarian author, with publications in 42 countries and over 30 languages.
Partly autobiographical, The Door is the story of a strange relationship between two very different Hungarian women: a young writer – basically unnamed, only once referred to as “Magdushka!” – and her much older housekeeper, Emerence. The writer, quite happily married to an academic, has had her career politically frozen for ten years. She is picking up again, struggling hard, and must find herself a helper for the everyday tasks of cooking and cleaning.
Emerence appears – an illiterate peasant in a headscarf – an ever-energetic typhoon with an iron will. A difficult woman with a traumatic past. She believes in the force of time, she is terrified of storms. She steers clear of all groups. She is politically indifferent, and her anti-clerical position is almost Voltairean in its fanaticism. (Her hatred of God and Church is more a matter of sentiment than philosophical conviction. It has a lot to do with an episode during which a few ladies belonging to a congregation she was once a member of failed to give her clothes of her choice from a consignment sent by a Swedish mission).
Emerence is capable of unimaginable cynicism and rudeness. But also – extraordinary acts of charity and kindness. She leaves honey cakes and strudels on the table, goes about with a christening bowl from which she serves up food to anyone the local grapevine has pronounced in need of a good meal.
Over the years, the writer and the housekeeper develop a bond. As the first grows more successful, gains more recognition, gets busier, her old companion loses strength. There comes a point where Magdushka and Emerence find themselves separated by a door, shut tight. This door is more than physical, it is symbolic of class divisions, those random and frustrating obstacles that keep us from accomplishing our most cherished objectives, also it speaks of the inevitable and stubborn finality, the resistance of senescence. The glamour of the first life remains tragically distant and, in a way, futile and impotent before the decline and loneliness of the second.
After an absolutely horrifying focus on the contamination of the human form and the shame and humiliation that come with it, Magda Szabó’s story resolves itself in a fairly graceful sense of community. But acute feelings of guilt, coupled with classic Hungarian gloom, permeate the entire book, from the first page to the last. Dreams of doors that wouldn’t open, of keys that cannot function haunt the narrator, forever.
This is not a novel for those who get easily depressed by stark depictions of mortality. But if you appreciate portrayals of unusual loves, you will find The Door exceptionally beautiful. If there’s a lesson in it it is this – never leave an aging body (and soul) alone, not for a moment.
Two passages –
At times her total indifference to the wider public life led to some lively scenes between us, and a stranger who witnessed us might have thought we were performing a cabaret. On one such occasion, though my family goes back to Árpáds, I was endeavouring – driven almost to tears with rage – to persuade her of the significance of everything that had happened in Hungary since the war, the redistribution of land, and how the working class – her class, not mine – now had endless opportunities opening up for them. Emerence replied that she knew the peasant mentality, her own family were peasants. They didn’t care a straw who bought their eggs and their cream so long as it made them rich. The worker would fight for his rights only until he became the boss. She wasn’t interested in the proletarian masses (she didn’t use the word, but she described the thing), and above all she hated the idle, lying gentry. Priests were liars; doctors ignorant and money-grabbing; lawyers didn’t care who they represented, victim or criminal; engineers calculated in advance how to keep back a pile of bricks for their own houses; and the huge plants, factories and institutes of learning were all filled with crooks.
For there was nothing offhand or casual in the way Emerence loved me. It was as if she’d learned it from the Bible, which she’d never held in her hands, or had drawn closer to the Apostles during her three years of schooling. Emerence didn’t know the words of St. Paul, but she lived them. I don’t believe there was anyone – apart from those four pillars supporting the arch of my life, my two parents, my husband and my foster-brother Agancos – capable of giving me such unqualified and unconditional love.