Book Review / The Door by Magda Szabo

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Relationships are hard. That’s what everyone says. Who knows what strange chemistry brings and binds two people together? When it comes to love and friendship, there are limits to how well we can know another person. The shadowy spaces between those limits makes fertile ground for fiction, given the right kind of writer.

Magda Szabó was that kind of writer. Her novel The Door tells the story of the relationship between a woman writer and her housekeeper, Emerence. The two could not be more different. The writer, the story’s narrator, is both politically active and religious. Emerence disdains the Church and all people in positions of power. The writer, married to another writer, lives a life of the mind. Emerence, all physicality, is anti-intellectual. The writer is a public figure; Emerence is secretive and will not let anyone into her flat. Although she is older than the writer, Emerence is much stronger. She works tirelessly – and according to her own schedule – taking care of her neighbors and the local animals when they are in need.

Emerence is not a subservient housekeeper. Emerence speaks her mind to the lady writer, and is often critical of her behaviors and convictions. In addition, Emerence makes unusual demands of her employer. Can she host a visitor at the lady writer’s house? Will the lady writer send her dog to Emerence’s house for the day? The two women get into frequent arguments, with Emerence winning every contest.

When a neighborhood woman named Pollet is found to have committed suicide, the lady writer is shocked to learn that Emerence knew about the woman’s plan and did nothing to prevent it. Emerence explains:

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. It won’t do you any harm to remember that. Ask your God – since you’re on such good terms with him – what Polett told him when they finally met.

Despite the turbulence of their relationship these two women come to depend on one another. The lady writer, who recognizes the good in Emerence, acquiesces to the arguments and the dramas. Emerence comes to care for the lady writer as she would a child. And Emerence lets the writer into the most secret part of herself.

Emerence, who is never sick, one day catches the flu. At least, that’s what the lady writer suspects. Emerence’s disappearance from the neighborhood causes alarm. From the novel’s first pages readers know that the narrator feels responsible for killing Emerence. Somehow this strong woman will die. How their relationship builds and the tragedy that undoes it is a keen study in the facts of human dignity.

The Door is considered to be semi-autobiographical. It was published in Hungarian in 1987 and was first translated into English in 1995. The Door is available in a 2005 paperback edition, translated by Len Rix, from the NYRB Classics. A 2012 film version, directed by Istvan Szabo, stars Helen Mirren.