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The Door by Magda Szabó — book review

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“[I]t was as if Emerence turned on her ghostly heel and put two fingers up at our guilty consciences, and our attempts to approach her. Each time it was as if yet another undisclosed facet of her million secrets glittered before us”

One of the most obscurely bizarre books I’ve ever read.

Moving between the 1960s and the 1980s The Door’s narrative is concerned with the narrator’s relationship with her housekeeper Emerence. Throughout the course of the novel our narrator, a Hungarian writer called Magda, combs through her memories in order to revisit her complex relationship with Emerence, in what seems to be an attempt to make some sort of sense out of this enigmatic and perplexing woman.

Although The Door is quite unlike any other novel I’ve read it does share certain elements with Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T. (which is also semi-autobiographical, set in a similar time-period, and narrated by a writer determined to revisit her relationship with her secretive friend), Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (yet another narrator/writer who interrogates her intense relationship with an old friend) and Joyce Carol Oates’ Solstice.
From its opening pages The Door throws us into a dizzying tale that seems to ignore logic or structure. There is little to no plot, but rather a collection of Magda’s memories of Emerence.

The first part of the novel has very little dialogue (a few lines here and there), and relies instead on Magda’s recounting what Emerence said or did. Soon we acquire a surreal impression of this formidable woman, yet Emerence remains an ambivalent figure, impossible to pin down. Magda’s attempts to make sense of her past behaviour towards her and others often results in little more than speculations and suppositions on her part.
However ordinary Emerence and her life may seem, her many peculiarities and her aversion towards God, the Church, the idea of an establishment itself, make her into a potentially disruptive figure. At times Magda’s recounts of Emerence make the latter seem as little more than an unhinged woman prone to childish temper tantrums and liable to bad moods. Her hatred towards ‘cultured’ and intellectual people seems to reveal a deep resentment towards those who unlike her did not have to start working at a young age. And yet, she seems so completely disgusted by them that it seems impossible for her to be secretly envious of them.
Emerence appears as a mercurial individual who, in spite of living in a country which imposed uniformity on its subjects, manages to retain her individuality. She seems the sole governor of her own existence, unbothered by the laws, policies, and societal norms that affect her neighbours.

As this murky narrative progresses, and Emerence slowly emerges from Magda’s memories, we begin to accept Emerence’s multivalency. Not one character seems to have thought of her the same way, whether they feared, hated, admired, or loved her. Her secrecy and control over her own self and her private space, make her seem closer to a sphinx than a mere mortal. She seems to radiate strength seeming to be a force of nature, a solid and unmovable presence in the lives of her neighbours and clients.
Yet, Magda’s memories are comprised of so many gaps and absences that we are constantly aware of the unreliability of what she does or does not remember. The Emerence that surfaces from Magda’s ‘reconstruction’ is a fragment of the actual woman, and Magda, alongside her readers, has to content herself with her imperfect knowledge of her former housekeeper. Ultimately Emerence remains unknowable.

Backdrop to Magda’s retrieval is a quiet sort of violence. We are aware of a potential danger but we cannot pinpoint what shape or form it will take. The unnerving relationship between Magda and Emerence is filled with recriminations, uneasy truces, and bitter exchanges. There are allusions to deaths and destruction but these never lead to a cathartic event or revelation.
In navigating the past the narrator is able to see anew many of the things that she had likely overlooked about her own life. She attributes new significance to certain moments of her life and of the way these shaped her relationship with Emerence. She seems to be both in her past and in her present, obsessed, if not desperate, with truly knowing Emerence, her life, secrets, and motivations.

“The situation had drained my energy. Cheerfulness keeps you fresh, its opposite exhausts. Now I was miserable, but not because I had to look for another help. The problem was simpler. I had finally accepted that it wasn’t just Emerence who was attached to me, with the sort of feelings normally reserved for family, but that I, too, loved her.”

For much of the novel, the two women are engaged in a war of constant surveillance. They are always scrutinising each other, and often criticising their different values and attitudes (more than once they clash over their different attitude towards religion and literature). Emerence’s secretiveness, her ‘closed’ door, mystify Magda who comes to think of Emerence’s apartment as an extension of Emerence herself.
Emerence’s ‘shut door’ allows for an array of interpretations. It is the very fact that this door is shutting out the rest of the world that arouses Magda, and the reader’s, curiosity. My mind formed the most wild of theories regarding Emerence’s past and what lay beyond her door. Yet, as Magda informs us early on, we are aware that we will never truly know Emerence or her motivations. It seemed that the novel emphasised the unknowability of a person, and the freedom that we can experience by presenting a self that isn’t entirely true.

Magda’s narratives describes seemingly mundane scenarios that teether on the edge of becoming something more: miscommunications regarding house routines can cause unforgiving shifts between the two women. The novel imbues the most ordinary of scenes or conversations with a sense of surreality. There were many moments that verged on absurdity (there were many almost Kafkaesque occurrences).
Emerence seemed the antithesis of normal. My mind was never made up about her. Certainly Magda’s recollections of her always left me feeling uneasy, almost queasy. At times she could be quick to anger and unforgiving, while in other instances she could seem so caring and kind. Her erratic behaviour, her naiveté, her small manipulations of those around her…I found myself interrogating everything she said or did, wondering alongside Magda ‘who‘ Emerence really was.

This novel is far from a pleasant read: it is unnerving and confusing, and I was mystified most of time (it left me with more questions than actual answers….) and yet, I felt a horrible sort of fascination towards it…read at your own risk.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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