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from the May 2015 issue

Magda Szabó’s “The Door”

Reviewed by K. Thomas Kahn

The Door continues to be eerily resonant, as Szabó’s consideration of the changing sociopolitical terrain in 1950s–1960s Hungary speaks across borders of time and place.

                 Every person is a half-opened door
leading to a room for everyone.
 — Tomas Tranströmer


Beloved in her native Hungary, Magda Szabó’s work is only just beginning to receive the attention it deserves among English-language readers. To date, only two of her novels are currently in print in English translations: Iza’s Ballad (1963), translated by poet George Szirtes and published in the United Kingdom by Harvill Secker, and The Door (1987), reissued in early 2015 in Len Rix’s finely-tuned translation by New York Review Books. The Door is, in many ways, the book most synonymous with Szabó’s work, particularly its concerns with the ways in which national history inform the politics of subjectivity, class, and intergenerational relationships. This reissue is not only an important literary event, then—The Door continues to be eerily resonant, as Szabó’s consideration of the changing sociopolitical terrain in 1950s–1960s Hungary speaks across borders of time and place.

And The Door begins with borders and boundaries, as, in a recurring, “never-changing dream,” the narrator—later named Magda and identified as a writer, both descriptors applicable to Szabó herself—sees a “dream-door that never opens.” In this dream, she can make out through the window “the shimmering silhouettes of the paramedics” who cannot enter the premises until the dreamer opens the door: “The key turns, but my efforts are in vain: I cannot open the door. But I must let the rescuers in, or they’ll be too late to save my patient.” The use of the word “patient” here is already telling insofar as the strange dynamics (and reversals) of power struggles go in the novel: we later learn that Magda is not a doctor, but rather a writer whose increasing recognition and success are charted in undercurrents and hints as the novel progresses.

In her dream, Magda is surrounded by “the family portraits, ikons in their high starched collars and braided coats, Hungarian Baroque and Beidermeier, my all-seeing, all-knowing ancestors.” Immediately, The Door’s narrator is classed, placed in a genealogical line of “all-seeing, all-knowing ancestors” whose dress signifies their prominence and social position. And it is these very same ancestors whom Magda sees in this recurring dream who “know everything, above all the thing I try hardest to forget. It is no dream.” This scene of nightly terror, of trying to rescue a “patient” but being prevented from doing so by the inability to open a door, is one compounded from reality; as Freud conceptualizes the dream-work, what one dreams at night is psychic residue from the preceding day—a fantasmatic repetition of a reality over which we hope one day to gain control, to wield mastery.

“What happened is beyond remedy,” Magda admits, meaning the real event, of course, not the dream occurrences; she continues by lamenting: “I believed I was godlike... We were both wrong.” This collective “we” encompasses an actual personage to whom Magda had once opened this metaphoric door, a woman cloaked in “solitude and impotent misery.” Upon waking each morning after this claustrophobic nightmare, Magda returns to the present, a present the dream itself was an attempt to rework, redress, revise. And it is in this present that, at the close of the first chapter, Magda confesses: “I must speak out. I killed Emerence.”

Although she claims to “write for other people”—not God, not herself—the fact that Szabó frames the relationship between the two women in The Door around this scene of fantasy and reality, of crossing metaphysical borders as well as literal thresholds, stresses that the boundaries to which we are accustomed are wholly illusory. While writing “for other people,” Magda admits that there is an inner drive to confess something related to “kill[ing] Emerence” in reality, as well as how this act of violence—physical, psychological, or otherwise—is somehow framed and informed by notions of class, history, and paralysis which populate her recurring nightmares, dream states during which she “also lost the power of speech”—a double nightmare for a writer.

The Door, then, is Magda’s confession. Its opening dream sequence grounds the context within which Szabó situates the relationship between Madga and Emerence, e.g., the ancestral portraits, guilt, obsession, class, age. In beginning at the end, with the declaration “I killed Emerence,” the narrator is situating her drawn-out confession within the textual legacy of other such “confessors,” from St. Augustine to Camus’s “judge-penitent” Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall. As such, the reader is aware of Magda’s guilt from the outset (her need to confess is proof enough of this), before she retraces her steps from the second chapter to introduce properly—and somewhat more chronologically—her initial meeting with Emerence.



Madga encounters Emerence when she “become[s] a full-time writer,” finding that she and her husband, a university lecturer, require domestic help to allow them to “live and work together.” Curiously, rather than interviewing Emerence—a “silent old woman” with no husband or children of her own—it is Emerence who interviews Magda: “if she didn’t warm to us, no amount of money would induce her to accept the job... This was the first time anyone had required references from us.” This assertion of Emerence’s power from the start is crucial to how Szabó structures the delicate unravelings of truth and intimacy in The Door.

This first meeting is governed by facelessness and fire: “Fire glowed all around [Emerence],” whose face troubles Magda since “she gave me no opportunity” “to see her face”: “the only time I would ever see her without a headscarf would be on her deathbed.” References like this, to the end of Magda’s narrative (which is where she begins) as well as the end of Emerence’s life, abound and color each encounter between the two women, a “bond between us ... [that] was in every way like love, though it required endless concessions for us to accept each other.” Theirs is a relationship that lasts “for something like twenty years,” and as Magda paints a “rather shadowy picture” of the older woman from “isolated scraps of information”—which she admits amount to nothing—she finds herself becoming obsessed with Emerence: “Why on earth was I so obsessed with Emerence? Was I insane?”

Combined with this foreshadowing—which Szabó manages in increasingly eerie and ominous tones—are class differences. Indeed, it would be impossible not to read the growing intimacy between Magda and Emerence without reading the characters as embodiments of the Hungarian class system. Despite the fact that both women have come to Budapest from the same rural location—“Nádori, or, to be more exact, from its sister village, Csabadul”—they could not be more different. At the point when the narrative begins, Magda is a writer, whose career for ten years “had been politically frozen” and is now “publishing the work I’d produced in my years of silence”; Emerence, on the other hand, is illiterate—and not only this, but she has great contempt for the intellectual life Magda and her husband lead: “she was the thing itself, an anti-intellectual... [S]he never read anything, not even a newspaper.” Indeed, Emerence has a literal “hatred of the written word”: “In Emerence’s world there were two kinds of people, those who swept and those who didn’t, and everything flowed from that.”          

Magda’s life as an increasingly renowned writer is one filled with conferences, lecture invitations, and social events, whereas Emerence’s life is governed solely by manual labor; she does not even own a bed, a fact that contrasts the many scenes in which Magda is either sleeping, dreaming, or rising from her own bed. And finally, among the many other differences between the two women, religion forms yet another barrier to prevent the two women from finding common ground. Magda attends church regularly, but Emerence is quite vocal in her disgust of organized religion; factoring into this, too, are the covert political stances these two women embody. Perhaps the strongest skill employed by Szabó in The Door is how she manages to keep politics in the background, played out between Magda and Emerence on varying interpersonal levels, despite politics being one of the main subjects of criticism in the text. One example of Magda’s implied and internalized class privilege is the following:           

[T]hough my family goes back to the Arpáds, I was endeavouring—driven almost to tears with rage—to persuade [Emerence] of the significance of everything that had happened in Hungary since the war, the redistribution of land, how the working class—her class, not mine—now had endless opportunities opening up for them. 

While the younger woman “bang[s] at the typewriter, [forming] stunted embryos of meaningless sentences,” Emerence works with her hands in a very different way: not only does she keep house for Magda and her husband, but she takes in work for the entire community: “The old woman was interested only in giving.” Class and age differentials factor markedly into such portraits of the lives of the two women; in a later scene, recalling watching Emerence shovel snow for the neighborhood, Magda reflects:

Even now I cannot forgive myself when I am reminded of what I ought to have done, but went no further than the thought. I’ve always been good at philosophising [just want to confirm that the British spelling is used in the text, which we’ll maintain since it’s a quote], and I wasn’t ashamed to admit I had done wrong. But what didn’t occur to me was that, compared to her, I was still young and strong. And yet I didn’t go out and sweep the snow... I stayed right where I was.

To give more away than these fundamentals would be to ruin the experience of savoring Szabó’s complex, highly wrought novel. The scant information about Emerence with which Magda creates her picture of this “silent old woman” is certainly lacking any real depth; Emerence lets no one inside her home—this “locked door” figures not only in the framing dream sequence, but throughout the text—even the people with whom she is closest, her nephew and the local Lieutenant Colonel, apart from Magda’s adopted dog, Viola, whom Emerence not only names in spite of its gender (“[t]he fact that he was a male dog didn’t bother [her]”), but over which she presides as the “real mistress.” One of the primary pleasures when reading The Door is to uncover, along with Magda in her confessional recollection, the truths about Emerence’s life and personality, “the ruins of Emerence’s life”; to discuss these in any detail would diminish a first-time reader’s experience of the text. As the late Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer states in the quote with which I prefaced this piece, Magda’s attempt to “unlock” Emerence so as to locate a place for herself is the main plot element of the novel, a journey that has no material endpoint.

Dogs and cats; intellectuals and domestics; gods and godlessness; fantasy and reality; privilege and strife; the younger and the older generations; what lies exposed and what lies hidden behind locked doors—Szabó’s The Door covers all of these elements, and then some. The economy of her prose is remarkable, and the ease with which she positions Magda and Emerence in opposition to one another speaks not only to intimacy among women, but also reflects on how knowledge can be shared (or suppressed) across generational, political, and social boundaries. The Door continues to speak to readers as vocally as it did when it was first published in 1987—not just Hungarian readers, but all readers who are bound by these social, cultural, and personal fetters, and who wish to bridge the inevitable gaps that one encounters in the acts of writing histories and stories. And, as this is all of us, we would do well to attend to Szabó’s wise vision, while, at the same time, hoping that more of her work will soon bless English-speaking readers. 

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