A Bearer of Divine Revelation

James Vanden Bosch

Lawrence Dorr has been writing fiction in English for more than forty years; this most recent gathering of his short stories follows three earlier collections: A Slow, Soft River (1973), The Immigrant (1976), and A Slight Momentary Affliction (1987). More than half of the fifteen stories that make up A Bearer of Divine Revelation come from the earlier collections, but their appearance here gives them new focus and new life. Taken together, these fifteen stories allow the reader to discover not only Dorr’s mastery of his chosen genre but also the larger pattern in which he wants these stories to be understood.

Readers who already know his work know Lawrence Dorr as 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. (Corbin Scott Carnell’s introduction to A Slow, Soft River provides the basic biographical information about these years, and about his transition to American life and culture.) And even his fifty years in the United States 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 the writers I’ve just mentioned, 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 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.

It’s deceptively easy to describe the larger narrative structure of these stories. If we focus on Dorr’s various narrators, for instance, we find that they are recognizable versions of one basic narrator, a young man born in Hungary, raised as a Calvinist in a largely Catholic culture, who walked more or less innocently into the destructive energies of Eastern Europe in the 1930s. Some critics have described this composite narrator as an exile; others see a Job or a survivor, come to bear witness to what he has suffered. As this young man grows into his adult years, he experiences the dissolution of family, national sovereignty, religious certainty, the verities of his boyhood education, and the allegiances of personal and social relationships of all sorts. The early stories of this collection systematically strip away the cultural infrastructure as well as the personal pieties. Like Job, like Everyman, like Ivan Ilyich, the character is left to discover what remains when almost everything has been lost. Whether it is the example of a strong and heroic father, the noblesse oblige of a wealthy and cultured aristocracy, the teachings of the church and of the academy, the love of friends and of comrades-at-arms, the virtue of a just cause—nothing is exempt from the terrible corrosions of pre-war Hungary, World War II itself, and the Soviet aftermath.

But these stories do not move on next to consider what can be made of a diminished thing. Instead, much of what the early stories take away is restored, at least in part, in the stories that follow. Health, work, dignity, love, family, faith, peace, and happiness re-enter the world of the narrator, gradually. Nothing suggests that Dorr thinks that these gains make up for or cancel out the earlier losses, but all is not loss, and Dorr seems to insist that the gains are gains, not illusions.

What is notable and striking about Dorr for many readers is his bold practice of describing these 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. Moreover, the confident but naïve young Hungarian at the beginning of these stories becomes very attentive to other traditions as the stories proceed. It is remarkable what this young Calvinist can learn from Russian Orthodoxy, Greek Orthodoxy, and Anglo-Catholicism. It is remarkable what role a phrase from the Latin mass, or light filtered through stained glass, or the shadow of a crucifix can have in these stories, or how much life is revealed in a woodland scene, a fish in the bottom of a boat, a rabbit running for its life.

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. As these fifteen stories move from youth to old age, from exile to homecoming, this set of assumptions moves from memory to hope, from hope to belief, and finally from belief to fact. For this view of human time and divine intention, Lawrence Dorr deserves our attention.

James Vanden Bosch teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A version of this essay originally appeared as the introduction to A Bearer of Divine Revelation (Eerdmans, 2003) and is used here by permission.