Emerence is a housekeeper for a writer named Magda, and the two women couldn’t be any more different. That sentence, in all its ordinariness, could legitimately stand as a plot description for Magda Szabó’s subtle and fascinating novel The Door. The events that take place are dramatic at times, to be sure, but they function more as isolated incidents rather than a narrative whole. Emerence is the through-line; she is the connective tissue that brings together the disparate parts to make a body. She is—like Gatsby, Ahab, or Daisy Miller—what I call a study character, an important figure that a narrator is unable to fully understand but who is also unalterably enmeshed in their psyche. Emerence, in all her extremely fine details, her many contradictions, her utter singularity as a character, is one of the most compelling people I’ve met in recent fiction. She is a classic; she is a magical, mysterious presence that makes The Door a masterpiece.
My only complaint is that it has taken so long for The Door to appear in America. Originally published in 1987 in Szabó’s native Hungary, it was translated in the ’90s for American publication (but what happened to that edition I have no idea) and then in 2005 for its British release. Now, a full decade later, the latter translation by Len Rix has arrived here, albeit a tad tardy—as, for instance, in Ali Smith’s brief but useful introduction, Szabó, who died in 2007, is still living (though “now elderly”), and the publication of a new edition of The Door at the time was a kind of career’s validation. Now it takes on a different symbolism altogether, that of legacy—a fitting symbol here, as this is precisely what The Door takes as its theme.
It begins in an overwrought and somewhat clichéd manner, with a dream and the title metaphor. Magda describes a recurring nightmare in which she cannot open the door to get out of her home, even though there is an ambulance outside. She can’t scream, typical in dreams, and her “efforts are in vain.” She tells us that this book is a confession, that she “killed Emerence” even though she was “trying to save her.” This has all the beginnings of a riveting, if somewhat conventional, thriller, but Szabó has something much subtler and more ambitious planned.
What happens immediately after this ominous prelude is mostly a series of domestic episodes involving Magda, her husband, and Emerence, the couple’s newly appointed housekeeper. She is no ordinary maid, though: she asks them for references, explaining, “I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty linen.” Magda finds a dog, and Emerence quickly becomes its master, naming him Viola despite his sex. We discover, along with Magda, that Emerence allows no one into her home and accepts guests only on her front porch. Emerence’s background is filled with unbelievable horror stories, like witnessing her twin siblings get struck by lightning, their bodies turned to “charred logs of firewood,” or the suicide of her mother immediately afterward. (Upon hearing her daughter’s screams, Emerence’s mother sees the eviscerated bodies and goes straight to a well and throws herself down into it.)
Slowly, methodically, the mystery of Emerence deepens as Magda’s obsession swells. Her husband is sick and has to undergo numerous operations, but her thoughts of his well-being are filtered through her observations about Emerence. Even her own writing takes a backseat to Emerence’s many enigmas. Though a date is never explicitly mentioned, the novel takes place in post-revolution Hungary, after the Soviets’ attempts to turn the Nazi-devastated country (nearly half a million Jews were murdered, and the economy collapsed) into an extension of their empire. The war was over but Hungary still fought to survive. The newly formed government created the State Protection Authority (Államvédelmi Hatóság or ÁVH), which brutalized the citizenry with Gestapo-like rapacity. Szabó was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city after Budapest. By the late 1940s, as the Soviets took over, Szabó had just begun to publish her first books and worked for the government’s Ministry of Religion and Education. When her poetry was officially outlawed, Szabó also lost her job. Unable to publish, she took a position as an elementary school teacher. Finally, in 1956, a student demonstration—encouraged by the U.S.-run Radio Free Europe—turned violent and bloomed into a full-blown, albeit short-lived, revolution. In the aftermath, as the Soviets wrenched control back from the militias that had formed as part of the revolt, arrests were made, thousands were killed, and a new leader was appointed by the USSR. János Kádár, the communist appointee, exercised what came to be known as “Goulash Communism,” which blended elements of various political ideologies and to some degree returned Hungary to a more normalized society.
Szabó, to return to The Door, was at this point allowed again to publish her work, and it is in this backdrop that Emerence enters her life. If Szabó’s story reflects what can happen to artists under despotic rule, Emerence, on the other hand, represents the suspicious, messy, and, most importantly, unspoken way Hungarians viewed (and were forced to view) the past. The revolution of 1956, for instance, was staunchly suppressed by the government, even from conversation, and in general the sheer loss of life and the magnitude of the country’s devastation made direct confrontation with it difficult, to say the least. There is a rumor about Emerence that maybe she keeps her door closed to visitors because her home is filled with items taken from Jews who’d been sent off to concentration camps. Emerence herself—atheistic, pugnaciously pragmatic, almost callous—becomes a myth of Hungarian history: a survivor forced by tragedy and war to adopt a closed and contradictory demeanor, a caretaker with zero empathy for the many people she cares for, a fiercely independent person whose livelihood depends on others.
Not that all this historical context is necessary to understand or enjoy The Door. It just goes to show how far the relationship between these two characters reaches. The force of Szabó’s engrossing novel is measured and paced deliberately, so although the impact isn’t sudden, it’s consuming, one of those great novels in which you aren’t aware of how much you know about the characters and how complex their lives are. The opening metaphor of the dream-door that won’t open seems, upon first encountering it, like a straightforward, even unimaginative, symbol. But Szabó elegantly and masterfully fills up the mysteries of what may lay beyond that door, or even what or whose door it is, and makes us question where it leads—to the past, the future, or to some place we never imagined.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.