I can’t stop thinking about Magda Szabo’s ‘The Door’

New York Review Books Classics

So I finally finished The Door last night. There are a handful of books I’ve read — Dubliners and Candide come to mind — where the prose is, in Jonah Hill’s words, clean and rad and powerful. On a surface level, the writing is crystal clear, the stories are absorbing, and they are easy to read. On a deeper level, they withstand immense scrutiny. The symbols may be obvious, but the stories move along so well that the obviousness doesn’t bother you. And when you go back to analyze, they turn out to be more sophisticated than at first glance. These are books that are fun to go back to and read, and always have something new to offer. The Door is one of these novels. It’s not quite on par with Candide and Dubliners, but they’re in the same company.

In terms of story, The Door has the least interesting logline ever. A writer and her husband move to a countryside villa. Their caretaker, Emerence, is kinda weird, and the writer befriends her. It’s gripping.

I don’t think I’ve read much European fiction that’s been written and is set a generation (or a generation-and-a-half-ish, in this case) removed from The Holocaust. Most of what I’ve read that I think resembles the setting of the time and place The Door was written (1987, Hungary) is either nonfiction or thinly-fictionalized nonfiction, like Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, or, uh, Gentlehands by M.E. Kerr (it was a book club!). What I like about The Door, and what I still haven’t puzzled out, is that its complicated nostalgia about the past concerns The Holocaust, but it also stretches past it. I think it’s a kind of coping/avoidance/avoidance by coping mechanism for the horrors, to tell a story that’s on the periphery of the periphery of the subject. But it’s also something else entirely, like the characters almost missed The Holocaust and are just talking about something else. World War II’s shadow is wobbly.

The book is also a remembrance for times past. It’s like a Stefan Zweig novel, where a character is from an era that no longer exists, with its own lost virtues that are worth yearning for. But if Stefan Zweig lived through The Holocaust. Also, Magda Szabo is a much better writer than Stefan Zweig. But I read both in translation, so I’m being unfair.

I’ve since started reading Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground (P&V translation). Its description of the narrator’s interior life is much more detailed, but it’s also much more annoying to read. Maybe not the best novel to transition to. I miss the cool, clean prose of Szabo.

I’m excited to read more Szabo in English, and I’m glad that New York Review Books Classics is coming out with Iza’s Ballad in October. Crazily, Helen Mirren starred in a totally under-the-radar film adaptation of The Door that premiered at Berlin in 2012. I’ll have to check that out in the meanwhile.

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