Sehnsucht

Jon Pott

It was another Eerdmans author, Corbin Scott Carnell, who introduced us, in our office some forty years ago, to his friend Janos Shoemyen (alias Lawrence Dorr). Corbin had published with us a luminous book on spiritual longing—Corbin related it to the German concept of Sehnsucht—in the work of C. S. Lewis, an interest that attuned him as well to the particular sensibilities and literary gifts of his friend. Corbin and Janos were colleagues at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Corbin taught in the English department; Janos, a little surprisingly, worked in the university’s agricultural institute, albeit as an editor. That, we learned quickly, was the latest stop in a series of occupations taking him all over central Europe (usually as a political fugitive, and hence the residual pseudonym), to England (where he met his wife Clare), and finally to America, where he settled in northern Florida. The occupations ranged from soldier in the Hungarian army in World War II and resistance fighter during the Soviet occupation thereafter, to masseur in Salzburg, to the French Foreign Legion (briefly), to cowboy, even to missionary—with many other stops along the way and afterward. Some of these adventures were picaresque (one half of a performing circus zebra), many were the stuff of nightmares (at least once, I believe, he was stood up before a firing squad), and all of them infuse his stories with the themes of danger, war, displacement, exile, loneliness, loss of occupation, loss of faith (he had grown up in a Christian home, his father Reformed)—but also of sudden, unexpected tenderness, consolation, humor, and grace. “His stories,” as Corbin wrote in his introduction to A Slow, Soft River, Janos’s first volume with Eerdmans, “well up out of the troubled springs of memory and desire. . . . And it is significant that he describes fiction writing as a purging of pain.”

Eerdmans published A Slow, Soft River in 1973, followed thirty years later, in 2003, by A Bearer of Divine Revelation, this compilation reprinting several of the stories from the first volume, but adding a number that had appeared in the meantime in the Reformed Journal and Perspectives. Jim Vanden Bosch wrote the introduction this time. An intervening collection, A Slight Momentary Affliction, had been published by Louisiana State University Press in 1987.

With the writing has come, from the beginning, a warm friendship, genial notes accompanying or intermittent with the stories themselves. Here is Janos in September of 1977, checking in domestically with my colleague Marlin Van Elderen:

My wife is in Charlottesville Va. settling in our daughter who started teaching school there and son John is in Honduras . . . and I’m alone here with three dogs and 14 cows. [Besides working at the agricultural institute, Janos has maintained a small farm of his own.] My home cooking for the last two weeks has consisted of bread from a kosher bakery with bacon drippings and green peppers, a gallon of wine—Cribbari Saturne $4.50 a gallon—with soda water and a quart of bourbon also with soda and, because my wife insisted on a balanced diet, daily I take a bite out of a head of cabbage. And though I eat in the kitchen standing up, at the last weighing-in I have put on four pounds. Just in time Mr. ______ sent me an advertisement of his new book promising to show me “how to plug into the Holy Spirit and lose pounds.”

The same aging file reveals a newspaper clipping he sent us from the Gainesville Sun, Sunday, June 10, 1973, fading now, but announcing then the publication of A Slow, Soft River and otherwise putting readers on notice of a local literary talent. Above the article are no fewer than five large photos of our man, recalling to mind that when Janos first showed up on our premises, in Corbin’s tow, he looked like someone sent over from central casting for the role of Hungarian freedom fighter—handsome, with an assertive beard. And, yes, Janos has also worked as an artist’s model. The file contains as well yellowing memos that record our early enthusiasm for Janos’s work. The virtues and themes that have persisted through the intervening decades were clearly there at the beginning.

When it comes to quality serious fiction, religious publishers must largely content themselves with books about rather than instances of. The real thing goes elsewhere. But Janos has, I think, been the real thing in the Eerdmans book program and in The Reformed Journal and Perspectives. Preparing his copy was always for me an exercise in admiration and modesty. The mere comma one might have installed in a sentence would come right back out when one saw what it did to the necessary rhythm. What may be fastidiously correct is not always art, and Janos knew the difference.

The story in this issue is pure Janos, perhaps even more distilled than usual in its avoidance of linear narrative and its reliance on seemingly disconnected episodes and images recollecting a life through a flood of disturbing memories lost, he had thought, in the welcome forgetfulness of old age, but now rushing back as he revisits some old family portraits. In its episodic character, the story mirrors the scenes of a play, as in The Tempest, which, behind the Huxley novel, gives the story its title and its ultimate theme: “O brave new world,” Miranda exclaims in wonderment to her island companions. As to the images—not to mention the rhythms—Janos’s stories, in their compression and allusion, have always seemed to me prose on the border of poetry. In giving us, in the first sentence, the title of Jules Verne’s novel in French, Janos immediately conjures up the cultured European home in which the narrator grew up (Janos knows six languages and has written in three). The red color of the book immediately signals danger, and the book’s obtrusiveness on the shelf resonates with the displacement of the immigrant central to Janos’s stories. And so the story proceeds through its collage of images and remembered scenes.

What brings the promise of relief at the close of the story is the image—literally—of St. Christopher, patron saint of the traveler and a displaced person himself—displaced from the narrator’s dashboard and, in 1969, demoted from veneration in the Catholic church, his story lacking authenticity. But he remains movingly authentic for the narrator. Saint Christopher, by legend the bearer of Christ across the river, the Christ who in turn bore the weight of the world, comes mysteriously now to reassure him of his own coming transport across the waters of memory and desire. Sehnsucht now, but one day peace and reunion. “O brave new world, that has such people in’t!”

Jon Pott is vice president and editor in chief at Eerdmans Publishing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan.