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from the June 2012 issue

From “Pillar of Salt”

Poet, journalist, critic, historian, editor, anthologist, and permanent “exile from respectable behavior,” Salvador Novo (1904-1974) is one of Mexico’s most distinctive and original literary figures. With his dear friend Xavier Vilaurrutia, he founded two seminal literary journals, Ulises (1927) and Contémporaneos (1928). Other members of the influential Contemporáneos group included Jaime Torres Bodet, Jorge Cuesta, Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano, Gilberto Owen, José Gorostiza, Enrique González Rojo—all of whom maintained a kind of double life, working in official government, administrative, or cultural ministries even as they wrote provocatively about their society.

No one was more provocative than Salvador Novo, whose lifelong war against hypocrisy outraged “proper” Mexicans and could upset even his closest friends. Famously effeminate, Novo spoke in a high voice, tweezed his eyebrows, wore elaborate makeup, dressed with an extreme elegance all his own, and brooked no conflict. “Wearing the toupee is the toupee,” is one of his legendary quips. His humor was sharp like a sword, and aimed for the jugular. At a time when jotos were arrested in violent round-ups and made to sweep the streets on the way to the train that would take them to forced labor camps in the Yucatán, Novo’s bearing was courageous.

As Carlos Monsiváis notes, Novo wrote “to be read one day, and by himself at the moment of composition.” Time catches up to Novo, who wrote at a time when Mexico had no non-derogatory word for homosexuality (if it wasn’t in the dictionary, it didn’t exist). Luckily, there is a large body of work, much of it as-yet untranslated or out of print. In addition to Pillar of Salt, the University of Texas Press will also be re-issuing War of the Fatties. But there is more, much more to be (re)discovered.—Marguerite Feitlowitz


In the third year of Preparatoria, the doors to the patio were opened for us, and we were given classes with very interesting names: psychology, ethics, logic, literature, physics, chemistry, and trigonometry. Owing to a policy that I did not then understand, the teachers were of varied background and competence. Next to one or the other survivor of Porfirismo, like the raging positivist Don Samuel García—pear-shaped, gray-haired, yet always elegant—; or the picturesque Papá Rivas, or Don Ezequiel A. Chávez, who taught psychology with his own translation of Titchener’s text—and who with equal facility leapt to offer a history course—the majority of the teachers were graduates of the Normal School, like the Director Moisés Sáenz, of whom it was whispered that he was a Sunday pastor at a Protestant church, and that he was a northerner and brother of an important revolutionary who also had a Biblical name, Aaron.

Recently arrived was a small third group of very brilliant teachers: young men who had just received their law degrees, or who were still students in that discipline: Trinidad García, Narciso Bassols, Manuel Gómez Morín, Vicente Lombardo Toledano. Their classes—full of vivacious teaching—were a strong contrast to the tedious ones taught by old Don Ezequiel or Don Samuel, the dull ones taught by Nica Rangel, the neurotic ones taught by Don Erasmo Castellano Quinto—not to omit the stultifying ones taught by the ignorant normalistas.

Don Erasmo was a real character. Suffering from paranoia, paternal to the point of tears, he greeted right and left, lifting his bowler like the top of a sugar bowl while from under the region of his hat he extended his timid turtle-head, showing a stubble going gray. Then he would retract his head, like a turtle withdrawing into its shell, and in a vertical movement pull down his hat, which never got brushed. Don Erasmo had a special affection for me. He read my poems and recited to me his own. I soon stopped attending his classes (he taught Spanish and world literature) because I already knew the texts from my solitary reading in Torreón, and Don Erasmo readily excused me. I was simply to take the trimester and final examinations, and he gave me a 10.

One afternoon, gathered on the patio, the boys were agitated, making a racket. On similar occasions, I managed to flee before anything more happened; but this time, they closed the doors, there were speeches, shouts; a certain Heriberto Barrón, notably older than the rest of us, led the fiery multitude toward the room where Moisés Sáenz was giving his chemistry class, to demand his resignation. He came out of the door pale, ashen. I never saw him again. The next day we learned that some mysterious person had conceded to the students the power to propose the new director.

We all loved Don Ezequiel—so cerulean, always carrying books under the arm whose hand, except for his large white thumb, was plunged in the right pocket of his baggy jacket, with his immaculate child-like complexion, his long, yellowish eyetooth, his smooth manners, his affectionate, repetitive dedications such as the one he wrote in my Titchener: “You are called Salvador; may you always justify your name; may you have thoughts that rescue and never injure, never have thoughts that could kill. Affectionately and cordially, with sincere wishes for your true well-being, your teacher Ezequiel A. Chávez.         

Don Ezequiel was named director, to the pleasure and applause of everyone. Arriving at his sunny office through a small interior patio was his secretary, a fair, elegant, young man with wavy hair, whose name was Jaime Torres Bodet.

A few months before, I had begun a casual friendship with a boy in the class ahead of me: the third and fourth years were sharing classrooms off the large patio. I don’t remember how we began seeing each other. Given his inquisitive spirit, it must have been he who approached me, having learned that I had poems published in the school magazine, Policromías, where his first verses had also appeared.

We did not have classes together, but found times to chat; upon learning that he lived at 95 calle Mina, and I on calle Guerrero, I started calling for him at his house whence we would to walk to Preparatoria, which wasn’t far and took us along quiet, little-used streets.

Xavier [Villaurrutia] had a large family: brothers and sisters. They lived on the lower floors of a stone house shaped like a “7,” with patio and corridor bordered by iron railings, a living room with two balconies giving onto the street, a parallel dining room, and then the numerous bedrooms. Once he invited me home to eat, so I met his mother, Doña Julia González, and a few of his brothers and sisters. They all played tennis, and the girls were champions. Their brothers had a sort of small bank or financial firm on Avenida Cinco de Mayo, and a few times I accompanied Xavier when he went there to receive his monthly allowance. Little by little I learned that the family also included writers, artists, and relatives who were very wealthy.. They possessed original Ruelas, which Xavier showed me with pride. I also learned—for he confided, reticently and swearing me to secrecy—that the family had also had conjugal tragedies and pathetic nervous illnesses.

The predilection that Don Ezequiel showed toward me must have induced him to introduce the “distinguished student” to the young secretary of the Preparatoria, a poet, Xavier informed me, who taught literature classes in another school—Advanced Studies—near our own. Between classes, I began visiting Jaime Torres Bodet. In his office he introduced me to another young poet and friend of his, who seemed always to be there: Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano. By then my family had moved to San Rafael, to a very large house on the corner of Icazbalceta and Altamirano. Jaime lived at 116 Altamirano. After his work at Preparatoria, we used to ride the same passenger truck toward San Rafael. He would say he was going to prepare his class for the following day: Greek literature at the School of Advanced Studies. Other afternoons, when he would not have to prepare his class, Bernardo would call for him and once they invited me to accompany them to take tea with orange scones at the Selecty—a small café across from the Hotel Iturbide.

One morning I brought Xavier to meet Jaime in his office. Their mutual love of French literature didn’t take long to surface. Jaime and Bernardo had already published books of verse—Jaime, Fervor, in 1918; Bernardo, Avidez, not long after. But the first book that Jaime gifted me was his annotated volume of texts by Gide, adorned with a prologue sparkling with learned quotes, published by the imprint de Cultura. “Because of this prologue”—he commented, with concealed satisfaction—“they say my brain is a house of citations.”

Gide and Huysmans were two authors Xavier had introduced me to. Against the Grain (A Rebours) and The Immoralist—which today seem to us so ingenuous—shook us up with their revelations. Of course we had also read, with fruitful, admiring guilt, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The conversation about Wilde was bringing us closer to sharing confidences. I did not dissimulate my inclinations: Xavier seemed not to have discovered his, or he was resisting acknowledging them. Its recognition, or definition, occurred as befit a life reined in by the strictest literary structures: in the letters we exchanged during the last visit I made with my mother to Torreón. I had spoken in mine about the shock of re-encountering the vestiges of my childhood; the young men I now saw with different eyes; Ángel Gallardo about whom Pedro Alvarado had spoken: and whom I searched out and brought to my bed, as though—in neurotic vengeance—I sought to change places with my rapist, and thereby see myself anew. Xavier finally confided in his letters the jubilation of discovering himself—and of the hopeless love he felt for Paco Argüelles, the history teacher’s handsome son. His letters were very beautiful, and I will never sufficiently regret committing the stupidity of losing them in lending them to the Collie Bitch before our definitive rupture.

For my part, I could also feel the flowering of loving desire for a classmate: happy, athletic, and carefree, an excellent dancer with lots of girlfriends and romantic adventures: Fernando Robert, who fled from my friendship, which inflamed me even more.

Having discovered the sidelong world of those who understood one another with a look, I was finding those looks just by walking down the street: the Avenida Moreno, where, in the evenings, people went for a leisurely stroll. There, always guarding the door to El Globo, with his cane, his gaiters, his silk jacket, his gaze behind his pince-nez lazy but alert, his groomed, gray mustache, was Señor Aristi, who was called Tight Ass; next door to El Globo was the studio of licenciado Solórzano—who according to Ricardo sang opera arias (Ninon, Ninon qu’as-tu fait de la vie), and who was called Tamales because he made his conquests by inviting young men to a late afternoon snack of “a few little tamales and a beer.” Along this strip would come Mother Meza, on the hunt for human goods and clients, who never slept with the merchandise he procured for his buyers, the refined survivors of Porfirismo. He would approach young men, induce them to learn the guitar, which he offered to teach them free of charge—and once in his room, took the measure of their cocks with a tape measure, opening the doors to a peremptory, but immediately lucrative trade with his rich clients.

Mother Meza occupied one of the two much larger rooms inhabited in that building by others of his kind: Father Tortolero’s, full of chasubles and church ornaments; Salvador Acosto's, with only a wide bed that was always occupied. There were others, whom I didn’t know, who visited him; it wasn’t so that I would sleep with them, but so I could pass on to them my own conquests later. However in that room I met practically the entire fauna of the epoch: Father Vallejo Macouzet, who was called Demon Sister, bore the scar from a knife wound on his lip, and was famous for the clientele of young boys who visited him in his Santo Domingo church; Father Garbuno, from Guadalajara, who always went around with Demon Sister; the Devil on the Corner—a Mr. Martell, famous because it was said he had paid 1,000 gold pesos to a bullfighter for a private sword thrust—and the licenciado Marmolejo, ugly as an idol, who used to keep a special box in the curtained desk of his law office containing the pillow he would throw on the floor where he slept with young men and belch all over them; and Water Goddess, an antiques dealer, married, with grown children and numerous grandchildren, but convinced that his conquests were all madly in love with him.

At the suggestion of the Virgin of Istanbul, we decided to set up our own studio shared by the three most assiduous accomplices: he and Xavier, already steady lovers, and I, free and on my own. The three of us shared the rent—thirty pesos a month, light included—in a large room in an office building, on the corner of Donceles—or Maiden Street—and Argentina, very close to the Preparatoria, where we were all in our final year.

It was the year of the Centenary of Independence—1921—and the celebrations were marked by the strident resurrection of ornamental nationalism: buildings resurfaced with rose-colored tezontle, the publication of Dr. Atl’s two-volume Traditional Arts of Mexico, which sought to exalt tepalcate earthenware, and which was published by the powerful Minister of Industry, Miguel Alessio Robles—Clara’s brother. We were entranced by the exhibition of traditional art installed in the Regis. One painter, by the name of Montenegro, recently returned from Europe, had decorated a pavilion with stylizations of nopal cactus and cactus fruits on green and red flannel trimmed to make a frieze. Hanging calabash functioned as lights, making the Porfirian candles unnecessary and ridiculous, and the serapes from Oaxaca, Saltillo, Tlaxcala, were as splendid and coveted as Gobelin tapestries and Persian rugs had been in times past.

I enthusiastically latched on to this style, decorating our “studio” with weavings, needlework, and other handicrafts. From the headboard of the couch we hung a small idol with large buttocks, which we called Saint Bollocks; from this “sacrificial perch,” he presided over our scenes. And in a touch of extreme nationalism, I employed a small calabash as the most appropriate vessel for the Vaseline required for our rites.

We purchased an earthen tea set, and took tea in the afternoons with thick cookies, fruit of the oven’s womb, which I bought from the bakeries nearby, happy to have a home to call our own. We invited our friends to “at homes,” and were soon known by our set as “the girls on Maiden Street.”

We didn’t always have the money to pay our rent when it came due. Of the three partners, Xavier was the only one with an adequate monthly allowance; but the Virgin knew how to handle himself with his modest friends. He brought to the studio a lover—Don Tito Gasco Rojo: a dark, squat old man who owned a pharmacy and a record shop on Avenida Madero. We left them alone. That month, the Virgin paid the whole rent. The next, it was my penitential turn to receive the voluminous, belching visit of the licenciado Marmolejo.

The balcony of our fourth-floor studio gave onto calle de Donceles across from the upper offices of the Ministry of Industry. I sat on this balcony, and looked toward the street. It must have been five in the afternoon. Weeks before, as we were leaving Preparatoria, Jaime Torres Bodet had introduced me to a Central American poet favored by Vasconcelos. With a wave of his white, carefully groomed hand, he had said, “The poet Rafael Heliodoro Valle”—and then, with a slightly mischievous smile—“and the poet Salvador Novo.”

His ugliness was to me as immediately repulsive as his incongruous brazen nerve. I asked him if he liked I no longer remember which poet; and he said, “What I like is to be penetrated hard,” sticking out his fat, dark lower lip. Then he took out his special cigarettes, gave us each one; we lit up, I sucked in—three times, holding my breath, as he taught us.

He started to recite his poems. I looked out on the street. Time was suspended. The light was white, an absolute white, deafening silence.

When I came to, I found myself stretched out on the couch. I was surrounded by the anguished faces of Xavier, the Virgin, and Dr. Mendoza, who had resuscitated me with injections. It was already ten at night. Frightened by their exploit, Heliodor and the marijuana poet had left.

The marijuana had had no bad effects, however, on the Virgin or on Xavier. Maybe they hadn’t inhaled as strongly as I had, drawn as I was to any unfamiliar or exciting form of excess. The Virgin recounted that in other studios, as in the novels of Jean Lorrain, he had taken ether, and it was true that lulled by the sound of bells, he had reached nirvana.

La Estatua de Sal © 1988 Legitimos Sucesores de Salvador Novo, S.C. (Heirs of Salvador Novo). Translation © 2013 by Marguerite Feitlowitz. Excerpt from Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography, with 19 Erotic Sonnets by Salvador Novo, translated by Marguerite Feitlowitz, forthcoming 2013. By permission of the University of Texas Press. All rights reserved.

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