Tag Archives: Hungary

Abigail by Magda Szabo

It’s 1943, the Second World War is underway and Hungary has had an uneasy relationship with Germany since entering the war in June 1941 to assist the Axis powers. In 1944 Germany decides to occupy Hungary because independent attempts have been made to negotiate an armistice with the UK and the USA. From the occupation Jewish people are in danger, and soon after the Hungarian army is defeated by the Red Army.

It is against this backdrop that Abigail takes place. Georgina is a spoiled young daughter of an army general, and has no idea about the danger she is in, nor about the decisions that are made to keep her safe. She is sent to a prison-like strict boarding school for girls. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this is for her protection. What I liked about this book is that the story began about the girl, but gradually widened to consider the individual in the war in Hungary.

Abigail

This is a long book, almost 450 pages, and it begins with Georgina and takes its time to unfold the full implications of her situation. At first it is about her separation in 1943 from her beloved father in Budapest as she goes to boarding school, Matula, a long way away. How will she survive the separation? And will she fit in with the other girls? The girls in her class have very strong bonds of loyalty and two of them explain the rules and the restrictions. They also introduce her to the story of Abigail, a statue which is reputed to provide answers to difficult questions that are placed in the pitcher she holds.

Soon after her arrival Georgina betrays one of the secrets of her class that provide respite from the very strict regime of the school. From this point the girls refuse to speak to her. The school has very strict Protestant rules (she describes it as Calvinist) and she breaks these too: she has personal possessions, for example, and then she tries to escape. She manages to make it up with the other girls and the story moves into its last phase. 

Hungary is in danger of being defeated in the war. Georgina’s father, the General, heads an anti-Nazi underground movement. He has placed Gina in Matula for her protection, as he fears she will be used against him if the plot is discovered. It turns out that the Gina’s guardian angel is Abigail and that the local dissident (anti-war, anti-Nazi) are the same person and that with a network of local people Gina is saved when her father is arrested. The finale is exciting as the conspirators evade the searchers.

The story is told in great detail, the uniform, the rules, the teachers, the rituals etc. Each part of the story is built gradually. Occasionally plot details are trailed. ‘She had no idea that she would never see him again’ (269). It was Bánki’s present that led to the unravelling of Gina’s hiding place. 

A great number of things happened on that late November morning but it was only much later that she saw the connection between them. Every episode or image associated with that Wednesday fused in her mind – the gaping mouths of the dead fish, the filing cabinet standing open, the glazier’s assistant with his huge moustache, and the General. (257)

For some time we believe the mystery is to uncover the identity of Abigail, the person behind the statue. And like Gina, it is only later that readers can connect her to the smashed aquarium, the missing files and the other events of that morning.

Gina changes from being a spoiled little rich girl to a resourceful and determined (yet  opinionated) daughter of a General. While she is unwise, young, selfish, the reader still has sympathy for her in her various predicaments. One can admire her pride, her loyalty and her ingenuity. And in the end she has joined the network of people protecting what they can of Hungary. It is a long book but a gripping story.

Magda Szabo

The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Later she published several novels which won her great acclaim, the first was Katalin Street in 1969. It was The Door that brought her international success. 

The Door by Magda Szabo (1987), translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in English in 2005. This was the 22nd in the OLDER WOMEN in fiction series, and you can read about it here.

Abigail by Magda Szabó first published in 1970 and in English translation by Macelhose Press in 2020. 442pp

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

Some recent blog reviews:

A Life in Books included her review on 10th January this year.

HeavenAli published a review on 31st January.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation

The Door by Magda Szabo

The novel begins with the door, the narrator facing it in a dream. She is struggling to turn the lock. The door will not give way to her efforts and no one will come to help for although she is shouting she has lost the power of speech. This is a recurring nightmare from which the narrator, who is a writer, is wakened by her own screaming.

It’s a powerful opening scene, and it sets up the privacy and secrecy of the woman who lives behind the door, closed to the efforts of the narrator to create closer ties. The relationship of the two women lasted twenty years, was difficult and is the subject of The Door, a Hungarian novel.

272 The Door

This is the 22nd post in the Older Women in Fiction Series on this blog. Thank you Robin Dawson for the suggestion. It was chosen because August is Women in Translation month. The Door was translated by Len Rix.

The Story

Emerence came to clean for the writer who had moved with her husband into a bigger Budapest apartment. Having been disapproved of for some time, during the Stalinist era, the writer is now more successful and needs time and space for her work. She needs a cleaner and Emerence has been recommended. Emerence makes it clear that she interviews the couple not vice versa. Later she takes over their dog as well. For twenty years Emerence cleans for the couple and becomes a major presence in their lives. It is in an uneasy relationship, especially at first as Emerence dictated the terms of her employment.

The story is told in a series of scenes, each one illustrating how Emerence keeps the narrator at a distance, or indeed turns her back on her if she feels affronted. They fall out over Emerence’s present of a plaster dog. She will never accept a present from the narrator. The narrator asks her to return, even if the dog must stay. And Emerence does return to work for them, and she hurls the dog to the floor, lesson learned. In this uneasy way, gradually the writer and the older woman develop affection, although it does not prevent the writer from getting things wrong. The climax comes when Emerence falls ill and needs assistance but will not unlock her door. What are the ‘lady writer’ and the community to do?

272 NY The Door

The old woman

Emerence had a hard childhood, born into a rural area and rejected by her family and her lover, who also stole her savings. She came to Budapest with no ties, in the war, and it emerges that she helped other people survive, especially a Jewish family. She has done numerous favours for many people so that her nephew, the Lieutenant Colonel of the police and many others all look out for her interests and protect her from the worst of life in its intrusions, especially officialdom. Emerence allows no one into her house, except the narrator just once. She has immense pride, and immense strength.

She was tall, big-boned, powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and she radiated strength like a Valkyrie. Even the scarf on her head seemed to jut forward like a warrior’s helmet. (6)

At the end of The Door Emerence falls ill and is confined to her house. Her absence reveals that the community has come to rely upon her. The narrator has to ask the local priest to provide a church funeral, for the benefit of the local community. He opposes the request because of her well-known and rigid opposition to the church.

‘She’s not asking for it,’ I replied. ‘I am. And so is every well-disposed person. It is appropriate, as a form of homage. She may have heaped expletives on the Church as institution, but I’ve known few devout believers who were as good Christians as this old woman. … This woman wasn’t one to practice Christianity in church between nine and ten on Sunday mornings, but she had lived by it all her life, in her own neighbourhood, with a pure love of humanity such as you find in the Bible, and if he didn’t believe that he must be blind, because he’d seen enough of it himself.’ (250-1)

And after death her influence lives on, she’s still solving problems for other people.

The Themes

The Door isn’t so much about the old woman as about the relationship between the narrator and Emerence. They reflect many of the themes, which are set up in tension or as opposites. Emerence stands firm for the value of manual labour, while the narrator is a writer, an intellectual. Emerence does favours for the whole community, keeps the streets clear of snow, cleans their houses, services the block of flats for which she is curator. Her selflessness means that she accepts no favours, no presents. The lady writer, on the other hand, thinks of herself and her own needs constantly, as if her sensibility were especially fragile. The writer’s Catholicism is important to her, but Emerence wants nothing to do with the Church and its rituals. And so on.

It is clear that the best of life is in the combination of these qualities, labour with intellectualism; selflessness and selfishness; faith and scepticism; privacy and public approval.

Magda Szabo

272 Szabo, Magda

The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. According to sources on the internet, the novel draws upon her own life. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Ali Smith observed, I am not sure where, that Emerence was Hungary, a notion that came to me during my reading of the novel.

 

 

The Door by Magda Szabo, first published in 1987. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in 2005. 262 pp.

Winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2006.

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Related Posts

Two reviews:

Claire Messud in the New York Times in February 2015, described the novel as a masterpiece and mesmerising and suggested it changed her way of understanding the world.

Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker in April 2016, said ‘to read it is to feel turned inside out’, a ‘bone-shaking book’.

Two most recent posts in Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine in April 2016

Olive Ketteridge by Elizabeth Strout in June 2016

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading