April 2015

Morgan Childs


The Door by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix

Why is it so hard for women to be friends? Shortly before high school graduation, I made just the friend I'd been looking for -- a girl with whom I could complain about being friends with girls. Establishing and maintaining amicable intimacy with other women hadn't come naturally to either of us. "Why don't women tell you when they're mad?" we wondered. Why does passive aggression govern disagreements between otherwise articulate, rational individuals? And, most importantly, why do good girlfriends sometimes disappear overnight, thereby "ghosting," or fading away, from otherwise happy friendships?

If I ever have a daughter, I'll be able to reassure her -- as my mother did me -- that it's all uphill after high school, that many of those snags straighten themselves out with age. But the tangled politics of female friendship persist into womanhood, and it seems there's simply no equivalent among men. Now many years out of prep school, my best friend and I can still whine an hour away on the phone about girlfriends who've gone missing or gotten self-absorbed, who aren't returning texts, whose support or honesty falls short. But we live thousands of miles apart now, and I can't help but think the physical distance between us cushions our attachment, making it easier, safer, to remain in close confidence with one another.

The hazard of intimacy between female friends lies at the throbbing, telltale heart of The Door, the 1987 classic by Hungarian author Magda Szabó, appearing in America for the first time in a candid new translation by Len Rix. The Door is something of a love story between its narrator, Magda, and her secretive, solitary housekeeper, Emerence. "I killed Emerence," Magda confesses in the novel's first pages. "The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing." Wracked with guilt, Magda recounts the great pleasures and turmoils of her twenty-year friendship with the impassive old woman, who soon comes to open her emotions -- and later the door to her "Forbidden City," her very private home -- to the young writer.

Magda and Emerence's relationship follows the arc of a marriage as much as it does a platonic friendship, and passion fuels the women's interactions from their meeting until Emerence's death. "Why on earth was I so obsessed with Emerence?" asks Magda, recalling the early days of their friendship. Magda later describes the point at which Emerence's love evolves into absolute trust as possessing a feeling of "white heat." "What did I want from her?" she wonders. "Friendship, or to be fondled like a close relation?"

The women's affection for one another deepens, despite decades of hurt feelings, unmet expectations, and one miserable forgotten birthday. Emerence's demand for complete transparency comes to serve as both a curse and a comfort to Magda; "Other people were not allowed secrets," Magda says of her friend. (Of herself, she confesses, "I didn't like my own secrets. I liked other people's even less.") Through Magda's eyes, the bizarre and improbable Emerence emerges, as riddled with contradictions as any other long-term love: equal parts infuriating and enchanting, worthy of both agony and adoration.

This constant cycling between fury and reconciliation approaches comedy, and perhaps becomes somewhat tiresome, over the course of the novel. Yet Magda's despair at the friendship's premature end befits its intensity, in moments of both ecstatic affection and torturous disappointment. Within the pages of Szabó's macabre novel is an honest depiction of the chasm women ask one another to cross in emotionally intimate friendships -- beyond the fear of betrayal and abandonment, into absolute, unprotected empathy.

Emerence, recalls Magda, "didn't understand that it was because of our mutual love that she went on stabbing me till I fell to my knees." She adds, "Only people truly close to me can cause me real pain." The Door bears the imprint of the unstable century that produced it, in which the totality of secrecy and anxiety governed an uneasy Central Europe. But Szabó's novel speaks to a time- and placeless fear, of opening the door to another person and discovering that they're no longer there. Good friends can indeed disappear overnight, and, when they do, the pain is immense.

The Door by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix
New York Review of Books
ISBN: 978-1590177716
288 pages