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World fiction reading challenge #2: The Door, Magda Szabó

Two books in and already this year’s reading challenge is shaping up to be one of the best I’ve done. The Fat Years (see here) may have been an unsatisfactory novel but it was a fascinating read. The Door by Magda Szabó is from Hungary, and is similar to last month’s read in that its story is intertwined with the history of its native country. It is also a fascinating read and an excellent novel.

The unnamed narrator of The Door is a thinly-veiled portrait of Szabó herself, but The Door is about the old woman, Emerence, who the “lady writer” takes on as a housecleaner. The novel follows this relationship during the years of the Kádár regime, or “Goulash Communism”, from 1956 to 1989. There is a state funeral mentioned at the end of the novel, but the deceased is never named. I did wonder if was Kádár himself, but some of the details mentioned in the novel don’t quite add up, and the chronology is not exact. I know almost nothing about Hungarian history – although I have now read the Wikipedia articles on the topic – but I suspect the identity of the person would be plain to a Hungarian reader.

But all this is by the by. The Door is about Emerence. She is a fascinating character. One newspaper review of the book described her as the sort of person which communism saw as its ideal citizen. She is uneducated but possesses a sharp natural intelligence. She’s unafraid of speaking her mind, and indeed fearless in her relations with the authorities. She is fixed on living her life according to her own rules. She is generous and open-hearted to a fault, but unforgiving of fools or those who disappoint her. The door of the title is the front door of the flat in which she lives and through which only a handful of people have ever passed. Emerence guards her household and privacy with fierceness.

During the twenty years over which the novel is set, the lady writer’s career takes off, though her life-style does not change. She is awarded prizes, appears on television, and is even invited to a writer’s conference in Greece as the Hungarian representative. Throughout all this, her husband – who remains unnamed – also writes but no mention is made of his career. In fact, it is his ill-health which drives part of the plot of the novel.

Emerence and the lady writer argue a lot, and often fly into rages. These sudden attacks of anger were quite strange initially, as the characters felt far too volatile to be entirely credible. Perhaps it is Hungarian character – I’m not familiar with it. But then we British are known for our reserve, so it’s likely just my perspective. Whatever the explanation, as the story progressed the less remarkable it became. As Emerence and the narrator grow closer, so Emerence reveals snippets from her life. Some of this goes toward her explaining her character. It is the lady writer’s betrayal of Emerence which brings the story to a close – and I had to wonder if the relationship is perhaps a symbol of something wider, something a Hungarian reader would recognise.

Emerence is one of those great characters you often find in literature. She is as mysterious as she is carefully drawn, and it is the slow revealing of the pieces which go to make up her personality that are the real strength of The Door. The remaining cast, many of which are not named, are also well-drawn, but The Door is about Emerence and is Emerence. I really liked this book.

Magda Szabó is one of Hungary’s most popular and lauded writers, but Imre Kertész is the only Hungarian to have been awarded the Nobel Prize, in 2002. The British translation by Len Rix of The Door won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2006, and the book was also short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. A film of the book, directed by István Szabó (no relation), will be released this year, with Helen Mirren in the role of Emerence. Here’s the sales reel:

 

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