‘The Door’ by Magda Szabo – The Impossible Housekeeper

‘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’.


10 responses to this post.

  1. I wanted to read this one and after reading your review, I wonder how it compares to Anna Edes.
    I’ve read several Hungarian books and servants are frequent characters. Before WWII, rich Hungarian families had female servants who would sleep in the kitchen at night.


    • Hi Emma,
      I see Edes Anna is a well-regarded Hungarian movie which I haven’t seen. I’m not very well acquainted with Hungarian literature besides Arthur Koestler and now Magda Szabo. I want to read more Hungarian novels if ‘The Door’ is any indication.
      It is a lot different from Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs in that the servants aren’t so separated from the families they work for.


    • I would also like to mention Hungarian writer Sandor Marai whose ‘Embers’ is one of my very favorite novels.


  2. I read this one and unfortunately absolutely hated it, so I’m glad you got on with it better. I found Emerence incredible, as in I didn’t believe in the character, and the wider novel patronising and unpersuasive. I’m in a minority though. There’s a review at mine if you’re curious, it’s always good to hear a very different view.


    • Hi Max,
      Go to your blog where I fully explain why I totally disagree with you about ‘The Door’. I’ve known a few people like Emerence. Life isn’t always a garden party.


  3. This one is on my list. I love the idea of tension between the woman and her housekeeper. And NYRB recently reissued this, so that gets my attention.


    • Hi Kat,
      Yes, ‘The Door’ has definitely gotten the full revival treatment. Besides the NYRB reissue, it was made into a movie starring Helen Mirren in 2012, and another company re-issued ‘The Door’ to go with the movie. That is why I was able to find a livelier cover of the novel for my review than the NYRB one.


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