That Time

Liam McIlvanney

  • The Door by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix
    Harvill Secker, 262 pp, £15.99, October 2005, ISBN 1 84343 193 9

Straightforwardly enough, The Door begins with a door. In fact, it begins with ‘The Door’, a three-page prologue – a door into the novel – in which a woman recounts a bad dream. She is standing behind the front door of her apartment building and an ambulance crew is waiting in the street. The paramedics are eager to get in – someone in the building is desperately ill – but the door won’t open. The woman tries to scream, but her voice has gone, and at this point she wakes up. But the nightmare doesn’t end here, for the dream door is also a real door:

Once, just once in my life, not in the cerebral anaemia of sleep but in reality, a door did stand before me. That door opened. It was opened by someone who defended her solitude and impotent misery so fiercely that she would have kept that door shut though a flaming roof crackled over her head. I alone had the power to make her open that lock. In turning the key she put more trust in me than she ever did in God, and in that fateful moment I believed I was godlike – all-wise, judicious, benevolent and rational. We were both wrong: she who put her faith in me, and I who thought too well of myself.

The ‘someone’ in this passage is Emerence Szeredás, the proud and peremptory old spinster who keeps house for the narrator. For twenty years, the two women share each other’s company in a Budapest flat. The Door tells the story of their relationship, its tides of rapprochement and estrangement, and the growth of a tough, unaccountable love between two women of opposite tastes and sympathies. As the prologue intimates, the relationship ends in disaster, and so The Door becomes a tale of betrayal, with the narrator bidding for expiation and atonement. Above all it’s a confession: ‘I must speak out. I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.’

Still, what is most remarkable about these feverish opening pages is how poorly they prepare us for what follows. The concentrated drama (‘In turning the key’, ‘that fateful moment’), the hysterical overstatement (‘I killed Emerence’), the note of public testimony (‘I must speak out’), the clotted, dreamlike ambience: almost everything in the prologue is foreign to the novel as a whole. For the most part, Magda Szabó’s book – a superbly controlled and involving work of art, first published in Hungary in 1987 – is sober and understated. Domestic routine – the preparation of food, the clearing of snow from pathways, visits to church, family jokes and squabbles – engrosses the narrative. The style is unhurried and anecdotal. The novel moves patiently, even ponderously, to the lento of a relationship measured in eras: ‘The truth is, for many years we mattered very little to her’; ‘Thus, as the years flew by, our relationship continued to strengthen.’

The narrator, who bears a close resemblance to Szabó herself, is a prominent Hungarian writer. As the novel opens, her career is picking up, having been ‘politically frozen’ for ten years. (Szabó spent years in obscurity, having been dismissed from her government post in the 1950s when it was discovered that she did not have a ‘suitable’ – that is, working-class or peasant – background.) Thanks to her rehabilitation, Magdushka (she is named only once in the novel) has recently traded her one-bedroom flat for a larger apartment. Desperate to spend as much time as possible on her writing, she decides to hire a cleaner. A friend recommends Emerence, a vital old woman and local character, the caretaker of a nearby apartment block.

The writer calls on Emerence and, in the first of a series of reversals and inversions, finds that it is she, and not the old caretaker, who is being interviewed. Can she provide references? Can she confirm that she and her husband are not drunkards or brawlers? Finally, Emerence accepts the job, but only on a trial basis. Magdushka and her husband will be put on probation, and if Emerence decides to accept the job for good, she will tell them what her wages are to be once she has gauged how slovenly they are. And so Emerence ‘enlists’ in Magdushka’s service. Since the old woman has existing commitments (she keeps house for other families and sweeps the district’s streets), her hours are irregular, but when she appears she works with heroic tenacity. She may show up at midnight and scrub floors until dawn. She lifts the heaviest furniture without complaint. But through all this she keeps her distance, and won’t even accept a cup of tea. Impervious to praise, indifferent to her employers, she appears to work from sheer compulsion. Magdushka becomes intrigued, preoccupied and finally obsessed by her zealous housekeeper. Who is this woman? What is her story?

The novel is driven, in its opening stages, by Magdushka’s desire – which is partly a professional one – to understand her housekeeper, to know her as she might know one of her characters. This isn’t easy. Beneath her headscarf, Emerence is inscrutable: the buddha of Buda. She guards her privacy with remorseless vigilance. No one – not even her closest relative – is permitted to cross the threshold of her apartment; she receives all visitors in her porch. And yet, Emerence is not cut off from the community. Indeed, she is a neighbourhood shaman. She treats the district’s sick. She dispenses advice. All the gossip and news flows through her porch, which functions like a ‘telex centre’. It’s not a coincidence that she spends so much of the novel clearing snow from streets and pavements; Emerence keeps the pathways open, mediates community life. She is both visibly public and intensely private: everyone knows her, and nobody does.

Stories about Emerence proliferate. Like Jay Gatsby, she is the focus of preposterous rumours. She is an American spy; she is a fence for stolen goods; she robbed and murdered local Jews under cover of the war. Magdushka may discount these outlandish tales, but she still can’t seem to reduce Emerence to normal human dimensions. When the narrator first encounters her, Emerence is boiling bedsheets in a massive cauldron, her features reddened by the flames, a fairytale hag; and this storybook quality, this sense of belonging to myth or legend or folktale, constantly attaches to her. In everything she does, Emerence seems larger than life. She has the ‘strength of a mythological hero’. She has ‘dark powers’; she seems to vanish at will, ‘like a character in an epic poem’. She brings a ‘touch of magic’ to the simplest chore. She is a Valkyrie, a Medea, a Medusa. Or, if not a character from myth, she is a figure from the Bible. In her selfless dedication, Emerence is Martha. In her care of the sick she is ‘St Emerence of Csabadul’. Cradling a stray dog, she is an ‘absurd Madonna’. Venting her rage she is Jehovah.

As the novel develops, this legendary Emerence slowly proves knowable. The mythic outline softens, and from being a rigid archetype – or a series of archetypes – she relaxes into personhood. She is novelised and humanised: in her attitude to the church, for example. Emerence never attends Sunday service and has always mocked the narrator’s piety. Magdushka struggles to understand her attitude, and puts it down to a ‘Voltairean anti-clericalism’, but it turns out to be something more interesting and personal – something more ‘characteristic’. When Emerence was younger, an aid parcel from Sweden reached her local church. Emerence was last in line when the gifts were being distributed, and in place of the useful woollens and cottons, she was given a sequined evening dress. The humiliation of this moment has never abated, and Emerence burns with unholy resentment: ‘Like the leader of some primitive tribe she flew her standard – a sequined evening dress – against the banner of the Lamb of God.’ With this wonderful image – the glittering gown as an ensign of war – Emerence emerges as a character, a woman both utterly distinctive and thoroughly credible, both laudable and laughable. And while she retains flashes of her initial magnificence, Emerence is from this point on a woman of flesh and blood, with jealousies and fears, quirks and peccadilloes.

The Door is a book about work. We watch characters breaking sweat in everyday tasks: scrubbing floors, shelling peas, scribbling poems and novels. The friendship between the two women develops in lulls between labour. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that the friendship grows out of their labour, from the intimacy of working in the same confined space. Certainly, the two have little to say to one another; there is not much dialogue here. The Door also weighs the relative value of different kinds of work. For Emerence, only manual labour is worthy of the name: ‘Any work that didn’t involve bodily strength and use of the hands was loafing, little better than a conjuring trick.’ The image of the novelist as a disreputable conjuror is one that Alasdair Gray uses in Lanark (1981), and Szabó shares with Gray both a mundane view of the artist’s calling and a respect for the artist’s unsung abettors. Gray punctiliously credits the technicians of his novels, the typists and compositors, the proofreaders and designers, and would surely enjoy a novel about a novelist’s housekeeper. In this respect, we might read The Door as a novelised requital, a book-length acknowledgments page.

If the book has a flaw, it’s that the narrator treads a little heavily in places. She draws inferences, supplies interpretations; she wants to do our job as well as her own. In this respect, she has much to learn from Emerence who, like a Zen master, communicates largely through gestures. The narrator cannot record these gestures without rushing to decode them, supplying what she pompously calls ‘the semantics of Emerence’s non-verbal expression’. In doing so, she often weakens the novel’s effects. In one of The Door’s strongest scenes, Emerence rages when a long-awaited dinner guest fails to turn up. Gathering an array of untouched dishes, she sets them in front of the narrator’s dog. Propped on a dining chair, the dog snaffles delicacies from a Murano tray by the light of a silver candelabra. The scene is a powerful one, but the narrator dissipates its charge by announcing its symbolic freight: the roasted meats are a substitute for the graceless guest, who is being fed to the dog as a ‘sacrificial victim’.

This gaucheness may however be deliberate. It’s hard to shake off the suspicion that Magdushka is being mocked, that her style is being exposed to some authorial irony. Her prose is a little too fussy, too assiduously literary. Its allusiveness becomes satirically dense: Emerence is variously compared to Blanche in Shaw’s Man and Superman, a character in the tales of Hoffmann, the Straw Man in The Wizard of Oz, the Invisible Man, Captain Butler in Gone with the Wind, a figure in a Flemish painting, the Snow Queen and a ghost from the Aeneid. None of these analogies brings us much closer to Emerence herself, and the suggestion is that Magdushka knows novels and plays and films and paintings a lot better than she knows real people. (Although she seems a little shaky on plays: Blanche is a character in Widowers’ Houses, not Man and Superman.) For a novelist, Magdushka proves miserably inept at reading character, and her betrayal of Emerence at the novel’s gloomy close comes through a failure not of sympathy or nerve, but of imagination.

At the novel’s climax, the gears of a tale that has seemed to meander suddenly mesh. The twin passions of Magdushka’s life – her commitment to art and her attachment to Emerence – are brought into desperate tension. After years of patient struggle, Magdushka is tasting success: a telephone call informs her that she is to receive ‘the prize’ (presumably the Kossuth Prize, which Szabó won in 1978). At the same time, Emerence falls ill. Flu turns to fever and the old woman withdraws to the ‘Forbidden City’ of her apartment, refusing to answer the door. Eventually, Magdushka agrees with anxious neighbours that entry will have to be forced. A plan is thrown together. Magdushka, as the housekeeper’s most trusted friend, will cajole Emerence into opening her door. The doctor and Emerence’s nephew will then force their way inside, and the stricken woman will be taken to hospital.

The day of the ‘ambush’ arrives. But Magdushka is scheduled to appear on television that same morning, as part of the prize celebrations. The car that will take her to the studio is already at her door when Magdushka dashes off to Emerence’s flat. At first, the plan seems to have worked: Emerence opens her door and the doctor is shouldering his way inside, when Magdushka rushes back to the waiting car. She speeds to her interview, and on to a reception. It is late when she returns home and learns the terrible news. The plan has backfired. Emerence managed to jam the door shut, and the rescuers finally felled it with an axe. Behind the broken door is a tableau of horror: having suffered a stroke, Emerence has been lying half-paralysed amid scenes of squalor.

The central action of the novel – the forcing of Emerence’s front door – is strongly reminiscent of the moment when a similarly apprehensive group of well-wishers storms the laboratory of Henry Jekyll. As in Stevenson’s tale, the hero of Szabó’s novel has suffered a dreadful transformation. The woman who kept the whole neighbourhood clean, who scrubbed and dusted and polished and swept, is now smeared with filth and faeces. Her once pristine home is a sluice of corruption: ‘Stinking piles of rotten food were strewn around the bare floor or on sheets of newspaper. The christening bowl had been overturned and armies of maggots swarmed around the contents. A half-rotten raw fish and a carved duck were in a similar state . . . Even the cockroaches were dying.’

Magdushka has failed to appreciate – has been culpably slow to imagine – that for someone like Emerence, whose personality is inseparable from her legend, a public exposure of this kind is catastrophic. Neighbours look on as Emerence is carted off to be washed and deloused. A decontamination squad arrives to fumigate her apartment. Her front door is taken off its hinges; her furniture and clothes are publicly burned. For Emerence, there is no way back from this ‘moment of degradation’. Her disgrace is a kind of death, and she would rather have died in earnest than live with this burden of shame. When Emerence does die, some weeks later, from a second embolism, the narrator suspects that her own insensitivity has hastened the old woman’s death (though the prologue’s hysterical ‘I killed Emerence’ is now the more sober ‘I was in some way responsible’). Certainly, the narrator’s husband is in no doubt that the whole tragic fiasco has been set in train by Magdushka: ‘You handed her over chained and bound, the cleanest of the clean, with all her secrets, when you should have protected her, whatever the cost. You were the only person on earth whose words would have induced her to open her door. You are her Judas. You betrayed her.’

If this is Emerence’s Gethsemane, it is also, from another perspective, her deposition, her fall from power. An ‘empire-of-one’, a ‘private parliament’, ‘Emerence’s Republic’: throughout the novel, the caretaker’s apartment is presented as a microcosm, a Little Hungary. Its ‘invasion’ awakens echoes of national trauma. When Emerence suffers ‘the shame of strangers ravaging her home’, the analogy is clear, as it is when we learn that ‘the whole empire of Emerence . . . has long gone up in smoke.’ Crucially, however, Szabó’s analogies never harden into allegory. The episodes are affecting in themselves – which is to say, in relation to the characters – rather than as ciphers for historical events. This holds good throughout the novel. Szabó is keen to engage with the national past, ‘the years people don’t talk about very much’: the White Terror and the Red; the Second World War; the forsaking of the Hungarian Jews; the calamity of 1956. But she does this while retaining the perspective, the human scale, of her characters.

It is as if Szabó has borne in mind the anecdote about Mihály Károlyi, the Hungarian statesman who went deer-stalking on the eve of the Habsburg monarchy’s fall. ‘How could you have gone hunting at that time?’ a friend asked him. ‘Well, at that time,’ he replied, ‘“that time” had not yet become “that time”.’ For the novelist, too, ‘that time’ is never ‘that time’, and Szabó is careful not to give the ‘significant’ event an unwarranted distinction. The murder of Emerence’s fiancé by a riotous mob during the Aster Revolution is given no greater prominence than the murder of her cat by a disgruntled local pigeon breeder. Where Szabó shows her tact is by presenting these episodes – the domestic and the political, the intimate and the public – with an even hand, so that they bleed into one another. When Emerence recalls the hangings of political prisoners in 1920s Budapest, we remember the fate of her cat – strung up from the handle of its owner’s front door. The point is not that, for Szabó, the cat’s death is as significant or affecting as the human deaths; but for Emerence this is surely the case, and so the hangings chime with one another; they teach us about Emerence and the reach of her compassion.

One of Szabó’s triumphs is to have written a profound political novel that is rooted in the domestic. The congested, panoramic vistas that are often taken to signal artistic ambition play no part in this novel. Szabó’s engagement with Middle European history is more circumscribed and static than that of, say, Jaroslav Hasek or Joseph Roth, whose cast of soldiers, merchants and revolutionaries has a vagabond mobility. But what Szabó demonstrates, quite superbly, is the resonance of intimate spaces. The temptation, for the novelist of national trauma, is to stage the great public events – the battles and insurrections – and then toss her protagonists into their midst. The characters draw a tinny lustre from the flashing pikes and bayonets. But such works are more reportage than fiction; they tell the story of the times, not of plausible human beings. Szabó avoids this. The horrors of Hungary’s 20th century are present only as they impinge on a wilful, eccentric, unpredictable old woman. The novel’s unity is not that of an incident or an age, but of a relationship – a relationship rendered with generous sympathy and in all its vital contradiction.