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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lots of chracters, sketches, incidents in Englander's novel but will these elements cohere into a plot?

Have started Nathan Englander's short but complicated novel Dinner at the Center of the World; I'm drawn into his narrative and will definitely finish reading the book as it's pretty fast going, but I'm a little befuddled as well. Gradually, the main characters come into focus, but NE doesn't make it easy for us, as the novel is broken into short chapters, some set in 2002 others in 2014, some in Israel (or on the border, or on either side of the Gazan border), some in Berlin, some in Paris. At first I threw up my hands (figuratively) in despair, but persistence pays off, and now I'm pretty sure I grasp the main characters: An American named Z who in 2002 is in Paris, having worked for some spy agency, presumably an Israeli operation, and having betrayed the operation, perhaps turning against Israel and becoming a double agent of some sort; in 2014 we see Z as a prisoner in Israel, largely held incommunicado (not on any official record), trying to communicate with a top figure in authority through his jailhouse guard, whose mother works for this top man. Second: The top man, called The General (Israeli readers will probably know right off whom this represents, or of whom he's a composite - I suspect he's based on Sharon), a war hero and later political leader now (2014) in near-comatose state and cared for by a loyal servant, Ruthi; we also have scenes of his earlier life, including a scene in which he hears a shot and rushes outside to see his son shot to death by his (the General's) prize antique rifle (at least I think that's what happened; pretty hard to shoot one's self w/ a rifle, however) and in another we see him blown up in a tank explosion - the incident that presumably put him in a comatose state? Third: a Palestinian-born man named Farid whose family sent him off to Europe in youth and now we see him in Berlin (2002) running business deals and fitting in as a prosperous international type. His relationship to the other characters has not been established at all.  He does befriend a man who says he's a businessman from Canada involved in sales of used computers and needs help with some merchandise stuck in Egypt, and the 2 seem on the verge of forming a partnership - though we have to suspect that either or both may be spies or double agents. Ditto for Z, in Paris in 2002, fearful for his life, and we have to suspect that his supposedly Italian girlfriend whom he supposedly meets by chance in a bookstore (she'd previously waited on him in a Near Eastern restaurant) is also an agent or double agent. OK so lots of little sketches of character and action, but how or when will these elements cohere into a plot?


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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Possible interpretations of Svabo's The Door

Magda Szabo's The Door (1987) comes full circle and ends where it began, w/ the narrator suffering from nightmare visions of an impenetrable doorway, as she's in mourning for her late friend/emplyee/servant, Emerence, and in agony over her failure to help Emerence in her last days, in fact betraying her by taking part in a scheme to get her out of her decrepit apartment and into the health-care system - and then leaving the scene to do a TV appearance while E is being hauled away and decontaminated by a medical team. In the final chapters, the narrator is lured into lying to E, now hospitalized and recovering from a stroke, and telling her that her apartment is ready for her return - when in fact the entire apartment has been ripped apart and all of her possessions have been incinerated. When it becomes clear that E is ready to return "home" the narrator has to tell her the truth, and she carries guilty about this well beyond E's funeral and beyond all reason. At the end, she inherits the contents of a room that E has kept locked away for decades: turns out to be a priceless set of antique furniture (once property of a Jewish family that fled Hungary), but when the narrator touches the furniture in literally (is this possible?) crumbles into a pile of dust - the wood had been devoured by wood lice. OK so there are a # of ways in which to read this novel, aside from the realist/naturalist tone as a stoyr about the complex relations between two women and their cultural clashes (artist-intellectual v hard-working and long-suffering servant), and I'll touch on a few. First and most obvious, religious allegory: there are many allusions to the life (and death) of Jesus, and in some ways we can see E as a Christ-figure, giving up her life for others, suffering, dying, living on in memory - but also perhaps a false prophet (the legacy crumbling into a pile of dust)? Second, a political analogy, in which maybe E represents the hypocrisy and oppression of the Hungarian government during its various phases of crisis: Nazi occupation/influence and anti-Semitism during the war, repression of free expression during Soviet occupation - and the narrator's struggle w/ her over the course of a lifetime represents the struggle of contemporary Hungarians (or anyone) with an oppressive government. Third, conflict between writer (the narrator) and muse - with E. providing the comfort and security than enables to writer to compose, but disappearing at times and demanding of obeisance and tribute at all times. Finally, there are many references to Greek myth and tragedy, many of which alluded me, but some we can see are part of the scheme - with E. wrathful and petulant like Achilles as battles rage outside. There may be other suggestions as well. 




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Friday, October 20, 2017

Powerful chapters near the end of Szabo's The Door as we learn why the narrator feels guilty over Emerence's death

The late chapters in Magda Szabo's The Door (1987), in which the narrator builds the story to its crisis, tell of how the narrator comes to feel that she is responsible for the death of her friend/employee/servant/neighbor/housekeeper, Emerence - which the narrator foreshadowed in the opening chapter (in which she said that E is dead and she, the narrator, suffers from nightmares stemming from, she believes, her guilt over E's death). In these chapters we see how the fiercely independent E becomes ill and refuses all help from neighbors, pretty much barricading herself in her apartment (along w/ the 9 cats). The narrator agrees to lure E out of her apartment with all good intention, hoping to get her the medical help she desperately needs; but when E understands that the attempt to get her to open her door is a ruse, and that a medical team will grab her and bring her to a hospital, she becomes violent - they have to batter in her door to get to her. Worse (for the narrator), the narrator was trying to squeeze this stratagem into a busy day's schedule - so before E could be subdued she had to dash off to a TV station for an interview (she's receiving a major prize for her fiction - this seems closely modeled on Szabo's own life). After her TV interview and other obligations, the narrator returns home and sees that E has been forcibly removed and that her apartment is a total disaster of almost unimaginable filth and decay; Szablo does a great job depicting this scene of horror. E is taken to a hospital after literally being decontaminated, and her spirit is entirely broken - and the narrator feels overwhelming remorse for turning on E and then turning away from her when she most needed comfort or at least protection. These are powerful emotional scenes, made even more so in that it's hard for us to understand why the narrator is to attached to and fond of E., but this understanding builds slowly, gradually through the course of the narrative, as we begin to see how rivals, antagonists, strong and wilful personalities can clash but also can come to depend on each other. 




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Thursday, October 19, 2017

The complete eccentricity of Emerence in Szabo's The Door

Passing the half-way point in Magda Szabo's 1987 novel, The Door, and am getting more puzzled all the time about the central character, the narrator's servant-maid-housecleaner Emerence. Like the narrator we learn more about her back story as the novel unfolds, but much of what we learn at one point turns out to be false or misconstrued, as we realize later, and maybe it's my inattentiveness over the past 2 days of reading but I can't even answer some of the basic questions. At one point it's implied - as the narrator learns on a visit to E's native town - that she had a child, but we later learn from E that the child was an orphan entrusted to her care (she turns out to be the expected guest from America who never turns up for the dinner E has prepared for her, leading to curses and vitriol and an incredible temper tantrum). We know that E had a traumatic childhood - but did she really have twin siblings who died in a lightning strike while in E's care? We know she sheltered wounded soldiers, persecuted Jewish families, and others in her house - during WWII and, it seems, also during the era of Soviet dominance. She tells the narrator that one of the people she sheltered - for 2 years, I think - later rose to prominence in the Hungarian government (she refers to him as "the lawyer's son" - here's an area where the nuances are lost by non-Hungarian readers, I'm afraid). What we do know is that, whatever trauma she faced and whatever good she has done for people in need, she is an extremely difficult and incorrigible character in later life, the time span of this novel: adamant in her condemnation of all religion, narrow-minded in her opinions about literature (worthless) and art (movies are decrepit, she announces, once she learns that they're based on illusion and effects), strangely doctrinaire in her view that only work with one's hands has merit (as the narrator notes, she could have become a great Communist leader had it not been for her contempt for government), hateful of all those who try to help her, indiscriminate in her cold-blooded attitude toward death (she writes a will that among other things commands the narrator to kill her 9 cats so as to avoid their slow death via starvation and neglect), and just plain weird in her ambitions - saving her money to erect an elaborate crypt for herself and the exhumed bodies of her family members. It's hard to sympathize with this eccentric, and part of what drives the novel is speculation about why the narrator tolerates her and even comes to like her.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

One of the most enigmatic characters in literature (in Szabo's The Door)

The servant, maid, cleaning lady, housekeeper, employee, whatever you want to call her - her name is Emerence - in Magda Szabo's The Door (1987) remains - about half-way through the novel - among the most enigmatic characters in literature. She is a woman of near-pathological extremes: at times fiercely protective of her privacy (won't allow anyone even closest friends into her house, yells and screams at the narrator not to bother her in off hours when narrator shows up at her door to ask a Emerence to pick up a package) and at times morbidly confessional (in various long passages she tells the narrator about her tragic childhood and death by lightning of her twin siblings, shares w/ narrator her loathing of organized religion), at times sentimental and faithful (she becomes completely devoted to the narrator - and even more so to the dog whom she inexplicably names Viola, although the dog is a male) and at other times cold and indifferent (she casually tells the narrator how she abetted her best friend's suicide the night before, all while shelling peas for dinner, even asking the befuddled narrator to help). What are we to make of her? Is she just an eccentric, or is she suffering from some kind of mental illness or for some traumatic disorder? We know that she lived through the Nazi takeover of Hungary during WWII, maybe even thrived under Nazi rule? She know that she has endured the years of Soviet domination. She drops a hint that she worked at one time for a police department. What has she seen, what has she imagined, what horrors have made her who she is, and why is she so strange? She seems to me a credible and sympathetic character, but I believe there's more to Szabo's narrative than just a study in mental disorder. Her malady seems in some ways characteristic of her nation and her time, though in what way this may be so I'm not yet sure.


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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The enigmas of the central characters in Szabo's The Door

The late Hungarian Magda Szabo is best known to the extent she's known at all to American readers for her 1987 novel, The Door, which got some great reviews when recently reprinted in the admirable New York Review Books series of rediscoveries. A year or so back I read another novel by her, Iza's Ballad, and then our book group read it and we were blown away by her style, knowledge, and intelligence. Started reading The Door last night and can see immediately why it was so well received. Szabo knew how to put the bone in the throat; in the first (very short) chapter, almost like a preface, the narrator (unnamed?) confesses that she has repeated nightmares about being shut behind a glass door, and she ties these nightmares into the death of her cleaning woman (can't recall her name; begins w E and that's what I'll call her); in fact, she says she caused the death of E - and that's where the story begins. Over the next 50 or so pp we learn about the strange relationship between the narrator's family (she and her husband, both 60-something intellectuals, in Budapest; the narrator is a writer, obviously a replica of Szabo herself - though this is clearly not a memoir) and this serving woman: E. E is the most hard-working servant ever, but also one of the strangest. In Szabo's time we didn't really have the vocabulary for this, but today we can see that E is "on the spectrum" with some form of autism. She has no capacity for building relationships or showing empathy. She's prone to strange outbursts of vitriol, and fiercely protects her private life. In fact, she will let nobody into her house and she keeps doors and windows blocked. The narrator speculates that E may be hoarding loot pilfered from Jewish homes during WWII; it's also possible that she is afraid for some reason. E has a morbid fear of thunderstorms, and one night in a rare moment of openness she described her horrendous childhood to the narrator - telling a story of her twin siblings, entrusted to her care, killed by a lightning strike. That would explain her fear, but it seems too pat and maybe fabricated, though she does also seem like one suffering from PTSD , cause unknown. So lots of strands open in the first few chapters, we see E as troubled and perhaps dangerous, can't determine whether she's to be pitied or loathed. I also wonder how this fits in with other employer-servant novels - thinking for the moment of My Antonia - but this one seems so much darker and tied in some way not yet clear to the horrors of WWII and to the difficulties, in particular for writers and intellectuals, during the rise of the Soviet bloc.


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Monday, October 16, 2017

Another fine story from Tessa Hadley in current NYer

As noted in previous posts I have become a fan of Tessa Hadley's short fiction - after initial indifference too her work, which seemed to me to calm, careful, "British" - so maybe she has evolved or maybe I have or maybe I just missed something crucial in her early stories. Her story in current New Yorker, Funny Little Snake (terrible title, but forget that for the moment - supposed to be a barbed term of endearment a neglectful mother uses for her 9-year-old daughter) is as strong and mysterious as anything she's written. Story focuses on a stepmother - 2nd and much younger wife of an established academic, historian, in a North England university town - who is suffering through a visit of her husband's daughter, who seems cold and anti-social. When the week-long visit is up, the husband announces that he has various academic obligations and can't bring his daughter back to London; the stepmom (Valerie?) does so, and on arrival at the young girl's home we see immediately that the mom is criminally neglectful: drinking heavily, using marijuana, the house is a sty, the girl's bedroom is a mess w/ only a ragged sleeping bag on the bed, a "musician" is hanging around in his underwear, and so forth. At the end, the stepmom "rescues" the daughter and decides to bring her north to live w/ her and her father. (It's possible that this is part of a longer narrative that will continue from that point; if so, I have to say that it does stand perfectly well as a story in its own right.) Hadley does a great job establishing the various scenes and moods that we move through with this narrative; where she's particularly great, though, is in her subtle, almost hidden touches, particularly about the father/husband: his whining way of asking/ordering wife to bring the girl back to London, his weird tendency to refer to himself in the 3rd person, his "corrections" of his wife's syntax (call it "dinner" or "supper," not "tea," e.g.), her sense of inferiority at her lack to college/university education - in other words, Hadley shows us the stress lines and small fractures in their relationship. How long can it last? Did they really "rescue" the young girl, or just bring her into another psychodrama?
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