‘The Door’ by Magda Szabo (1987) 262 pages Translated by Len Rix Grade: A-
I wish we had a housekeeper for our house like Emerence in ‘The Door’. Cleaning houses, sweeping the streets, even shoveling all the snow in the neighborhood when there’s a snowstorm, Emerence does the work of five people.
“The old woman worked like a robot. She lifted unliftable furniture without the slightest regard for herself. There was something superhuman, almost alarming in her physical strength and her capacity for work, all the more so because in fact she had no need to take so much on. Emerence obviously reveled in her work. She loved it.”
The unnamed young woman who tells this story and who employs Emerence to clean her house is totally different from Emerence. She is the modern woman, spends all day on her computer, and is a globe-trotting author who wins literary awards. She and her husband who is also a writer have no time for all the details such as cleaning the house.
This modern woman and Emerence are a study in contrasts, and they get into epic fights. However these two opposites soon develop a close relationship. Emerence soon becomes a highly critical mother figure to this young woman.
Emerence is a peasant from rural Hungary, and she lived through World War II. She’s had a hard life. She is illiterate and abrasive and stubborn, prone to bitter outbursts. All of her truths have been hard won, and she wastes no time setting this spoiled modern young woman straight. Emerence says to the young woman,
“You think there always will be someone to cook and clean for you, a plate full of food, paper to scribble on, the master to love you; and everyone will live for eternity, like a fairy tale; and the only problem you might encounter is bad things written about you in the papers, which I’m sure is a terrible disgrace, but then why did you choose such a low trade, where any bandit can pour shit over you?”
There is a dog, Viola, in this story. The young couple buy the dog, but of course the new dog is immediately enamored with old Emerence to the point where it is almost her dog.
The ultimate hate-love relationship exists between this young modern woman and her old housekeeper. I say ‘hate-love’ because at first these two opposites are disgusted and furious with each other, and it is only later that they recognize that there is a deep closeness between them. It is fascinating to watch the war and the devotion between these two played out to the extremes in ‘The Door’.