By César Aira
Norah Lange’s People in the Room, translated by Charlotte Whittle and introduced by César Aira, is forthcoming from And Other Stories. You can read an excerpt from People in the Room in Words without Borders.
The circumstances of Argentine women writers in the first half of the twentieth century were not politically correct. Political incorrectness, in this case, meant that women writers were limited to the conventionally feminine subject matters of home, children, marriage, and family. Also politically incorrect was the fact that the women writers who limited themselves to such topics were the best of their time, while those who made laudable attempts to break the mold by daring to write about “masculine” subjects, such as history, politics, and society, did not surpass mediocrity. Perhaps the correct strategy for women writers, at least in literary terms, was to be the former: to accept the cliché and hide behind it, subverting it from within. In the work of Silvina Ocampo and Norah Lange, in my view the most remarkable of these writers, traditionally feminine subject matter is excavated so deeply that something entirely different emerges.
Ocampo and Lange have much in common, all of it politically incorrect: both were married to famous writers who were also wealthy and whom they worshipped like gods; both belonged to the same closed, upper-class social circle in Buenos Aires; and both were closely connected to Borges, except that, as Norah joked, one was married to his best friend and the other to his worst enemy. And both were eccentric, as wealthy women can get away with being.
Norah Lange was born in Buenos Aires, in the present-day neighborhood of Belgrano, at the time a leafy suburb full of large, well-appointed houses. In one of these houses, on Calle Tronador, lived the Lange family. Norah was born in 1905, but after she married Oliverio Girondo, each officially changed their respective birth dates to one year later—Norah to 1906, and Girondo, who was born in 1890, to 1891. Clearly, they did not do this to appear more youthful, since it was a difference of only a year—in addition to which, they made it public knowledge. It seems to have been a kind of magical, Kabbalistic pact between the couple—a second birth.
Norah was one of nine children, six of whom survived infancy: five girls and one boy. Her parents were Gunnar Lange, a Norwegian immigrant, and the Argentine-born Berta Erfjord, daughter of a Norwegian father and an Irish mother. Her father’s given name and her mother’s last name together provided the name of Gunnar Erfjord, a character in Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Norah and Borges were distantly related; one of Berta Erfjord’s sisters had married one of Borges’s uncles; it was Guillermo Juan Borges, a child from this marriage and a poet who signed his work Guillermo Juan in order to distance himself from his famous cousin, who first took Borges to visit the Langes.
Norah always maintained her connection with Norway. At nineteen, she traveled to Oslo to meet her new niece, the daughter of her sister Ruth, who had married a Norwegian. She returned in 1948, this time with her husband. During the Second World War and the occupation of Norway, she wrote the anti-Nazi articles “The Slandering of the Norwegians” and “Norway Under Foreign Oppression” (both in 1940) for the Buenos Aires anti-fascist newspaper, Argentina Libre.
The Langes spent six years living in the provincial city of Mendoza, in the Andean region of Argentina, until Gunnar Lange’s death in 1915. This period is described in Lange’s memoir Notes from Childhood, which goes on to tell of the house in Buenos Aires, to which Berta Erfjord and her six children then returned, suffering considerable economic hardship. Despite this, the house on Calle Tronador soon became the setting of lively gatherings of writers and artists. The one Norah most admired was Borges, whom she considered her first teacher, and who introduced her to poetry. Undoubtedly inspired by the atmosphere of the house, the young Norah began to write poems with greater energy, and in 1925, when she was twenty, she published her first book of poetry, La calle de la tarde (The Street at Dusk), under her original name, Nora, without the ‘h.’ A curious convergence of names: the book was published with a foreword by Borges, and illustrated by his sister, Norah Borges—that is, Norah with an ‘h.’ It was Guillermo de Torre, Norah Borges’s husband, who suggested Lange add the ‘h’ to her name: according to him, those two bland, unmysterious syllables needed a final flourish to give them some personality.
Norah’s early poetry is everything one might expect from this youthful undertaking; she emulated the poetry her friends were writing, and her work bore the mark of Borges’s influence. Her poetry, while well composed, has the air of an impressive piece of homework, written to please the teacher, in this case Borges and the other ultraísta poets who often visited Norah’s home. The poems are precocious. Precociousness, more than a circumstance, is in fact their very subject matter. As soon as she grew out of it, she stopped writing poems, and, later in life, she renounced them.
Lange also renounced her brief epistolary novel, Voz de la vida (Voice of Life), which she published in 1927 against the better judgment of her friends. The novel can be explained by the fact that around the same time, Norah had met and fallen in love with Oliverio Girondo. But Girondo soon left for Europe on a trip that would last years, and Norah said later that she wrote to him every day. The novel, which in fact was written prior to Oliverio’s travels, consists precisely of letters written by a woman to her distant love.
In 1928 Norah visited her sister Ruth in Norway and went on to stay with some relatives in England. Her voyage to Europe served as inspiration for the novel 45 días y 30 marineros (45 Days and 30 Sailors), which exhibits some of the traits characteristic of her later prose: a certain restraint, a poetic tone crafted as if the author were unwilling to resign herself to the mere conveyance of information. Her taste for mystery, which blossomed in her later novels, is also evident here. Lange confessed in an interview, “I love anything surrounded by a certain degree of enigma; I could never be content with directness.” Perhaps this demanding way of writing responds in part to the influence of Faulkner, her favorite author.
This novel has been read as a kind of allegory of the life of a woman writer in an intellectual milieu dominated by men. The metaphor could hardly be clearer: a woman alone on a boat with thirty men. But that (in addition to being the circumstance of the voyage) was simply one of the circumstances of Lange’s life, and one she never complained about.
In contrast to the festivities that surrounded the book’s publication in 1933, and the comic tone suggested by its title, the action of the novel takes place in a more melancholic key, owing in part to the constant abuse of alcohol. It’s impossible to know how much of the book’s material is autobiographical—probably less than is suggested. But alcohol was a constant throughout Lange’s life.
The story is also another instance of Lange’s precociousness. Too young to make such a long voyage alone, too young to spend forty-five days surrounded by thirty sailors, and in the middle of the ocean . . . and nevertheless, she survived every danger confronting her, negotiated awkward situations, and arrived safe and sound. This was like an impressive piece of homework in real life, and it was also impressively told. The book was published and celebrated, more as a document of the young Norah’s anticipated maturity than as a literary work. The narrative is conventional, but the writing is always poetic, elaborate, never merely functional.
Soon after the appearance of this book, there followed another important development in Norah’s life: in 1934 she and Girondo were engaged, and in 1937 they started living together in a house on Calle Suipacha, where she would spend a large part of the rest of her life. Oliverio Girondo, fifteen years her senior, belonged to a wealthy patrician family and had studied in England and France. He then earned a law degree in Buenos Aires, thanks to an agreement with his parents: as long as they financed an annual trip to Europe, he would continue with his studies. Girondo’s first book, Veinte poemas para ser leídos en el tranvía (Poems to Read on a Streetcar), was published in 1922, one year before Borges’s own debut, Fervor de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires Fever, 1923): two works that ushered in the beginning of the literary avant-garde in Argentina. Girondo was a driving force behind the influential journal Martín Fierro and a founder of the publishing house Sudamericana. Norah described more than once his strict work ethic of writing several hours a day, a work ethic to which she also adhered, and to which she attributed her best writing. In 1937, the same year she began living with Girondo, her memoir Notes from Childhood was published. This book is made up of brief scenes which are more poetic than informative and display a characteristic of Lange’s writing that would be accentuated in her later works: the delayed revelation of detail. Lange withholds the subject at the beginning of a narrative, so the reader cannot know whom she is describing; the action therefore becomes central and is isolated from those performing it. One side effect of this tendency is that characters become ghostly figures, subordinate to and almost hidden from the action.
The book was published to great acclaim, with prizes and the banquets that usually accompany them, and the certainty that it would go on to be an Argentine classic, which was indeed the case: Notes from Childhood is still Norah Lange’s most widely read work.
This period was marked by many celebratory banquets held by the literary community on the slightest pretext: a member’s departure or arrival from a trip, a prize, a foreign visitor, the publication of a new book. Norah distinguished herself at these gatherings with her colorful, exuberant speeches. Notwithstanding their improvised, playful air, she wrote them beforehand, carefully reading up on the person to whom she was paying tribute. But she wrote them quickly, and they seemed to flow easily from her conversation, judging by how little time she took to write these profiles—according to her, just a week. In 1942, she gathered them into a single volume, Discursos (Speeches), and she republished them in 1968 to include all her subsequent speeches under the title Estimados congeners (Dear Assembled Company). The impression they give of their author is strikingly different from the one we might glean from her works after Notes from Childhood; an enormous distance separates the almost mournful seriousness of her books from this jesting speechmaker. The fact that she republished the speeches—her last published book—at the end of her life indicates that, in some sense, she maintained this distance.
Given her circumstances, everything Lange had written and published in the first phase of her life had been predictable. A young woman surrounded by young poets who celebrated her, read her their poems, and dedicated them to her—it was almost inevitable that she too should start writing poems, and, if she discovered she had a talent for it, that she should keep writing them. This explained the existence of her three poetry collections. Then, if she began to imagine a career for herself as a writer, it was logical that she should try writing something more substantial, a novel. Voz de la vida (Voice of Life), her epistolary novel, is the result of this attempt.
Perhaps the truly valuable part of a writer’s work begins once everything that is the result of identifiable causes has already been written. Up until then, the reader or critic can feel themselves in safe territory: the author knows why they wrote what they wrote, and the comfort of this knowledge is naturally transmitted to the reader. Both critic and reader stand on the solid ground of literary cause and effect. From there, two options exist: the writer can either continue along the path laid out by their previous books or venture into the unknown, as Norah Lange did.
Lange’s first and decisive step in the direction that would take her toward her mature work was Antes que mueran (Before They Die), published in 1944, one of Argentine literature’s most enigmatic works. Its readers have interpreted this book as a new version of Notes from Childhood, a “hollowed out” version that takes an element already present in her work, the withholding of certain details, to the extreme of not supplying them at all. In this way, she provides only a foreshortened version of the story, its outline.
In her title, Lange announces her intention to “unwrite” her previous, classic memoir. Everything that happens to her characters in these pages happens “before they die.” The authorial gaze is inverted, as if everything were being seen from the other side. Things that, in Notes from Childhood, were seen by gazing into the past (the author viewing her childhood as a grown woman) here are seen in the present with the threat of the future hanging over it.
The book is something of a provocation, a vindication of writing, in opposition to potentially indulgent readings of her prizewinning, celebrated Notes from Childhood. Perhaps she thought it had been misread and that she was to blame for having fallen into the trap of indulging in happy memories. So she set out to “unwrite” one book with another. The title, in naming the inevitable end to be met by each of her charming characters and giving them a limited period in which to act, transforms them into premature ghosts, living ghosts.
It could be said that the title, Before They Die, sets the tone for everything else that Lange went on to write. In her next book, People in the Room, her protagonist says, “everything that happened . . . was a result of my not having died.” In the novels Lange wrote in the first person (two of which were published, one of which was left unfinished on her death), the protagonist is always a young woman. In them, the ghostly subject of Before They Die takes shape.
The narrator and protagonist of People in the Room, a girl of seventeen who lives with her family in a house in Belgrano, notices three women living in the house across the way from her own who spend their evenings sitting in their drawing room. She watches them through their windows; these women never close the shutters. Their faces and hands are pale, their clothing dark.
Norah revealed in an interview that she was inspired to start writing People in the Room on seeing a reproduction of the famous portrait of the Brontë sisters by their brother, Branwell Brontë. This painting, the story of which Norah must have known, contains a ghost: Branwell, who had painted himself behind his sisters and then erased his own image.
People in the Room is, as the author herself said, a spy novel: “It’s sheer espionage.” She also said that spying was her great passion. “Spying gives me enormous pleasure. I would be in heaven if I could spy on people when they think no one is looking. People let go when they’re alone.” Fulfilling this desire comes at a price: to be on the outside, looking in; to be a spectator, not an actor. For a spectator, the action, seen from outside, will always remain mysterious.
The novel is written in a consistently dense tone of claustrophobic anxiety. It is a strange kind of claustrophobia, because it exists in the space between two houses, two windows. The young protagonist occupies the place of a metaphysical Sherlock Holmes operating in a vacuum. She discovers nothing. She never finds out who the women are or the obscure drama behind their lives; nor does she make much of an effort to find out; she is simply content with the mystery. The book could be read in Jamesian terms: something is happening, but we aren’t told what. Do the women exist? Did the narrator invent them for the sake of experimenting with the dramas of adult womanhood? She assigns them the age of thirty, which seems like a young age for three reclusive women dressed in black, but this contributes to the impression that she might have invented them and attributed to them an age that, to a seventeen-year-old girl, may seem advanced, like the end of youth. The fact that something as striking as a window facing the street with three motionless women sitting on the other side captures the attention of no one other than the narrator contributes to the same impression. And also: that everything should end after the protagonist’s spying is interrupted when she goes away on a journey, as if, as in a dream, continuity could depend only on constant attention. A dream, or a game, a private game invented by this young woman to combat her boredom and at the same time to explore the mysteries of the female condition. And children take their games seriously, which accounts for the deathly seriousness of this novel. It has the structure of a solitary pursuit, of the invention of imaginary characters. The seriousness is palpable and exaggerated to the point of dramatism.
It is significant that the protagonist should be an adolescent, on the threshold between girlhood and womanhood. Adolescent girls are Lange’s protagonists of choice in everything she wrote. What seems to have appealed to her is the moment when childhood games encounter adult decisions. Or, to be more precise, the moment when the game of inventing imaginary friends becomes the literary game of the novelist.
Critics agree that People in the Room is Lange’s masterpiece. That scene of the adolescent girl and the three women, which remains frozen in mystery, and where no narrative unfolds, provided the perfect opportunity for Norah Lange to deploy her prose woven from silence, poetry, and ambiguity.
Lange was a novelist of interior spaces. She trained her gaze on hidden family conflicts and away from the possible distractions of nature. Her last novel, El cuarto de vidrio (The Glass Room), turned the screw even tighter on the question of confinement, with a room made of glass: a terrace furnished as a dining room, surrounded by glass windows.
Comparisons of Lange with writers of the French nouveau roman, which paint Lange as a precursor, are not entirely convincing. Perhaps the sense of familiarity has to do with the period. Here and there, certain similarities can be detected between Lange and Nathalie Sarraute (where language takes on a life of its own), Marguerite Duras (in the way female characters shift and hide, and a resemblance in certain feminine atmospheres), and even Alain Robbe-Grillet, in the play with spaces, the architectural games of a novelist. Except that, unlike in the work of these objectivists, Lange’s houses become animated with a life all of their own. In one episode from The Glass Room, a female character is forced to spend three months with half her body enclosed in a cast to correct a spinal curvature: a “femme maison,” just like in the painting by Louise Bourgeois.
I said earlier that all of Lange’s early work, up until Notes from Childhood, could be explained autobiographically. Then came her most authentically original work, her novels—those strange meteorites unlike anything else that was being written at the time. Everything Lange wrote afterward was charged with urgency and a mysterious threat. There is a suspension of meaning, carried into the realm of action. In People in the Room, this project is fully realized. It is as if she had nothing more to add. It’s tempting to bring up the law of diminishing returns: when a new field opens up in art or science, the initial exploration turns out to be exhaustive, leaving room for only commentaries or variations. After her early works, Lange embarked on a new venture, something no one had ever done before. People in the Room is not a novel to be read for pleasure. Pleasure had been left behind, in the charming scenes of Notes from Childhood.
Published Aug 6, 2018 Copyright 2018 César Aira