Wednesday, February 3, 2016

February Book Review Club: THE DOOR

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Yay! It's great to be back after the Book Review Club's little hiatus. Here in New England it's looking like spring this week--not so in the rest of the country. Snuggle down with a good book, hey? Lots of options available if you click the icon above. Hang in there!

By Magda Szabo
Translated by Len Rix
New York Review of Books, 2015

All hail the independent bookstore. The Man and I have a books-only rule for Christmas and birthdays, so Blue Hill Books knows our tastes pretty well by now. Bookstore co-founder Nick Sichterman thrust this book into the Man’s hands during his frantic, last-minute December shopping spree, and told him I’d love it.

Nick was right. But I can’t imagine how he figured that out—on the surface, this is the kind of book I’d have trouble getting into: Its characters seem unlikeable at first, and the plot is sedentary.

I was instantly enthralled.  Now I’m baffled.

THE DOOR is one of Magda Szabo’s last works, published in Hungarian in 1987. Judging by the brief bio in the paperback I now treasure, it has strong autobiographical elements.  Born in 1917, Szabo was an exquisitely educated woman who worked as a teacher during her country’s German and Soviet occupations. She published two books of poetry right after the war and won the 1949 Baumgartner Prize before falling into disrepute with Hungary’s Communist rulers. She re-emerged as a novelist ten years later, winning her country’s most prestigious literary prize, and had a highly successful career during which she also wrote plays, short stories, and children’s verse. Szabo died in 2007.

Like her author, THE DOOR’s unnamed narrator is a successful writer who ran afoul of the government, but now has emerged from isolation to become a monumental success. Needing somebody to cook and clean her big new apartment so that she and her husband can concentrate on work, she arranges an interview with an elderly neighbor, Emerence, who is renowned for her energy and abilities.

Turns out the narrator is not the one conducting the interview—Emerence is checking the two writers out to make sure they pass muster. “I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty laundry,” the old woman proclaims.

Before long, “the lady writer” and her husband are utterly reliant on Emerence, although employing her requires superhuman flexibility and an even temper.  The narrator is far from flexible and even-tempered.

In time, she and the old woman come to share an intense love colored by mutual annoyance, bafflement, and frustration. Neither can give the other what she really needs: the narrator desperately wants Emerence’s approval, never forthcoming. And the one time Emerence really needs help, the narrator lets her down.

Here’s how the relationship starts: “No formal agreement dictated the number of hours Emerence spent in our house, or the precise times of her arrival. We might conceivably see nothing of her all day. Then, at eleven at night, she would appear, not in the inner rooms, but in the kitchen or the pantry, which she would scrub until dawn. It might happen that for a day and a half we would be unable to use the bathroom because she had rugs soaking in the tub.”

When she’s not working for the writers, the old lady sweeps the streets and tends to the building in which she has a ground-floor flat, within sight of her employers’ windows. Work is her life.

Emerence has a penchant for unexpected gifts—food, service, a stuffed falcon, an old army boot—and flies into a rage if they aren’t properly appreciated. She will accept no gifts herself, seldom takes orders.  The door to her flat is always closed—no one is allowed inside, nor is there any explanation for the strong smell of disinfectant wafting under the door. Deeply secretive about her past, Emerence occasionally tells the narrator some harrowing tale about her childhood, or makes some oblique revelation about a former employer.

As we piece it together by the end, her history and the character it created are weird, rich, and entrancing. I guess that’s why I loved this book so much. Go figure.

The translation by Len Rix seems to be lovely. (How can you tell?)  It won the Oxford-Weidenfield Translation Prize in 2006.

The New York Review of Books will publish another of Szabo’s novels, 1963’s IZA’S BALLAD, in 2017. I’ll be waiting for it at Blue Hill Books.

Dear FCC: As stated above, this book was a Christmas gift, and I legitimately loved it. So sue me.