The Door was my choice for #WIT (Women in Translation) Month (a) because it was recently reissued by The New York Review of Books (see the interview with editor Edwin Frank at The Paris Review) and (b) because I read the article at The New Yorker. First published in Hungary in 1987, but not in English till 1994, the French translation won France’s Prix Femina Étranger in 2003, it was nominated for the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and in 2015 it was first on the NYT’s 10 Best Books List. And Magda Szabó has the distinction of being the only female Hungarian author included in Michael Orthofer’s The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction (my new bible for international fiction).
But I read it all wrong. I should never have tried to read it in spurts on the Kindle. My father had a nasty infection for a while and I read it holding his hand while he drifted in and out of sleep during the worst of it at the hospital. A kindle is easy to read one-handed (something I never appreciated before!) but I should have read something less demanding…
(He’s back at his aged care home now, thankfully on the mend. Well enough to be concerned about me and my chest infection! Yes, I did keep away while I was infectious. It nearly broke my heart, but The Spouse visited him instead until I was given the ok by the doc.)
The Door is a very intense reading experience. The book begins with a melodramatic prologue in which the narrator says that she has ‘killed Emerence’ but the confessional tone isn’t borne out by the testimony that follows. The narrator, who isn’t named as Magdushka until near the end of the book, is a self-absorbed middle-class writer who (like many authors in communist-era Hungary) has had her work censored but with the relaxation of restrictions is now becoming so successful that she needs some domestic help. But from the moment Emerence comes into her life, she begins to develop an obsession with this quixotic old woman, and she vacillates between exasperation and craven submission to her whims. So the narrator takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and irrational (and sometimes violent) actions, one feat of oneupmanship after the other. The Door is not easy to follow when one’s mind is not fully engaged.
The characterisation of the two interdependent women reminded me of those grotesque European fairy tales, where the women are either horrible old peasant crones or princesses. There is a vast social gulf between these two, but communism has inverted relationships. Magdushka thinks she’s interviewing Emerence, but Emerence is actually assessing her potential employer. And when she accedes to Magdushka’s request, it’s on Emerence’s terms. It’s always on her terms. She will come when she likes; she’ll clean where she will; she insists on bringing horrible bits of broken bric-a-brac to decorate the home; and she makes them take in a dog inexplicably called Viola (it’s a male) which neither of them want. If challenged, she sulks or throws tantrums, and in a panic over losing her, Magdushka always gives in. Along the way she rationalises her own behaviour with a mixture of amateur psychology and self-doubt. Is uneducated Emerence really as clever as the narrator thinks, or is she just rationalising her own meekness in caving in every time for fear of having to do her own laundry when she is so busy?
Over twenty years the relationship vacillates between peace and drama, both of them manipulating each other. At the same time, Magdushka betrays Emerence time and again, right down to upstaging her at the hour of her death. For all that Hungary had been under Communist rule since the war, class distinctions are never far from the surface, and *SPOILER ALERT* most readers will probably enjoy the delightful moment when Magdushka beholds her valuable inheritance which is in such impeccable good taste – only to see it crumble before her eyes.
Still, given the rave reviews, I feel that I haven’t really done this book justice. And alas, I didn’t really enjoy reading it enough to want to re-read it…
I found an interesting review by Juliana Brina at The Blank Garden who makes much better sense of it than I did. Claire at Word by Word reviewed it too though likewise I didn’t read her review until after I’d finished writing this. And hey, Claire, I agree, The Door is indeed an overwrought, neurotic narrative!
Author: Magda Szabó
Title: The Door (Az ajtó)
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
Publisher: Vintage Digital 2012, first published in 1987
Don’t do what I did… you can buy paperback copy from Fishpond for $13.57 (The Door) and that’s what I should have done.