People in the Room by Norah Lange is my October choice in Bookword’s monthly Women in Translation series. This novel was first published in Argentina in 1950, and has only recently been translated by Charlotte Whittle.
It’s a strange, almost hallucinatory work, about a young girl who spies on three women in the house across the street.
… an uncanny exploration of desire, domestic space, voyeurism, and female isolation, a twentieth century masterpiece … [from the blurb]
People in the Room by Norah Lange was first published in Argentina in 1950 and in English in 2018, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle.
People in the Room by Norah Lange
The story is minimal. A young girl, the narrator, lives in a city, in a nice area. Across the road she can see the heads of three women sitting in their house. She conjures all kinds of ideas about them as nothing much happens. A telegram arrives, which she intercepts, and a man visits. Letters are handed over, and then given back to one of the women. The older woman begins to fascinate her. A widow? A murderer? The girl visits and watches and most of the novel is her account of her own reactions to almost nothing, or to the merest hint of events or possessions from the women or to her own imagination about them.
Her family become concerned that she has changed and send her away. On her return she finds that everything is different.
So what is it about?
One reason that I did not enjoy this book very much was that it is such an accurate version of self-obsessed adolescence. It reveals the neediness of adolescence, wanting to be the centre of attention; the narrator is not happy that her family have not noticed the change in her, for example. And there is their simultaneous need for secrets; she tells her family nothing about her obsessive spying on the women in the house opposite.
It is also about the boredom of a young woman in Argentina at that time, and about the restrictions suffered by older women. Loneliness, isolation, boredom, waiting for death become the obsessions of all these women. The narrator’s scope is claustrophobic. She rarely steps beyond her street, Avenida Juramento, beyond her family home or the house opposite. No wonder she is bored. No wonder she turns to invention, speculation and voyeurism.
Adolescents seek control of their lives, having so little but seeing the approach of adulthood. There is nothing more controlling than narrating your own story, its own versions, speculations, truths and lies. And spying.
In my own life I have had rather too much adolescent wordery, but Anna Ashanyan caught something of the quality of the prose when she wrote the following in the Guardian review in September 2018:
Combining painterly qualities with poetic imagery, Lange’s prose is rich in metaphor, self-absorbed and, at its best, darkly irresistible. [Guardian Sept 2018]
It is reported in the introduction that an inspiration for the novel came when Norah Lange saw the triple portrait of the Bronte sisters. Painted by Bramwell, famously he included himself and then erased his image.
Norah Lange was born in Buenos Aires in 1905 into a literary family and was a prominent member of the avant garde in the city in the 1920s and 30s. She died in 1972. References to her on the internet always include mention of Borges and sometimes her husband Oliverio Girondo who was a poet. She first made her name first as a poet and then as a novelist. Her reputation is in the shadow of these men’s. Feminism has always been ignored when possible, and the culture at that time was dominated by ideals of machismo.
I recommend two reviews in the Guardian, which I found helpful in giving me a perspective on this novel.
Norah Lange: Finally, ‘Borge’s muse’ gets her time in the spotlight by James Reith. The article looks at why Norah Lange has been ignored, and the headline writer has fallen right into that old trap …
People in the Room by Norah Lange -Voyeurism and dreams in Buenos Aires by Anna Ashanyan
People in the Room by Norah Lange, first published in Argentina in 1950 and in the English version by Andotherstories in 2018. 167pp
Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle
Women in translation series
Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.
Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft.
The Chilli Bean Paste Clanby Yan Ge, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman.
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