The Dignity of Dependence: The Door by Magda Szabó

on Saturday, January 16, 2016
As I trawled my way through the multitude of Best of 2015 lists, one book stood out above all others as a strange, if not totally misplaced, inclusion. Not that I knew anything substantive about Magda Szabó's classic novel The Door. It's just that, for a book that was just named one of the five best novels of the year by The New York Times, it was kind of old. First published in her native Hungary in 1987, it came out in English translation back in 1995. A decade later it came out again in England with a new translation. It is this latter version that has recently resurfaced, with a new jacket, and from a new publisher, New York Review of Books as part of their Classics series. All very odd. It smelt to me of nepotism; a peculiar tilt from one august publication to what, in many ways, is its sister. Then word began to leak, nay burst, out of the book's true magnificence. Suffice to say I was intrigued. I bought the book. Three pages in and I was completely converted.

In what is a brilliant framing device, Szabó instantly wrong foots the reader. We are told at the outset the narrator has killed her maid. There is a slight, dare I say it, Stephen King sense of foreboding, a creepy Misery vibe that made me expect a book akin to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Single White Female. I was ready for that kind of book. After the confronting prelude, Szabó steps off the accelerator and we are introduced to the struggling writer, Magda, who has just been politically rehabilitated in post-War Hungary. Living with her husband, the two of them busy with work, she has recently moved into a new apartment and needs help with its upkeep. She asks around until a friend recommends a particular lady in the neighbourhood, the mysterious but extremely hard working Emerence. So begins a unique and intense relationship, one that hinges on interdependence, perhaps even love (of the plutonic kind), but is damned to end in tragedy.

Emerence is one of the great enigmas of European literature. She is brash, uncouth, anti-religious and aggressive. She speaks her mind and takes control of the apartment like it is hers to rule. She is also intensely private - there is a clear demarcation between her work and personal lives. In Magda's house, everything is Emerence's business. She is mortally offended when secrets are kept from her. Infinitely greater, however, is the offence she takes when Magda asks about her life. Rumours abound in the neighbourhood but it is hard to know what to believe. Whatever the truth, those on the street rely on her - she sweeps everyone's snow and keeps the sidewalks clean. She silently takes it upon herself to do the kind of things most people feel are beneath them. Along with two of her elderly friends, each part crone, part saviour (the three of them locked in some sort of struggle for dominance), she has established herself as a crucial cog in the machine of neighbourhood life.

The relationship between Emerence and Magda comes to a head when Magda's husband falls gravely ill. Emerence, it transpires, is her lifeline, helping her through the emotional strain but also picking up the physical slack. As he recovers, Emerence encourages Magda to get a dog which she does. The dog cares little for Magda and bonds with Emerence who ignores the name the couple have given him in favour of, quite humorously, Viola. The dog becomes a kind of glue between them and they become what you might call friends. Indeed, the trust increases to the point of Emerence allowing Magda into her home, a privilege never before afforded to anyone else. Inside we catch a glimpse of the real Magda, a woman of so many contrasting colours that it is hard to know what to make of her. Her house is filled with the stolen belongings of a wealthy Jewish family that was shipped off to concentration camp and killed. But we also know that she has saved a baby girl from the Nazis. Then she hid various people - victims, perpetrators, communists and such. She is a storm of moral ambiguity. When Magda leaves, the door is closed on our understanding of her friend and their relationship is left to track along at a slow, if steady, pace while the creeping dread of a fate foreshadowed continues to build. If only I could work out what would bring me there.

It is the greatest strength of the book that I had completely misread it. When the tide turns it opens into the most profound examination of dignity that I can remember reading. Emerence stops turning up for work. She won't answer her door. Speaking through the crack she is clearly sick. Her voice is hoarse and her breath choked with phlegm. Magda tricks her in to opening up whereupon she is grabbed by the public health officials and taken to hospital. Stepping inside for the second time, Magda finds the place turned to a rubbish tip filled with rot and mould and excrement. It is condemned. Visiting her sick friend in hospital, she is forced to lie - to say the house is just as Emerence left it. It is the start of a complete, tragic unravelling that you must read to truly appreciate.

The Door is a novel of exceptional beauty, with a depth of human understanding usually reserved for only the greatest of writers. Having only read one of her books, I am led to suspect that Magda Szabó was one of them. That she is little known outside Hungary speaks volumes of the intellectual poverty of the English speaking literary world. I am told there will be another of her novels published this year. I, for one, cannot wait. Indeed, I suspect that I have found the final member of a Hungarian Holy Trinity that otherwise consists of László Krasznahorkai and Ágota Kristóff. Yes, she is that good.


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