Claire Messud’s review of the Hungarian translation of The Door by Magda Szabó in the New York Times prompted my reading, but I did not expect the powerful and captivating story. Without much fanfare, the story has crept into my mind and lingers there.
The story follows the relationship of two women – Emerence, a strong-willed old woman who has come to manage the house of a prominent Hungarian writer, Magda, who later in the book wins Hungary’s most prestigious award, possibly the Kossuth Prize. Emerence comes from the old school of hard work, saving money for her funeral, and voicing her opinions whether or not they have been solicited. The writer, who nurses her own feelings of inadequacy, clashes with Emerence on everything – from morality to mortality. They live in an uncomfortable truce until Emerence finally decides to reveal her history.
Tapping into Hungary’s strange political history (the novel was written in 1987 but just now making it to American publishing), Szabó weaves government tensions into the background, but the story focuses on the women, their differences and their mutual respect. At times, I saw myself, my mother, fellow writers, friends, would-be friends – in the traits of Szabo’s characters. The best character may be Viola, the dog.
The “door” is the front door of Emerence’s house – an entry that no one is privileged to enter. When she talks of her treasures and her cats, at first she seems to be creating her own fantasy; however, later, the truth of her history and her possessions becomes clear.
The plot moves slowly, following Emerence and Magda to a final showdown with an ending true to characters, but leaving a sour taste and a cautious reminder that sometimes the strong can control events, even death. I noted so many plums of wisdom; here are a few that linger in my mind:
She inspired trust because people knew they could open their hearts to her without expecting her own confidences in return…
Cheerfulness keeps you fresh; its opposite exhausts…
…her goodness was innate, mine was the result of upbringing…
Creativity requires a state of grace…
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, summarized the novel’s effect so well:
“A work of stringent honesty and delicate subtlety, “The Door” is a story in which, superficially, very little happens. Szabó’s narrator, like the author a writer named Magda (in interviews, Szabo suggested that the novel was only thinly veiled personal history), follows the intricacies of her intimate filial relationship with her housekeeper, Emerence. In doing so, it exposes the rich inadequacies of human communication even as it evokes the agonies of Hungary’s recent history.”
- Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs
- Claire Messud’s Review in the New York Times