Thursday, April 07, 2016
Magda Szabo's book is about a writer and her husband who hire a housekeeper. Sounds simple, but the woman they get is like a force of nature. Her name is Emerence, and she is an elderly woman and both the greatest housekeeper in the world and also the housekeeper from hell. The couple don't really hire her, Emerence chooses them. "'I don't just wash anyone's dirty linen,'" she tells them.
The narrator becomes obsessed with Emerence, trying to gather information about her or where she lives. No one is given admission to Emerence's house. She holds court on the front porch. When something is denied someone they become fascinated with what they can't see, and so it is with Emerence and her employer.
The couple become so reliant that on Emerence that she can insult them at will. When she does leave they are so bereft and helpless that they beg her to come back. Emerence sneers at world of the writer: "she had no use for culture. All she thought about was how much she could hoard, while doling out charity from a stolen christening bowl, and stupefy me, in the small hours of an anxious morning, with the sort of tale she must have heard from a fairground entertainer or found in a trashy novel in her grandfather's attic."
While the novel is exquisitely written: "There is something very appealing, not in the least bit sad, about an abandoned cemetery in summer," there is a central struggle to embracing the book. Would the reader, in a similar situation, put up with Emerence? Would someone willingly employ someone who frequently called them stupid or foolish, ridiculed their taste, and screamed epithets at them? I initially say no, but then again if that person made my life so much easier by running things I might just put up with it. The narrator frequently says how much she loves Emerence, and the feeling is mutual. Maybe love is expressed with a little more hostility in Hungary.
The last part of the book seems to drag. Emerence's health fails but she will not allow anyone in. Finally, while the narrator is being interviewed on a TV show, authorities break into the old woman's apartment and take her to the hospital. Her home is a health hazard, with a surplus of cats and rotting food, so many of her belongings are torched. The narrator is gripped with guilt for not being there at Emerence's shame, but I found this martyrdom a bit much and over-extended.
Still, this book is a fascinating read. I've never had a domestic, and this certainly makes me think about it. I'd like somebody to come in and clean up after me, but I'm not sure if I want someone to totally take over my life.