Paperback, 288 pages
Publisher: Vintage (October 2006)
Selected by Barbara Epler
“Szabó is an amazing writer and this is her haunting masterpiece in a fantastic translation. A writer and a housekeeper live in some tension together, inadequacies and love grating against each other: weirdly, a sort of female take on the writer/housekeeper drama of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé.” —Barbara Epler
This thinly veiled self-portrait of an intellectual couple and their codependent relationship with their forceful housekeeper Emerence, by the Hungarian novelist Magda Szabó, first came out in the UK in 2005, and is published this year by New York Review Books in the US. Emerence is a peasant, illiterate, impassive, abrupt, seemingly ageless, whose relationship with her employer, Magda, becomes disturbing when the latter begins to achieve literary success.
I seldom dream. When I do, I wake with a start, bathed in sweat. Then I lie back, waiting for my frantic heart to slow, and reflect on the overwhelming power of night’s spell. As a child and young woman, I had no dreams, either good or bad, but in old age I am confronted repeatedly with horrors from my past, all the more dismaying because compressed and compacted, and more terrible than anything I have lived through. In fact nothing has ever happened to me of the kind that now drags me screaming from my sleep.
My dreams are always the same, down to the finest detail, a vision that returns again and again. In this never-changing dream I am standing in our entrance hall at the foot of the stairs, facing the steel frame and reinforced shatterproof window of the outer door, and I am struggling to turn the lock. Outside in the street is an ambulance. Through the glass I can make out the shimmering silhouettes of the paramedics, distorted to unnatural size, their swollen faces haloed like moons.
The key turns, but my efforts are in vain: I cannot open the door. But I must let the rescuers in, or they’ll be too late to save my patient. The lock refuses to budge, the door stands solid, as if welded to its steel frame. I shout for help, but none of the residents of our three-storey building responds; and they cannot because – I am suddenly aware – I’m mouthing vacantly, like a fish, and the horror of the dream reaches new depths as I realise that not only am I unable to open the door to the rescuers but I have also lost the power of speech.
It is at this point that I am woken by my own screaming. I switch on the light and try to control the desperate gasping for air which always seizes me after the dream. Around me stands the familiar furniture of our bedroom, and, over the bed itself, the family portraits, icons in their high starched collars and braided coats, Hungarian Baroque and Beidermeier, my all-seeing, all-knowing ancestors. They alone are witness to the number of times I have raced down during the night to open the door to the rescuers and the ambulance; and they alone know how often I have stood there while the silence of the early-morning streets slowly gives way to the sounds of restlessly tossing trees and the cries of prowling cats that flood in through the open door, imagining what would happen if my struggle with the key proved in vain, and the lock failed to turn.
The portraits know everything, above all the thing I try hardest to forget. It is no dream. Once, just once in my life, not in the cerebral anaemia of sleep but in reality, a door did stand before me. That door opened. It was opened by someone who defended her solitude and impotent misery so fiercely that she would have kept that door shut though a flaming roof crackled over her head. I alone had the power to make her open that lock. In turning the key she put more trust in me than she ever did in God, and in that fateful moment I believed I was godlike – all-wise, judicious, benevolent and rational. We were both wrong: she who put her faith in me, and I who thought too well of myself.
Rix’s translation won the 2006 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.