THE DOOR, by Magda Szabo, Len Rix- Translator, Paperback, 288 pages, 2015 NYRB Classics, originally published in 1987
I used to think life’s synchronicities and coincidences were proof that there was some higher organizing power at work; I didn’t call it god — because childhood Catholic damage and early life experience convinced me that any divinity was definitely not male — nor did I conflate it with any image presented by an organized religion, but, rather, I developed a personal cosmology in which I believed there was an overriding spiritual plan, a group consciousness to which we all belonged, to which we were all connected, to which we all had access if only we cultivated self-evolvement and awareness enough to handle the Light and Love there, a power and presence emanating from the center of all that we are, were, would be, could be, and I believed our task here on this plane of existence was to do the best we could to translate that Love and Light into positive energy by living decent, thoughtful, considered, moral lives.
I don’t believe that anymore. (I don’t believe in much of anything anymore, but that is a subject for another blog post.)
If I did, I would be wondering what the powers of Love and Light were trying to tell me by presenting me with so many recent run-ins with translations.
Confession: I long ago determined to avoid translated fiction. Here’s why: I write. I write from a very specific place of heart, soul, me-ness, made there by the decades of my life, by each and every experience, moment, event — the recalled and the forgotten — and sometimes even I don’t understand why I MUST choose one word over another, why a paragraph must be shaped like a sonnet, why this or that particular sentence calls for alliteration or internal rhyme or short staccato words or — well, you know what I mean. When I read, I listen for voices vibrating with truth and bursting with the energy of a specific self: writing that connects to my soul because it is a song from the writer’s soul that I hear. Such soul-songs can’t be imitated. Now, it is rare enough to discover such writers, and I don’t think energy and honesty like that can be translated. I can sing In Buddy’s Eyes, word for word, rhythm for rhythm, same tempo, same notes, same breaths as Miss Barbara Cook, but it isn’t her In Buddy’s Eyes. It’s just not the same song, not telling the same story, because we are different souls with different frames of reference and different hearts and life experiences, and we cannot tell exactly the same story even if we are singing the same song because art and truth are always individual.
Thus, my belief, a translation is not really the work of the author, nor, completely the work of the translator, but, rather, a collaboration of two artists — a story told through a number of filters and screens and no matter how skilled and well-intended the translator, what we are getting is an adulteration and alteration of the original. That’s a very different thing and so cannot — I’ve always believed — have the heft and propulsion of truth and soul-flow I search for in what I read.
So, I came to Magda Szabo’s The Door with those feelings in play. But, caveat, just about a month ago I read the brilliant Idra Novey’s debut novel, Ways To Disappear [click HERE for recap], which happened to be about a translator. Too, Ms. Novey is a translator and her novel is gorgeous and heartfelt and sang to me with an emotional purity all too rare — so, I began to reconsider my translation bigotry. I mean, If Ms. Novey’s own writing was so glorious, surely the writing of those she considered worthy of her translations was worth reading? So, approaching The Door, I was a bit less — okay — judge-y, and, too, it didn’t hurt that it was sent me by a dear friend who loved it, thus, I was predisposed to approach it with an open heart and mind and soul, waiting for its song.
Wow. A writer — not so coincidentally named Magda — employs Emerence — only after Emerence approves of Magda and her husband — as a housekeeper, but Emerence becomes the center of Magda’s life; her conscience, a presence of fairy tale giantess proportions, Emerence is both ogre and wizard in the world she and Magda inhabit, and Emerence rules it, replete with magical powers rendering her able to communicate with animals and complete mountains of work beyond the scope of ordinary human efforts, all the while — like Rumpelstiltskin secreted away his name to maintain his power — Emerence shrouds, veils and cloaks her past, her history, her own life, unwilling to trust.
Yes. This is a fairy tale. And a love story. Because Magda works to win Emerence over; Emerence represents a world and a reality to which Magda wishes access, a world of moral absolutes far simpler than the complicated network of subterfuge and chicanery of the communist society in which Magda has just re-gained approval, where she has just been permitted to write, to be heard again.
Eventually in this novel of minimal plotting, Magda must choose between the approval and sanction of that world and Emerence’s trust and secrets, a choice that seems at once complex and obvious. Both women open doors to the other that they do not, would not, could not open to others — they are fated together, like Mother and child, like lovers, like soul-mates — and experience the violent resistances and operatic reunions that such inevitable loves entail — and finally, what they have cannot be denied or contained or explained or understood. This:
I know now, what I didn’t know then, that affection can’t always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways; and that one cannot prescribe the form it should take for anyone else.
That is the story of this novel. Two very difficult, very beautiful people, journey together through their lives, separate and yet inextricably wound together, and arrive at the inevitable loss that any love brings; there is always an ending, sooner or later, death in one of its guises arrives. Through description of a relationship between two people writ small on one street, Szabo limns the world, the universe created; a universe of disappointments and thrills and despairing and delight that two people bring one another when an agreement is reached to care, when permission is given to trust, when that door of self is open.
Now, final caveat, I had a tough time making it through this book. There seemed to me a distance between the truth I found — or felt — behind the words, inside the words, and the actual words, and I attribute this to the translation process.
And to finish on a personal note about belief and translations, as I began, Emerence did not believe in god, or an ever after, and so, reading this now, where I am going in my life, gave me a difficult and painful shock. You see, for many years, as I said, I did believe in an ever after, an eternity. When life sucked, when loss or sorrow were the daily bread, I took comfort in thinking that when I died I would spend eternity with loved ones. My dear aunt, Sissie, she and I would often imagine heaven together, where we would spend forever opening night-ing at Mary Martin and Barbra Streisand musicals, chatting at the Algonquin Round with Dorothy Parker and the crew. And, too, later, I believed I would be united with the great love I’d known and lost, and he would no longer be riven by fear, but, rather, would love me openly, embracingly, always. That eternity, that reward, it kept me going. It gave me reason to translate the pain, the mystery of the crap that falls on one in life into something else, to search for the meaning and the music in the misery — well, while reading this book I was struck (slapped, assaulted, torn asunder by) the realization hitting home with full force that I, like Emerence, no longer believe, and so I see little point in translating all the idiocy and cruelty and hardship of life, and without belief in ever after or translation, well, the days, my days, like this book, are difficult for me to get through because I can no longer hear the soul-song.
Or, even, believe there is a song left waiting to be heard.
Later, my friends.