Magda Szabó (1917-2007)was Hungary’s foremost woman novelist (it is not me who placed the gender qualification in that title!). All I know about her is that The Door is a very fine novel and makes me want to read more of her novels – a desire sadly thwarted by the lack of English translations.
While The Door is classed as a novel, I am sure there are enough elements of biography in it as to make little difference. The un-named narrator is a female writer who lives with her academic husband, the two of them being so wholly absorbed in their work, that a hired help is required to clean and maintain the house they live in. They put word about their neighbourhood that they are looking for someone reliable, and before long, a former classmate tells her of an old woman who works for her brother, telling the narrator that “Emerence was someone with a bit of authority; she hoped the woman would take us on, because frankly if she didn’t warm to us, no amount of money would induce her to accept the job”.
Eventually Emerence gets in touch, a tall, big-boned woman, “powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and radiating strength like a Valkyrie”. She listens to what is required of her and responds that assuming someone could vouch for the two writers and assure her that they were unlikely to brawl of get drunk, then they might be able to discuss the matter further. In the meantime, the couple pass her in the street from time to time without gaining a clue about Emerence’s response to her “interview”. A week or so later, she turns up at their house and tells them that she will take on the job and start the next day, and will tell them in a month or so what her wage would be.
The stage is now set for what turns out to be a long-lasting and life-changing relationship. Emerence possesses a natural authority and a finely-guarded sense of privacy. She works extremely hard, but only when she chooses to, but she excels at the things she does and soon becomes indispensable.
The narrator gradually finds out more about her and Magda Szabó’s skill is in recounting the history of Hungary through Emerence’s life. It turns out that Emerence has survived terrible times, the Stalinist period, the siege of Budapest, the Nazi invasion and later, the communist government which pried into every corner of people’s lives seeking control. Emerence is enigmatic – she never tells a whole story, but only releasing fragments as her relationship with her employers matures and strengthens.
She is highly independent and tells her employers what she thinks of their writing. At first this seems an anti-intellectualism, but later we see that life has been so tough on her that anything not linked to physical labour and the struggle for survival seems trite and pointless to her (it was brave of Magda Szabó to present this alternative view of her art with such ferocity).
The narrator and her husband get more involved in Emerence’s life, but always only at a distance. Emerence opens her doors just a crack at a time. She is completely unconcerned about the opinions of others, whether praise or blame, and has developed a cynicism about the highest of motives, having been let down so many times during her life.
Some of the things that come out are revelatory. During the war, when Jews were escaping Hungary, one young family were unable to take their new-born baby with them on the journey across the mountains, and Emerence, who was working as maid at the time, agreed to adopt the baby as her own and to return to her home village, where her father badly beat her for bringing home the child, believing it to be hers. Emerence of course was unable to set the record straight, because identifying the child as Jewish would have caused “its head to be bashed against a wall”.
We realise that we are dealing with a unique character here, for this is just one story among many, Emerence being almost a cipher for the history of Hungary, with every episode of its troubled past being written deep into Emerence’s life. We in the West can hardly understand how the catastrophes of mid-20th century central Europe affected the people who live there, and we see in Emerence a blood-line of suffering which formed a character hard as nails, but always ready to move out to help her neighbours and relatives.
While saying at the start that The Door is at least in part biographical, I have been unable to find any reference to the reality of Emerence. Maybe she really existed or perhaps she was a composite for many people. Perhaps she was just an idea in Magda Szabó’s mind, to personify the effect of decades of suffering on so many anonymous people. Whatever the truth of the matter, The Door is full of insights, and I found myself recognising people and situations in my own life which resonated with Emerence and her troubles. The narrator didn’t choose Emerence, and nor did Emerence seek her our, but something was going on which formed a life-changing relationship.
For this is the value of great fiction – we find ourselves saying “Ah, yes”, and perhaps understanding something we didn’t quite get the hang of before. I would place this novel at the top of my list (yet to be compiled) of “great books”, one of those few books which I borrowed but must now purchase for my shelves so I can remind myself about Emerence, one of the most memorable characters of fiction.