The Door (1987), by Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo (1917-2007), is the story of a writer’s relationship with her older cleaning woman. The two women, a generation apart, develop an antagonistic or love/hate kind of friendship. Emerence, the cleaning woman, is a force to be reckoned with; she has strong views on politics and religion, and she is unafraid of authority. While she is known in the neighborhood for her hard work and generosity, she shows her employer, never named but referred to by neighbors as “lady writer,” a darker, almost abusive side. She is secretive about her past, handing out small details only gradually over the course of years, and she refuses to allow anyone to enter her flat. The lady writer is sometimes enraged by Emerence’s attitude and actions but also can’t live (or finish her work) without her. What is Emerence hiding and why are these two seemingly opposite women so drawn to each other?
Emerence agrees to become the narrator’s cleaning lady shortly after the writer and her husband move to the neighborhood. The relationship seems off kilter from the beginning, as Emerence seems to be the one evaluating the quality of her employer and not the other way around. The narrator and her husband are both struggling as writers, and the husband (whom Emerence calls “master”) sees that his wife will never get any writing done if she has to cook and clean. Emerence makes her own schedule, which is understandable since she is also the superintendent for the building in which she lives. She and other neighborhood women take care of street cleaning and trash, with Emerence functioning as the recognized leader. Yet the woman also seems to go out of her way to antagonize the writer. She shows up at odd times, leaves unusual gifts, and gives them a stray dog, unwanted, and insists they keep it but the dog, Viola, answers only to Emerence. Emerence boldly expresses her disdain for religion and mocks the writer’s beliefs and practices, and she is quite forthright in her negative opinion of people who don’t engage in hard physical labor as she does (and the writer does not). She refers to her employers as children whose work is essentially play.
So why does the writer tolerate this? On several occasions, she gets angry enough to lash out at Emerence, although this usually comes back to haunt her. Gradually, Emerence tells her small details about her childhood and its traumas, the loss of her true love, and her relationships with former employers, but she never fully opens herself to anyone, and does not provide the emotional bond that the writer craves without fully realizing. Emerence does, however, recognize that the writer has “the same cursed nature that I have….” While the two women could not seem more different, they do in fact share some important similarities. In addition to being “country” women, they are also both driven by their goals, Emerence to have a family mausoleum built upon her death, and the writer to get her work done and be recognized. Moreover, they each fear deep personal relationships. Emerence tells the writer that it’s better
…not to love anyone to death because you’ll suffer for it…. It is better not to love anyone, because then no one you care about will get butchered….
Later the writer thinks …
…every relationship involving personal feeling laid one open to attack, and the more people I allowed to become close to me, the greater the number of ways in which I was vulnerable.
This fear of being hurt is the reason for Emerence’s defensiveness but it also affects the writer’s actions in ways she does not see but others do. Emerence tells her,
You pay back everybody who upsets you, even me. If only you’d shout and scream — but all you do is smile. You’re the most vengeful person I ever met.
Clearly, Emerence is as frustrated and enraged by the writer as the writer is with her. Emerence does need the writer and loves her in her way. She can be very generous and thoughtful with the writer and her husband. Her genuine love for and trust in the writer becomes clear at the end of the novel with an act of betrayal or an act of love, depending on how you look at it.
At the end, we see behind a few doors, notably in Emerence’s flat, but we and the writer sometimes fail to see that which is right in front of us. The writer has to deal with some hard truths about her own doors, things she failed to see about herself and Emerence that were obvious to others. This is truly an excellent novel, with the relationship between these two complex women slowly and beautifully crafted throughout. The Door reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with their lifelong contentious friendship between the two main characters. If you enjoyed Ferrante, then Szabo is a must read. Side note: this novel was turned into a movie in Hungary a number of years ago, starring Helen Mirren as Emerence. That’s an inspired bit of casting. I would love to see it.