A deeply affecting novel, first published in Hungary in 1987, from one of Europe’s most prominent modern writers.
Szabó’s narrator, not coincidentally named Magda, recalls an emotionally fraught 20-year relationship with her housekeeper. As the book opens in postwar communist Hungary, a decadelong political freeze on her writing career has been lifted and Magda seeks out a domestic helper to care for her and her husband’s new home in Budapest while she begins to write again. Through an old classmate’s recommendation, she meets Emerence Szeredás, an inscrutable older woman built like a “mythological hero” whose years of experience working in the neighborhood have rendered her a revered and almost iconic figure in town. Right off the bat, Magda learns that Emerence won’t just work for anybody: “This was the first time anyone had required references from us.” And after hijacking the interview, Emerence waits a whole week before appearing again to accept the job. Though beloved by many, Emerence keeps her complicated history private and lives alone in a flat—hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world—that even her closest friends are forbidden to enter. From the start of their relationship, Magda is perplexed by the enigmatic woman who is so unlike her—a peasant, “anti-intellectual,” and staunch atheist—but who moves and speaks with an inimitable elegance (“Emerence…was perfect in every respect; at times oppressively so”) and shows a resolute indifference toward Magda for the first five years of her employment. As the years wear on, though, an intimacy manifests between the two that can only be described as landing somewhere between an endearing mother-daughter relationship and that of a contemptuous love affair. Their story is utterly compelling and often unnerving. Magda turns to Emerence for affirmation, and Emerence doles out her affection for Magda in peculiar, sometimes volatile, acts, eventually making the grand gesture of inviting Magda into her apartment. But things take a turn for the worse and terror ensues when Magda’s career takes off and Emerence falls gravely ill. Szabó discerns the complex nature of human emotion with sensitivity and prowess in this hypnotizing work of art.
A haunting exploration of age, class, love, and loss that demands to be read and read again.