A confession of responsibility for a death in the first couple of pages of a novel takes readers down a well-trod path — but one that often proves gripping nonetheless. Sometimes there’s no easy way of ripping oneself away from such a fictional world — and this is especially the case when the characters themselves are ones that won’t release their hold on you.
“I killed Emerence,” Magda Szabó, the Hungarian author and narrator, writes in the first part of her novel, “The Door.’’ “The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.” Newly released in the United States from NYRB Classics, the original edition of this celebrated work, widely viewed as semiautobiographical, was published in 1987.
This bold statement by the narrator, also named Magda, is only the beginning of the chronicle of her complicated relationship with Emerence, her housekeeper. Magda is an intellectual and a writer who spends most of the day toiling away at her typewriter.
Emerence, on the other hand, is something of a mystery from the outset. We learn that she is older than Magda but physically stronger than several people combined. She is largely uneducated, sweeps, cooks, and makes shrewd, if barbed, comments.
Magda’s fascination with Emerence grows, and becomes a focus of the saga — and with good reason.
There are certain famous books whose central characters have become synonymous with them; one can’t think of “Great Expectations’’ without thinking of the tattered Miss Havisham, or “A Confederacy of Dunces’’ without thinking of the inimitable misfit Ignatius J. Reilly. “The Door’’ is centered around the magnificent Emerence, a “sole inhabitant of her empire-of-one, more absolute than the Pope in Rome.”
She is larger than life and full of contradictions. “She was fearless, enchantingly and wickedly clever, brazenly impudent,” Magda says. She is also intensely private. Like the door to her house, Emerence’s life remains closed to all, with the partial eventual exception of Magda.
The fact that Emerence’s name sounds so much like eminence doesn’t seem like a coincidence. She’s prominent in her town; a caretaker who looks after the world around her but to the detriment of herself refuses to allow anyone to care for her.
Emerence is a force of nature and often gets her way. Magda and her husband rescue a dog. But Emerence cares for it, training it to favor her over its masters. She likewise gives her employers a kitschy plaster dog she found on the street. They hate the thing and don’t want it in their house. But Emerence won’t relent. She stops working for them until they let her have her way, only to come back to the house and destroy the item herself.
She is also fearless about speaking her mind. She taunts and punishes. But she also imparts wisdom. When Magda brings her to a film set for a movie she’s working on, Emerence is outraged when she sees trees being manipulated for the camera. She insists on authenticity.
“She also demanded of me that, in my art, it should be real passion and not machinery that moved the branches,’’ Magda says. “That was a major gift, the greatest of her bequests.”
As Magda’s writing career takes off, she becomes more and more self involved. When the old lady becomes ill and refuses to leave her own home, the writer hesitantly knocks on her door and offers assistance. “I knew in advance that she would refuse, and when she did I was secretly glad, because there was no room in my life for anything more.”
But that’s the thing about Emerence: She is the kind of person who forces people to make room for her in their life, and in Magda’s case, that leads to a profound and meaningful relationship — one that will haunt her.