The Door

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The Door (Az Ajto, 1987) by Magda Szabo is a strong novel about the growing relationship between two women - Magda, a writer, and Emerence, her housekeeper - in the panorama of twentieth century Hungary. Emerence chooses to work for Magda, and a force of literature encounters a force of nature. Emerence truly has the strength of ten because her heart is pure. But Emerence has secrets - many secrets. Gradually Magda pries open the doors of Emerence's past. What she finds there is horrifying and astounding. Yet ...
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The Door (Az Ajto, 1987) by Magda Szabo is a strong novel about the growing relationship between two women - Magda, a writer, and Emerence, her housekeeper - in the panorama of twentieth century Hungary. Emerence chooses to work for Magda, and a force of literature encounters a force of nature. Emerence truly has the strength of ten because her heart is pure. But Emerence has secrets - many secrets. Gradually Magda pries open the doors of Emerence's past. What she finds there is horrifying and astounding. Yet there is genuine humor, too, as the very different women interact with each other and with the dog they adopt.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Claire Messud
It's astonishing that this masterpiece should have been essentially unknown to English-language readers for so long…I've been haunted by this novel. Szabo's lines and images come to my mind unexpectedly, and with them powerful emotions. It has altered the way I understand my own life. A work of stringent honesty and delicate subtlety, The Door is a story in which, superficially, very little happens. Szabo's narrator, like the author a writer named Magda…follows the intricacies of her intimate filial relationship with her housekeeper, Emerence. In doing so, it exposes the rich inadequacies of human communication even as it evokes the agonies of Hungary's recent history…there is nothing simply ordinary about the friendship between these two women. Set on the stage of a single street in mid-20th-century Budapest, theirs is nothing less than the account of humanity's struggle to love fully and unconditionally, a struggle that is perhaps doomed.
Publishers Weekly
In this poignant but long-winded novel by the late Hungarian author Szabó, a writer recounts her decades-long relationship with—and eventual betrayal of—her enigmatic and emotionally volatile housekeeper. The story opens in postwar Hungary, narrated from old age by the protagonist, who remains unnamed for much of the novel. After having their careers “politically frozen,” the narrator and her husband (also a writer) begin to work again and seek out domestic help for their new home in Budapest. They hire Emerence Szeredás, a local peasant with an air of authority and “strength like a Valkyrie.” Though Emerence initially proves an antagonistic worker—attacking the narrator’s belief in God, for instance—she eventually develops a deep affection for, and reliance upon, her employers. Over the years, she reveals secrets about her childhood and her peripheral involvement in Hungary’s troubled political past, ultimately inviting the narrator into her apartment, which she notoriously—and suspiciously—protects. Szabó is a master tension builder, and Emerence’s demise (foretold in the novel’s opening pages) is heartbreakingly rendered. But an abundance of unnecessary detail weighs down what is otherwise a lucid and politically intriguing character study. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“Beautifully translated by Len Rix...New York Review Books Classics—acting, yet again, in its capacity as the Savior of Lost Greats—has now delivered this version to an American audience. If you’ve felt that you’re reasonably familiar with the literary landscape, ‘The Door’ will prompt you to reconsider. It’s astonishing that this masterpiece should have been essentially unknown to English-language readers for so long…suffice it to say that I’ve been haunted by this novel. Szabo’s lines and images come to my mind unexpectedly, and with them powerful emotions. It has altered the way I understand my own life. [It is] a work of stringent honesty and delicate subtlety.” —Claire Messud, The New York Times Book Review

"'The Door' is a deeply strange and equally affecting book, a dark domestic fairy tale about the relationship between a Hungarian writer, Magda, and her taciturn elderly housekeeper, Emerence.” —John Williams, The New York Times

"Szabó is a master tension builder, and Emerence's heartbreakingly rendered." —Publishers Weekly

"Szabo is a deft writer. She constructs the narrative around a deeply authentic friendship while leaving unresolved the main idea: How will you conduct yourself in your quest to be an authentic writer, and what are the costs to the people who care for you?” —Diane Mehta, The Rumpus

“No brief summary can do justice to the intelligence and moral complexity of this novel. I picked it up without expectation. I read it with gathering intensity, and a swelling admiration. I finished it, and straightaway started to read it again. It is unusual, original, and utterly compelling.” —The Scotsman

“A superbly controlled and involving work of art. . . . One of Szabó’s triumphs is to have written a profound political novel that is rooted in the domestic.” —Liam McIlvanney, London Review of Books

“Clever, moving, frightening, it deserves to be a bestseller.” —Tibor Fischer, The Telegraph

“Szabó’s style (the text is brilliantly translated), laced with gentle humor, is as mesmerizing as are her characters. Her dexterous, self-ironizing distance (the autobiographical elements are obvious), the detached gestures with which the narrator interrupts herself, the muted fury that erupts in overlong or half-sentences, and a certain moral seriousness and ethical anguish also impregnate this gem of a novel. Ultimately, the text is a tranquil memento, a piece of irrefutable poetry, a bizarre counterpart to our universal betrayal—out of love.” —World Literature Today
The Door is a valuable document of a vital relationship.” —The Guardian
The Door tells a great deal about the sufferings of 20th-century Hungary through the heart and mind of a single fearless woman, as Magda is taught by example to consider her own inadequacies. Magda Szabó’s great book was published in Hungary as long ago as 1987; Len Rix’s fluent translation is a belated and welcome gift to readers in English...profoundly moving.” —The Independent
The Door is a marvellous book dominated by female characters.” —The Times (London)
“This melting pot of a novel hangs from a solid tripod of Greek myth, Biblical scripture and Slavic fairy tale, handled with style and an easy familiarity. There is a great deal here to move anyone who has watched or felt the sufferings of age.” —Glasgow Herald 

“Intimate and satisfying….the tension between Magda and her housekeeper is fascinating, and sometimes sickening as well….the story celebrates love, the kind that is too perfectly made to exist on Earth.” —Claire Rudy Foster, Cleaver Magazine

The Barnes & Noble Review

According to one commonly cited statistic, only about 3 percent of books published in the United States every year are translations from other languages. When you consider just literary fiction, the figure drops to less than 1 percent. People often complain about this state of affairs, especially when, as happened with Patrick Modiano in 2014, the Nobel Prize goes to a writer who is completely unavailable in English. But few publishers actually step up to do something about it. One of the major exceptions is New York Review Books, which began by reviving out-of-print English titles but has emerged as a major conduit for translations of foreign fiction, especially from central and eastern Europe.

Magda Szabó's The Door was first published in Hungary in 1987. Almost thirty years later, much has changed in the country Szabó writes about — it has gone from a late-Communist dictatorship to a democratic state to, most recently, an authoritarian nationalist regime. Szabó herself, one of twentieth-century Hungary's major writers, died in 2007. Yet the story she tells in The Door remains utterly timely, with the permanent up-to-dateness of a myth. And at the center of that myth stands a character — Emerence, an old woman who works as a servant and neighborhood factotum — who is as mysterious, primal, and grotesque as anyone to be found in a Greek tragedy. Proud, angry, simple, guarded, defiantly inscrutable, Emerence dominates the novel as she comes to dominate the lives of her employers.

The Door deliberately blurs the line between fiction and memoir, which makes Emerence's larger-than-life dimensions all the more striking. If she could be treated as a mere invention, a figure out of a folktale like Paul Bunyan, we would know how to take her. But Szabó, in this elegant English translation by Len Rix, writes in the first person, more or less as herself: a middle-aged Hungarian writer, long censored for political reasons, who in later life has suddenly come back into favor and is enjoying unexpected success. She spends most of her time at her desk typing, as does her husband, a fellow writer. To take care of the practical details of their lives — cooking, cleaning, walking the dog, clearing snow from the sidewalk — she decides to hire a part-time servant. But when she meets Emerence, who works for several households in their Budapest neighborhood, it is clear that it is the employee who is doing the interviewing, not the employer: "She didn't want to rush her decision. She would decide what we were to pay her when she had some idea of just how slovenly and disorderly we were, and how much work we'd be."

Once Emerence agrees to enter the service of the woman known as "the lady writer," this strange power dynamic is only heightened. The Door has little plot in the usual sense; really it is a series of anecdotes Szabó tells about Emerence, each of which serves to further illuminate her character and life. Early on, for instance, the tenor of their relationship is established when the narrator rescues a small dog dying of exposure. Emerence immediately steps in to name the dog — she calls it Viola — and then to train it and win its loyalty. The narrator is left in the absurd situation of owning a dog that won't obey her or consent to be walked by her, only by Emerence. Indeed, Szabó suggests that there is something distinctly uncanny about the hold the woman has over the animal, which is not broken but only deepened by Emerence's bouts of violent anger, in which she beats the dog almost to death:

She shuddered violently, then hurled herself at the happily munching dog and beat him all over with the handle of the serving fork. She called him everything — an ungrateful monster, a shameless liar, a heartless capitalist. Viola squealed, jumped down from the chair and lay on the rug, for her inscrutable judgment to be carried out upon him. He never ran when she beat him, never tried to protect himself. The horror, with all its unreality, was dreamlike.
Such dreamlike scenes seem to break out regularly whenever Emerence is around. In tale after tale — and the old-fashioned word seems appropriate to these stories, which have the aura of saints' legends — Szabó shows us who Emerence is and how she got to be that way. An elderly woman, she is defined by her rigid, unyielding pride and governed by an idiosyncratic code of honor. She is a ferocious atheist, for instance, and mocks the narrator for going to church on Sundays. But this is not, as we might guess, out of any kind of Communist conviction. Rather, it is because once Emerence went to a church that was distributing clothes to the poor and was handed a useless fancy dress, instead of something necessary like a coat or mittens. This minor slight, as she perceived it, became the basis of a lifelong anticlericalism: "Henceforth, God and the Church were identified in her mind with those charitable ladies, and she never passed over an opportunity to take a dig at the worshiping classes."

This kind of unpredictable stubbornness is the key to Emerence's conduct, and again and again it brings her into conflict with her employer. When Emerence invites a guest who doesn't show up, she flies into a rage, and feeds the leftover meal to Viola on the narrator's best dishes: "The roast meat the animal had snatched was only a semblance. It was more than food, it was a meal not for human witness, a tangle of viscera, a species of human sacrifice — as if Emerence was feeding the actual person to the dog." When Emerence finds some old junk on the street and brings it to her employers as a gift, she is mortally offended when they don't want to keep a kitschy statue, then further offended when the narrator tries to explain the concept of kitsch to her. "Don't try to hide your cowardice by calling things kitsch," she spits, and refuses to come back to work unless the statue is prominently displayed. Of course, the narrator submits, as she always does; the sheer strength of Emerence's will overpowers everyone around her.

It is only gradually that Szabó allows us to see the history that made Emerence the way she is — a history full of the twentieth century's horrors and tragedies. As her past is filled in, the character seems to want to evolve into a symbol: of the common people in an age of war, of the canny peasantry clinging to old ways, or of the proletariat resigned to its lot even in a workers' state. And it's no exaggeration to say that Szabó's Emerence ranks with Proust's Françoise and Flaubert's Félicité, from "Un coeur simple," as one of the most powerful depictions of the servant relationship in fiction. Yet Emerence remains too individual to become an allegory; and the novel's conclusion, when the indomitable old woman succumbs to the dependency and weakness that lie in wait for even the strongest of us, speaks to a level of experience that is deeper than politics or class. We can only hope that The Door isn't the last of Szabó's books American readers will have the chance to discover.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.

Reviewer: Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780880333047
  • Publisher: East European Monographs
  • Publication date: 5/4/1995
  • Series: East European Monographs, #40
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Meet the Author

Magda Szabo is contemporary Hungary's foremost woman novelist.

East European Monographs

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2015

    An intense experience

    This book is intense. I must admit that I really thought that the narrator was sort of spoiled in that she could not - at least initially - have any appreciation for the main character. It does come together - two social classes, two experiences - at the end. Well worth the read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2015

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2009

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