Book Specs

Author: Magda Szabo
Translator: Len Rix
Publisher: New York Review of Books
Publishing Date: 2007
Number of Pages:  262
Genre: Novel, Fiction


The Door is an unsettling exploration of the relationship between two very different women. Magda is a writer, educated, married to an academic, public-spirited, with an on-again-off-again relationship to Hungary’s Communist authorities. Emergence is a peasant, illiterate, impassive, abrupt, seemingly ageless. She lives alone in a house that no one else may enter, not even her closest relatives. She is Magda’s housekeeper and she has taken control over Magda’s household, becoming indispe+nsable to her. And Emerence, in her way, has come to depend on Magda. They share a kind of love – at least until Magda’s long-sought success as a writer leads to a devastating revelation.

The Privacy of our Thoughts

When I bought Magda Szabo’s The Door through an online book seller, it was all due to sheer curiosity. I don’t have an inkling on who Szabo was nor have I ever heard of any of her works. It was my innate sense of going after books unheard of took precedence. Besides, the book was published by the New York Review of Books. If that is not enough, then I don’t know what is (at least in terms of the world of literature and publishing).

Can no longer contain my burgeoning curiosity for what this seemingly exotic book, I immediately immersed in the beauty of its narrative without further ado.

I killed Emerence.

The story opened with the narrator’s blunt and tacit confession. Is this a mystery? Who is Emerence? Why did the narrator kill her? How did the narrator kill Emerence?

But this mystery is just a guise to keep the reader riveted into the story. After all, how can a writer captivate a reader but by trying to immediately capture his attention. Under this guise of mystery, the readers are introduced to Emerence, a long-time house cleaner who has a bigger-than-this world personality. Growing up underprivileged in a small Hungarian town, she witnessed many secrets that she vowed never to tell the world.

That was until she met the narrator, a writer on-the-rise who employed her as her housekeeper. Emerence is a spit-fire of a woman, highly opinionated and adamant. On the other hand, Magda is her polar opposite, soft-spoken, timid and servile. When these two women’s lives crossed, the layers of the narrative are slowly peeled and set into motion a bevy of events that would bring the readers before the door of Emerenc’s humble home.

“I know now, what I didn’t then, that affection can’t always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways; and that one cannot prescribe the form it should take for anyone else.” ~ Magda Szabo, The Door

The dichotomy between Emerence and the narrator couldn’t be any starker – from their personalities to their backgrounds, to their demeanors. It is a wonder that they took up to each other, albeit it took some time. And even after they did, there was still a chilly air that swirled around them. It is this unusual mix that made up one of the narrative’s more interesting facets. Even the narrator’s identity remained mostly as a mystery and was only revealed as the story drew closer to its conclusion. The narrator is an eponym of the author herself.

But it wasn’t just these differences that created a rift between Magda and Emerence. In between the deep crevasse carved in between them is the symbolical and titular door, Emerence’s door in particular. This door is more did not see anyone other than Emerence enter it. This enigmatic door kept haunting Magda, consuming her with an insatiable curiosity which started the day she got to be acquainted with Emerence.

While skimming through the labyrinthine work, I was reminded by an age-old idiom. “Skeletons in our closets” kept ringing a rang. The door’s role is very important for Emerence. She reveres it for it safeguards not just her deepest and darkest secrets but most importantly, it ensures the sanctity of her privacy – both in her life and in her thoughts. The door, taken deeply, is an allegory for the walls we build around ourselves to secure the things that we hold dear.

Keeping that door firmly closed is a huge challenge because we don’t want everyone to keep on barging into the depths of our souls. We only open those doors to a select few, those we intrinsically trust. It disheartens us when someone tries to destroy this proverbial door, unsettling our inner security and peace. It becomes doubly disheartening when one of the causes for these walls to be destroyed is someone who we trust dearly.

“Once again her face changed. She was like someone standing in strong sunlight on a mountain top, looking back down the valley from which she had emerged and trembling with the memory still in her bones of the length and nature of the road she had travelled, the glaciers and forded rivers, the weariness and danger, and conscious of how far she still had to go.” ~ Magda Szabo, The Door

The tender interactions between Magda and Emerence, albeit the world of differences between them, bequeathed the story a homey feel. Magda was orphaned at a young age and despite her domineering attitude, Emerence stood like a surrogate mother. The novel was also doused with philosophical interchanges on different religious and political subjects.

Whereas the relationship between the two major characters was the highlight of the story, it is the prevailing political and social atmosphere in the post-World War II Hungary that gave the narrative a different texture and flavor. Although the overall, the atmosphere was bleak, it was nevertheless on point. Szabo did an outstanding job of capturing the period and the environment.

In spite of the bleak atmosphere, the beauty of Szabo’s writing prevailed all through out. She gave justice to Emerence’s story. Szabo bided her time in constructing wonderful and nostalgic passages and lines to come up with a complete picture. It popped with life and colors. It was mesmerizing reading through the novel as it was fabulously written by Szabo.

The Door is more than just Emerence’s story. Through the pages, the author herself opened the door to her personal life. There is a reason why the narrator is Magda and the housekeeper is Emerence. This story is about the relationship the author had with her octogenarian housekeeper (uncannily) named Emerence Szerebas. The novel is partially autobiographical in nature. It also depicts Szabo’s on and off relationship with the Hungarian government and society in general.

“Writing isn’t an easy taskmaster. Sentences left unfinished never continue as well as they had begun. New ideas bend the main arch of the text, and it never again sits perfectly true.” ~ Magda Szabo, The Door

In The Door, Magda Szabo unabashedly detached herself from most of the narrative in order to elevate Emerence’s story and not advance her personal agenda, something that is rarely, if ever, done. She did it even if meant placing herself under an unfavorable light. In doing so, she produced an exquisitely written masterpiece.

The Door is a magnanimous literary piece that possesses everything that will quell a reader’s insatiable appetite for literature. On the surface, it seems like a simple story of two women but on a deeper note, it is the story of our innermost thoughts, the ones that  defines us and keeps us pushing on. There is a reason why we don’t let everyone enter our private doors. Szabo captured the entire spirit.

This is my first Szabo work and I am fairly impressed by the body of her work. I want to read more of her other works although it might be a challenge as they are rarely translated. But still, I am still fervently hoping that I get to read more of her works.



About the Author

330px-Szabó_Magda_(Bahget_Iskander)(Picture by Wikipedia) Magda Szabo was born on October 5, 1917 in Debrecen, Austria-Hungary.

She graduated from University of Debrecen in 1940 with a degree in teaching Latin and Hungarian. Immediately after graduating, she started teaching at the Protestant Girl’s Boarding School in Debrecen and  Hódmezővásárhely. Five years later, she worked in the Ministry of Religion and Education.

In 1947, Szabo published her first work, a book of poetry titled Bárány (“Lamb”). It was followed by Vissza az emberig (“Back to the Human”) in 1949. Her first novel, Freskó (“Fresco”) was published in 1958, after the censure on her works due to the Stalinist era was lifted. She published two more works in 1958: a book of poetry titled Bárány Boldizsár (“Lawrence the Lamb”) and a novel titled Mondják meg Zsófikának (“Tell Young Sophie”).  Az ajtó (“The Door”), published in 1987 became one of her more famous works. She also wrote essays, studies, dramas and memoirs during her lifetime.

Szabo passed away on November 19, 2007.