(Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix)
Only my second read for #WITmonth, but what a fantastic read it was. I had originally planned on reading Iza’s Ballad also by Magda Szabó which I have had in paperback for months, but as I was away from home I read The Door on kindle instead. As far as I am aware (correct me if I am wrong anyone who knows differently) Iza’s Ballad and The Door are the only works by Magda Szabó available in English.
Magda Szabó was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary. She was initially a poet, but was prevented from publishing for political reasons in the 1950s – a fate shared by the narrator of The Door. She began writing again, novels this time, and in 1978 was awarded a major literary prize, again something which happens to the narrator of The Door. This novel first published in Hungary in 1987 was an international success, and was made into a film starring Helen Mirren – which I am now anxious to see.
“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.”
The novel opens with a powerful dream sequence, the narrator haunted by the recurring dream of a door, a locked door, a door she is unable to open. There is no one to help her, and eventually she is awoken by her own screams.
The narrator of The Door is unnamed – sometimes titled ‘the lady writer’, struggling to cope with both her writing and her domestic tasks she appears to be a thinly veiled portrait of Szabó herself. Having been silenced for years for political reasons, she is now able to write again, and seeks help with running her home from the caretaker of nearby apartments. Set over a period of about twenty years, The Door is the story of the relationship between the writer, and the woman who becomes her housekeeper.
Emerence is an already elderly woman when she arrives with good recommendations to see if she wants to work for the writer and her husband. Emerence explains how she doesn’t wash the dirty linen of just anyone, and seeks reassurance that her prospective employers are not likely to be involved in any drunken brawling. She further explains that once she has seen just how dirty her new employers are – she will inform them what her salary shall be. It is on such unusual terms then, that Emerence begins her long and stormy relationship with the lady writer, and her husband, whom Emerence devotedly calls the master.
“No formal agreement dictated the number of hours Emerence spent in our house, or the precise times of her arrival. We might conceivably see nothing of her all day. Then, at eleven at night, she would appear, not in the inner rooms, but in the kitchen or the pantry, which she would scrub until dawn. It might happen that for a day and a half we would be unable to use the bathroom because she had rugs soaking in the tub. Her capricious working hours were combined with awe-inspiring accomplishments. The old woman worked like a robot. She lifted unliftable furniture without the slightest regard for herself. There was something superhuman, almost alarming, in her physical strength and her capacity for work, all the more so because in fact she had no need to take so much on. Emerence obviously revelled in her work. She loved it.”
Emerence lives in an apartment within sight of the writer’s own house, she entertains her nephew, the Lieutenant colonel of police, and her neighbours on her porch, where later the writer herself will be entertained, she never lets anyone inside her home. Guarding her privacy jealously, she comes and goes as she pleases from the writer’s home. When the writer finds a stray puppy and decides to take it on, it is Emerence who the dog slavishly follows and obeys, pledging his own unspoken canine allegiance, with which the writer is never able to compete. Emerence works all the time, when the snows come to Budapest, she abandons the writer for days at a time to clear the snow from the outside of other homes. She takes her caretaking responsibilities seriously, and she never seems to slow down.
“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 the twilight, but not the real meaning of the road itself.”
Emerence is secretive about her past, stubborn and frequently difficult, she is generous, but refuses gifts from her employer. As time passes, the writer gradually begins to learn something about Emerence’s past, the sadness at the center of her life, the love she lost. Although dismissive of writing as work, she insists on having copies of her employer’s books, which she has no time to read. The present of a small plaster dog that Emerence gives the writer and her husband is the unexpected cause of a big falling out. Emerence stops working for the writer, and everyone predicts she’ll never go back. It is the persistence and diplomacy of the writer herself that persuades Emerence to return.
Over the years that follow, a relationship develops between the two women, which begins to look like friendship. However, friends can sometimes let each other down. The two have each been dependent on the other for years, when Emerence falls ill, and the writer finds herself suddenly in demand by media and foreign delegations.
I absolutely loved this book, Emerence is a wonderfully memorable character, the ambiguity of the relationship between these women is fascinating. I was drawn quickly into the small world of this neighbourhood, over which Emerence reigns. Szabó is a writer I very much want to read more by. I am very much looking forward to Iza’s Ballad, and am currently undecided whether to squeeze it into this #WITmonth or leave it for a rainy day.