A Difficult Friendship
The Door (Az Ajtó)
by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix, Introduction by Ali Smith
NYRB, 2015 (Harvill Secker, 2005)
Reviewed by Seana Graham
In looking through a few articles in order to try and have a better understanding of Hungarian writer Magda Szabó, I came across a New Yorker piece by Cynthia Zarin in which she said that those who had finished the massively popular Neopolitan novels of Elena Ferrante might do well to check out The Door. By sheer happenstance, this was exactly what my book group did (although we only read the first volume of Ferrante’s quartet, My Brilliant Friend, together). I hadn’t considered the relationship of the two books in that way until Zarin mentioned it. But in both, the narrator is struggling to understand and come to terms with a person whom she loves, but who is in many ways beyond her ken.
However, Emerence does not begin as a childhood friend of the narrator as Lila is to Elena at the opening of Ferrante’s book. Emerence comes to the unnamed narrator in the capacity of servant, although “servant “is a very superficial and limited description of her role in the narrator’s life. As an already busy woman, Emerence is the one who decides who she will work for, and not the other way around. And this is just the beginning of the demands she makes on the narrator and her husband, even while more than adequately fulfilling her function.
Szabó’s work is not well known in the U.S., as little of her fiction has yet been published in English. But she was a renowned author in Hungary. Although” renown” must be a qualified word here, as one of the stories told about her life is that she was awarded a very prestigious literary prize, only to have it stripped away from her that very day by the Stalinist government. The same regime forbade her to write for twelve years.
The Door was first published in Hungarian in 1987. Those who know more of Szabó than I do say it is very much an autobiographical novel, set in the political thaw that followed those twelve years. It’s interesting to note that another prize appears in the book, which has its own fraught consequences, and leads the narrator to years of subsequent guilt.
One of my book group friends said that she was baffled by this novel. But I wasn’t. That’s because, for many years, we had an Emerence living next door to us in our family home. A woman with an amazing capacity for work, a penchant for getting into everybody’s life, whether they wanted it or no, easily wounded, proud, and with some darkness in her past which was never revealed. And yet she cared for us in her own sometimes maddening way. In the end I feel we let her down a bit–not on purpose, but all the same. So this review is for you, Millie. It’s a bit belated, true. But better late than never.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.