Magda Szabo: Acclaimed author of 'The Door'

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The Independent Online

Magda Szabó, poet, dramatist, essayist and novelist: born Debrecen, Hungary 5 October 1917; married 1947 Tibor Szobotka (died 1982); died Debrecen 19 November 2007.

Magda Szabó was one of the giants of contemporary Hungarian literature, and best known to British readers as author of Az Ajtó (1987), translated into English in 2005 as The Door. Heaped with honours, in her native land and abroad, she was Hungary's most translated writer, with a following in 42 countries. Her gift was to explore universal human themes and contemporary political realities through finely observed portraits of private life.

Szabó was born into an old Protestant family in Debrecen, the "Calvinist Rome" of eastern Hungary, whose distinctive intellectual and moral traditions shaped her mind and underpinned her art. She began her literary career not as a novelist but as a poet. Having read Latin and Hungarian at the University of Debrecen, she spent the years of the Second World War teaching at a girls' boarding school in the city, and then in the country town of Hódmezõvásárhely. By 1945 she was a civil servant in the Ministry of Religion and Public Education.

But the publication of two volumes of verse, Barány ("The lamb", 1947) and Vissza az emberig ("Back to humanity", 1949), brought her to the attention of the newly installed Communist authorities. Awarded the prestigious Baumgarten Prize in 1949, she was immediately stripped of the honour (as a class enemy) and dismissed from her post. In the nine years of enforced silence that followed (evoked so memorably in The Door) she turned to the broader canvas of fiction.

Her first novel, Freskó ("Fresco", 1958), set the tone for much of what was to follow. Four generations of a puritan family gather for a funeral, where, through a series of intense inner monologues, a suffocating web of lies, prejudices and hypocrisies is explored, at the same time evoking almost the entire history of Hungary since 1860. Az õz ("The fawn", 1959) equally connects personal issues (the heart-searchings of a young actress involved with a married man) to public ones, the sufferings and privations of rural people through the inter-war years and into the Stalinist Fifties. Again the protagonist is a woman and an artist, presented with a blend of warm empathy and unwavering intelligence.

But Szabó has a lighter side too. In the same year as Fresco, a more innocent readership was delighted by the appearance of Bárány Boldiszar ("Lawrence the lamb"), moral tales in verse, while Mondják meg Zsófikának ("Tell young Sophie") spoke directly to younger teenage girls. Throughout her life Szabó continued to address audiences of all ages; indeed her most widely read book is Abigel ("Abigail", 1970), an adventure story about a schoolgirl boarding in eastern Hungary during the war, popularised through a much-loved television series. Her Tündér Lala ("Lala the fairy",1964) is considered among the finest examples of juvenile fiction in the language.

Szabó also produced several plays, collected in 1975 under the title Az órák és a farkasok ("The wolf hours"), and in 1984 as Erönk szerint ("According to our strength") and Béla Király ("King Béla"). A sharp ear for dialogue graces all her novels. There are also collections of short stories and contributions to journals, and a moving tribute to her husband Tibor Szobotka, academic, novelist and translator of Tolkien and Galsworthy, who died in 1982.

No sooner had Szabó emerged from the political wilderness than the Party, having done all it could to strangle both her career and that of her husband, awarded her one of Hungary's top literary prizes, the József Attila (1959). The bitter ironies and moral heart-searchings this brought are probed indirectly through one of her very finest works, The Door.

In it, a novelist remarkably like Magda Szabó herself is unexpectedly returned to political favour. To cope with the sudden flurry of attention this brings, she hires a dour peasant woman to help out in her nice new flat, in a leafy suburb of Budapest. The woman is ferociously eccentric, at times arguably quite mad, but over the decades a strange bond of love grows up between them, creating a terrible mutual dependence. Then the writer is awarded "The Prize", at just the moment when the old servant lies dying in squalor behind her locked front door. Torn between her personal obligations and the glamour of state recognition, she concocts an unworkable plan to "save" the old lady and drives off to bask in glory. As a study of the intimate squirmings and private horrors of guilt, the novel has few equals.

In 2004 The Door (La Porte, in its French translation by Chantal Philippe) won the Prix Femina Etranger for women's writing in France, while the English version (by Len Rix, 2005) was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2006 and awarded the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize.

The other novels for which Magda Szabó will be most remembered are probably Pilátus (1963), Katalin utca ("Katalin Street",1969) (both available in French translations by Chantal Philippe), together with Ókut ("The ancient well", 1970) and Régimódi Történet ("An old-fashioned tale", 1971). The latter two return to the preoccupation with the inner workings of the traditional family, based closely on Szabó's own, while Pilátus tells of a well-meaning daughter who takes charge of her mother's life when she is widowed in the country, brings her to Budapest and sets her up in a flat, without once consulting the old lady's wishes. It is a ruthless exploration of the damage we inflict on one another in the name of love.

Katalin utca, or Rue Katalin in its 2003 French translation, is another recent prize-winner, awarded the 2007 Prix Cevennes for the "best European novel to appear in translation this year". It concerns three families, pursuing happily interconnected lives in adjacent houses in Budapest before and during the war. One is Jewish: when the parents "disappear", the other families try but fail to protect the daughter who has been left in their care. As a result their lives are irreparably blighted.

Once again Szabó explores the interconnectedness of the private and public spheres, but with a remarkable difference. As the book progresses the central consciousness becomes that of the murdered Jewish girl, now moving in a grey afterlife between the "next world" and this – a device that might at first seem rather awkward, but which is beautifully handled and powerfully represents the continuity between events past and present.

Elected to the European Academy of Sciences (1985-90) and acclaimed for her international work in the ecumenical movement, Szabó was a supreme example of the embattled writer. Her devotion to her craft was passionate and lifelong. Fittingly, she died at four in the afternoon, shortly after her 90th birthday, with a book in her hand.

Len Rix