I generally avoid classics of all kinds as I often feel as I’m reading or after I’ve finished them that I’ve somehow missed the point of the story or the reason the book is a classic. Still, one of the Women in Translation bingo card categories I was to read was a classic. I picked up The Door by Madga Szabo, Hungary’s most translated author, to round out my reading list and to expand my literary horizons.
This was utterly captivating and also rather emotionally exhausting. It follows a writer (who is named only once in the book but shares her first name with the author) in her fraught and complex relationship with her elderly housekeeper, Emerence. The time frame of the book spans decades and is focused fully on Magda and Emerence’s relationship, every action and thought leading invariably back to it. If you’re looking for something plot-driven, this is not the read for you.
For those interested in checking out the NYRB edition as I did, I recommend skipping Ali Smith’s introduction and saving it until after you’ve read the book. I prefer to go into books with fresh, unbiased thoughts if possible, and the introduction doesn’t allow for that. It quotes from the text and reveals some of the events that you may not want to know of going in.
While I usually enjoy an interesting plot, it was completely unnecessary for this book. The beautiful prose and complex nature of Magda and Emerence’s interactions had me glued to every page. I can only assume that Len Rix’s translation does the original justice, for if the writing in Hungarian is somehow more lovely, I weep that I couldn’t read it’s true form. From the opening, in which Magda makes a dire confession, to the last page, I was hooked. Not knowing anything about Hungary (either in the past or present) I admit to being a bit lost when politics of any kind were mentioned. It took only some quick googling to brush up enough that I could follow along more readily. In doing so, I did wonder how much of this book (if any) was autobiographical, as Szabo and her Magda seem to share in a career, spouse, and a few seminal life events.
Setting aside any parallels to the author’s own life, I found Magda’s character to be almost unbelievably self-absorbed. Though this would generally be to a book’s detriment, instead the story works precisely because of this selfishness. All of the characters, from our two lady protagonists, to Magda’s husband, to the surrounding cast of friends and distant relatives are written to be flawed and to demonstrate the absolute cruelty and misunderstanding that we often extend to our loved ones. This is a novel that understands that every person has a private life, and that our thoughts often turn to our own lives rather than to those that surround us.
Emerence is a difficult character to like, often rude, always anti-intellectual, beating her dog, and flying into rages or cold silences when someone displeases her. For all that, every tidbit you learn of her life is enthralling. The reader can absolutely understand Magda’s obsession with her, and the love that her neighbors hold for her. She is a human puzzle, and the tragedy is that so could we all be to those who know nothing of us. What lies beyond Emerence’s front door is certainly a literal mystery, but it isn’t difficult to consider it a metaphorical one as well.
If you’re looking for a book that will make you think about topics you may not usually consider, this is a good pick. It speaks of emotions, relationships, morality, and religion, and it does so without fumbling or feeling forced in any way.
Len Rix is translating another of Magda Szabo’s works, Abigail, which will be released by NYRB in January 2020 and I’ll be pre-ordering my own copy soon. I can’t recommend trying this author enough.
Have you read The Door or any of Szabo’s other work? Do you have any other works to recommend for Women in Translation month? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!