I have made just one friend during the pandemic: Magda Szabó, the Hungarian writer who died in 2007. I knew of Szabó before the shutdown began, knew enough to admire her style, but as the closures gathered velocity, I began to pursue her, and I imagined that she was courting me too.
Szabó is best known in English for The Door, but there are also Katalin Street, Abigail and Iza’s Ballad, all of which have been published over the past five years by New York Review Books—Iza’s Ballad in translation by George Szirtes; the others by Len Rix. The four titles represent only a fraction of a prodigious career. Between 1947 and 2002, Szabó published some fifty books, including poetry, young-adult fiction and memoirs. Her work has been adapted into films, television series and musicals, and is commonly taught in classrooms in her home country. She is among Hungary’s most successful writers—“heaped with honours,” as one obituary described.
Born in 1917, Szabó drew her material from the four tumultuous decades that framed her early life. Hungary was occupied by Nazi Germany—nearly half a million Jewish Hungarians were deported to Auschwitz—and then, in a painful transition, by Soviet Russia. When she was 32, Szabó was given Hungary’s most prestigious literary award, but on the very same day, the postwar Communist dictatorship declared her a “class enemy,” and stripped her of the honor. She went unpublished for eight years. A revolution in 1956, though violently quashed, heralded change, and Szabó’s rehabilitation began shortly after. Having experienced the capriciousness of prestige, she kept future accolades at arm’s length.
From the moment I read the opening pages of Katalin Street—“Everything had gone—as lightly as if someone had plucked a handkerchief from [a] coat pocket.”—I clung to Szabó as my quarantine confidant. Here, I thought, was someone who understood. She was willing to track along with my piddly grief in those strange and ominous early weeks of lockdown. On the day that my husband, an urgent-care physician, murmured that he’d increased his life-insurance policy, I buried myself in Iza’s Ballad; I was reading Katalin Street when I realized my toddler’s motor tic was becoming much worse. I took solace in Abigail the week my older daughter endlessly wept, and when smoke from the Oregon wildfires gave the children nosebleeds and made our house in Portland seem as flimsy as a cardboard sieve, I reread The Door, again. On summer weekends, as police vehicles circled our neighborhood and protesters passed in bulletproof vests, I felt sure someone would die soon, as indeed they did. I researched these deaths obsessively, parsing news accounts for the truth, stunned that the unrest had so handily come coursing into my everyday life. Szabó gently chided my shock. When I was unjust to my children; when cooking, which I’d always loved, grew tiresome and then disgusting; when a deep sleep felt like winning the lottery—I read the so-called “domestic novels” of Magda Szabó.
In the early days of the pandemic, there was one character that especially spoke to me, that of the old woman in Szabó’s 1963 Iza’s Ballad. (For most of the novel, she is known only as that—“the old woman.”) The book is about what happens when the anchors of the old woman’s life break away. Her husband of nearly fifty years has just died, and Iza, the couple’s only child, determines that her elderly mother should not live alone but with her, and orchestrates her mother’s move to her flat in the city. It seems a generous arrangement, and the old woman follows along.
The problem is that Iza and her mother are cut from different cloth. Iza is decisive, brisk and brutally practical. She is a skilled doctor, publicly admired but privately severe. Her self-discipline is so extreme that Szabó describes her aspect as that of “a young soldier on sentry duty.” Iza’s father’s funeral is barely over before Iza launches a flurry of activity. Dispatching her mother to a spa, she sells the house, goes through her father’s belongings, disposes of nearly everything and “improves” what she keeps. She moves a few of her mother’s things to her apartment, and determines their proper place. The old woman is too dazed by grief and too cowed by Iza’s decisiveness to protest.
This dyad of the fiercely determinist Iza and her bereft, passive mother spoke to my own pandemic miasma in March and April and June, when I felt myself surrounded by incarnations of Iza, most of them other mothers. These women launched into action with head-spinning vigor. While I was wandering the house in my bathrobe, they were sewing masks, compiling Excel sheets of age-appropriate online resources, organizing Spanish conversation groups on Zoom, tackling home renovations and building cities out of papier-mâché.
How gratifying it was to read of Iza’s shortcomings! In Szabó’s telling, Iza’s emphasis on doing rather than feeling comes at an enormous cost. She has no patience for stillness, no sense of anyone’s rhythm besides her own. The people who crave Iza’s intimacy—not only her mother, but her father and ex-husband and boyfriend—consistently leave her presence lonelier than they arrive. Most consequential of all, Iza mistakes care as a matter of simple logistics.
The paradox of Iza is that she is ostensibly taking care of her mother, and yet she refuses to engage in the everyday acts of nurturing that actually constitute care. I found an echo between Iza’s reductionist view and the pandemic safety measures, which also stripped caring for others of its gestural richness. Caring for my children suddenly meant pulling them away from the people and activities that gave ballast to their lives. It meant avoiding my grandmother, who was lonely and close to death. It meant not touching friends, some of whom, I could sense, desperately needed to be touched. My sister gave birth prematurely; my brother was ill with COVID-19; a friend’s toddler was diagnosed with cancer—my offerings were sterile and incommensurate with their need. In normal times, when my husband returned from work, our daughters rushed to greet him. But now he held them back with a bark, and disappeared upstairs to shower and change clothes. The first time this happened, and the second and the third, the children turned to me, confused and hurt, and I didn’t know what to say. How to explain to a child that tenderness is something other than touch? I could hardly believe it myself.
In Iza’s Ballad a pattern emerges: the old woman anticipates a bit of comfort, only to find that Iza has arranged things otherwise. The old woman looks forward to saying goodbye to her husband in his casket, but arrives at the service to find the casket closed. She imagines the smell of her husband’s “peaked caps,” but the caps are nowhere to be found. She plans to cook for Iza—traditional, frugal meals of meat and cabbage—but discovers the adult Iza has no taste for such things, and employs a maid instead.
When the old woman is at the spa (a respite that proves not relaxing but achingly lonely), she imagines that a ritual fire will help her feel at home in Iza’s flat. She loves the warmth of a fire; in the opening scene of the book, she is squatting in her kitchen, making toast by holding bread to the embers, their noise “so like the panting of a live being.” Relieved to find a task to occupy her time, the old woman spends four days “walking slowly, delicately” to collect a bundle of perfect twigs.
When Iza shows her the apartment building—the modernist façade, the parquet floors with no carpets, the elevator, the humming radiators—the old woman is mortified that her imagination was so wildly amiss. She pushes the twigs into the corner of a drawer. Later, in the many hours she spends alone in the apartment, she sometimes sits on the ground pressed against the refrigerator, pretending that the mechanical hum is a sign of life.
From there, the novel motors along as if following an iron track, such that it comes as no surprise when the old woman eventually commits suicide.
As became apparent when I read Szabó’s novels in quick succession, this emotional chill is a recurring motif. No one else is quite so cauterized as Iza, but many characters come close. Suddenly threatened with circumstances beyond their control, people change shape. Honorable, respected adults become self-centered, frightened children. A person of stature is revealed to be “like a baby,” and a woman indulges a “heartbreakingly childish” jealousy. Occasionally a child in years precipitously becomes an adult.
In The Door, Szabó’s most popular novel in English, the character who undergoes this adult-to-child metamorphosis is Magda. Unlike Iza, Magda’s selfishness is not woven into her character, but a momentary lapse. Nonetheless, there are grave consequences.
Magda the character is a writer, and presumably like Magda the author, she has a busy literary life. She gives interviews and lectures, attends conferences and writes. To help manage the house, she employs a maid, Emerence, and over time the two women become as close as kin.
Literature’s old women are not often gifted the brio of Emerence. She is stubborn, eccentric and cruel to those she loves most, also fastidiously clean, with a work ethic befitting a “robot.” Szabó describes her as a series of contradictions: elderly yet with superhuman strength; illiterate, yet cultured; caustic to Magda, yet exceedingly loyal—in all respects, “a one-woman show.” She lords over Magda’s dog and the dog never leaves her side.
Magda and Emerence’s friendship begins with a meal. Several years into her employment, Emerence asks if she can host lunch for an out-of-town visitor at Magda’s home. The request gives Magda pause—what deception is she enabling?—yet she agrees, and even offers her silver candelabra and finest porcelain. Emerence prepares a lavish spread, but the guest fails to materialize. When Emerence gets word that her guest has canceled, she goes wild with rage. Screaming obscenities and slamming dishes, she sets expensive delicacies before the dog, and then beats the dog as it gorges, cursing it as a “capitalist” and “monster.” Magda watches aghast.
Late that night, unable to sleep, Magda decides to visit Emerence, walking over in her slippers. Instead of asking for an explanation, Magda inquires as to whether Emerence has any food on hand. She’s hungry, she says. As Magda surely anticipated, Emerence is delighted by the question, and graciously serves spiced roast. Magda eats as much as she can.
The gesture restores Emerence’s spirits, and signals that Magda’s affection is deeper than that of an employer. Food is Szabó’s most ready-at-hand metaphor. A box of pastries in Abigail is an overture of friendship, and a forlorn jar of pickles in Katalin Street provokes a woman to endanger her life. When Iza’s boyfriend orders wiener schnitzel, it’s clear he’s going to leave her. This meal, however, makes Szabó’s domestic currencies into a version of the sacrament. Although Magda doesn’t understand the particulars of Emerence’s disappointment, she grasps the essential bit: food so tenderly prepared is freighted with feeling that can’t be otherwise expressed. The roast is an extension of Emerence herself, and when Magda takes it into her mouth, Emerence begins to lower the armored drawbridge that leads to her heart.
Emerence’s guardedness, we’re given to understand, is a product of the war, though Szabó leaves the details murky. Generally, Szabó is more interested in scars than the injuries that cause them. In all of her books, Szabó follows the ripples of political and social upheaval away from the seats of power, and into the home, where she applies forensic attention to how catastrophe unfurls in bedrooms and kitchens. Her preferred terrain is not the crisis but its quotidian aftermath. Five or ten or twenty years post-disaster, the wreckage has been cleaned up (or built over), but the generational trauma is nakedly obvious. Intimate relationships are warped with guilt, shame, dullness and excessive caution. History has welded people together, cleaved them apart and obstructed their natural growth.
Many Szabó characters are permanently unseated by the past. One man is described as having “put on a mask and forgotten to take it off” and another as “an empty shell.” Some people run away, ineffectually, and some stay in place as if chained. Some, like Iza, over-perform their competence. Everyone is injured in ways that that the people who love them struggle to understand.
The title of The Door explicates the kernel of the story. Magda and Emerence’s friendship hangs on the extent to which they each let the other in. The two women constantly prod each other’s boundaries, extending and retracting in turn. They manufacture problems to observe how the other reacts, and show no restraint in expressing anger. What better way to gauge love than to lash out and see what happens? For Emerence especially, the friendship unfolds as a series of tests that Magda valiantly struggles to pass.
Emerence’s excessive self-reliance is figured in the symbol of her front door. For reasons not explained, Emerence keeps this door shut. No one ever enters her home; visitors are hosted on the porch. When Emerence is forced to open the door in someone else’s presence, she blocks the view.
The Door climaxes when Emerence inexplicably disappears behind it. First, it’s just a day or two. Friends and neighbors knock and are told to go away. Gifts of food rot outside. Magda would normally be more attentive—she’s accustomed to seeing Emerence daily—but Emerence’s lockdown coincides with a pivotal moment in her career. After decades of professional neglect, Magda is to be suddenly awarded Hungary’s most prestigious literary prize. In advance of the ceremony, there is a flurry of press. She is invited on television and radio shows, her house is photographed, and flattering invitations fill her mailbox. Unaccustomed to being in the public eye, Magda “scuttle[s] about … like a beetle on the run.”
Meanwhile, the Emerence situation worsens. The days stretch into a week, and then another. Eventually, Emerence’s replies at the door are unintelligible, and the house emits a terrible smell. When the ceremony hubbub finally calms, Magda turns her attention to Emerence, but by then, her options are few. She has no choice, she decides, except to break down the door and pull the woman out by force. It might cost her friend’s dignity, but perhaps save her life. Both come to pass. Emerence is found barely alive and her home is unimaginably squalid. She’s had a stroke, and evidently resolved to die in her own filth. In the nightmarish storming of the door everything is revealed: mildew climbing up the walls, piles of excrement, the piss of a dozen cats.
As Emerence rests at the hospital, Magda is overwhelmed with regret. Had she not been so distracted, she could have moved Emerence into her own home and taken care of her. Instead, she’d indulged “childhood dreams” of approbation. In effect, she locked her own proverbial door. “I had rushed off,” Magda reflects, “away from illness, old age, loneliness and incapacity.” Emerence was forced to hole up in her private hellscape. Selfishness has a certain fecundity.
Emerence never fully recovers. When she eventually dies, Magda holds herself accountable. She regrets every decision she made during the entire debacle. There is only one exception, and it happens to be a story—a soothing, reparative fiction that rests well on Magda’s conscience. The occasion for the story is that Emerence fell unconscious the moment of the door-storming, so that she doesn’t know exactly what happened. When she gathers the nerve to inquire, Magda is prepared. Her account flows out “like water from a spring.”
Magda reports that very few people saw the disaster inside the house, and those few can be trusted. Emerence’s beloved cats are well, except one who died and was respectfully buried under a wild rose. The others are thriving on a diet of meat. The house was cleaned, secretly, at night, by Magda’s own hands—no one else has been inside—and rather than put the rubbish in Emerence’s bin where it might betray her shame, Magda covertly spread it among other bins, some far from the house. Emerence’s home was now sparkling clean and securely boarded up, waiting for her return.
None of this is true. In fact, the house is barely standing. Magda did none of the cleaning, there is no front door at all, and the cats are all missing or dead. Emerence’s shame was made extremely public. Her exposure, in fact, followed the script of her worst nightmare.
The compensation for Magda’s dishonesty is that Emerence practically shudders with relief. She cries out and strokes Magda’s face. She inspects Magda’s “useless little” fingers, marveling that they managed such a herculean cleaning task. And then she impulsively lifts Magda’s hand to her own mouth, holding it there between her jaws. It’s a primal, worshipful gesture, borrowed from the world of toddlers and dogs. Feeding and being fed have signposted each stage of the women’s friendship, and here the metaphor climaxes in ecstatic cannibalism. Magda once offered solace by eating a roast, and now telling a story has the same balming effect. These are offerings of the mouth, and it makes sense that Emerence receives them likewise.
Why did I keep returning to Szabó during those endless days of early quarantine? I didn’t know at first. I drew the obvious parallels between Szabó’s plots and my life situation. I have a daughter on the cusp of adolescence, like the protagonist of Abigail; my husband works in medicine, like Iza; I’m a writer, as is the protagonist of The Door; my grandmother is a perfect inversion of the old woman—cruel and testy where the old woman is meek and solicitous.
But these similarities only went so far in explaining the novels’ resonance, and anyway, I could undercut each with a difference of comparable consequence. I struggled to articulate why this particular writer was so compelling at this particular moment. What exactly did Szabó offer that I so craved?
And then, ten months into the pandemic, I read Iza’s Ballad again. This time, to my astonishment, I found myself sympathizing with Iza. It seemed obvious to me now that poor Iza wants only to work hard and quietly recuperate at home, and her mother’s presence makes that impossible. The old woman has a tendency to hover and chatter, and Iza needs silence and space. She is devoted to her patients at work; she can’t very well come home and be equally devoted to her mother. And no wonder she finds the old woman’s attempts to cook and clean galling—Iza relishes her independence.
Iza’s callousness, which at first glance seemed unforgivable, was in fact perfectly explained by her backstory. Her father, a county judge, was relieved of his post when Iza was young because he refused to rule against four innocent peasants. (He himself came from peasant stock.) The family was disgraced and nearly starved, and Iza became involved in the Resistance as a teenager. She was a natural leader, calmly carrying bombs in her school satchel. When the revolution was accomplished, Iza managed by force of will to reinstate her father’s pension (thus securing the home with the fireplace that the old woman so dearly missed). Her covert hostility to her mother is also explained. On occasion, the old woman castigated her husband for sacrificing the family’s well-being to a moral principle. Loyal to her father and herself a stickler for principles, Iza never forgot these remonstrations.
It was early winter now, and Iza’s ailments had, somehow, become my own. I was exhausted by the constant companionship of my children. The expectation that I be teacher, entertainer, friend, adjudicator and housekeeper every hour of every day was as mandatory as it was exorbitant. My reprieves from mothering disappeared at the same moment the demands exponentially increased. I didn’t have time to read, and I struggled to think, and the children never stopped arguing. When I begged them to leave me alone, they shadowed me more closely. No wonder I identified with Iza: she and I were in the same bind.
Much has been written about the pandemic’s effects on the parents and caregivers of young children. Mothers especially are worn thin, ragged from the continuous labor of holding a child’s world intact. I related to these analyses, but it was only in Szabó’s fiction that I found an antidote.
Szabó’s great theme is failure to care. She indicts these failures, while at the same time treating the perpetrators with compassion, offering her flawed characters precisely what they have deprived others. Szabó understands why adults under stress behave like selfish children, and she offers genuine sympathy. But she also insists that children deserve an adult on which to anchor.
Certainly Szabó never intended that I stick with Iza. Iza’s callousness leads to tragedy. (In fact, the Hungarian title of Iza’s Ballad references Pontius Pilate, the magistrate who sentenced Jesus to death.) The narrative scaffolding that allowed me to access Iza also pointed the way back.
I returned to the old woman, conjuring again her loneliness and vulnerability. With these qualities firm in my mind, I approached my children. I kneeled to their level, touched their lips and hands with my own, and carefully re-sutured what pandemic stress had undone. I managed to see my daughters anew, just as they are, and committed, again, to being their mother. A dear friend had grasped the stakes of my retreat, and told me a story that stopped a door from closing.
Image credit: Edvard Munch, “Young Woman Washing Herself”