Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Magda Szabo, _The Door_ (tr. Len Rix)

THIS PUT ME in mind of Marilynne Robinson. Is it a Calvin connection? Szabo was and Robinson is Christian in the Reformed tradition, and I wonder if that commonality grounds the thematic similarities that struck me.

So--you know what this book is about, yes? Got a lot of attention in the last couple of years. Autobiographical to a large extent, apparently--Hungarian writer (Magda), target of Stalinist scrutiny and sorely stressed, hires a housekeeper (Emerence). The employer-employee relationship soon outgrows its normal boundaries over a (I would guess) ten-year period, the writer becoming involved in the life of Emerence and thereby with her neighbors' lives in unexpected ways. Finally, the writer's long-delayed recognition (with end of Stalinist freeze out) arrives at the very same moment as a mortal crisis for Emerence.

One Robinsonian resonance: the assumptions Magda makes about Emerence always turn out to be wrong--shallow, stereotyped, ungenerous. Magda, like you and me, over-presumes. People are always more than we are likely to guess, their histories, families, sufferings, and hopes a more complicated, probably more terrible compound than our weak imaginations can conjure for them. There is more to any passerby on the street than you will ever comprehend. This is the lesson John Ames learns about Jack Boughton in Gilead, but you can see other versions of it all over Robinson's work.

A second Robinsonian resonance: kingdoms not of this world. Can anyone blame Magda for abandoning Emerence, in a dire hour, to a handful of competent neighbors and professional helpers,  so that she, Magda, can dash to Parliament to accept a literary prize, be interviewed on television, and so on? Well, no--no one of this world would blame her, at least. But from the perspective of the Absolute? That's different. As in every Robinson novel from Housekeeping on, we are shown the contest between the way things seem to good sensible people like ourselves, and the way they stand in the implacable but invisible Real. You had best be on the side of the Real, prizes or no prizes.

So--how Christian is all that? Not that Szabo or Robinson either one runs much risk of winding up in the "Christian fiction" shelves with the Amish romance novels.

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