Magda Szabó’s novel The Door opens and closes with a dream. Last night, I dreamed about The Door, sort of. I dreamed that I was in the kitchen with another woman at work cooking, and even though I knew I wasn’t expected to help, I also felt that to not help would be a weakness, a character flaw, and an absence of action that I’d regret. So there I was, chopping an onion or radish or something with this other woman nearby, half feeling pleased about helping, half worrying the woman would scold me for the way I was doing it. She didn’t. Then I was putting something in the freezer and noticed ice-cube trays but also thought to myself that I shouldn’t snoop in the woman’s freezer. The refrigerator, after all, was off limits altogether. I regarded its beige front. Nobody but Emerence opened the door of that fridge. Only she knew what was inside.
In The Door (New York Review Books, 2015, translated from Hungarian by Len Rix), the caretaker Emerence opens the door of her flat to almost no one. Only the novel’s narrator, a writer named Magda, sees inside while Emerence is alive. Emerence works for Magda, taking care of her apartment while Magda writes, and they become close. Emerence comes to trust Magda enough to decide to leave the contents of her flat to Magda after she dies. Unfortunately for everyone,
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before that, Magda manages to betray Emerence by tricking her into opening her door at a critical moment, a decision with devastating consequences.
As evidenced by my dream, I think about Emerence a lot. I imagine how I would treat Emerence if she were in my life—what mistakes I would make, how I might avoid them. I failed to give up my seat to an Emerence on the train the other day, with The Door in hand, no less. Hopefully next time, I’ll do better.
Since Emerence in my life is not an individual but every encounter that forces a quick decision about how to treat people, I do, unlike Magda, have second chances. Yet I wonder, is it possible that Emerence might have forgiven Magda—given her a second chance—if Magda had done just one thing differently? I’d like to think so, of course.
I don’t normally think about “what might have been” had a character in a book acted differently. Asking that question isn’t going to deepen understanding of the book; it’s an idea for a different book. And I think it’s important to stay close to the text when exploring what books are trying to say. If you can’t back an assertion up with a quote, maybe you shouldn’t make it at all.
But sometimes a story, like a myth, exists outside a single form. Now that I’ve read The Door and watched the movie version, in which Helen Mirren plays Emerence, I’m thinking less about the novel and more about the story of the close yet combustible relationship between Magda and Emerence, and how it comes to its bad end.
If you’ve read or watched The Door, you probably remember the plot: Magda hires Emerence, who is also the caretaker more generally in the Budapest neighborhood, to take care of housekeeping so that Magda can focus on writing. Despite being Emerence’s employer Magda is rarely, if ever, in control. The power struggle is constant, but at the two women also care deeply about each other. When Emerence lets Magda into her flat that one time, she tells Magda what she wants to happen after her death and explains that when the time comes, Magda is to euthanize the cats that Emerence has been keeping, against regulations, behind her door.
Then Emerence gets very sick and withdraws into her flat, which soon begins to smell. It seems that Emerence is going to die without medical intervention, so Magda tricks her into opening her door on the pretext of collecting a dead cat when the true purpose is to get Emerence to the hospital. In a second betrayal on Magda’s part, as soon as the door is open, Magda rushes off to go do a TV interview and, later, to accept a literary award. Meanwhile Emerence, who’s had a stroke and is unable to walk, is taken to the hospital and the flat she guarded so closely is exposed to the neighborhood. In Magda’s absence, Emerence’s place—now filled with rotten food and waste both human and cat—is ransacked and “decontaminated,” all the furniture burned. Magda hopes to clean up the mess after collecting her award, but by the time she arrives with her good intentions and cleaning supplies, the damage is done. Next, Magda lies to Emerence about what has happened, pretending that nobody but her has seen inside the flat, that Magda has cleaned everything up and is feeding the cats, which have in fact scattered Also, Magda goes to Greece for a week, as a Hungarian delegate to a peace conference, while Emerence is in the hospital. Once Emerence learns of Magda’s lies, she tells Magda to go to hell. Magda leaves the hospital, and Emerence dies.
All of this happens in both the book and the movie. But as you might guess from my preamble, I found some meaning in the movie beyond what I found in the book on first reading—a meaning that suggests there’s hope.
The scene that’s different in the movie and gives the film version of the story its optimistic end is one where Magda and Eva Grossman, who also wronged Emerence, visit Emerence’s grave. Emerence took care of baby Eva during the Holocaust, after Eva’s parents went abroad and her grandparents, Emerence’s employers, took cyanide. Eva is supposed to visit Emerence during a business trip from the U.S., but the trip is canceled. So Emerence makes a feast for Eva—to serve at Magda’s apartment, it so happens—opens her cautious heart up to love or disappointment, and Eva stands her up.
In the book, the pivotal graveside scene occurs as a sort of flash-forward in the narrative, just after the scene where Eva fails to show up for lunch. Near the grave, Eva lights candles, but the wind blows them out.
Every candle flame died the moment it flared into life, as if Emerence were blowing it back in her face with the full force of her lungs. And on countless other occasions after her death it was as if Emerence turned on her ghostly heel and put two fingers up at our guilty consciences, and our attempts to approach her.
And that’s it.
But in the movie, the scene occurs at the very end. Yes, it’s a terrible storm. Then Eva says four words—“Emerence, please forgive me.”—and immediately, the wind and rain die down. Magda looks puzzled and raises her eyes to watch as the storm clouds make for blue sky, white clouds, and sun. It seems that a sentence from a different scene in the book has been repurposed for the end of the movie. “The smile that—against every logical expectation—lit up her face, was like the sun breaking through steel-grey clouds.”
In the book, this particular smile is directed at Magda the night of the Eva Grossman debacle. When Emerence learns that Eva’s not coming, she makes a terrible scene, letting the dog eat the food prepared for Eva from Magda’s late mother’s precious dishes, then beating the dog, all of this in Magda’s mother’s special room. Magda tries to assert her control by asking Emerence to leave and then, later, by bringing Emerence back the leftovers that Emerence had put away in Magda’s fridge.
But after midnight, lying awake next to her husband and thinking about Emerence, Magda feels as if, somehow, she’s in the wrong. So she puts on clothes and goes over to Emerence’s flat, where a light is still on. “I wanted to say something fine and conciliatory, such as that I had no idea what was happening, or had happened earlier, but I was truly sorry that, when she was so upset that afternoon, I hadn’t been more understanding,” Magda writes. But she can’t find the words for that: “Nothing came to mind. I only know what I have to do on paper.” Instead of the apologizing, Magda says to Emerence, “I’m hungry. . . . Have you anything left to eat?” On the surface, this is a bizarre and forward thing for Magda to do, disturbing her employee, at the employee’s home, for a snack in the middle of the night, but it ends up being perfect for the circumstances. Emerence is delighted, hence the smile, and serves Magda a meal on her porch. This is not just any snack. Magda symbolically stands in for Eva, and Magda, unlike Eva that day, is grateful. So is Emerence.
In the movie, the sun comes out after Eva asks for forgiveness. In the movie, Emerence smiles on Eva from heaven. Emerence forgives Eva! It’s beautiful. It also makes me wonder: Might Emerence also forgive Magda?
In both the book and the movie, when Emerence dies, she is furious at Magda: furious at Magda for tricking her into opening her door when what she wanted was to die alone and without the shame of being seen incapacitated; furious at Magda for leaving her at her most vulnerable to go do a TV interview; furious at Magda for lying about what happened.
At the awards ceremony she has left Emerence to attend, Magda thanks Emerence for taking care of her and her husband so that she can write. Emerence isn’t impressed. “Get out. Go and make a speech on television. Write a novel, or run off back to Athens,” Emerence says to Magda in the hospital, the last time they see each other.
In the large scale, that’s what Magda (Szabó) does. From what I’ve read online (see Claire Messud's review in The New York Times), The Door is an autobiographical novel. Magda writes a book in which she honors Emerence and expresses her regret for the way their relationship ended. What Magda doesn’t do is apologize to Emerence and ask forgiveness, in person, at the hospital, when she has the chance.
I think some mixture of shame and pride held Magda back. I wonder if Magda believed to some extent that she didn’t deserve to be forgiven. The last words of the book, part of Magda’s recurring nightmare, are, “My efforts are in vain.” I think that’s how Magda felt about any attempt to apologize to Emerence. I do believe she felt regret. Listen to the way she describes Emerence’s reaction to her when they are face to face. Emerence has started to cry.
She said nothing, but I understood all the same that if I could have accepted that in her impotence she had chosen death, and I had not made her degradation public, while she was still alive, before the street which had held her in such high esteem, then she would have felt I loved her.
These words don’t say “I regret what I did,” but they nonetheless express remorse.
Yet when Magda is face to face with Emerence, she gets defensive. When Emerence covers her head with a towel as Magda arrives at her hospital room, Magda is annoyed. “For the first time, the very first time since the whole avalanche of events had been set in motion, I was filled with resentment and my self-reproach began to fray at the edges. For Heaven’s sake, of what crime was she accusing me? That I hadn’t left her to die?” Magda’s thoughts continue in this vein. “Don’t expect penance from me,” she thinks to herself on one occasion, as Emerence berates her.
Magda does not show penance. “At all events, I’ll phone you if she needs you,” a nurse offers, as Magda is leaving one day. Magda tells the nurse not to bother, that Emerence “won’t accept anything from me, either practically or emotionally.”
But that’s not really true. When Emerence finds out that Magda went to Greece, she is astonished. “You went, when you didn’t even know if I would live?” Magda asks. Sure, Emerence was mad at Magda. But underneath, she still wanted Magda there. Emerence’s throwing a towel over her head once or twice shouldn’t have undone their entire twenty-year relationship. But that brusque gesture, combined with Magda’s shame over the betrayal, was enough to make Magda withdraw when she should have stayed. Even if Emerence had said “I never want to see you again” (Emerence did say, “Get out of here. . . . Go to hell.”) it would have been a mistake for Magda to believe her and leave. She could have sat in the hallway, or in a waiting room, or something.
Instead, Magda leaves and later that evening, while Magda is setting the table for dinner at home, Emerence dies. This is how they parted, as Magda recalls it: “I could see very little of her as I went out. I didn’t say goodbye. I ran home in the rain, wondering all the time what else I should have said. But I could think of nothing.”
It’s only in writing that Magda can express her feelings. Emerence, on the other hand, “could barely read” and values physical work above all else. What might Emerence think of Szabó’s novel?
Szabó doesn’t kid herself that she’s writing for Emerence or that Emerence would care about her book. “This book is written not for God, who knows the secrets of my heart, nor for the shades of the all-seeing dead who witness both my waking life and my dreams. I write for other people,” Magda writes in the novel’s opening.
Instinctively, I think that Emerence, were she looking down from heaven, would think little of the book. Magda needed to write the novel, but I don’t think Emerence needed to read it. What Emerence needed was Magda. What Emerence needed, maybe, was an apology. Magda didn’t apologize in life.
Yet the book itself can be viewed as a long-winded apology, and Emerence does care about those (“Have you come to apologize?” she asks, when Magda shows up at her door to ask her to come back after they’ve had a fight and Emerence has quit. Magda doesn’t apologize, but they do make up.) If we’re going to imagine that Emerence can hear Eva Grossman speaking to her at her grave, maybe we can also imagine that Emerence somehow learns of The Door. The question is, when Emerence hears the apology in Szabó’s book, does the sun come out?
It’s better to do the right thing in the first place than to make a mistake and then write about it. Yet mistakes can’t always be helped, and for writers, words are also actions. I do believe that statements and apologies and books are better than nothing.
I also think Emerence would approve of The Door’s autobiographical nature. When Magda takes Emerence to a set where one of her books is being adapted for film, she’s upset that the film is creating the illusion of branches moving as a way of symbolizing a character’s passionate feelings. Later, Magda writes of Emerence, “She also demanded of me that, in my art, it should be real passion and not machinery that moved the branches. That was a major gift, the greatest of her bequests.” I think this comment, along with the fact that the pet name of the narrator (who, in the book, is otherwise unnamed) is “Magdushka,” hints to the reader that The Door is autobiographical. In this interpretation, Magda Szabó, writer, learned the artistic lesson that Emerence wished to impart, and The Door is what came out of it.
Emerence felt the film was dishonest because it made the viewer think the branches on set were swirling when they weren’t. The Door is not that kind of book. It’s a novel about a complex and heart-rending relationship based, it seems, on a complex and heart-rending relationship that actually existed. Had a camera been there in Budapest recording Magda Szabó and Emerence Szeredás, it would have seen that door open in the moment when Magda betrays Emerence, just as it does in the novel. It’s the best Szabó can do.
So yes, I think that in an imagined scenario in which the dead watch over the living and send signs, Emerence does forgive Magda, eventually. I think she smiles slightly and allows that The Door is not bad, for a book.