The Door by Magda Szabo
Friendships between women are fraught with competition and petty jealousies, tarnished by slights and hidden resentments, and dislocated when class distinctions kick in. And if those friendships are already complicated, what are the costs of being friends with a woman writer? Because writers give and give to their writing, they gorge on everything around them to feed their stories. And what happens when a woman writer friend becomes successful?
The truth leaps from the pages of Magda Szabo’s vivifying and claustrophobic novel The Door as the book fulfills your worst nightmare. “I killed Emerence,” says the narrator on page three. “The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.”
Published in 1987 in Hungary, The Door documents two decades of life in Budapest, a decade after the Communist takeover in 1948. It’s a political novel grounded in the story of a friendship between Magdushka, a writer-intellectual and member of the ruling class, and Emerence, a peasant woman with moxie, who provides a strong counterpoint to Magdushka’s emotional timidity.
Szabo is a deft writer. She constructs the narrative around a deeply authentic friendship while leaving unresolved the main idea: How will you conduct yourself in your quest to be an authentic writer, and what are the costs to the people who care for you?
When the novel begins, in 1958, the Communists have released their stranglehold on Magdushka, who (like Szabo) has been barred from publishing for ten years. Eager to kick-start her career, she wants to hire someone to take care of her fancy new apartment to free up time to write. But when Emerence shows up for the interview in an evening dress, we know it won’t be an ordinary domestic partnership. Emerence makes it clear to Magdushka and her husband that only if she finds them agreeable will she be their housekeeper. And Emerence is the Greek god of housekeepers: “She had the strength of a mythological hero.”
A well-respected and prolific writer, Szabo churned out fifteen novels and five plays, along with stories, essays, criticism, and verse. She started as a poet, winning Hungary’s Baumgarten Prize in 1949 for two volumes of verse. But the Communists labeled her a class enemy for her bourgeois background. They stripped her of the prize, banned her books, and kept her from publishing for the next decade, during which time she became a teacher and turned to fiction. The Party, says The Door’s translator Len Rix in Szabo’s obituary, let her career resume in 1958 and, in an ironic turn, promptly awarded her the József Attila, one of Hungary’s top literary prizes, in 1959.
The Door starts in 1958, the year Szabo published her first book and the year before Magdushka wins a great prize—no coincidence in this story that closely mirrors Szabo’s life. Szabo is conscientious about laying bare the irony of accepting an award from the very people who destroyed her career. She lets her character revel shamelessly in it. The advance of Magdushka’s career, and the attention from the prize, are slyly evoked in this fluently translated, nuanced story that mucks about in the uncertain space nourished by the needs and imagination of the writer.
The center of the story, where it hurts to breathe, concerns the quality of the friendship. Magdushka elevates Emerence into an exalted creature, certain that Emerence, who has no education and can barely read, is more authentic than she: “She was fearless, enchantingly and wickedly clever, brazenly impudent.” She is slightly magical, a Christ figure whose influence kindles, in Magdushka’s dog, sparks of human behavior. Magdushka narrates The Door with a detached tone, at times amplified with nostalgia-tinted melancholy, wryly aware of the artifice in the purely authentic and magical figure that is Emerence.
But Emerence is a projection, a spectral figure that is the writer’s every delight and disappointment. As angelic as she appears, Emerence is equally “a born Mephisto, utterly perverse,” mocking Magdushka for churchgoing and heaping “monstrous, deformed” contempt on everything. “Emerence was capable of arousing the finest feelings in me, and also the most base,” Magdushka admits. She suspects Emerence of stealing a fortune from the Jews she worked for, and resents her aloofness. She wants motherly love but Emerence never loves her completely. “I’m not your dead mother, or your nursemaid, or your little chum,” Emerence says bluntly.
Magdushka’s obsession with Emerence parallels, in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Elena Greco’s obsession with Lila, the narrator’s childhood friend who is smarter and savvier than she. Both Szabo and Ferrante have created magnificent, outsize portraits of women to which their writer-narrators are destined to miserably compare themselves. Lila and Emerence are the real thing, women who live so close to the bone that they know only the urgency of feelings. In The Door, as in Ferrante’s series, it is the writer who is the vulture, feeding off her friend’s inner strength and stories.
Emerence is illiterate, but her stories about her past are captivatingly weird and far-fetched, and impossibly tragic. The showstoppingly gorgeous and precocious Lila is also larger-than-life. Like Emerence, she is a feral and unpredictable creature, with serious secrets. Good at everything despite having only a fifth-grade education, she bootstraps a life for herself out of raw talent, ricocheting from one drama to the next. “She was so smart, you couldn’t keep up with her, she made my head a blur,” says Nino, Lena’s love interest. Elena, like Magdushka, becomes a well-known writer and marries into a well-connected upper class family. But none of it matters because she knows her work merely refracts the novel Lila wrote in elementary school. As a child, a letter from Lila made her feel like a fraud because Lila’s voice as a writer “had the vivid orderliness” of someone “born from the head of Zeus.” Elena’s first novel is a hit only because it’s trashy, and her second book’s a flop.
Isn’t it true that we choose as friends the people who seem most alive? Those kinds of friends make you want more from yourself, force you to bend your thinking in new directions. They help you understand experience. You steal from them. Does that mean you’re still a fraud? Perhaps you will feel less fraudulent if you win a prize, like the one Szabo got after her years of being silenced.
Szabo has carefully threaded a sharp indictment of class and privilege (her own) into this tender, raw story of a friendship. When Magdushka explains how land reforms benefit the working class, Emerence slaps her and screams that she couldn’t care less what happened in 1945. Peasants just want to be rich, she shrieks. Friendship across classes will always be divided.
The symbol of the have and have nots is a television. In both Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and in The Door, the gift of a television is a stark reminder of the rarity of leisure for the lower classes. In the Ferrante, a wealthy suitor’s gift permits Lila a moment of peace in her turbulent life. In The Door, it signals the peace Emerence might have had if she didn’t always have chores lined up. One Christmas eve, after Magdushka is starting to see some success, she and her husband give Emerence a portable TV—a rare commodity in Hungary. They expect Emerence to go home and watch it. She goes outside to sweep the snow instead. She is old. They could offer to help. “The need was for action, not words. But we went back to our own television.”
The gift triggers a series of events that culminates in the book’s shocking denouement. Emerence gets the flu. She stops coming to Magdushka’s house. Neighbors leave food for her, and Emerence takes it at the door. A strange smell wafts out of the apartment, and people wonder about her cats. Something has gone terribly wrong. Magdushka has to get Emerence out, even though she is threatening to kill anyone who comes near the door (the door of the book’s title) with a hatchet.
The betrayal comes out in a shrewdly choreographed scene in which you discover the degrading reality of Emerence’s life inside the house, which shocks the neighborhood and turns both women’s lives inside out. Magdushka has arranged to trick Emerence into opening her door so others can drag her out. In a stroke of deadly slapstick, the timing coincides with an interview Magdushka has at the television studio. She briefly glimpses a scene of horror before racing off to be on television. The decontamination crew arrives, and the entire neighborhood witnesses Emerence’s abasement.
There’s a shot at forgiveness, as in any friendship. Magdushka doesn’t kill Emerence, but she may as well have. She spins lies while Emerence recovers, fooled into believing that her dignity is intact. But now Magdushka must jet to Greece to accept her prize, leaving in the lurch the friend who toiled so she could write. When she returns and the truth comes out, Magdushka commits yet another unintentional betrayal, robbing Emerence of the dignity of dying the way she would have liked.
It’s all a scathing indictment of the price of success. What did Szabo feel when the Communists gave her the Josef Attila prize in 1959, after keeping her quiet for so long? You take the prize because you get to stop feeling like a fraud, or forgotten, and it ensures that you’ll get to keep on writing. But what are the costs of your conduct and your success? Poignantly, in the wake of Emerence’s demise, Magdushka’s husband says to his grief-stricken, prize-winning, government-approved wife: “Why aren’t you at the typewriter?”