Thursday, December 22, 2016

Even my morality is just discipline

Once, after she'd been introduced to the tape recorder in our apartment and told that you could play back a text or a piece of music, she talked about what it would be like if someone's life were recorded and put on tape, to be rewound, stopped and replayed at will. She said she'd accept her own life the way it was; or rather, as is would be up to her death, but with the proviso that she might rewind it to any point she chose. I didn't dare ask where she would stop the machine, and still less, why there. I didn't think she's tell me anyway.
In The Door, by Magda Szabó, a writer describes her tumultuous relationship with her housekeeper Emerence. Emerence is difficult.

The title no doubt refers to the door of Emerence's apartment. No one is allowed inside, ostensibly because of the cat, or nine cats, except for the dog, because the dog is privileged. But perhaps she hides other secrets inside. Late in the novel, there's another door, inside the apartment; it's a door to a past, but it's a mausoleum really, everything turned to dust.

I recently read an interview with Elena Ferrante conducted by Sheila Heti, which helped me put into perspective the writer's relationship with her housekeeper:
In Magda Szabó's The Door, Emerence — the intelligent cleaning-woman with a strong inner code of behaviour, who keeps house for the intellectual woman-writer protagonist—reminds me a bit of Lila, and Szabó's protagonist is reminiscent of your Elena. Yet Emerence is somehow the superior of the pair, as is Lila. Is there something in the figure of the intellectual woman writer that pales in comparison (from the perspective of the woman writing) to the (comparatively) uneducated woman who yet knows and understands the world? Why do so many female writers demean the "intellectual" female figures we create? Do we still not truly value female literary work, women who work with their minds? Is it a kind of self-loathing? Why do we often portray intellectual women as having lost more than they have gained?

You pose a very interesting question; I have to think about it. Why do we invent cultivated, intelligent women and then lower their level or even their pleasure in life? Who knows. Maybe because we're still incapable of a convincing portrayal of female intelligence. We haven't completely set aside the literary model that represented us at the side of a superior man who would take care of us and our children. Thus, though we have now acquired the sense of our inner richness and our intellectual autonomy, we portray them in a minor key, as if our capacity to produce ideas and culture were a presumptuous exaggeration, as if, even having something extra, we ourselves didn't really believe in it. From here, probably, comes the literary invention of secondary female figures who possess that something extra in themselves, remind us of it, assure us that it's there and should be appreciated. We are still in the middle of the crossing, and literature makes do however it can.

Reading The Door has provoked a lot of reflection, about honour and pride and betrayal, discipline, friendship, love, about how we can never get inside somebody else's head, how other people must in some ways forever remain mysterious to us.
She's making these underhand remarks to settle the score, I told myself, but I quickly dropped the thought because I knew this wasn't true. Emerence wasn't getting even. The matter was more complicated than that, and rather more interesting. Emerence was a generous person, open-handed and essentially good. She refused to believe in God, but she honoured him with her actions. She was capable of sacrifice. Things I had to attend to consciously she did instinctively. It made no difference that shewasn't aware of it — her goodness was innate, mine was the result of upbringing. It was only later that I developed my own clear moral standards. One day Emerence would be able to show me, without uttering a word, that what I consider religion is a sort of Buddhism, a mere respect for tradition, and even my morality is just discipline, the result of training at home, in school and my family, or self-imposed.
This is a very beautiful novel, and it did put me in mind of Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet, only it's funnier, while somehow at the same time more serious. Less Latin, more Eastern European (I couldn't help but be reminded of other Hungarian works). Less telenovela, more absurdist crazy cat lady. I will definitely be reading more Szabó.

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