Magda Szabo: Acclaimed author of 'The Door'

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

A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Morrissey pictured in 2013
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

MS Dynamics NAV Developer

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: MS Dynamics NAV...

Technical / Engineering Manager - West Yorkshire - £50k+

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: The company ...

MS Dynamics NAV Developer

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: **MS Dynamics N...

Data Analytics Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading organisation...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star