10. 05. 2007. 07:20
Goat Rouge; Silver Boxer/A Brief Coming of Age Tale
The queer identities of the outsiders in Gordon's work – and her own public lesbian identity – are refreshing challenges to the male-dominated, heterocentric Hungarian literary canon and literary community.
A thoroughly entertaining biography of Agáta Gordon graces the inner jacket of her most recent book, Silver Boxer/A Brief Coming of Age Tale (Ezüstboxer/Nevelési kisregény, 2006). Beneath two author photos, one of which features her tossing back a shot of pálinka, the bio reports that the author's identity is forever in flux and that, at least at the time of publication, she was a plant. Given Gordon's fluctuating identity it is perhaps no surprise then that a Hungarian Quarterly review of her first novel, Goat Rouge (Kecskerúzs, 1997), spread the word that Agáta Gordon was at that point in time reputed to be a man: “Nothing is well known about her, allegedly even the publishers only know a Post Office Box address, although recently an anonymous radio interview revealed that the woman's name concealed a man.” Fittingly, in Silver Boxer the female protagonist reacts to being mistaken for a man with the following: “I don’t mind being perceived according to whatever the stranger’s eye is capable of seeing.”
Loose, multiple, inherited and mistaken identities are central to Gordon's writing. In particular, the queer identities of the outsiders in her work – and Gordon’s own public lesbian identity – are refreshing challenges to the male-dominated, heterocentric Hungarian literary canon and literary community. Her work so strongly resonates within Hungary's own lesbian community that a documentary came out of it. In 2004 director Mária Takács filmed Pilgrimage to the Land of Goat Rouge (Zarándoklat a Kecskerúzs földjére) when Budapest’s lesbian organization, Labrisz, took a Gordon-guided, weekend-long tour of Szatina, the village in which the book is set. Relating the autobiographical background of Goat Rouge, Gordon and ex-girlfriend show the group the house, woods and village they had lived in for a time.
Aside from inspiring literary tourism, Gordon has also made waves in the literary world co-hosting a popular biweekly program, Literary Centrifuge, with fellow writer Kriszta Bódis at Budapest's Central Café for the past two years. The stated mission of Literary Centrifuge is to “disturb the waters” of male literary tradition and provide a forum for female authors and critics to discuss and read their work. Gordon is co-editor of Nighttime Zoo: An Anthology of Female Sexuality (Éjszakai állatkert: antológia a noi szexualitásról – see our interview with the editors), the first collection of its kind in Hungary, published in 2006. The collection of short stories and personal narratives rippled through the literary community and met with both acclaim and hostility from critics, authors and the public.
Internationally renowned author Péter Nádas, also among the first authors in Hungary to deal explicitly with queer subjects in his work, played a pivotal role in the start of Gordon’s career as a novelist. After perusing her Goat Rouge manuscript, Nádas recommended the novel to Magveto Press for publication. His public support of her work has continued, as evidenced by his buoyant remarks on the back cover of Silver Boxer. (Also among the literature Nádas has actively championed is the prose of Erzsébet Galgóczi, an influential predecessor of Gordon’s. Galgóczi was the first Hungarian author to openly write lesbian or gay relationships into her work. Galgóczi's landmark work, Inside and Outside the Law (Törvényen belül és kívül, 1980), makes a cameo appearance on a lesbian couple's book shelf in Gordon's Goat Rouge.
Goat Rouge begins with the first day the narrator, Leona, has been involuntarily confined to a psychiatric ward. While waiting alone in her psychiatrist's office Leona reads through a few women's magazines and then comes across a notebook missing its cover. The notebook is full of riddle-like poem fragments, which in turn come to function as openings for most chapters of the book and as the focal points around which each therapy session revolves. There is no evidence as to who the author of the poems might be, so Leona plays with the possibilities and reads her own voice, her own sexuality and her own private emotional landscape into the anonymous fragments; the found words become her own.
In the struggle to prove her agency in the face of involuntary institutionalization and depression, Leona boasts to the reader of the control she has over the therapy sessions, her manipulation of the topics and her fabrication of dreams and letters. She aims to perform a compelling version of her self for the therapist, skimming through episodes from her childhood and adulthood that loosely outline the history of her desires and intimate relationships leading up to the relationship that contributed to her breakdown and institutionalization. Leona and her girlfriend, Izolda, had moved away from the city deep into the countryside, in a Romantic bid to escape into nature, where they met and became fast friends with another lesbian couple. (Read excerpt on HLO.) As a couple, their escape fails and their relationship collapses. But in the last pages of the book, after returning home to the woods from the ward, Leona finds comfort as she takes her dogs for a walk in the woods. In quick succession, her dogs kill or wound a slew of animals, and as Leona empathizes with the prey, she realizes that what had first scared the animals was her and only second the dogs. She discovers the power she automatically carries with her into the wild, and she is comforted by the realization that a wounded outsider, the prey, can at the next turn become the predator.
Gordon carries the permeable boundaries between prey and predator over into her next and most recent book, Silver Boxer/A Brief Coming of Age Tale. The slim volume, which Gordon calls a "twin book," consists of two novellas. The setting and circumstances of the second novella, A Brief Coming of Age Tale, are notably similar to Goat Rouge. A pair leaves the city for an ascetic existence in the country, where they come to be known by the nearby villagers as the "Refugees." Gordon uses Hungarian's ungendered pronouns to keep the gender of the pair a mystery, calling them simply "Ön," a polite third person pronoun meaning Him and/or Her, and "A Társa," meaning His/Her Partner. However, given the explicitly lesbian pair of the volume's preceding novella, Silver Boxer, and the lesbian pair and familiar scenery of Goat Rouge, the reader almost automatically reads the gender-uncertain couple as lesbians, and Gordon's strategy to "degender" the characters, while admirable, is not entirely convincing or effective. What is interesting in the end from a gender perspective, however, is a newspaper report of their possibly fatal car accident, describing them as "parent and child," even as what the reader is presented with throughout is an intimate peer relationship. The public tries to interpret them in more acceptably heteronormative terms as family. This twist conveniently connects to the "coming of age" nucleus of the novella. Prior to the crash, the two protagonists try to humanely raise and nurture a wide selection of animals in order to make a living in their new country home. But in every chapter at least one animal dies violent and/or painful deaths, and the roles of predator and prey vacillate, often reverse. So in what the pair terms their "nursery" ("átnevelo"), they raise animals from birth into death, an end they themselves also may have tragically reached in the final chapter.
Backtracking to the volume's first novella, the text begins and ends with the narrator, Sasha, standing in a cemetery with her mother and girlfriend on All Souls' Day, lighting candles beside her father's urn. In between these descriptions of the cemetery visit, the lesbian narrator interweaves descriptions of the illness and eventual death of her father with accounts of the corrosive conflicts she has with her girlfriend. She connects her own relationships with women to her father's relationships with women, and she charts out her emotional inheritance, similar to the way (though in a less epic and layered fashion) Jeffrey Eugenides' narrator Cal traces emotional patterns passed down the family via both nature and nurture in Middlesex.
In her work, Gordon, like Galgóczi before her, takes the pulse of the martyred outsider, the victim of established norms. However, Gordon's characters are just as distantly exiled from one another within their own intimate relationships as they are from society; paradoxically, in that exile they find there is no refuge from society or themselves. It is no coincidence Gordon uses the final stanza of Emily Dickinson's "The Frost of Death was on the Pane" (Poem 1136) as the epigraph for Silver Boxer/A Brief Coming of Age Tale:
We hated Death and hated Life
And nowhere was to go --
Than Sea and continent there is
A larger -- it is Woe --
And nowhere was to go --
Than Sea and continent there is
A larger -- it is Woe --
Gordon Agáta: Ezüstboxer / Nevelési kisregény
Budapest: Alexandra, 2006