That Time

Liam McIlvanney

  • The Door by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix
    Harvill Secker, 262 pp, £15.99, October 2005, ISBN 1 84343 193 9

Straightforwardly enough, The Door begins with a door. In fact, it begins with ‘The Door’, a three-page prologue – a door into the novel – in which a woman recounts a bad dream. She is standing behind the front door of her apartment building and an ambulance crew is waiting in the street. The paramedics are eager to get in – someone in the building is desperately ill – but the door won’t open. The woman tries to scream, but her voice has gone, and at this point she wakes up. But the nightmare doesn’t end here, for the dream door is also a real door:

Once, just once in my life, not in the cerebral anaemia of sleep but in reality, a door did stand before me. That door opened. It was opened by someone who defended her solitude and impotent misery so fiercely that she would have kept that door shut though a flaming roof crackled over her head. I alone had the power to make her open that lock. In turning the key she put more trust in me than she ever did in God, and in that fateful moment I believed I was godlike – all-wise, judicious, benevolent and rational. We were both wrong: she who put her faith in me, and I who thought too well of myself.

The ‘someone’ in this passage is Emerence Szeredás, the proud and peremptory old spinster who keeps house for the narrator. For twenty years, the two women share each other’s company in a Budapest flat. The Door tells the story of their relationship, its tides of rapprochement and estrangement, and the growth of a tough, unaccountable love between two women of opposite tastes and sympathies. As the prologue intimates, the relationship ends in disaster, and so The Door becomes a tale of betrayal, with the narrator bidding for expiation and atonement. Above all it’s a confession: ‘I must speak out. I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.’

Still, what is most remarkable about these feverish opening pages is how poorly they prepare us for what follows. The concentrated drama (‘In turning the key’, ‘that fateful moment’), the hysterical overstatement (‘I killed Emerence’), the note of public testimony (‘I must speak out’), the clotted, dreamlike ambience: almost everything in the prologue is foreign to the novel as a whole. For the most part, Magda Szabó’s book – a superbly controlled and involving work of art, first published in Hungary in 1987 – is sober and understated. Domestic routine – the preparation of food, the clearing of snow from pathways, visits to church, family jokes and squabbles – engrosses the narrative. The style is unhurried and anecdotal. The novel moves patiently, even ponderously, to the lento of a relationship measured in eras: ‘The truth is, for many years we mattered very little to her’; ‘Thus, as the years flew by, our relationship continued to strengthen.’

The narrator, who bears a close resemblance to Szabó herself, is a prominent Hungarian writer. As the novel opens, her career is picking up, having been ‘politically frozen’ for ten years. (Szabó spent years in obscurity, having been dismissed from her government post in the 1950s when it was discovered that she did not have a ‘suitable’ – that is, working-class or peasant – background.) Thanks to her rehabilitation, Magdushka (she is named only once in the novel) has recently traded her one-bedroom flat for a larger apartment. Desperate to spend as much time as possible on her writing, she decides to hire a cleaner. A friend recommends Emerence, a vital old woman and local character, the caretaker of a nearby apartment block.

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