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.

The Woman In Black - Susan Hill

My first experience with Susan Hill came over ten years ago when I read her novel The Mist In The Mirror. I can now only vaguely remember details of the plot, but I do recall I thoroughly enjoyed it and the prevailing memory I have of it is the sense of unease which pervaded much of the story. When I discovered book blogs a few months ago and realised that Hill's The Woman in Black was the subject of much discussion (most of it positive!) I decided I would have to add this to my ever-growing collection of books to be read as quickly as possible. I was even more excited to find that this novel sounded like it would be another atmospheric ghostly tale in a similar vein to the novel which I had read more than a decade earlier.  

Shortly after that, I luckily discovered a copy of this Vintage edition of The Woman In Black at a local charity shop for the bargain price of £1. Of course I snapped it up. I took this down from the book shelf a few weeks ago and settled down with much anticipation for a classic scary read.  

The tale opens on Christmas Eve as our narrator, Arthur Kipps, listens to his step children tell ghostly stories around the fireside. When pressed to tell a spooky tale of his own, Arthur refuses. However, he does indeed have a story to tell, but has never dared speak of the events which occurred in his youth and which have haunted him throughout his life. Clearly troubled by the memories which his family's stories have stirred up, Arthur resolves to write down his reminiscences hoping it will be a cathartic experience:

"I should tell my tale, not aloud, by the fireside, not as a diversion for idle listeners - it was too solemn, and too real, for that. But I should set it down on paper, with every care in every detail. I would write my own ghost story. Then perhaps I should finally be free of it for whatever life remained for me to enjoy."

The narrative then relates the story of what happened to Arthur as a young man when he was working as a junior solicitor in London. Sent by his employer to the coastal town of Crythin Gifford, it is Arthur's duty to attend the funeral of a deceased client, a Mrs Alice Drablow, and to sort through her personal belongings and paperwork in an effort to find details of any living relatives. Arthur is initially keen to escape London for a few days, but upon his arrival in Crythin Gifford he finds the local people secretive and distinctly uneasy when questioned about the late Mrs. Drablow or her property, Eel Marsh House. Sensing something sinister, but nevertheless determined to perform his professional duties, he decides his work can best be carried out by staying for a few days in the old lady's isolated and marsh-bound house. However, things take a much darker turn when Arthur catches a glimpse of a skeletal young woman dressed all in black, which marks the beginning of a series of increasingly unnerving incidents which lead him along towards a dramatic climax.

The novel is certainly spooky and at only 160 pages long, it is perfect to immerse yourself in and read all in one go. Susan Hill seems to be a master of gothic scene-setting and she builds up a sense of menace and suspense seemingly with ease. In the tone of her work she clearly owes much to her ghost story writing predecessors and includes more than one knowing nod towards M.R James. Consequently it is a deliberately old-fashioned ghost story, and while there is nothing highly original here, I believe it is better for it. It can rightly be called a classic novel, in every sense, and one which I enjoyed greatly. I do urge everyone to read this book (if there is actually anyone left in the book blog community who has not yet done so...)

I believe there was TV adaptation of The Woman in Black some years ago, so I am now eager to get hold of this and see how well the novel's sense of atmosphere translates onto the screen! Has anyone seen the TV version? What did you think of it?