by Magda Szabo – Vintage Publishing 2006 and NYRB 2015
in / adult fiction
Love is not always romantic, nor is it easy or instant. The Door beautifully details the growing love of two women – a writer and her housekeeper.
It’s a difficult relationship, borne of circumstances but also of recognition by both women that, in each other, they had found the promise of security.
The language in English is prosaic and yet perfectly formed - it’s a book to read slowly, letting the loveliness of the language settle. There are moments of tension, of concern for and investment in each of the main characters, but there’s no feeling of a need to hurry through the pages. It's a book to be savoured.
Simply, The Door is the story of how a young writer, Magda, and her housekeeper, Emerence, come to love and respect each other and how that love and respect is shattered and rebuilt, only to be shattered again and irrevocably altered.
Written in the first person by Magda, we hear her perspective but we feel Emerence’s too as the story of her life unfolds to Magda and to the readers.
Set in cold-war Hungary, there are echoes throughout of World War II, with its privations and its terrors combining to rule the lives of both women. There is no one pivotal moment of resolution in The Door – rather there are small moments throughout that move the women toward each other, but that also draw them apart. One such moment being a Christmas morning when Emerence continues to sweep the snow. Magda writes:
I’ve always been good at philosophising, and I wasn’t ashamed to admit that I had done wrong. But what didn’t occur to me was that, compared to her, I was still young and strong. And yet I didn’t go out and sweep the snow. I didn’t send her home to watch the film, though I could have handled the broom perfectly well. As a girl in the country I had danced with one often enough, I was the one who kept the front of the house clear in those days. But I didn’t go down.
Emerence has deep and intimate secrets that she keeps to herself alone, but slowly she allows Magda into her world. And because she is allowed into Emerence’s world, Magda is also the one who must ultimately violate and destroy that world.
Magda’s internal struggle with the role she must play and the agony of choosing how to act are pivotal to the story. The wisdom she displays as she struggles with her own self-interest is beautifully laid out. Here's Magda thinking about the things she has done to Emerence and trying to discern her own motives and her own responsibility:
When you do something that is truly unforgivable, you don't always realise it, but there is a certain inward suspicion of what you have done. I told myself the bad feeling clammed up inside me was stage fright. But it was simple guilt.
This is an intriguing and thought provoking book. The contrast between the lives and personalities of the two women makes the connections between them stronger and more important.
As Magda tentatively yet deliberately discovers the layers of grief, heartache and sometimes joy that have made up Emerence’s life, she comes to understand herself better. And so, when the time comes that Emerence needs help beyond her own strength, Magda does all that she can to fill that role. Her attempts to help are flawed and cause untold grief for them both, but there is always a sense of each of their lives being so much the better for their friendship.
(The Door was named one of "The New York Times Book Review"'s "10 Best Books of 2015")