The Door - Magda Szabó

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"I know now, what I didn't then, that affection can't always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways; and that one cannot prescribe the form it should take for anyone else."

Complex. Enigmatic. Intense. These are just some of the words I could use to describe this wonderful gem by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó (1917-2007). It is regrettable that Szabó's work is not more widely known in the English speaking world, although after reading The Door, it is clear that her lack of recognition owes more to the dearth of English translations than to any criticism of her writing. Indeed, Szabó was one of Hungary's premier authors and is widely celebrated in her native country, winning several prestigious literary prizes, including the French Prix Femina for Best Foreign Novel. Thanks to a wonderful, fluent translation in 2005 by Len Rix, this masterpiece was finally available for British publication.

Set against a backdrop of post-war Budapest, The Door ostensibly relates the simple tale of a writer and her relationship with her hired help. The un-named narrator is a young novelist (a thinly veiled self-portrait) who lives with her intellectual husband. Finding themselves thoroughly absorbed in their academic pursuits, the couple soon realise they are in need of domestic help. An elderly neighbour, Emerence, is recommended to them - a woman with an unblemished reputation for reliability - but when she turns up for her interview it is apparent that she is something of an oddity. It is also equally clear to her prospective employers that any work Emerence undertakes will be on her own terms. Apart from declaring she will only work when it suits her, she asks for references for the couple and states that assuming they meet her approval she will begin work. Only after discovering how slovenly her employers are will she decide herself how much she is to be paid. Thus begins Emerence's bizarre reign over the writer's household and a complex relationship which will span 20 years.

Emerence is a formidable character and the complexities of her personality are so finely drawn as to make her completely unforgettable. She is a big, powerful woman who radiates strength and her energy and dependability make her indispensable. Keenly intelligent, but virtually illiterate, she is fiercely loyal and gives of herself to everyone around her without reservation. Yet at times she is also a tyrant, prone to frightening rages and flagrantly disregards her employer's wishes. There are ferocious battles of will between the two and the narrator is often unsure where she stands in her relationship with Emerence, sometimes reduced to tears of anger and frustration, only to be charmed again a short time later by the stubborn old peasant.

Emerence's past is an enigma. Although she is revered by her neighbours, little is known about her and she guards her privacy obsessively, never allowing anyone beyond her front door. However, as the relationship with her employer matures and develops into an enduring bond, we gradually learn snippets of the housekeeper's secrets.

It is clear that Emerence has had a difficult life, working as a servant from the age of thirteen, suffering hunger and deprivation in a country taken over by Fascists, Nazis, and Communists. We understand the events which have shaped her idiosyncratic character and Emerence almost becomes a symbol of Hungary's troubled history as Szabó reveals much about the sufferings of 20th-century central Europe in her sensitive portrayal of this fearless woman.

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Magda SzaboIt was clear to me while reading that the novel was at least partly biographical. However, I was surprised to later read an interview (here) in which Magda Szabó states that everything described in The Door really happened and that the model for Emerence was her own housekeeper, Juliska. Even Viola - possibly the most brilliantly depicted dog in fiction - was not just a literary creation. As a simple story of two women and their strange mutual dependency, this novel works, but it is so much more than that and it adds even more layers to an already rich canvas to think that the characters and situations in this novel really existed. This is not a novel to be consumed quickly. The prose is dense with little dialogue, and benefits greatly from a slow, careful reading.

As a side note, I was pleased to discover that The Door is currently being made into a film with Helen Mirren cast in the role of Emerence. She is a fantastic actress, so I am sure she can do this character justice!

I would love to read more of Szabó's work, but so far, only The Door has been translated into English. It looks like I'll have to wait a bit longer.