Title: The Door
Author: Magda Szabó
Translated by: Len Rix
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Year of Publication: 1987 / trans. 2006
Magda, a busy young writer living in Budapest, employs the elderly Emerence to be her housekeeper. However, when the two meet for an initial interview, it becomes clear that it is in fact Emerence who is interviewing her potential employer to decide whether she is willing to work for the writer and her husband. Thus begins a strange and complex relationship between two women of different generations who rarely see eye to eye, yet who become inextricably linked in each other’s lives. While Emerence is a respected, well known character in the neighbourhood, Magda soon realises that no one knows anything about her. The old matriarch’s private life is as secret as the contents of her home which she keeps firmly locked behind her front door, never inviting anyone in. Over the years, as their relationship deepens, Emerence shares glimpses of her rich, troubled past with Magda who begins to better understand the housekeeper’s peculiar behaviour.
***MINOR SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW***
It is strange to think that I would never have come across The Door if it wasn’t for my trip to Budapest this year. Browsing in one of their local bookshops, I stumbled upon a section of Hungarian works translated into English, and The Door was the novel that particularly piqued my interest.
This is the sort of novel that baffles me. On paper, it sounds like the least interesting story you could imagine; a young writer’s relationship with a stubborn old woman. There are no great mysteries here, no explorations of unrequited love, or plots of revenge. You’d think this sort of book is going to be overly stuffy and stilted. Instead I found myself gripped from the compelling opening passage as the narrator Magda begins her confession.
“This book is written not for God, who knows the secrets of my heart, nor for the shades of the all-seeing dead who witness both my waking life and my dreams. I write for other people.”
The Door finds the extraordinary in the mundane. The main protagonists are two flawed, and in many ways, unremarkable women. Their stage, a humdrum domestic household and its surrounding neighbourhood.
3 reasons I particularly enjoyed The Door:
- Emerence – From her very first scene, you realise that Emerence is a literary character you certainly won’t forget, a woman who you will love and hate in equal measures. She is a wizened bag of juxtapositions; proud, stubborn, charitable and churlish, respectable but foul-mouthed, magnanimous with the capacity to be immensely cruel. At moments, she can be superbly wise, other times she’s as willingly obtuse as an unsharpened pencil. Despite all her heightened qualities, I feel I’ve somehow known Emerences, or versions of her, all my life.
- A tale of two women – Poring over my bookshelves after finishing The Door, I tried to find another novel I own that includes equally prominent female protagonists where (A) romantic/erotic love does not factor into their relationship, and (B) a male presence holds next to no influence over them. Maybe my poor reading habits are to blame, but I simply couldn’t find another that has quite the same female dynamic. For almost this alone I feel The Door deserves reading. (Feel free to send a few recommendations my way if I am forgetting some glaringly obvious examples.)
- Viola the dog – Arguably the only truly endearing character in The Door is Magda’s pet dog Viola, whose overt fondness for Emerence irks Magda to no end, and is initially a bone of contention between the pair. There are some hilarious scenes with Emerence scolding the dog who in its brutish obliviousness has failed to abide by one of the matriarch’s endless stringent rules. And when Emerence is taken ill and unable to see her beloved mutt, you empathise with the dog in its sorrow, as if it were a too-young-to-understand child missing a parent. It was refreshing to read an animal that felt like a living, breathing pet rather than some anthropomorphised cartoon.
A minor gripe: It is hard to go into my only slight complaint with The Door without referring to specific plot points.
So be warned SPOILERS FOLLOW.
Towards the end of the book, Emerence suffers a stroke which leaves her partly paralysed. Instead of seeking help however, she keeps her affliction secret by remaining hidden indoors, refusing to see anyone. Her immobility leaves her unable to attend to her clowder of cats or domestic duties, and by the time Magda forcibly enters the old lady’s house several weeks later, she finds the once immaculate home has turned into a rotting, festering dump. Social services decide to gut the house and burn everything that was inside to stop the spread of contamination and disease. This means all of Emerence’s possessions, most of which have immense sentimental value to her, are destroyed. The news breaks an already severely wounded Emerence further. The symbolism of this material deterioration and destruction is powerful and maybe it wouldn’t feel as significant if it wasn’t as absolute. But then again, it felt almost implausible that nothing (the silverware, glassware, jewellery) could have been salvaged as some consolation.
Read if: you enjoy novels written in masterfully poised prose that explore complex, intimate relationships.
Avoid if: you absolutely must have “likeable” characters to enjoy your novels. While they are by no means abhorrent villains, both Magda and Emerence have their fair share of unappealing flaws.