Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Door by Magda Szabó (1987, translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix, 2005, awarded The Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize)

"at the center of this self-conscious narrative of a clash between high and low cultures is a story of such savagery that it demands both silence and truth."  Ali Smith

The Door by Magda Szabó is almost an overpowering work, it almost seemed to bludgeon me into submission as I was driven to read on and on being drawn further and further into the story of the relationship of a professional writer, a woman of the upper class, and a woman she engages to help her with the household chores, Emerence.   The story takes place well after the terrible years of World War Two in Hungary but not so far away that  the memory those dark years does not overshadow much of daily life.  In one very powerful memory image we learn of a troop of Germans who machine gunned  a herd of cows.  We don't know why they did this but the pure mindless destruction and cruelty of it informs our experience of The Door.  Szabó is a true master of the small detail. 

The character of Emerence is something I find myself unable or unwilling to try to describe.  She is just a powerful almost chthonic woman.  She totally repudiates all religion.  She is capable of huge amounts of work.  She is a servant but she is far from servile.  There is a never ending struggle for power between the novelist, who narrates the story, and Emerence.  There is amazing use made of a dog, Viola, in the story.  Cats also play an important part in the life of Emerence.  As the story progresses we learn more and more about the mysterious past and life of Emerence.  Foodies will appreciate the many gastronomic refrences and we also sense we are in a place where not long ago just having enough food was a day to day issue for most Hungarians.

Emerence looks upon the work of the writer, as the novel nears the end she wins a big award, as little more than playing.  She only respects real work done with your hands.  She is close with a Lieutenant Colonel in the police, not as a romance, but we never really learn how this came to happen.  Terrible things happen in this novel, scenes of horrible squalor and pain.  Szabó makes us not just intellectualize this but feel it, smell it and experience  the pain brought down on all.  Sections are near to nausea inducing.  

There is much more in this wonderful novel than I can bring out here.  I am so glad I read this powerful book.  It kept me totally captivated wanting to know what will happen next.  It is very much a work about economics and class distinctions.  There are a lot of exciting events and interesting minor characters.  Emerence always refers to the writer's husband as, Tne Master.  We are being taken way back in Eastern European history and culture.

I hope to read more by Magda Szabó.  I would love to see the movie.  

Magda Szabó (1917–2007) was born into an old Protestant family in Debrecen, Hungary’s “Calvinist Rome,” in the midst of the great Hungarian plain. Szabó, whose father taught her to converse with him in Latin, German, English, and French, attended the University of Debrecen, studying Latin and Hungarian, and went on to work as a teacher throughout the German and  Soviet occupations of Hungary in 1944 and 1945. In 1947, she published two volumes of poetry, Bárány (The Lamb), and Vissza az emberig (Return to Man), for which she received the Baumgartner Prize in 1949. Under Communist rule, this early critical success became a liability, and Szabó turned to writing fiction: her first novel, Freskó (Fresco), came out  in 1958, followed closely by Az oz (The Fawn). In 1959 she won the József Attila Prize, after which she went on to write many more novels, among them Katalin utca (Katalin Street, 1969), Ókút (The Ancient Well, 1970), Régimódi történet (An Old-Fashioned Tale, 1971), and Az ajtó (The Door, 1987). Szabó also wrote verse for children, plays, short stories, and nonfiction, including a tribute to her husband, Tibor Szobotka, a writer and translator of Tolkien and Galsworthy who died in 1982. A member of the European Academy of Sciences and a warden of the Calvinist Theological Seminary in Debrecen, Magda Szabó died in the town in which she was born, a book in her hand. In 2017 NYRB Classics will publish Iza’s Ballad (1963).

Len Rix is a poet, critic, and former literature professor who has translated five books by Antal Szerb, including the novel Journey by Moonlight (available as an NYRB Classic) and, most recently, the travel memoir The Third Tower. In 2006 he was awarded the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize for his translation of The Door.

From webpage of The New York Review of Books

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