Hungarian Literature 101 Course – The Door by Magda Szabó

Magda Szabó - The Door

Estimated reading time: 5 minute(s)

Eileen Kay is an ex-comedienne, ex-BBC sound editor, ex-importer and author of Noodle Trails 2, A Genealogy Adventure: My Secret Century in Budapest. She is currently living in Hungary, and her interest in Hungarian literature inspired her to start a “self-inflicted Hungarian literature 101 course”.

Her reviews are personal and descriptive, yet without giving too much away. This is the first part of a series of her pieces we will be publishing in the following months. We, the editors of Expat Press Hungary Magazine are extremely grateful for getting the opportunity to share Eileen’s work with you and we hope it will inspire you start reading Hungarian literature as well. 

For me, this was an absorbing, moving and wonderful story by a truly excellent writer. Magda Szabó is the most translated Hungarian writer of all, published in 42 countries. I see why. She’s wise, intelligent, witty when you need it but brave about life’s horrors too, and profoundly insightful about relationships between all sorts of humans and also their faithful dogs. She writes with great sympathy, and irony, but is not sentimental. By the end, I felt she understands the human heart, and all the weird and wonderful things that go on in there.

Magda Szabó
Portrait of Magda Szabó from 1990 by László Csigó

This focuses on two characters. The narrator is an eminent, distinguished writer struggling with a thousand different stresses. The other is her uneducated (but in some ways wiser) housekeeper, a formidable and bizarre personality, so eccentric as to be legendary, even mythical in their closely-knit neighbourhood.

Emerence the housekeeper is obsessively secretive, behind a huge door that no one gets past – literally, and emotionally. But, with each tidbit we learn about her life and her past, she seems all the more heroic, freaky and somehow miraculous as a survivor.

Theirs is a kind of insane love story, over twenty years, with many twists and turns. The final drama occurs when Emerenc suddenly needs help in her old age on the very day that Our Great Writer is about to appear on national TV for a Great National Prize, at which point the entire neighbourhood gets involved.

I’d happily read more by this author, and was pleased to see there is indeed plenty more. 

One tiny (microscopic) misgiving, if you haven’t read it: please do not be put off by the first chapter, as some people have been. It’s not like the rest of the book. I too got the wrong impression, only at first. Soon though, once she truly started the saga, I was hooked.

I will visit her again. I have a feeling she will be my favourite of this group.

Her biography, condensed from www.goodreads.com:

Magda Szabó (1917-2007) wrote novels, dramas, essays, studies, memories and poetry.

Born and educated in Debrecen, she graduated as a teacher of Latin and of Hungarian, and taught in a Calvinist girls’ school. 1945-1949 she worked for the Ministry of Religion and Education. She married the writer and translator Tibor Szobotka in 1947.

She began as a poet. Her first book “Bárány” (Lamb) in 1947, followed by “Vissza az emberig” (Back to the Human) in 1949. In 1949 she was awarded the Baumgarten Prize, which was – for political reasons – withdrawn from her on the very day it was given. She was dismissed from the Ministry in the same year.

During Stalinist rule from 1949 to 1956, she was not allowed to publish her works (they were not in the required style of political realism). Her unemployed husband was also stigmatized. She worked in an elementary school during this period.

Her first novel, “Freskó” (Fresco), written in these years was published in 1958 and achieved overwhelming success among readers.

Her most widely read novel, “Abigél” (Abigail, 1970), is an adventure story about a schoolgirl boarding in eastern Hungary during the war. “Abigél” was turned into a much-loved television series in 1978. It was sixth most popular novel at the Hungarian version of Big Read. Her three other novels that were in the top 100 are “Für Elise”, “An Old-Fashioned Story”, and “The Door”.

She received several prizes in Hungary. In 2003, she won the French literary prize Prix Femina Étranger for Best Foreign Novel.

Check out Eileen’s first book Noodle Trails, a Travel Memoir: Fair Trade, Dung Trade, and Travels in Thailand and Beyond.