Book Review: Abigail, by Magda Szabó

The passage from childhood to adulthood is marked by an exchange of cares from the petty to the existential. A certain reorientation of perspective occurs as well: The child lives inside her petty cares; the adult views her existential ones from a certain sensible distance.

In Magda Szabó’s Abigail, Georgina Vitay must make the transition all at once, at the command of her father, the General: “From this moment onwards, Gina, your childhood is over. You are now an adult, and you will never again live as other children do. I am going to place my life, and yours, and that of many other people, in your hands.” (p. 121)

It is war, of course, that forces the General’s hand and compresses Gina’s adolescence into a moment. Instantly, her involvement in the world of schoolgirl pranks and grudges is ended, replaced by a series of life-or-death crises. She is now “the new Gina” (p. 126), and her transformation is noted frequently thereafter in such sentences as “They could not shake off the impression that she was playing with them…playing the way an adult does when joining in with the children.” (p. 134)

World War Two has become such a common setting for coming of age books and films that I wonder how anyone has been able to grow up since 1945. Maybe we haven’t. At any rate, Abigail is not only superlative in the subgenre but is a gem in its own right.

Book Review: The Door, by Magda Szabó

A friend once obtained permission to tour a mental health facility. A therapy group was meeting. A woman rose and began to relate the terrible abuse she commonly received from her mother, which included belittling, manipulation, and hitting. When she was finished, another participant stepped forward and assured the first speaker that, however hurtful her mother appeared to be, the thing she must never forget was that “Your mother loves you.” Although he’d been conferred observer status only, my friend could not refrain from providing his diagnosis. “Whatever you do,” he addressed the hapless daughter, “you must never forget that your mother doesn’t love you.”

I thought of my friend’s story while reading The Door, Magda Szabó’s novel about the housekeeper Emerence and the theorem that might as well be named for her: that one’s love for a certain person is often inversely proportional to the kindness with which one treats that person. After hiring Emerence to take care of the housework while she writes, the narrator (Magda?) soon finds that Emerence’s love is of the toughest sort. “It was because of our mutual love that she went on stabbing me till I fell to my knees” (p. 157) is an observation that just about sums up the whole book.

The quality of the writing (and Len Rix’s translation) makes the details worth reading, just as a good sportscaster can make even the most brutal prize fight artistically meaningful. Here’s a lively scene involving Magda’s dog, Viola, and a deeply hurt Emerence, whose guest has failed to attend a meticulously-prepared dinner:

Like someone coming round from sedation, [Emerence] shuddered violently, then hurled herself at the happily munching dog and beat him all over with the handle of the serving fork. She called him everything – an ungrateful monster, a shameless liar, a heartless capitalist. Viola squealed, jumped down from the chair and lay on the rug, for her inscrutable judgement to be carried out upon him. He never ran when she beat him, never tried to protect himself. The horror, with all its unreality, was dreamlike. Viola cowered and trembled under the blows, so terrified he couldn’t even swallow the last mouthful. It fell from his jaws onto my mother’s favorite rug. The way Emerence went after him with the serving fork, I thought she was going to stab him. It all happened in a flash. I was so frightened I began to scream. But just then the old woman crouched down beside the dog, lifted up his head, and kissed him between the ears. Viola whined with relief, and licked the hand that had beaten him. (p. 63)

On another occasion, Emerence presents Magda and her husband with an appalling quantity of tchotchkes and then flies into a rage when they are improperly displayed. “‘God knows what I love about you [Emerence says], but whatever it is, you don’t deserve it. Maybe, as you get older, you’ll acquire a bit of taste.’” (p. 81) This rebuke comes after Magda attempts to excuse Emerence to her husband. “I tried in vain to explain to him that the old woman expressed herself through means determined by her own interests. Everything here – he had to accept – was motivated by love. This was her peculiar was of demonstrating her feelings.” (p. 75)

While reading The Door, I often found myself saying, “With love like that, who needs hatred?” and I’ve indeed tried to avoid that kind of love whenever possible. (I recall an NPR report on American gang violence, in which someone explained that people seeking to leave gangs were frequently beaten by their former peers because “There’s a lot of love there.”) Maybe I’m just being naïve, though. “Emerence Love” certainly exists; not only does it form the main subject of The Door, but it also characterizes God’s love as it is found in the Old Testament, as opposed to the New. Emerence is the jealous God of Exodus 20:5, yet to be recast as the God that is love (1 John 4:8) and the love that is never jealous (1 Corinthians 13:4). There’s actually a religious undercurrent in The Door, with Emerence expressing skepticism at Magda’s Catholicism and having a history of helping Jews in the Holocaust.

Questions of religion aside, we all know on a psychological level that some of the most violent human feelings can be twisted mutations of love, the results of love’s wounding in youth. It’s clear in Szabó’s novel that Emerence was an abused girl; hence the love she expresses is of a tortured and torturing kind. Emerence is shown to have loved her pets and to have had them taken away from her. It is quite plausible that her ability to metabolize love suffered at least partly as a result. My not terribly amiable grandfather once told us the story of how his parents once served him his pet rabbit, and the recitation, I feel, spoke volumes.

The Door, at any rate, is such a volume.