how irrational, how unpredictable is the attraction between people, how fatal its current

Dear Magda,

Your novel The Door (1987, tr. Len Rix) not only begins and ends with a nightmare, but it also reads like one. The recurrent bad dream from which the narrator is suffering is also a long and sometimes desperate confession of guilt – one which also conveys a sharp critique of class differences and priviledge. Dream and confession are the half-opened doors through which we are invited to enter into this strange story about the unlikely relationship between two women very different from each other.

The story is narrated in first person by a woman who initially remains unnamed. She is a middle-aged writer, married to an intellectual. For political reasons, the couple’s work had been censured for a long time, but later they finally begin to enjoy unexpected success. The pressures of her new work schedule force the narrator to hire a housekeeper.

The narrator is soon presented to Emerence, an elderly woman who had been very well recommended by an acquaintance. Emerence lives nearby, and is well-known in the neighborhood for her hard work – as well as for her many eccentricities. She sweeps the snow off the street in winter, she helps the poor and homeless, she cleans, cooks and does the laundry, working for several households in the neighborhood.

From the beginning, though, the power dynamics between the two women is inverted. We soon learn that it is Emerence who is interviewing her employer; she says she will check the couple’s references, and will later decide whether she will to work for them. After all, Emerence doesn’t do everyone’s dirty laundry. In due course, she agrees to enter the service of “the lady writer”.

From then on, the story acquires an increasingly mythical character, which is centered around the mysterious Emerence and her haunting relationship with the writer. Despite her advanced age, the housekeeper is physically stronger than several people together. She has the stature of a Valkyrie, the idiosyncratic morality of a Greek goddess, and the pride of an ancient Queen. Emerence is primal, raw, simple yet inscrutable, defiant, stubborn, prone to bouts of violent anger and deep human compassion, and full of contradictions. “She was fearless, enchantingly and wickedly clever, brazenly impudent.” 

Emerence has larger-than-life dimensions, she is is a force of nature, a figure out of a folktale. Like an all-seeing ancient goddess, she taunts and punishes. “A born Mephisto, utterly perverse”, she has a strong capacity for violence and, at the same time, imparts limitless compassion. She welcomes stray cats and hunted people. Emerence is in fact an eminence in the neighborhood. Despite largely uneducated, her reasoning is sharp, and she is capable of the most wise remarks and the most uncanny ability to comprehend both animals and people. Emerence is as impenetrable as her locked door. No one is allowed past the housekeeper’s closed front door, from which a smell of disinfectant strangely leaks out.

“Emerence was pure and incorruptible, the better self that each and every one of us aspired to be. With her permanently veiled forehead and her face that was tranquil as a lake, she asked nothing from anyone and depended on no-one. She shouldered everyone’s burden without ever speaking of her own, and when she did finally need my help, I went off to play my part in a TV show and left her, in the squalor of advanced illness, for others to witness the single moment of degradation in her life.”

The writer is narrating her story from a point in time when Emerence is already dead. The novel opens with the description of a recurrent nightmare, where the narrator is standing behind the front door of her building, outside which there are paramedics eager to get in – but, despite the narrator’s many efforts, the door won’t open. “I killed Emerence,” she confesses in the very first pages. “The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.”

Hereafter, the narrator proceeds to tell a series of anecdotes about Emerence’s past and about their life together. Each chapter works as a short story that further illuminates their relationship. Their lives grow ever more entangled as the years go by, as well as Emerence’s story grows enmeshed in Hungary’s recent history, and evolves into an allegory of social changes in the 20th century.

Duality plays an important role in the novel’s structure. You counterpose – and blur the lines between – folktale and history, memoir and fiction, gods and men, men and animals, dream and reality, religion and rite, nobility and peasantry, intellectuals and working class, concealment and exposure, love and hatred. Furthermore, by the contraposition between Emerence and the “lady writer”, you draw a sharp critique of class priviledge.

In one of the most telling anecdotes, the couple gives Emerence a portable TV as a Christmas present, expecting that she would be able to go home and watch a famous TV show that would be broadcasted later that night. However, since it had snowed heavily that day, Emerence already knows that she won’t have any time for watching TV, because she is the sole responsible in the neighborhood for sweeping the snow off the street. Only when the couple watches her while shes is working outside, they understand that their present, though well-meaning, is futile. Emerence is old, outside it is very cold, and there is too much work to do. They realize that, as a better present, they could have offered to help her, but they don’t leave the warmth of their home, they stay inside. “The need was for action, not words. But we went back to our own television.”

Emerence, who comes from a peasant family, despises idle activities. To her, the gentry is corrupted, doctors are ignorant, lawyers only care about money, intellectual work is idle and has no real value. Everything related to the narrator – success, books, formal knowledge, religion – is worthless from Emerence’s point of view. On the other hand, everything that Emerence represents and provides – housekeeping, discipline, hard work – is essential to the narrator, because it enables her to pursue her writing career.

The novel evolves as a confession of guilt – and as the narrator’s attempt at understanding her own obsession with Emerence.  “Emerence was capable of arousing the finest feelings in me, and also the most base.” Each anecdote reads like a door, into which the “lady writer” leads us. However, the final door – the one which leads to a full comprehension of Emerence and her choices, and ultimately the door that leads to the narrator’s redemption – remains shut until the end. “The horror, with all its unreality, was dreamlike”.

The strenght of your novel lies in the way you gradually built the elemental, violent love that runs through the relationship between those two women. As their affection for each other deepens, they experience constant oscillation between love and hatred, estrangement and reconciliation. It reads like an intense and mythical mother and daughter relationship – albeit one in which the roles are not static, but shift from time to time from one woman to another. They are both the child and the mother of each another. “It was because of our mutual love that she went on stabbing me till I fell to my knees.” 

Yours is a tale of trespassing in which the crossing is never complete, and the final threshold remains locked; a tale of betrayal in which the betrayer sins above all against herself; and ultimately, a tale of atonement in which salvation and damnation are finely entangled.

Yours truly,

J.

Interior Strandgade 30 - Vilhelm Hammershoi
Interior Strandgade 30 – Vilhelm Hammershoi

“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.”

– Magda Szabo, The Door

“She was like someone standing in strong sunlight on a mountain top, looking back down the valley from which she had emerged and trembling with the memory still in her bones of the length and nature of the road she had travelled, the glaciers and forded rivers, the weariness and danger, and conscious of how far she still had to go. There was also compassion in that face, a feeling of pity for all the poor people below, who knew only that the peaks were rosy in twilight, but not the real meaning of the road itself.”

– Magda Szabo, The Door

“She also demanded of me that, in my art, it should be real passion and not machinery that moved the branches. That was a major gift, the greatest of her bequests.”
― Magda Szabó, The Door

“I was still rather young, and I hadn’t thought it through, how irrational, how unpredictable is the attraction between people, how fatal its current.”
― Magda Szabó, The Door

“When the sands run out for someone, don’t stop them going. You can’t give them anything to replace life. Do you think I didn’t love Polett? That it meant nothing to me when she’d had enough and wanted out? It’s just that, as well as love, you also have to know how to kill.”
― Magda Szabó, The Door


About the book

  • magda szaboNYRB Classics, 2015, tr. Len Rix, 288 p. Goodreads
  • Harvill Press, 2005, tr. Len Rix, 272 p. Goodreads
  • Vintage, 2006, tr. Len Rix, 262 p. Goodreads
  • Original Title – Az ajtó
  • Originally published in Hungary in 1987, and translated into English in 1995 by Stefan Draughon for American publication, and again in 2005 by Len Rix for British publication.
  • My rating: 5 stars
  • Rix’s translation won the 2006 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize
  • The book’s French translation, by Chantal Philippe, also won the Prix Femina for Étranger (2003)
  • The novel was adapted into film (The Door, Imdb), directed by  István Szabó, and released in March 2012.
  • This book was read for Women’s Classic Literature Event (The Classics Club), and  Women in Translation Month 2016 .

 

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Excellent review of an intriguing novel, you capture that contrast and interdependence between the two women, two who never really understand each other even after all these pages dedicated to trying to have passed. Great quote. The entire novel captures in 13 words.

    Like

    1. Thank you so much, Claire! ❤ This book will stay with me for a long while 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. heavenali says:

    Glad you enjoyed this, I found it excellent. I was fascinated by the complex, ambiguous relationship between Emerence and the writer.

    Like

    1. Thank you, Ali! This book struck a chord with me, I’ll certainly reread it at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Melissa Beck says:

    This was one of my favorite books last year! NYRB is releasing another one of her titles in the fall and I can’t wait to read that one too.

    Like

    1. I’ll definitely read everything by Szabo I can get my hands on! The Door was one of my favourite reads this year 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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