The Door by Magda Szabó tr. Len Rix #WITMonth

The DoorThe Door is an overwrought, neurotic narrative by “the lady writer”, (possibly Szabó’s alter-ego, as there are similarities) describing her 20 year relationship with Emerence, the older lady who interviews her prospective employer to see if she’ll consider accepting the cleaning job on offer.

The writer and her husband have recently had a ban on publication lifted from them (for political reasons) and anticipate requiring help around the house as they get back to work. Despite having little respect for intellectuals and only for those who do manual work, in her own time Emerence decides to accept them.

No formal agreement dictated the number of hours Emerence spent in our house, or the precise times of her arrival. We might conceivably see nothing of her all day. Then, at eleven at night, she would appear, not in the inner rooms, but in the kitchen or the pantry, which she would scrub until dawn.

Are they dependent on one another or do they despise each other? Is Emerence an altruistic soul, or a cunning manipulator? Is the lady writer narcissistic or consumed with guilt pursuing her idle occupation while the older woman takes on more and more work?

I stood there gazing after her, wondering why she still stuck with me when I was so very different from her. I had no idea what she liked about me. I said earlier that I still rather young,  and I hadn’t thought it through, how irrational, how unpredictable is the attraction between people, how fatal its current. And yet I was well versed in Greek literature,  which portrayed nothing but  the passions: death and love and friendship, their hands joined together around a glittering axe.

The entire novel hovers with each event between opposing emotional states as they appear to get the measure of the other only for the behaviour to completely change. Emerence will do anything and everything for everyone, she is loved by all, but has never opened the door to her home to a soul, her charges make it to her porch and no further. No one knows anything about her private life and she shuts down anyone who dares to pry.

Dressmakers ribcageLater, only very much later, in one of the most surreal moments I have ever experienced, I wandered amidst the ruin of Emerence’s life, and discovered, there in her garden, standing on the lawn, the faceless dressmaker’s dummy designed for my mother’s exquisite figure. Just before they sprinkled it with petrol and set fire to it, I caught sight of Emerence’s ikonstasis. We were all there, pinned to the fabric over the dolls’ ribcage: the Grossman family, my husband, Viola, the Lieutenant Colonel, the nephew, the baker, the lawyer’s son, and herself, the young Emerence, with radiant golden hair, in her maid’s uniform and little crested cap, holding a baby in her arms.

Seen through the prism of the writer, we observe Emerence only through her eyes, often confused, sometimes suspicious, frequently neurotic. She bears the hallmarks of an unreliable narrator.

It is a slow developing relationship and narrative that entwines these two women’s lives together, creating a delicate trust, the implications of which lead to its tragic denouement.

It’s a compelling, unsettling read, there is a sense of foreboding as the protagonist often jumps forward and provides brief glimpses as to what is coming, building tension and the sense of some kind of catastrophic event or revelation that awaits them all.

Magda SzabóMagda Szabó was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary, her father a member of the City Council, and her mother a teacher.

In 1949 she was awarded the prestigious Hungarian literary Baumgarten Prize, given to “Hungarian authors with serious endeavour whether in literature or in science who are exempt of any religious, racial or social prejudices and serve only ideal aims…”

The prize was withdrawn from her for political reasons the same day it was awarded. She was dismissed from her job at the Ministry and during the establishment of Stalinist rule from 1949 to 1956, the government did not allow her works to be published.

In 2003, the French translation of ‘The Door’ won France’s Prix Femina Étranger.

She died in 2007, at the age of ninety and was one of Hungary’s best-known writers, although very few of her works have been published in English. The ‘Door’ however, was translated in more than 40 languages and published in 64 countries.

Reading Women Writers in Translation

This is my third read in August for #WITMonth, reading Women in Translation.  Have you read anything by Magda Szabó?

Further Reading

New Yorker Article, April 29, 2016 – The Hungarian Despair of Magda Szabó’s “The Door” by Cynthia Zarin

Guardian Review – Labours of love, A thinly veiled self-portrait emerges from Magda Szabó’s The Door by Elena Seymenliyska

Buy a copy of Magda Szabó’s The Door via Book Depository

28 thoughts on “The Door by Magda Szabó tr. Len Rix #WITMonth

  1. What a portentous year for the author to have been born. Hungary would see some dark days as a result years later, of course. You present very well the puzzling character of Emerence and the unreliable narrator. Some of the best stories I can think of (“Astrid and Veronika” is one) turn on such intense relationships between two women, one or both of whom have some secrets. I haven’t read this but would like to now!

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  2. I’m a great Szabo fan, and I think you’ve nailed it here when you speak of hovering between opposing emotional states. Emerence is an unforgettable character, and the ending is gutwrenching. Thanks for your comment on our rv of Iza’s Ballad. Hope you like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind words, yes the lady writer never feels confident in her own attempts to understand Emerence, a lack of confidence perhaps and that ever present feeling of guilt for not living up to an inarticulated set of expectations.

      I can’t wait to read Iza’s Ballad. Do you have a favourite from all the works of Szabo you have read?


      • I’ve only read those two. I’m not sure how much else is available in translation. But in a strange way I don’t necessarily want to read more of her books- I had such a great experience with those two that I don’t want to blur it. And there are so many more authors in translation that I didn’t know about before that I feel I want to get wider experience of them. Guy Savage recently reviewed a guide to contemporary world fiction from which I have a list that would keep me going for at least a year.

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  3. I’ve yet to read this author but your review reminds me that I should try her sometime. Hungary has such a rich literary culture: Antal Szerb, Miklos Banffy and Laszlo Krasznahorkai to name just a few..

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    • I’ve not read any of those athors Jacqui, but I shall have to look them up on your blog and see, actually I do remember reading your review of the political novel by Miklos Banffy and I recall Laszlo Krasznahorkai won the Man Booker International.


      • That’s right. Satantango was a pre-blog read for me but I have reviewed a Szerb (Love in a Bootle, short stories) and Banffy’s They Were Counted, the first in a wonderful trilogy, a sweeping epic of love, family tensions and politics. All male writers, I’m afraid, so it’s good to see a woman getting some attention. 🙂

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    • I’m not sure about east vs west but there is something there about the perceived value of hard work and community (by a person of significant and equal intelligence) versus the pursuit of intellectual exercise by another. Old style communism versus modern intellectualism, if they be the correct terms!

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  4. I loved The Door, possibly not as much as Iza’s Ballad, but both books together makes me wish more of her books were translated. My Hungarian friend gets to read them in their original language and I’m so jealous.

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    • Nice to be able to introduce her to you Leslie; following a few bloggers that read translations I kept seeing her name pop up and the book was recently released as an NYRB classic which has succeeded in bringing it back into circulation.


  5. I read The Door a couple of month’s ago, Claire. And I, agree It was an unsettling read. I’ve found myself musing over it since then. Specifically, I’ve been wondering if, when an author uses the self as narrator, the over developed self-critic so prevalent in Western society influences the voice of the narrator. Almost invariably I’ve found the narrator in such novels difficult to like. In this case I wonder if Magda Szabo was as self-preoccupied as this novel suggests – somehow I doubt it.
    Gosh, I hope this comment makes sense, I’m tapping it into my phone in a bar in Quito, the radio is loud, a car siren is blaring outside, and the few sips of beer I’ve taken probably haven’t helped with clarity at this altitude!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s been suggested but never verified that it may be her alter-ego, but I really am not sure about the self-critic, I think this Magda was somewhat neurotic and paranoid and that that was in part due to her isolation. She tried to create a character out of Emerence, but Emerence’s close relationship with so many from the community sits there as a big question mark over how the narrator has perceived her. Who are we to believe, are we being sucked in by her one sided perception, or could she have been right in her suspicions?

      Liked by 1 person

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