Enter Through Magda Szabo’s The Door

So you devoured Elene Ferrante’s tetralogy and now you’re wondering what other international gems are out there—books so good you can’t believe you never heard of them. Well, look no further than Magda Szabó’s The Door. If you like Ferrante, I guarantee you’ll like Szabó.

Magda Szabó, who died in 2007 at age 90, was one of Hungary’s most important 20th century writers, widely read and admired at home but only recently getting the love and attention she deserves worldwide. The Door was published in 1987 but not translated into English until 2005, when it appeared in Britain. Last year, the New York Review Books classics offered it up to American audiences in a new, widely praised translation by Len Rix. We should all be thankful.

Born in 1917, Szabó left her teaching career and took a job with the government in 1945. She published her first work—a collection of poems—in 1947. A second collection published two years later won one of Hungary’s premier prizes, but the prize was immediately withdrawn by the Stalinist rulers of Hungary, who named her an “enemy of the people.” Szabó then lost her government job and was barred from publishing anything between 1949 and 1956. During her “frozen” period she wrote her first novel, Freskó (Fresco), but wasn’t allowed to publish it until 1958.

Szabó’s biography is important to The Door because the first-person narrator, a “lady writer” also named Magda whose career was also “frozen” by the Communists bears a close resemblance to the author, and Szabó acknowledged in interviews that the work is largely autobiographical.

Magda, though, is not the central character of the novel. That honor goes to Magda’s housekeeper Emerence, a remarkable, gigantic enigma of a woman who is one of the strongest and most intriguing characters you’ll ever meet in literature.

The novel opens (and ends) with Magda recounting the recurrent dream that has led her to write her story. She wants, she tells us, to confess that “I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.” If that won’t keep you reading, I’m not sure what will.

Magda begins her story in the late 1950s, after she and her husband have moved into a large apartment and soon after Magda’s political rehabilitation in Communist Hungary. She is now a full-time writer with no time for housekeeping, and a friend recommends she hire Emerence. They meet and Magda quickly offers her the job, but Emerence demurs, saying she must first check out Magda’s reference. “I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty linen,” she explains. It is the first indication that Emerence is not about to assume a subservient role.

Emerence takes the job but on her own terms. She’ll keep the house in order (as well as several other households she manages), but she’ll come and go when she wants. That proves fine with Magda—the house is always spotless and all her needs are attended to—and Magda slowly adjusts to her housekeeper’s penchant for criticizing Magda’s work, lifestyle, and religion. It seems a small price to pay for having her household in order.

Emerence is unusually strong (she regularly sweeps the snow in front of eleven buildings in addition to her housecleaning duties), and serves as a pillar of the community. Everyone in the neighborhood relies on her, she is generous and always the first to help anyone in need, her friendship is valued by all, and even animals gravitate to her. She is also practical, anti-intellectual (she won’t even look at the books she dusts), hostile to the church, proud of her working-class routes, and fiercely independent. In short, everything Magda is not.

Still, their friendship and love gradually grows over their twenty-year tempestuous relationship, although it is always Emerence calling the shots. When Magda and her husband rescue a dog from death, Emerence encourages them to keep it and then trains it so that it will only obey orders from her. The dog takes on a larger than life role. Indeed, you are unlikely to meet an animal in literature with more human-like qualities. Emerence insists naming  the dog Viola, even though it is a male. The significance of the name won’t be apparent until much later. That is true of many of the book’s most important details, with Szabó doing a masterful job of doling out information in little pieces, while employing an increasingly ominous tone, so that their significance in the broader picture doesn’t become clear until the climax. Her prose—concise yet intimate—is perfectly suited to the task.

Although their friendship grows into something close to real intimacy, there is always a door between them, both a physical one (Emerence allows no one to cross the threshold of her apartment) and an emotional one (Emerence’s insistence on keeping part of her history and herself secret is symbolized by the head scarf that she always wears).

For many readers The Door is likely to bring to mind Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy for several reasons, notably the friendship between the two principle characters in each book. Both involve an odd combination of affection, intimacy, codependence, and abuse. Both have narrators who are writers and may or may not be reliable, and both involve a friend of extraordinary talents who remains a mystery to the narrator.

This year New York Review books will publish a new translation of another of Szabó’s novels, Iza’s Ballad, which first appeared in Hungary in 1963. I can’t wait.

Mark Willen