02. 27. 2006. 08:33

A game of chests

Magda Szabó: The Door

Written by Magda Szabó (89), one of the most well-known and widely translated authors of current Hungarian literature, The Door, a manifestly autobiographical novel, tells the tale of a long and rhapsodic relationship between two stubborn women, the middle-aged lady-writer Magda and her old housekeeper, Emerence.

The story itself is simple. Magda, the alter-ego of Magda Szabó, lives in a fancy Buda district with his husband. (Magda Szabó’s husband was the prose writer Tibor Szobotka, but in the text he is never mentioned by name.) The story starts where they decide to hire a housekeeper to help the busy lady-writer do the housework. The woman, Emerence, turns out to have an intriguing personality, and over the years Magda develops an almost loving relationship with her. They continue to fight their little war until Emerence gets ill, locks herself up in her house and, though having become almost lame due to a stroke, refuses to let anyone in. Worried for her life, Magda decides to lure her out. She makes her open the door and lets other people in to drag Emerence to the hospital. Then, she has to leave the spot in a haste, because – after long years of silence forced on her by the cultural politics of the socialist regime – she is about to get the highly prestigious Kossuth Prize. Emerence cannot forgive Magda for her betrayal, and when she finally learns that her nine cats were let out into the street, after she was dragged to the hospital, and that her shameful secret has been discovered, she chooses to die.

Both Magda and Emerence – whose name means “venerable” – are depicted from the point of view of the narrator Magda, who, as we learn at the very beginning of the book, is ridden by guilt, thinking she is the one to blame for Emerence’s death. The reason why she thinks so is only made clear at the end, when the story draws to its shocking close.

Like most of Magda Szabó’s works, the novel is built around an all-penetrating central metaphor. The denotative part of the metaphor is the door to Emerence’s living room, which she never opens to anyone, only once and only to Magda. The connotative part of the metaphor is an assertion almost manically repeated by the narrator throughout the book, the assertion that to love someone is dangerous. The door stands for the gate to one’s so-called inner life, which, when opened, makes one vulnerable to the beloved person. On another level, the image of the door stands for the notion of secret. When Emerence finally lets her in, Magda discovers that there is another door inside, leading to another room, blocked with a huge, immovable safe. In the inside room, as Magda learns after the death of Emerence, there is her heritage: a set of antique furniture, totally destroyed by woodworms, furniture that once belonged to a Jewish family whose little daughter Emerence gave shelter to during World War II.

The notion of doors opening onto other doors is present in the structure of the novel as well. Though the whole novel takes place in a very confined, domestic environment, and the stages of the ever deeper and stranger friendship follow one another in a chronological sequence, the events of the outside world do filter in from time to time through Magda’s personal reflections. The past, the enigmatic life-story of Emerence, is also revealed slowly and gradually through her rhapsodically fragmented recollections and those of the people around her.

The more we get to know Emerence, the clearer it becomes that Magda is far from being a creditable narrator. In the beginning, she is confused by the sheer difference between herself and her new housekeeper; while at the end, she is blinded by sheer guilt. If we look at her in an unbiased way, Emerence is no more than a helpful and hard-working country woman wounded by several emotional losses, which makes her cautious with people and stubborn to the point of idiocy. However, in Magda’s eyes, she soon becomes a mythic heroine. Too vain to let her have her own little secrets, Magda wants to decipher Emerence, to deprive her of her uncompromising strangeness, so as to make her fit in her own universe. Hence, she keeps presenting Emerence as a Madonna, a Medeia, a Saint Francis, a protagonist of a writers’ universe, a universe she knows well and is comfortable with. It is for the same reason that Magda endows Emerence with almost superhuman attributes – such as exceptional physical strength, exceptional intelligence worthy of an ambassador or a prime minister, and the exceptional ability to communicate with all kinds of living creatures, even after her death. In the depiction of Emerence, we may recognise some of the traditional characterisation techniques from the legends of saints.

On the other hand, as Emerence gradually gets more and more attached to the charmingly egotistical lady-writer, she becomes more and more like Viola the dog in the eyes of the latter. For Magda, love is like writing, even if she is unaware of it: a power game in which the final goal is to possess the other one, by means of naming her and destroying everything in her that cannot be fitted in the text. This is how Emerence becomes Viola in the end. This is the source of Magda’s ultimate sense of guilt: she feels that when the end came, she behaved totally out of place, got frightened of the responsibility of love, and abandoned Emerence, not even letting her have her “own death”. The depiction of the endgame between the two women, of Magda’s behaviour and her guilt, is the most stirring part of the novel. It is a brutally accurate depiction of the inexorable and totally pointless sense of guilt, not unfamiliar to those who have lost someone they loved.
Dóra Elekes

Magda Szabó: The Door
Translated by Stefan Draughon
Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, New York: Columbia University Press, distributor, 1994. (East European Monographs, 407)
Magda Szabó: The Door
Translated by Len Rix
London: Harvill Secker, 2005

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