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.