Lawrence Dorr has been writing fiction in English for more than forty years. Previous collections of his fiction include A Slow, Soft River (1974), The Immigrant (1976), and A Slight Momentary Affliction (1987). Readers already familiar with him know that Lawrence Dorr is the pen name adopted by a Hungarian survivor of the disasters that visited Hungary before, during, and after World War II. Born in Hungary in 1926, Dorr has lived in the United States since the 1950s, but before that he had experienced the life of an exile or an alien in Hungary, Russia, Austria, and England. Even his fifty years in the USA have not diminished Dorr’s awareness of being a foreigner, an outsider, someone from Eastern Europe.
Eastern Europe has, for more than a century, been an alternative source of news about Europe, the West, and the human soul–news about the impact of world wars, about totalitarianisms, about the Holocaust, about the powerful attractions of irrational forces, about life after the dissolution of the Soviet empire, about despair and hope. For many of us, our sense of the current historical and cultural situation has been shaped at least in part by the contributions of Eastern European writers–from Poland (Jerzy Kosinski and Czeslaw Milosz), the Czech Republic (Franz Kafka, Vaclav Havel, and Milan Kundera), Hungary (Arthur Koestler), Romania (Elie Wiesel), and Croatia (Slavenka Drakulic). They have taught us much of what we know about our personal and political selves and about our situation, about the murderous twentieth century and its aftermath, knowledge of our dreams and our nightmares we should find it hard to do without, although we manage to keep this knowledge at a comfortable distance, mainly.
But Lawrence Dorr, having lived through much of the same Eastern European history as these other writers, tells us what he knows in ways that set him apart from the others; what he has learned also sets him apart. The stories collected in Dorr’s award-winning A Bearer of Divine Revelation bear testimony to what can be and has been lost. But they bear testimony to what can be recovered, as well, at least from Dorr’s point of view, and his point of view is worth our attention.
What is notable and striking about Dorr for many readers is his bold practice of describing losses and reappearances not only in the drama of persons, ideologies, and causes, but also in explicit references to the outward features or manifestations of spiritual and religious life–a shaft of light, the shape of a cross, bits of Scripture, fragments of the Latin mass, references to works of art, icons, crucifixes, liturgy, hymns, and sacraments. Dorr unapologetically brings these features into his stories, boldly assuming that such things exist in the world and therefore exert small and large influences on people, at expected and unexpected moments.
Dorr holds to at least one more bold set of assumptions: made in God’s image, we humans are built for beauty, for delight, for pleasure. Made in God’s image, we are meant for community, for communion, for love. Made in God’s image, we make and keep promises; we are meant for obedience and service, and for the prospering and thriving that accompany such faithfulness. We are meant for joy. For this view of human time and divine intention, Lawrence Dorr deserves our attention.
He was standing next to the small bedroom window where he could look down on the Devonshire coastline. The bedroom had been a stable hayloft for more than a hundred years before his in-laws converted it for their Florida family’s two-year stay. It was a simple conversion: the floor had been vacuumed, two wardrobes, a desk for his typewriter, a bunk bed and a double mattress had been installed through the trapdoor. There was also a w ooden display case housing grandfather’s bird-egg and butterfly collections nailed to the wall close to the children’s bunk bed. He and Meg slept on the double mattress placed on the floor under a skylight set into the sloping roof, framing the branches of a cherry tree. The chamber pot sat discreetly under his desk. Due to the peculiarities of the British tax system, installing a w.c. in the cottage would have brought heavy new taxes. Fortunately, there was a conveniently located outside w.c. twenty yards on the east side of his in-laws’ two-story stone house, The Croft (a misnomer: it was a Victorian mansion not a West Highland cottage), built on a terrace surrounded on three sides by grassy banks. In front of the house, a steep dell led down to a stone wall. The Croft could easily have accommodated them all but it was decided after long trans-Atlantic discussions between Meg and her parents that he, Meg, and the children should have their own private space. This decision was responsible for his in-laws’ turning part of the stable into a cottage. In addition to the hayloft bedroom, there was a small room downstairs with a fireplace that had been used by coachmen in the past. A sink and a hotplate had been added. They ate their suppers here and performed their light ablutions in the mornings. When it got too cold to work upstairs under the un-insulated roof, he wrote here at the table with his back to the fireplace. Once the children had left to walk down to the village school and Meg had driven off to the hospital in Exeter for her anatomy studies, the room was absolutely quiet. Sometimes he felt lonely and homesick for North Florida. But they were in England for several important reasons: Meg was completing advanced studies in Occupational Therapy that would qualify her for a position as clinical director in the U.S., and the children were getting to know their English grandparents better. But the most important reason was the possibility that his mother might be allowed out from communist Hungary to visit them in England, though for some reason a visit to the U.S. was out of the question.
In the evenings he never felt lonely or homesick. They read aloud from books Meg and her sisters had heard as children, then the hot-water bottles were filled, burped, and the stoppers secured. Everybody changed into pajamas in front of the fireplace, the fire was banked for the night, and the light-switch for upstairs was clicked on. As the father, it was his duty to race up the stepladder first, hold open the trapdoor while the rest of them made their charges into the icy interior of the bedroom, shouting and admiring their cloudy breaths.
Perching on the edge of his desk looking through the small window of their bedroom, he watched the white spumes arching over the top of the cliff like giant apparitions. Even with the window closed he could hear the shingle rolling on the beach and the cry of the seagulls. He was shivering. In seven months he still had not learned that in the English countryside, unless one lived in a small cozy cottage down in the village, one had to dress warmly for the inside as well. When they had arrived on Sibet’s eighth birthday on September 17th, it was a warm, sunny day. The Flanders, on her way to France, did not dock in England. She only dropped anchor to await a tender coming out from Plymouth. Standing on the deck of The Flanders surrounded by their luggage, they spotted Meg’s father on the approaching tender wearing his clerical collar under a light tweed jacket. Only his family called him “Father.” To his small country congregations he was Mr. Wilkinson, or Wilkie. He was “broadchurch.” His cousin Ronald (the children’s beloved Uncle Ronald), the rector of Saint Saviour in London, was an Anglo-Catholic, and his congregation always addressed him as “Father.” Saint Saviour was one of the few structures on East India Dock Road that remained standing after the Blitz. It was Uncle Ronald who had introduced the children to Kiplin
g’s Just So Stories.
Today it was too cold to try to write upstairs. He went down the steps and carefully closed the trapdoor behind him. The coal in the fireplace was alive, pulsating with the regularity of a heartbeat. He sat down at the table feeling the heat embrace his whole body. With his back to the fire he could see only the sink and the towel rack. When it was still possible to write upstairs without freezing, instead of working on the novel (for which he had received an advance), he wrote variations on the view framed by his small window. There were the grass-topped chalk hills with sheer flint-embedded sides that resembled halved sticky-buns. And sheep, puffs of white and gray clouds in the folds between the hills. Intermittently he could hear them bleating but only when the shingle on the beach, that rattled with the manic ferocity of giants shaking their dice cups, was silent for a few seconds between waves. Watching the sheep graze, he noticed the lower parts of their legs were hidden in the long grass and realized what great observers the prehistoric cave painters were when in some of their paintings they didn’t depict the lower legs of a deer or a horse.
He missed the horses and hoped that the young couple they had left in charge were looking after everything properly. The horses had been part of his life for the past twelve years in North Florida where many of the hunter-jumpers, show jumpers, and dressage horses were bred and trained by part-time farmers like himself. During those years, other than in his speech, he had become not only a generic American citizen but a southerner. When rummaging in his father-in-law’s theological library the other day for something to read, he had picked Early Church History to A.D. 313 by Henry Melvill Gwatkin, solely on the strength of Mr. Gwatkin being “Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Cambridge.”
He did not miss art-modeling, his only steady job for the last nine years. He had been working at Elwin Porter’s Commercial & Fine Arts Studios when he was asked for the first time to pose for a crucifixion. “Why me?” he had asked. “Because of your hungry Arab look,” Elwin Porter said. “Grow a beard.” They offered him a raise of two dollars an hour. So for the last six years he had hung from crosses constructed from studio easels and six-foot lengths of 2 by 4. He worked in three-hour sessions with a five-minute break every twenty-five minutes. He usually worked six hours a day.
The first few minutes never hurt much. He could watch them watching him and listen to their wisecracking that sounded as if, for some reason, they were embarrassed. Then he couldn’t hold up his head anymore. There was silence and he could hear the timer ticking away. He tried to hold his breath to rest his back muscles but then the next breath hurt even more. His noisy heartbeat had drowned out the timer. He couldn’t tell if it was already twenty minutes or only five. The artists were bent over their easels. He could see the irritating old cigar-chewer’s bald spot on the top of his head, like surrender to time, and understood him better. The commercial art student who had asked to be allowed to come to this class was crying. Then they all had become a blur and he heard Sibelius’ Valse lyrique that his mother played on the big Boesendorfer piano that made him dizzy because he was sitting underneath the piano to observe the pedals move and to hear the little “bump” sound they made.
Then the timer was ringing, and somebody said: “Rest.” Elwin Porter and one of the artists removed the upper part of the cross. “Walk around,” they said.
The gravel on the terrace announced the arrival of a car. The little red chaindriven Royal Mail truck, a working museum piece, was delivering the post. After a few minutes the gravel rattled again signaling its departure. He got up and left the cottage. The mail was always deposited in The Croft on the hall table that stood between a coat rack and a thick ceramic receptacle holding umbrellas and walking sticks. Resting on top of the table was a paper knife and a bronze East Indian gong that he expected, any day now, to obnounce with its deep doom-filled voice. Four months ago he had sent his latest short story collection to his mother who was stuck behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary. As a girl, his mother had had an English nanny who taught her to listen to the BBC’s world service so that she would not forget the language. She had followed that advice all her life. Every day for the past four months he had imagined her reading his stories sitting in her fauteuil that was the color of their dead Weimaraner, Ricky. It was the only piece of her furniture that had survived World War II and the 1956 Revolution.
Today there was only one letter, the long-awaited one, an oblong, blue envelope with the legend: Legiposta, and underneath it: Air Mail. He looked at the strangely beautiful gothic handwriting that had become the essence of his mother. They had not seen each other for fifteen years. If he went back to visit, he would end up in a concentration camp, although now in 1960 the Communist regime cynically allowed some of its citizens to leave the country when they reached the age of sixty-five. His mother had turned sixty-five in January.
He carefully slit open the letter and unfolded it.
My sweet Son,
I had to turn in my passport to receive an exit visa from the Hungarian government before applying for a visa from the British embassy. Hungarian passports now are valid only for three months. The passport office waited until my passport had become invalid before sending it back to me accompanied by your short story collection. It was the first time I had seen your lovely book with your photo on it. Your stories are a great comfort for me. I recognized some of the places you described and my straw Tyrolean hat.
I so wanted to meet your lovely, angelic wife Meg and my beautiful grandchildren Sibet and Johnyka and your kind and loving in-laws. Beloved, I do not expect that we will see each other again in this life. There does not seem to be the possibility that the Soviets will ever leave and take their Hungarian satraps with them. I try not to be bitter. Bitterness and hate eat into your flesh and that can cause cancer. Even if you were here you could do nothing to help me. Every week we hear stories about people killed at the border trying to escape.
My blessings on all of you,
Moaning like a wounded beast, he lifted the padded hammer and struck the gong just as his father-in-law came in to check on the post.
“It’s a rather glorious sound, isn’t it,” his father-in law said.
As he walked back to the stable, the gravel began to sound like his footsteps in the deep snow during the endless retreat from the Dnieper in 1943. When he opened the green cottage door, it grated and creaked like something in the nineteenthirties mystery theater plays he had heard on Radio Budapest. The small room downstairs felt overheated and smelled nauseatingly of bacon. He had not washed up the breakfast dishes nor had he taken upstairs the pajamas that the children had strewn all over the bamboo settee and matching bookcase. His portable typewriter was on the table. He had written a paragraph earlier but now couldn’t even force himself to re-read it. His mother’s blue airmail letter had become the stimulus for an associative pattern that brought back the full-blown memory of the end of World War II, when he believed for a short time that through writing poetry, he could reclaim his humanity, which had been so thoroughly waylaid in the last four years, only to find that his poems had less value– even to himself–than a head of cabbage.
On the bookcase next to the ancient Phillips radio was a packet of black and white photos of his mother that in the evenings he used as flas
h cards so that Meg and the children would not meet a stranger. There was one of her in a black lace offshoulder dress looking pensive as if, having glimpsed the future, she was holding back tears. She was incredibly beautiful like a night-blooming cereus concentrating all her loveliness for that moment in time. There were other less dramatic photos of her: picking wild flowers in a field; standing next to her Nonius mare, her riding skirt draped over her arm; sitting at the piano, her head turned toward the photographer. He had taken that picture himself with his first box camera. He shoved the photos away realizing he had been looking at his mother as if she were already dead. To distract himself, he turned on the wireless. The BBC program already in progress was about a condemned man in California, a mass murderer tagged the “Lovers’ Lane Killer,” who after nine years on death row was soon to be executed. He switched off the wireless but his thoughts stayed with the man about to die. He too, had once awaited execution, standing against a weatherbeaten green carriage gate. He was afraid of the pain that the bullets would cause but the real horror came from the thought of being alone, trapped in a black, seamless, suffocating, timeless nothing. They were shouting questions at him from behind their guns. He had no answers to give. After awhile they lowered their rifles and led him away.
He sat down at the table again and looked over at the sink and the towel rack hung with a souvenir dishtowel from the Lake District depicting Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit.
“That’s really the Easter Bunny,” Johnny had said. Tonight the children would be dyeing eggs ready for Easter Sunday. He hoped the weather would be fine for the egg hunt. Then, without any transition, the reality of Good Friday came upon him, of Jesus, his tortured body bent over, carrying the upper beam of the heavy cross on his way to Calvary. He would be nailed on with real nails. No timer would ring and nobody would shout: “Rest.” He beheld the suffering, pain-wracked Man trudging toward Golgotha. He began to cry.
On Sunday morning he awoke early. Above his head the skylight set into the sloping roof had become an abstract painting, a pale-green colorfield dominating the branches of the cherry tree. His watch on the floor beside him said: 5:30. Meg and the children were sleeping.
Downstairs he pulled on his jeans, sweatshirt, socks, and boots. He stoked up the fire, careful not make any noise, and went outside, promising himself once more to put graphite on the door hinges. The intermittent March wind touched the tree branches and the primroses on the banks around The Croft. He walked toward the outside w.c. staying on the grass at the edge of the terrace to avoid the noisy gravel. He could see down into the dell where clumps of wood violets and daffodils formed small congregations. He faintly heard the invisible sheep on the shrouded hills around him. The shingle on the beach rolled lazily, commanded by a slow, rhythmic clapping of the sea.
After he flushed the toilet and stepped outside to go back to bed, he had to shield his eyes from the unbearable majesty of the rising sun. The door of the w.c. faced east. Turning right, he was surrounded by a clear white light that rendered the cottage thirty yards away invisible. There was total silence, as if the earth, having received the knowledge of the Lord, told the March wind to stop blowing and the sea to desist. He fell to his knees. Seeing the vision of the unveiled Face, he lay down covering his head with his arms and expecting the black, seamless, suffocating nothing that had waited for him since he had been led away from the green, peeling carriage gate, but instead there was light without any shadows. He closed his eyes, overwhelmed by love.