Book Club in a Bag: "The Door" by Magda Szabó and More Things Hungarian

As you may know, the library has book kits that you can check out for your reading group. There are at least 117 kits as of this blog post!—take a look at the list in the catalog. You can also find kits in the catalog by searching the subject "book club in a bag". You may reserve the title by contacting the owning branch and the checkout period is a generous six weeks.

Usually, one member of the book group will reserve the book in a bag title, check out the books on her (his) library card, and later return all the books. Typically, there are 5 to 10 copies in each kit and the kit often includes discussion questions—a great way to make the book club happy! Here is one of the titles:
The Door by Magda Szabó
The Door by Magda Szabó
Recently my book group read one of the more obscure book in a bag titles: The Door by the Hungarian author Magda Szabó. Szabó (1917-2007) was unknown to me and my group, but she is major 20th century European author. Only a few of her novels are available in English. Mercer County Library owns two titles.

I would hazard that few American book clubs are familiar with her work but what a fabulous author and The Door is compelling.

The novel, first appearing in Hungary in 1987, tells the story of the fraught, intense, unconventional and wildly improbable relationship between two Hungarian women of different ages, wildly dissimilar backgrounds, and temperaments. The narrator, named Magda, is a sophisticated and educated intellectual living in Budapest during the Communist dictatorship of the 1950s. Her servant, Emerence Szeredás, is the opposite in every way. Emerence, a 60-something peasant put out to work as a servant before she was even in her teens and abused by her family, is now a woman of formidable endurance and energy. Magda hires Emerence so that she can concentrate on her writing and academic endeavors. As Magda learns, in bits and pieces, Emerence’s history, her life is upended by the revelations. Not to mention Viola, the incredible dog, adopted by Magda, who has an almost supernatural connection with Emerence. Viola links the two women together in strange ways and is herself a major character of the novel.

This is a novel about the doors that are open and that are closed in our lives, about who we allow to enter and who we wish to keep out, of what is hidden behind a door, and what is revealed when a door opens.

Please open this book and experience this strange, stirring tale.

More Things Hungarian

If you wish to explore more Hungarian authors in translation, consider Sándor Márai and Imre Kertész.

Sándor Márai (1900-1989)
Márai wrote over 40 books. He opposed the Nazi movement and was later against the Hungarian communist regime that took over after World War II. Thus, after the war, he lived in exile in Europe and the United States and continued to write in Hungarian.

There has been a renaissance of interest in Márai’s work by the non-Hungarian speaking world and his writings have been translated into many languages. The library owns four of his novels:

Esther's Inheritance
Esther's Inheritance (1939, published in English in 2008), Casanova in Bolzano (1940, published in English in 2004), Portraits of a Marriage (1941, published in English in 2011), and Embers (1942, published in English in 2001).

To explore his work, perhaps it would be best to start with Esther's Inheritance, the earliest of these novels. It is a penetrating psychological tale, told from the viewpoint of the main character, Esther. Esther is irrevocably and disastrously in love with Lajos, her dead sister's husband. Lajos, an unscrupulous scammer, convinces Esther to make over the deed of her home to him. This house is Esther’s only real possession and the sole source of all her material well-being. It is a wildly self-destructive action. Critics see Esther’s Inheritance also as a symbolic fable about the corruption of Hungarian society and the decay of the middle class.

Imre Kertész (1929-2016)
Imre Kertész, born in Hungary in 1929, was just 14 years old when he was deported, along with thousands of other Hungarian Jews, to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He survived Auschwitz, was transferred to Buchenwald, and was liberated in 1945. According to Wikipedia, when Kertész arrived at the camps, he claimed to be several years older. This saved him from the instant extermination that would often be the fate of a younger child.

After the war, Kertész wrote prodigiously and supported himself through journalism and translation. He achieved great literary renown in Europe and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.

Fatelessness by Imre Kertész
Our library systems offers these five Kertész novels: Fateless, (1977, published in the English translation of Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson in 1992), Fatelessness (the same novel as Fateless, but with a different translator, Tim Wilkinson, and slightly different English version of the title), The Pathseeker (1977, published in English in 2008), Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990, published in English in 2004), and Liquidation (2003, published in English in 2004)

We also have his autobiography, Dossier K, (2006, published in English in 2013).

Kertész is probably best known in America for the novel Fatelessness. In Fatelessness, a 14 year Hungarian Jewish boy living in Budapest, Gyorgy Koves, is rounded up with other Jews and sent to Auschwitz. Surviving Auschwitz, he is then transported to Buchenwald. Like all inmates, he experiences degradation, exploitation, dehumanization, tragedy. But according to critics, there is a strange, passionless quality to the protagonist’s viewpoint on his concentration camp life. Koves shows little, if any, compassion for his fellow inmates; he only does what he must to survive. He even identifies with his oppressors. Says Koves of the German soldiers and camp guards, they “struck me as smart and trim, the sole anchors of solidity and calm in the whole tumult.”

This is obviously, at some level, a quasi-autobiographical reflection of Kertész’s own experiences. A disturbing, unconventional journey into the abyss, and an examination of a soul in Hell.

Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy
Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy
If you would like to sample a more recent work, jump in with the short story collection Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy, an English native speaker of Hungarian descent. Dobozy has won the O. Henry Prize and received numerous other recognitions. Readers fascinated by the Hungarian experience find Siege 13 rewarding.

This collection is a set of linked tales revolving around the Soviet Budapest Offensive in the closing days of World War II, but toggling back to our contemporary era and the Hungarian diaspora of Canada. The Budapest Offensive refers to the Soviet and Romanian forces’ attack on Nazi forces and their Axis Hungarian allies. The opposing armies battled from October 29, 1944 up to the fall of Budapest on February 13, 1945. The Soviet Army prevailed and ultimately defanged the last European allies of Nazi Germany.

“The Beautician,” a longer novella-length story in Siege 13, is an example of how the World War II era links to the present. Many critics cite “The Beautician” as the masterpiece of the collection. The narrator, a history researcher in Toronto, unmasks Arpad Holló, the elderly director of a Hungarian community center, as a possible collaborator with the Soviets during the Budapest Siege. Tangled issues of identity, motivation, ethics and exploitation are explored. How does one cope living in the aftermath of atrocity which one has either witnessed, assisted or committed, suffered, or passively avoided?

—Karen S.


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