ENGLISH TITLE The Door
AUTHOR Magda Szabó (1917-2007)
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE Hungarian
TRANSLATOR Len Rix
Emerence Szeredás is a mysterious and contrary creation. She lives a life of consummate industry in a Budapest suburb, where she works as a cleaner and caretaker for the novel’s narrator, a prize-winning writer. She looks after her own apartment building too, and is always to be seen buzzing about the streets sweeping leaves or clearing snow. She’s civic-minded, generous and given to spontaneous kindness, slipping in unseen to leave a plate of pastries in the kitchen. She’s also blunt, taciturn and given to obfuscation. About her past and personal life she is trappist, and nobody—nobody—is allowed into her house. “Emerence was the sole inhabitant of her empire-of-one,” the narrator says, “more absolute than the Pope in Rome.”
“The Door”, first published in 1987, is based largely on Magda Szabó’s own acquaintance with a woman like Emerence. It builds a gradual portrait of an uneven, shifting friendship, whose quiet but intense drama is fuelled by Emerence’s secrets. At first, these make her an object of suspicion and false accusations—that she desecrates graves or that her house is full of stolen goods. But over many years, as she and the “lady writer” creep closer together, she doles out “crumbs of trust” which reveal the “primal wounds” she has kept hidden—a history of violence and humiliation in whose protection the narrator becomes complicit.
The book has flashes of the macabre as well as moments of tender lyricism. But its great strength lies in its harrowing meditation on privacy, and on allowing people their illusions—illusions which, at the novel’s heartrending climax, are cruelly shattered. ~ SIMON WILLIS
New York Review Books, out now