Why Was Norah Lange Forgotten?

After more than half a century, the Argentinean author is finally getting the attention she deserves

First published in 1950, Norah Lange’s People in the Room (Personas en la sala) is an intimate, intricate experimental novel that, despite Lange’s place at the center of the avant-garde literary scene in Buenos Aires at the time, was largely overlooked for more than half a century. Well, maybe not “despite.” As Leonor Silvestri observed when the second volume of her complete works was published in Argentina in 2006, Lange was a striking redhead known first and foremost as a muse and wife, whose “visibility as a character inhibited the legibility of her writing.” This writing, nonetheless, was extensive and profoundly innovative, sometimes pushing the bounds of propriety (as in her 1933 novel 45 Days and 30 Sailors, about a young woman who makes a transatlantic crossing alone on a ship full of men — an apt metaphor for the literary landscape at the time), sometimes adopting themes deemed “suitable” for female writers of her day (namely, anything having to do with the domestic sphere) and adapting them to disrupt those same norms. In his introduction to People in the Room, César Aira describes Lange’s novels as “strange meteorites unlike anything else that was being written at the time.”

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I met Charlotte Whittle almost three years ago when we were introduced by a mutual friend who thought we might have a lot in common — since, you know, we both translate from Spanish. They had no idea how right they were: at the first of our many two-person translation symposia (i.e. book nerdery over beverages), she mentioned that she was pitching a novel by Norah Lange, who was married to Oliverio Girondo, the poet I’d been translating on and off for ten years. That made us literary half-sisters! Or was it sisters-in-law? Cousins? I don’t know, but I do know this: the novel she was talking about is the haunting, enigmatic masterpiece People in the Room, which she brought into English with spellbinding grace and precision.

Heather Cleary: Tell me about People in the Room, and Norah Lange, and how you came to translate the book.

Charlotte Whittle: I first read Norah Lange when I was doing graduate work in Hispanic Studies. I had a friend called Nora Lange who’d just moved into an apartment with some upstairs neighbors from Argentina, who asked her if she was familiar with the work of the Argentine writer, Norah Lange. Nora Lange, an American writer of fiction, was captivated by the idea that there was a writer in the Southern Hemisphere from whom she was separated by only an ‘h.’

So Nora Lange asked me if I knew anything about Norah Lange: that was the first time I’d heard of her. I soon learned that Lange was associated with some key moments in Argentine literary history, that she’d participated in the founding of the influential avant-garde journal Martín Fierro, and that her childhood home was the site of some of the most legendary bohemian intellectual gatherings in 1920’s Buenos Aires. She began her literary life as a poet; her early work was influenced by Borges’s ultraísmo (and her first book was introduced by him), and she went on to write beguiling, poetic memoirs, and some incredibly striking novels. Despite all this, when I asked my academic advisor at the time — a major scholar of Latin American literature — about Lange, his reply was that she’d been “completely forgotten.” Needless to say, that really piqued my interest.

I was mesmerized by Cuadernos de infancia (Notes from Childhood), Lange’s only book to have remained consistently in print since it was first published. I remember thinking at the time, I want to translate this, I want to carry this gorgeous prose into English, but I wasn’t yet on the path to translation. Still, the seed had been planted.

It was on a trip to Buenos Aires that I was able to track down the complete works (which were finally published in 2005–6, but still weren’t very easy to find), and was really seduced by the haunting language and unique authorial gaze of Lange’s later work. The voice of the narrator of People in the Room captivated me, that sense of probing around in the dark, having only a partial view. I began translating it not because I had a particular plan, but out of a need to know how it would sound. I worked on it in my spare time while I was teaching, then proposed it to And Other Stories at the point when I realized I wanted to be a translator.

The voice of the narrator of People in the Room captivated me, that sense of probing around in the dark, having only a partial view.

HC: The novel is enjoying a fantastic reception right now, but it’s taken about 75 years for Lange to get any kind of mainstream attention. Why do you think people were so slow to catch on to her work — not just in English, but in Spanish, as well?

CW: I think the answer to that has several layers. The question of Lange’s reception in Argentina is quite vexing, because it’s not like she was unknown — she came of age surrounded by key figures in the Buenos Aires literary scene, and she did enjoy some recognition among her peers during her lifetime. But one gets a strong sense that she’s now known more as a character in literary mythology, as Girondo’s wife, or as this flame-haired Scandinavian bombshell who supposedly broke Borges’s heart. Even now, her outsized reputation as a figure in literary life tends to overshadow her work. K.M. Sibbald writes that Lange was “a victim of her own legendary literary status,” and I think that captures part of what happened. The reception of her work was often filtered through statements by the men around her, beginning with Borges’s prologue to her first book of poems, and her later books were sometimes described by male critics in extremely gendered language. And, of course, she was overshadowed by the male writers she associated with, simply because of the gender prejudices of the time, which meant that male genius tended to be revered, often to the exclusion of other voices.

Sylvia Molloy suggests that Cuadernos de infancia, Lange’s most widely read book, was successful and enduring not only because of its ground-breaking prose, but because it allowed readers to identify the unconventional Lange with the traditionally feminine subjects of domesticity and childhood. Lange was an eccentric, and some readers weren’t sure where to place her until then — writing about her journey to Norway by boat with 30 sailors, for example, was deemed inappropriate material for a young woman. Perhaps that’s also part of why she felt she needed to “unwrite” Cuadernos with the more opaque, avant-garde memoir Antes que mueran (Before They Die) — to undo the easy classification to which she’d been subjected.

Lange’s circumstances are obviously particular, but the same question could be asked about so many women writers only now appearing in English translation — some of whom, like Lispector, were canonical in their own countries, and others, like Amparo Dávila, whose work is now being reassessed in Mexico ((and whose searingly strange stories have just been published in English by New Directions). To answer it, we’d have to look more broadly at how the canon is formed in these writers’ countries, and in our own. Which works are chosen to be studied in universities, enshrined as classics, and considered “essential”? Which ones are kept in print beyond a first or second run? These are all contributing factors, and gender bias is present in all of them. People like Meytal Radzinski, Margaret Carson, and Alta Price have done a lot to draw attention to the gender imbalance when it comes to who gets translated. I also can’t resist mentioning A.N. Devers’s work with The Second Shelf, which approaches gender imbalance in the literary canon from the angle of collecting. There is so much work to be done, but projects like these, and the positive reception of People in the Room demonstrate that there’s a thirst for work by writers like Lange who might previously have been overlooked.

HC: What would you say to a reader unfamiliar with Lange — and the avant-garde literary scene in Buenos Aires at the time she was writing — who is interested in picking up this book?

CW: One of my favorite images of Lange is from a party celebrating her early novel, 45 días y 30 marineros (45 Days and 30 Sailors). Norah lies horizontally, dressed in a mermaid costume, holding a wine glass the size of a goldfish bowl. She’s surrounded by men dressed as sailors, among them Pablo Neruda and Oliverio Girondo. Norah’s friend García Lorca was also there that day. Norah was an unconventional woman who lived her life in a way that paralleled her work: she was a performer, known for the spirited speeches she gave about her fellow writers. Though she explored the limitations and the possibilities of domestic space, she herself didn’t spend her life hiding in the drawing room. The picture of her surrounded by men may accurately represent her situation as a woman writer, but she knew how to negotiate her objectification as a muse, and while she was working tirelessly on serious literary projects, she was also often having a lot of fun.

HC: Excellent. So, what is People in the Room about?

CW: The scenario is that a seventeen-year-old girl — the novel’s narrator — lives in a well-to-do suburb of Buenos Aires, and spends hours spying on three mysterious women, whom she assumes to be spinsters, and who live in the house opposite her own. One night, she is struck by the arresting image of their three faces arranged in the form of a “pale clover.” Lange said in an interview that the image came to her after she saw the famous portrait of the three pale-faced Brontë sisters by their brother Branwell, who erased himself, but whose ghostly outline can still be seen in the painting.

After several nights of gazing at the women through their window, spying them behind their gauzy curtains, the narrator sees them sending a telegram at the post office, decides to intercept the reply, and delivers it to them as a way of contriving to visit their house. The telegram alerts the women that a man will visit them, a man about whom the reader learns nothing. But the narrator’s plot to enter the house is successful, and she spends many evenings sitting with the women, hearing them utter enigmatic phrases, and imagining the stories they might be hiding. A sighting of a spider, a conversation about a blue dress, and a telephone call in which no one speaks all qualify as major events.

It should be clear from this summary that this is not a novel to be read for plot (Aira writes, somewhat provocatively, that it’s “not a novel to be read for pleasure”), but one to be read for language, atmosphere, and states of being. It’s hallucinatory and death-anxious, and contains shards of the gothic and of the 19th century novel, rearranged into something uncanny and wholly modernist. You could say it’s a book about voyeurism, or about domestic entrapment and female isolation during the early twentieth century, and it is about all of those things, but I think one of its many strengths, what for me makes it so compelling, is that it allows you to slip in between all these readings; each rereading generates new layers of meaning. I’ve also come to see it more and more as a novel about literary creation, with a narrator who replaces reading with voyeurism, and is herself a novelist in search of a story that continually eludes her.

HC: What challenges did the translation present? Is there a particular passage you could cite as an example of how you worked through some of these?

CW: Of course, Spanish can accommodate very long sentences, much more so than English, and often when translating from Spanish the tendency is to shorten them, to make them less unwieldy. I recently heard John Freeman talk about editing a series of young Latin American writers in translation and thinking, wait, why do they all write like Henry James? That may be an exaggeration, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. It’s a characteristic of Spanish. But with Lange, I felt that those long, meandering, and yes, Jamesian sentences were really part of her project, and needed to be preserved. But they had to be preserved in such a way that the reader in English didn’t feel completely untethered and adrift. That’s a risk because there are certain grammatical markers in Spanish — gender and adjective agreement, for example — that can function as signposts in the text and make those long sentences more navigable, and which get lost in English.

Another, related thing that was really interesting about this translation was Lange’s use of punctuation. We could say loosely that the narrator moves between two modes. One of them is controlled and precise, and another is almost unmoored. In this latter mode, Lange uses less punctuation. Take the beginning of Chapter 12, when the narrator hears of the fire. This is the first chapter where we have an inkling that the narrator’s obsession is making her unwell. We see the commas become less frequent as the narrator’s conscience is bombarded with simultaneous details.

It was so important, not just to make the punctuation work as English punctuation, but to listen for how it’s used to create the pauses and breathlessness that contribute to the narrator’s very particular voice. Maybe that was the greatest challenge of all — finding the voice. Balancing the complexity of the language and the intimacy and almost conversational tone, the atmosphere of suspense. The narrator is young, and as I mentioned, I thought of her as a reader and writer. The Brontë portrait was often on my mind, and the fact that Lange seems to be tracing this path between the nineteenth century and what we think of as Modernism. There are certain period markers in the novel — horses and carts, the novelty of the telephone. It’s a period of change, and the voice reflects that moment of transition. Certain choices I made were informed by that connection to the nineteenth-century novel. That’s why, for example, the narrator is so often “vexed” rather than “irritated” or “annoyed” — use of that word peaked in the mid-nineteenth century and often crops up in the Brontës and Jane Austen. At the same time, Lange’s language is innovative and daring, full of unexpected combinations. I wanted to resist the temptation to to tame it, and let her striking modernity come through in full relief.

Lange’s language is innovative and daring, full of unexpected combinations.

HC: Translation is a unique form of creative work, but it also draws on a wide range of skills. What is the most surprising job or activity from your past that has influenced your approach to translation?

CW: Once upon a time, when I was about 14, I spent a summer taking apart a nineteenth century log-cabin in Southern Idaho: strip off the siding, tear out the nails, develop a complex labeling system to mark each join in the logs, deconstruct, load onto a truck so the logs could be transported 500 miles, and the house rebuilt in a different setting. If we understand each novel as a house with its own particular architecture, that process of getting inside the log cabin’s structure, understanding how it was put together, then taking it apart, carrying it a great distance, and reassembling it in a different place, maybe with different tools, but with respect for the intentions of those who built the original, seems like an apt metaphor for what we do as translators. It’s translation made physical. I often feel like I was translating before I knew it.

HC: And what are you working on now?

CW: I’m working on Jorge Comensal’s The Mutations, a tragicomic novel about cancer and silence. There are some wonderful characters — a macho lawyer deprived of the power of speech, an oncologist obsessed with Bach, a psychoanalyst with a sideline in medical marijuana, a germaphobe, and a foul-mouthed parrot. In some ways it’s like Ivan Illich transplanted to 21st century Mexico City (with a hint of Flaubert, too — cue parrot), but it’s very much its own creature — witty and erudite, with an extraordinary balance of emotional wisdom and irony. It’s been a joy to work with a living author, someone with whom I can discuss the voices of the novel, the subtleties of Mexican slang. Is the parrot squawking “motherfucker,” or is it more of a “son of a bitch”? I haven’t decided yet, but right now my notes are very colorful.

I’ll also be working on more Norah Lange in the coming year, so watch this space.

About the Translator

Charlotte Whittle’s translation of Norah Lange’s People in the Room is published by And Other Stories. Her work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Times, Guernica, Electric Literature, BOMB, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. Her translation of The Mutations by Jorge Comensal is forthcoming from FSG. She is also an editor at Cardboard House Press, a bilingual publisher of Spanish and Latin American poetry.

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