Once, just once in my life…a door did stand before me. That door opened. It was opened by someone who defended her solitude and impotent misery so fiercely that she would have kept that door shut though a flaming roof crackled over her head. I alone had the power to make her open that lock. In turning the key she put more trust in me than she ever did in God, and in that fateful moment I believed I was godlike- all-wise, judicious, benevolent and rational. We were both wrong: she who put her faith in me, and I who thought too well of myself. (2)
For Magda, the narrator of The Door, this betrayal is the reason for writing the story of her relationship with the extraordinary Emerence. She’s lived her life, she tells us bravely and without lies, and she needs to speak out about her guilt. But she’s too harsh with herself. She didn’t “think too well” of herself; she acted out of the anxious, confused love of an ordinary person. The tragedy she blames herself for was always going to happen because of the character of Emerence, the woman behind the door. Yes, she opened the physical door to Magda, but she never did open the real door that divided her from the world, the door that would have allowed others to see her as a vulnerable and suffering creature, and allowed her to give herself into someone else’s power. The infirmities of old age were simply intolerable to her.
Emerence is like the heroines of the Norse sagas, those huge, unyielding spirits that don’t flinch at anything life hurls at them, and often as not exact a terrible revenge. She’s a Mother Hungary figure, the embodiment of its dignity, its courage and the bitterness of its history. She’s lived through two World Wars, the Red Terror, the White Terror, the rise of Hitler, the Soviet occupation and the Stalinist era under Rakosi. Is it any wonder that she despises all politicians, all political theories and all mealy-mouthed churchgoers? Is it any wonder that her trust is so hard to win?
She’s no saint. “Kind” is not a word you’d apply to her, though she’s the one who looks after anyone sick, weak or in need. She does this, it seems, not out of common kindness but out of an ingrained sense of the justice owed to the weak and needy. And, let it be said, out of pride in her own robustness and capability. She’s fiendishly proud, cutting people out of her life ruthlessly when they offend her or let her down. But in spite of her forbidding exterior, she has a ferocious need to love. Not to be loved, to love. She could hardly be more different from the anxious, unguardedly affectionate Magda, who is totally impractical and devoted to the life of the mind. The semi-literate Emerence can’t believe that sitting in front of a typewriter all day, or gazing out of the window thinking, is a meaningful way to spend your life. Against the ceaseless, purposeful action of Emerence’s life, Magda’s does indeed seem insubstantial. They represent the two poles of the changing world of Hungary, Emerence the old world of hard physical labour and folk belief, Magda the world of daily confrontation with, and accommodation to, the harsh realities of political power.
Magda is a writer whose life parallels Magda Szabó’s own life. Banned by the Communists for ten years, she’s coming back into official favour, and is even awarded a major national prize. And now the State she resisted so doggedly, by allowing her success, makes her its property, its representative to the outside world. At the climax of the book, when her relationship with Emerence confronts her with a huge ethical decision, she’s caught up in a whirlpool of ceremonies and state-sponsored appearances she feels she can’t refuse. There’s courage in being a dissident writer, and Magda knows she’s shown that courage – but how do you weigh that against the silent courage of the unrecognised victims of power, the book asks.
The third major character in the book is Viola, one of the most lovingly-created dogs I’ve come across in fiction. Viola is actually Magda’s dog, but Emerence is the magnetic centre of his world. Much of what we learn of the mysterious inner workings of Emerence’s life we learn from the reactions of Viola, who responds telepathically to her, and is the only living being ever allowed behind that door. Viola is the book’s emotional tension meter, the most sensitive of instruments, as well as coming alive on the page as an exceptionally loveable dog.
Szabó’s is a grave, austere voice, but with that austerity comes an acute attention to physical detail and emotional tone, a restraint that gives tremendous power to the narrative drive. The book was first translated into English in 2005 and won various prizes then, but as the NYRB said in choosing it on its Best of 2015 list, it certainly hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Very highly recommended.
Has anyone seen the film that was made in 2012?
Magda Szabó The Door (tr. Len Rix) Vintage Books 2005.