by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix, New York Review of Books, 262 pages
It’s not every day that a novel as masterful as The
Door comes your way. The odds are against it for more than one reason. In the introduction, novelist Ali Smith writes, “The proportion of books published in the English-speaking world that are translations, from all languages (and including best-selling crime novels), is currently about three percent.” In this climate, it is a literary event to be introduced to the late Hungarian author Magda Szabó through Len Rix’s award-winning translation.
The story’s subject matter is almost banal — the relationship between a writer, Magda, and the old woman who cooks and cleans for her. Except that Emerence is no ordinary cleaning lady. She is a titan with regards to her temperament, her beliefs, and her stamina, and her relationship with her employer (whose name is Magda, but she’s almost never referred to by name) is mesmerizing. Emerence doesn’t read voraciously like Magda and her husband, but she’s read the book of life. She’s lived through World War II and has learned how to be loyal and keep her part in a contract. Crucially, she knows how to care for a loved one.
Emerence is a cocoon of secrets. The neighborhood trusts her, but she rarely trusts anyone. She entertains deliciously, but only on her porch. The door to her apartment is sealed to all but her animal friends, whom she loves dearly. Only the Lieutenant Colonel and Magda have been inside her apartment — once. Problems arise when Emerence contracts what is possibly pneumonia and is unable to take care of herself. During her illness, her secretive nature becomes a tragic liability. Stubborn to the end, Emerence seals herself behind her door with horrible consequences.
Emerence’s physical decline coincides with a time in Magda’s life when her career finally takes off in a big way. A television interview keeps her from being there for Emerence at a critical moment. The guilt that Magda consequently experiences, and the rejection from Emerence, is beyond painful. Magda tells us in the novel’s beginning pages that she has “killed” Emerence. The guilt feels somewhat overblown. Magda is a genius at her typewriter. Why should she be expected to be a brilliant caregiver as well? Her husband seems to be the rare person who keeps his sanity intact during the crisis, and later, he gives Magda some advice on how to cope.
Earlier, Emerence accompanies Magda to a film shoot. She is intrigued at first, but on realizing that a wind machine is blowing the tree branches around to indicate the love between the hero and the heroine, Emerence wants to leave. Later, she expresses her disgust to Magda. “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.” Writers can get so focused on the mechanics of their craft that Emerence’s reminder not to lose sight of the passion that moves her characters is at once simple and brilliant.
There’s no real defense in the novel for Magda’s need to prioritize her work over her personal obligations to Emerence, perhaps because Magda is a woman. During Emerence’s illness, Magda’s husband mainly reads his books, but no accusations are directed at him, though Emerence worked for him as much as for his wife. True, she loved Magda almost like a daughter and expected more from her. This sticky issue adds to the complexity of ways in which the relationship bewilders and enriches Magda.
There are hysterics here, but none are false. The novel illustrates the power of psychological conflict and how much dramatic force a novel can accrue without needing to resort to false action. The story is set in Hungary, so Szabó has license to have people speak their mind. So much importance is given to “subtext” in certain schools of North American literature that dialogue can become a compendium of “he said, she said.” No such problems here.
Emerence is the mistress of speaking her mind: “Go home and practice your languages. It’s time to jabber away in German. Even the dog laughs at you. Tell me, what on earth are you practicing for? God knows every possible language and you’re not likely to forget anything you’ve ever learned — your brain is like resin. Whatever gets stuck in it never gets out again. You pay back everybody who upsets you, even me. If only you’d shout and scream — but all you do is smile.” This is not an atypical exchange with her employer when she’s riled up. You may wonder why Magda puts up with it. She doesn’t, exactly. She seethes with fury right after Emerence lashes at her with words. Still, Emerence is not dismissible. On the contrary, she’s invaluable. She makes up for her temper with delicious soups and pastries. She doesn’t apologize exactly, but her ways make it clear that her love supersedes her anger.
Emerence is a bastion of loyalty, she’s the neighbor you’ve always wanted; still, she isn’t beyond being devastated when the woman she has mothered fails to accord her the place that’s her due. The dam of her heart bursts, and resentment and anger flow out like lava. The novel is an impassioned aria for feeling and for the possibility of enduring bonds: Szabó creates a flaming character in Emerence, and Magda’s torment over her conduct ushers the two women into the realm of mythological friendships.
— Priyanka Kumar