Emerence had never studied Heraclitus, but she knew more about these things than I did.

The Door, by Magda Szabó and translated by Len Rix

I tried. I got to page 69, took a break, picked it up again and pushed on to page 90. After that, I just couldn’t carry on. I couldn’t face yet another page of this crude and unconvincing novel.

The Door came very highly recommended to me, and from people whose judgement I trust. I’m hoping that some of its enthusiasts may make a better case for it in the comments, point out where I went wrong and how I missed its merits. The front and back covers come garlanded with plaudits from serious newspapers, The Daily Telegraph (“A triumph”), The Independent (“Profoundly moving”), and many more. It’s won some serious international prizes.

So, what’s it all about (Alfie)? The narrator is a middle class author. The narrative is her account of how her relationship with her cleaning lady, Emerence, ended in disaster and Emerence’s death – a death for which the narrator blames herself (that’s not a spoiler, it’s a teaser from the first chapter). More than that though, it’s a character and relationship study of these two women (with the shallowly drawn husband having an occasional walk on part).

Character then here is everything, and that’s a problem because while the narrator is credible Emerence is closer to an ambulatory plot device, utterly unconvincing as an actual human being. The other problem with this novel is its portentous and overwrought prose and deeply repetitive structure. Here’s an early quote:

One can tell instinctively what sort of flower a person would be if born a plant, and her genus certainly wasn’t the rose, with its shameless carmine unfolding – the rose is no innocent. I felt immediately that Emerence could never be one, though I still knew nothing about her, or what she would one day become.

That “what she would one day become” is typical of the novel’s style, which makes constant use of heavy hints of dark secrets and loss to follow. Of course, these cryptic references are only required because Szabo is intentionally holding back information so that it can be dramatically revealed later. It’s a writing technique I associate more with boilerplate thrillers and while it can work in serious fiction (Catch-22 pulls it off brilliantly) here it’s bluntly deployed.

I’ll come back to the structural issues. Before that I should say a little more about the plot and themes. The narrator and her husband are both intellectuals, and they need a cleaning lady to free them up from chores which otherwise take up too much of their time

Their answer is to hire an old lady named Emerence who they are told will not work for just anyone, she chooses her employers as much as they choose her. Emerence accepts them though, and they discover that she is no ordinary woman; rather a collection of peculiar requirements and habits who though a marvel in the domestic sphere is also very difficult to share territory with – unfortunate given the narrator works from home.

At first the narrator finds Emerence difficult, impossible even. Emerence shows no desire to make friends, to exchange pleasantries. She is angered by odd things, easily offended. She is though so good a cleaner that though the narrator is sometimes tempted to dismiss her, she always steps back from the brink. Instead, she becomes fascinated with unravelling the mystery of who Emerence is, what made her the person she has become.

Leaving aside the arrogance within the fiction of treating a domestic servant as some kind of anthropological subject (and there’s a credible interpretation that says the narrator’s attitude is as much the book’s subject as the relationship), Szabo is able to use Emerence as a vehicle able to carry the weight of 20th Century Hungarian history. Emerence has lived through a great deal, has been shaped by the country’s traumas, and to understand Emerence one must in part understand Hungary itself.

This is partly what stops Emerence ever really becoming a person. She’s a survivor carrying the burden of history, she’s an impossible presence in the narrator’s home, she’s a set of behaviour patterns which appear inexplicable and which the narrative slowly unravels. She’s all those things, but she isn’t human.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that I read this so soon after Anna Édes. Kosztolányi also explores the relationship between servant and employer, and how employers can see servants as less than truly human. Kosztolányi though writes with insight and above all with empathy, humanity even. There is an equality of subject in Anna Édes, all its characters are equally real. Here that isn’t true. The narrator is real. Emerence is merely interesting.

The book does raise issues about the reliability of its own narration, not in the sense that the narrator is unreliable but rather in that she herself over the book comes to reinterpret and question her own understandings. Frequently the narrator comes to conclusions that she later decides are wrong; she makes assumptions about Emerence which she learns to be untrue. That doesn’t make it better though, because the pattern of event, conclusion, re-evaluation becomes so predictable.

I promised to return to the book’s structural issues, and the worst of them is this repetitive cycle of incident. Emerence says something or carries out some action which makes the narrator furious. The narrator comes to reconsider that comment or action, its motivations, and understands that it and they weren’t as they first appeared. The narrator comes to a new understanding of of Emerence and herself. Rinse and repeat.

It’s a serious issue, but it’s not what ultimately caused me to close the book. It wasn’t the final, fatal flaw. That was the book’s utter seriousness; its utter lack of humour

At one point Emerence tells a possibly untrue story of her childhood featuring beautiful blond “siblings” (a word that rang oddly to me coming from Emerence, supposedly an uneducated peasant woman). Due to Emerence’s lack of care when looking after them they were killed by lightning, at the sight of which Emerence’s mother drowned herself in a well. It’s clear that none of this may be true, but it’s so absurd, so bathetic, that it just threw me right out of the novel. I came close to laughing at it.

In the end I’ve nothing positive to say here. That being so, the best I can do is point you to other reviews which better reflect the wider consensus on it. There’s an excellent one here from Tom at A Common Reader (an excellent blog by the way, and Tom’s opinion is worth taking seriously), and a fairly representative one from the more traditional critical sphere here at The Telegraph (by Tibor Fischer no less). I do suggest you read both, because a great many people (many of them with excellent taste) love this novel and you might be one of them. Not, however, me.


Filed under Hungarian fiction, Rix, Len (translator), Szabó, Magda

17 responses to “Emerence had never studied Heraclitus, but she knew more about these things than I did.

  1. termitespeaker

    Definitely doesn’t sound like my type of book! I was wondering if the style problems and the use of seemingly inappropriate words like “sibling” could be a translation problem. It sounds like the translator had a tin ear for the English language.

  2. The plot synopsis didn’t sound too bad at all, but the idea of the woman ‘carrying’ Hungarian history would be enough to turn me off.

    I read WOW reviews of Herta Muller’s The Passport and started to wonder if I was reading the same book. I read somewhere the comment that the book was lost in translation. Perhaps, I can’t tell. But then when I went back and read the reviews again, there were certain words that seemed loaded with clues that should have tipped me off.

  3. Ah, the famous book that brought the post about negative reviews.

    As much as I trust Tom’s opinion too, I think I’m going to pass on this one.
    However, you’re right when you say that reading a book about servants just after Anna Edes didn’t help that book. It’s hard to compare to Kosztolányi.
    I also understand your point about the lack of humour. It kills a book to have a political or historical purpose (if I understood you correctly, that’s the case here) and have no hint of humour. When writers think they are on a mission, they’d better stick to non-fiction. (A bit harsh but I believe heavy messages are better sent and received with a lightness of tone.)

    PS Guy: I believe I read the same book as you when I read The Passport. One of my most negative reviews, I think.

  4. acommonreaderuk

    Well, what can I say! I totally respect your views of course (and all literary discourse is worth learning from). The rose passage you quote at the start does not sound that bad to me. I’m not sure the narrator is “unreliable” so much as “developing in her understanding” (but I love your phrase “rinse and repeat”.

    Yes, Emerence carries the burden of history, perhaps as if a neighbour suddenly moved next door who’d escaped from some tyrannical regime and had lost all her family in the process – it would be difficult to find common ground with such a person.

    Its fascinating to read another view of a book you admire so much! You’ve made me want to re-read it again.

    Thanks greatly for your reference to my blog. I am a total amateur at all this and have no pretensions beyond my self-description as “a common reader”.

  5. Lorinda, it may also be that the word is more widely used in Hungarian than English. Rix also translated the Szerb’s I thought so highly of, so I doubt he’s done a bad job (though it would be hard to know for sure without speaking Hungarian).

    Guy, I have a Muller, hopefully not that one. I’ll have to reread Emma’s review. Anyway, not I think one you’d enjoy.

    Emma, it’s that one all right. I disliked it so much it inspired two posts. The trouble with being humourless in fiction is that in reality even in the most terrible situations people laugh. Sometimes especially in those situations. Remove that and you remove humanity.

    It was particularly unfortunate to read a book that trod in part similar ground to Kosztolányi, because he is so very good. It made a harsh comparison, though while there is some overlap Kosztolányi doesn’t have the historical sense this aims for.

    Tom, developing her understanding was what I was trying to get at. You’re quite right that she’s not an unreliable narrator, rather she revises her narration in light of her increasing understanding. I just wish she didn’t do it every few pages in the same way each time.

    We’re all common readers here Tom, as I’m sure Peter Stothard would remind us…

  6. well I do find Hungarian fiction on the whole is quite serious ,or to say what we get maybe that is what publishers think we want from Hungary as a reader ,this book seems like one that maybe has lost something in translation or maybe just wasn’t one for you max ,all the best stu

  7. Hey Stu. I don’t think it was the translation, partly because so many issues seemed structural which I don’t think the translation would impact and partly because Rix did so well communicating the subtle humour in Szerb’s books. As you say, it wasn’t one for me.

    Truth be told, if pushed I’d say that this is simply a bad book. My caveat against that though would be that mine is a minority view, and thus that a great many people would not only disagree with me but would disagree quite vehemently, and I have no authority which they lack.

  8. Crystalheart

    Well, I’m Hungarian but I haven’t read The door yet, so I don’t know much about it’s structural problems – but anyway, that quote is a bit inaccurate. In the original text there isn’t a word about becoming anything anytime, it’s simply “would be”. (As ‘what plant would she be if she was a plant’.) Not much difference, but it could be a bit confusing.

  9. If you do read it there’s every chance you’ll like it. I’m in a minority on this book – I didn’t rate it but plenty of people disagree with me as I say above.

    That said, I did have an issue with the prose just being a bit more elaborate than it felt it needed to be, and it sounds from what you’re saying like that wouldn’t have necessarily been an issue in the same way in the original. I didn’t find the becoming stuff confusing, but I did find it unnecessary and therefore in the way.

  10. Thanks, maybe I’ll like it, and I have a real asset as I can read the original. 🙂

    Anyway, the original prose in Hungarian seems a bit weird to me too. Szabó Magda (sorry, Magda Szabó 🙂 ) uses short and not very complicated sentences which can make it a bit jerky. Strange enough, the same thing with our other great (and most popular) writer, Géza Gárdonyi – who lived decades earlier – simply doesn’t confuse me. Search a copy of his novel Slave of the Huns, if you can, it’s worth reading. The translation is supposed to be OK. (Original title is ‘Láthatatlan ember’ – Invisible man, meaning ‘Invisible man/woman’ in Hungarian, as our word doesn’t have gender.)


    I admire you to search for the Hungarian writers around the first decades of the 20th century, that was the zenith of Hungarian literature in every aspects, both in essays and novels. Kálmán Mikszáth, Zsigmond Móricz, Dezső Kosztolányi, Gyula Krúdy, etc., although I don’t know much about the quality of the translations.

  11. Thanks for the recommendation re Slave of the Huns, and for Kálmán Mikszáth and Zsigmond Móricz who I don’t know.

    It’s an extraordinary literature, fuelled in part of course by empire and then loss of empire. The difference between Hungary and the UK of course (well, one of many) is that the Austro-Hungarian empire very visibly came apart within a short time while ours declined slowly over decades – meaning we don’t have that body of writers who faced the end of their culture in the face. We could always pretend things weren’t changing, Hungary couldn’t.

  12. Oh do I disagree with you. You are much too hard on Emerence. She is illiterate, worked hard all her life doing the work of five men. She never did have it easy like most of us.
    At first our narrator is suspicious of her, that she may have stolen the belongings of a Jewish family she worked for and who were sent to the concentration camp. It turns out she saved their daughter’s life by pretending it was her kid.
    Emerence was a highly critical mother figure to the narrator. Emerence rightly thought that the narrator doesn’t really know what life is about, having had it too easy all along. The narrator hadn’t lived through World War II.
    I’ve known a few people like Emerence who had things tough all their lives, but they still do what has to be done.
    I still believe ‘The Door’ is a great novel. .

  13. Fair enough, but I do disagree. My grandmother was a cleaner, so it’s not a world I’m unfamiliar with. My problem with Emerence though is I thought she was a collection of traits valuable to the narrative, not a person, and she was essentially a device whose importance lay in what the narrator could learn from her.

    I also thought though that the book was humourless, predictable and badly written, but hey, we can’t agree on them all and it would be dull if we did. I’m clearly in the minority on this one, but so it goes.

    I wonder if Richárd Ódor (sorry, Ódor Richárd) read it in the end and what he thought.

  14. I’m relieved to find someone else who had trouble applauding Szabo’s esteemed novel. If it weren’t a reading group selection, I don’t think I could have finished it either. I realize I’m supposed to believe that Emerence is a kind of saint-like figure, a secular nun wearing a scarf that resembles a nun’s wimple. And the narrator uses her as a whipping post for showing how insensitive she herself is to the surrounding world, even though as a writer she should be more in tune with it. But it is so overwrought, so over the top in places, that I wanted to scream at both women, especially Emerence, for their ridiculous behavior. I ultimately could not believe that the narrator, or Emerence, had the capacity to love anyone. And maybe that’s the point of the story.

  15. I’m not alone! I really didn’t rate this at all. Emerence is simply incredible as a character, as in not credible. She’s too saintly, and nice point on the scarf, but worse she’s too much the vehicle for ideas and too little a person. Overwrought is again a great word for it, and as I say above it’s just so humourless and relentlessly capital S serious. It carries an overbearing sense of its own importance.

    I’m not saying every novel should be comic, or even contain any humour at all, but when you seek to capture life you need something more than portent.

    Thanks for the comment.

  16. Yes, this definitely rings a bell with me so I must have seen your review at the time of posting. It’s useful to read it again though, especially in light of the range of comments from other readers. I doubt whether I would like it to be honest, it sounds terribly blunt and lacking in subtlety. This idea of a character carrying the weight of nation’s history can be tricky. It reminded me a little of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days which touches on various aspects of European history in the 20th century, blending the story together with a number of ‘variations’ of one woman’s life. It’s a very different novel to Szabo’s (and much more nuanced, I think), but something in your commentary brought it to mind.

    Anyway, luckily I have Kosztolányi’s Anna Edes to look forward to, so I won’t be picking up The Door anytime soon (if at all!). There was another Szabo translation published last year, a novel called Izza’s Ballad. I may have seen a review of it at some point but can’t think where.

  17. I have that Erpenbeck, but keep not getting round to it. It sounds better though I admit. Anna Edes is great, I mean it’s not a great novel in the capital G sense, but it’s well written and its interesting. Streets ahead of this.

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