Magda Szabó

Hungary's best-known writer, acclaimed for 'The Door'

Born: 5 October 1917, in Debrecen, Hungary.

Died: 19 November 2007, in Debrecen, aged 90.

MAGDA Szab was Hungary's most internationally-read and domestically best-loved writer, although she received worldwide recognition only in her eighties with French and English translations of her novel Az Ajt (The Door). The book and her other work - including poems, plays, essays, novels and children's stories - reflect the Hungarian soul through the nation's turbulent 20th-century history, much of it under the communist jackboot. She has been published in more than 40 countries.

The Door, written in 1987, before the collapse of eastern European communism and the Berlin Wall, but published in English only in 2005, is a thinly-veiled self-portrait of the author. It was short-listed in 2006 for the Independent's Best Foreign Novel award.

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The novel, translated into English by Len Rix, describes the growing, difficult but ultimately loving relationship between a middle-aged female writer and her elderly, overpowering peasant maid, the memorable Emerence.

"When we first met," says the narrator, "I very much wanted to see her face, and it troubled me that she gave me no opportunity to do so. She stood before me like a statue, very still, not stiffly to attention, but rather a little defeated looking. Of her forehead I could see almost nothing. I didn't know then that the only time I would ever see her without a headscarf would be on her deathbed." Eventually, the narrator finds her sick maid living in squalor behind a locked door in her own home.

"I know now what I didn't then, that affection can't always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways, and that one cannot prescribe the form it should take for anyone else." Ultimately, the narrator's relationship with her unlikely and unwitting muse, and her guilt over Emerence's death, results in a book which wins her the nation's most-coveted literary prize (as Szab herself had done in 1978).

In the words of one reviewer of the English translation in 2005, The Door is "a brutally accurate depiction of the inexorable and totally pointless sense of guilt, not unfamiliar to those who have lost someone they loved."

Magda Szab was born in the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen in 1917. After graduating in Latin and Hungarian from the city's historic university, she worked as a teacher of those subjects at a local Calvinist girls' school, before getting a job as a civil servant in the ministry of religion and education from 1945-9. She married the writer and translator Tibor Szobotka in 1947.

While working for the government, she published two books of poems, Barny (The Lamb) in 1947 and Vissza az emberig (Back to Humanity) in 1949. Although both were highly acclaimed by intellectuals in Hungary, the Stalinist regime which took over in 1949 banned them and she was dismissed from her government job, forcing her to return to teaching. At the same time, she turned to prose, although her work could not be published until after the 1956 revolution which overthrew the Stalinist regime but led to the Soviet invasion and occupation.

Her first novel Fresk (Fresco) was published in 1958, reflecting her upbringing as a protestant in Debrecen, nicknamed "Calvinist Rome" by Hungarians, and reflecting the hypocrisy and prejudices of a puritan Hungarian family, against the backdrop of the country's turmoil, at a family funeral.

The same year, in sharp contrast, she touched the hearts of her countrymen and women, not least teenage girls, with her gently moralistic books Brny Boldiszar (translated into English as "Lawrence the Lamb"), which was written in verse, and Mondjk meg Zsfiknak (Tell young Sophie). Her 1970 book Abigel (Abigail), movingly describing the experiences of a Hungarian schoolgirl during the trauma of the Second World War, was turned into a popular TV series.

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Partly because of such books' popularity, partly because they reflected the country's communist times with irony but no obvious rancour, Szab found herself in the awkward but safe position of being feted by the Communist Party. The relationship between the artist and the Big Brother that was the Communist Party, and between the writer's creative process and domestic chores, was one she dealt with frequently in her later works, notably The Door.

Szab won Hungary's top literary award, the Kossuth Prize, in 1978. Her husband died in 1982. According to Hungary's national news agency MTI, she died at home in her native city while reading a book.

Perhaps she had her own epitaph in mind when, at the end of the first chapter of The Door, she wrote: "Thus far I have lived my life with courage, and I hope to die that way, bravely and without lies."