The Door

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS -

by Magda Sz­abó, trans­lated by Len Rix, New York Re­view of Books, 262 pages

It’s not ev­ery day that a novel as mas­ter­ful as The

Door comes your way. The odds are against it for more than one rea­son. In the in­tro­duc­tion, nov­el­ist Ali Smith writes, “The pro­por­tion of books pub­lished in the English-speak­ing world that are trans­la­tions, from all lan­guages (and in­clud­ing best-sell­ing crime nov­els), is cur­rently about three per­cent.” In this cli­mate, it is a lit­er­ary event to be in­tro­duced to the late Hungarian au­thor Magda Sz­abó through Len Rix’s award-win­ning trans­la­tion.

The story’s sub­ject mat­ter is al­most ba­nal — the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a writer, Magda, and the old woman who cooks and cleans for her. Ex­cept that Emer­ence is no or­di­nary clean­ing lady. She is a ti­tan with re­gards to her tem­per­a­ment, her be­liefs, and her stamina, and her re­la­tion­ship with her em­ployer (whose name is Magda, but she’s al­most never re­ferred to by name) is mes­mer­iz­ing. Emer­ence doesn’t read vo­ra­ciously like Magda and her hus­band, but she’s read the book of life. She’s lived through World War II and has learned how to be loyal and keep her part in a con­tract. Cru­cially, she knows how to care for a loved one.

Emer­ence is a cocoon of se­crets. The neigh­bor­hood trusts her, but she rarely trusts any­one. She en­ter­tains de­li­ciously, but only on her porch. The door to her apart­ment is sealed to all but her an­i­mal friends, whom she loves dearly. Only the Lieu­tenant Colonel and Magda have been in­side her apart­ment — once. Prob­lems arise when Emer­ence con­tracts what is pos­si­bly pneu­mo­nia and is un­able to take care of her­self. Dur­ing her ill­ness, her se­cre­tive na­ture be­comes a tragic li­a­bil­ity. Stub­born to the end, Emer­ence seals her­self be­hind her door with hor­ri­ble con­se­quences.

Emer­ence’s phys­i­cal decline co­in­cides with a time in Magda’s life when her ca­reer fi­nally takes off in a big way. A tele­vi­sion in­ter­view keeps her from be­ing there for Emer­ence at a crit­i­cal mo­ment. The guilt that Magda con­se­quently ex­pe­ri­ences, and the re­jec­tion from Emer­ence, is be­yond painful. Magda tells us in the novel’s be­gin­ning pages that she has “killed” Emer­ence. The guilt feels some­what overblown. Magda is a ge­nius at her type­writer. Why should she be ex­pected to be a bril­liant care­giver as well? Her hus­band seems to be the rare per­son who keeps his san­ity in­tact dur­ing the cri­sis, and later, he gives Magda some ad­vice on how to cope.

Ear­lier, Emer­ence ac­com­pa­nies Magda to a film shoot. She is in­trigued at first, but on re­al­iz­ing that a wind ma­chine is blow­ing the tree branches around to in­di­cate the love be­tween the hero and the hero­ine, Emer­ence wants to leave. Later, she ex­presses her dis­gust to Magda. “She also de­manded of me that, in my art, it should be real pas­sion and not ma­chin­ery that moved the branches. That was a ma­jor gift, the great­est of her be­quests.” Writ­ers can get so fo­cused on the me­chan­ics of their craft that Emer­ence’s re­minder not to lose sight of the pas­sion that moves her char­ac­ters is at once sim­ple and bril­liant.

There’s no real de­fense in the novel for Magda’s need to pri­or­i­tize her work over her per­sonal obligations to Emer­ence, per­haps be­cause Magda is a woman. Dur­ing Emer­ence’s ill­ness, Magda’s hus­band mainly reads his books, but no ac­cu­sa­tions are di­rected at him, though Emer­ence worked for him as much as for his wife. True, she loved Magda al­most like a daugh­ter and ex­pected more from her. This sticky is­sue adds to the com­plex­ity of ways in which the re­la­tion­ship be­wil­ders and en­riches Magda.

There are hys­ter­ics here, but none are false. The novel il­lus­trates the power of psy­cho­log­i­cal con­flict and how much dra­matic force a novel can ac­crue with­out need­ing to re­sort to false ac­tion. The story is set in Hun­gary, so Sz­abó has li­cense to have peo­ple speak their mind. So much im­por­tance is given to “sub­text” in cer­tain schools of North Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture that dia­logue can be­come a com­pen­dium of “he said, she said.” No such prob­lems here.

Emer­ence is the mis­tress of speak­ing her mind: “Go home and prac­tice your lan­guages. It’s time to jab­ber away in Ger­man. Even the dog laughs at you. Tell me, what on earth are you prac­tic­ing for? God knows ev­ery pos­si­ble lan­guage and you’re not likely to for­get any­thing you’ve ever learned — your brain is like resin. What­ever gets stuck in it never gets out again. You pay back every­body who up­sets you, even me. If only you’d shout and scream — but all you do is smile.” This is not an atyp­i­cal ex­change with her em­ployer when she’s riled up. You may won­der why Magda puts up with it. She doesn’t, ex­actly. She seethes with fury right af­ter Emer­ence lashes at her with words. Still, Emer­ence is not dis­mis­si­ble. On the con­trary, she’s in­valu­able. She makes up for her tem­per with de­li­cious soups and pastries. She doesn’t apol­o­gize ex­actly, but her ways make it clear that her love su­per­sedes her anger.

Emer­ence is a bas­tion of loy­alty, she’s the neigh­bor you’ve al­ways wanted; still, she isn’t be­yond be­ing dev­as­tated when the woman she has moth­ered fails to ac­cord her the place that’s her due. The dam of her heart bursts, and re­sent­ment and anger flow out like lava. The novel is an im­pas­sioned aria for feel­ing and for the pos­si­bil­ity of en­dur­ing bonds: Sz­abó cre­ates a flam­ing char­ac­ter in Emer­ence, and Magda’s tor­ment over her con­duct ush­ers the two women into the realm of mytho­log­i­cal friend­ships.

— Priyanka Ku­mar

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.