What secrets lie behind the door...
The Door, by Magda Szabo
THE DOOR, by Magda Szabo, generated one of the more robust discussions in my book group. THE DOOR is not an easy book to describe, nor an easy book to read, but it is worth reading.
Magda Szabo was an award-winning, highly-educated author with a prolific career. The protagonist in THE DOOR is also an award-winning, highly-educated author, also named Magda.
The first line of the novel, “I seldom dream. When I do, I wake with a start, bathed in sweat,” should alert readers to question all that follows. The novel has a surreal, dream-like (albeit, at times, nightmarish) quality. The final line in the first chapter is equally provocative, “I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.”
Emerence (a name that one website claims means “worthy of merit") is the antagonist. She is Magda's housekeeper. But Emerence is far from subservient. Highly idiosyncratic, she cleans when and what she wants, berates Magda regularly, gets her feelings hurt for no apparent reason, and holds a grudge with astonishing tenacity.
THE DOOR has a plot, but relatively little action. Most of the book explores Magda's internal struggle to understand and come to terms with Emerence and their relationship, which is constantly at the breaking point. Szabo’s prose (translated from Hungarian) is clean, concise, and unemotional and offers a stark counterpoint to Emerence’s inexplicable behavior: her hysterical outbursts, the shocking tales from her youth, and the penultimate scene in which all her secrets are laid bare (although not fully explained). Equally inexplicable is why Magda so desperately seeks Emerence's friendship and approval.
The book takes place in post-war Hungary and readers are advised to approach this book as an allegory. Some of members of the book group thought Emerence represented communist-occupied Hungary, and Magda the new state struggling to free itself. Author Szabo was compelled to switch from poetry to fiction after her early critical success became a liability. So there's good evidence to support this interpretation
Szabo also makes frequent reference to the character Magda’s abiding faith. Szabo herself was a Protestant in predominantly Catholic Hungary. So perhaps Emerence represents “Calvanist Rome,” (as the author’s bio refers to Hungary). In the book's final paragraph, Magda says, “My religion has no place for the sort of personal confession where we acknowledge through the mouth of a priest that we are sinners… and are then granted absolution without need for explanation or details.” This makes the narrator’s opinion of such practices clear. The obvious parallels between the author's and narrator's lives make it difficult not to view this novel as, in some form, autobiographical. Perhaps THE DOOR, published in 1987, is about the author’s struggle to defend and maintain her minority faith and religion. A timely issue in today's world.
Szabo packs so much meaning into each sentence that THE DOOR deserves a second read. If you’re looking for a book to escape into on vacation, consider a different novel. But if you want to be challenged by a book and you have some time to puzzle over it, THE DOOR is worth digging into. Read it with a friend, though. You’ll want to discuss it with someone.
THE DOOR is available at the Norwich Bookstore and wherever books are sold.
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