People in the Room
“I only believed in hopeless lives,” states the seventeen-year-old narrator in Norah Lange’s beautifully written and disconcerting novel, first published in Argentina in 1950 and now, at last, translated exquisitely into English by Charlotte Whittle. Introverted and pathologically understimulated, the narrator becomes obsessed with three young women she can see, indistinctly, each evening, sitting in the drawing room of the house facing that of her family’s. Imagination cannot help but fill in the voids in knowledge, and, in this case, as the narrator has no knowledge at all of the three women, if they indeed exist, her imagination cannot rest in applying to them every possible permutation of the sorts of stories the narrator thinks may apply to them, stories principally, it seems, drawn from her reading of Romantic novels (apparently, Lange was prompted to write this book by Branwell Brontë’s painting of his sisters Charlotte, Anne and Emily (a painting from which Branwell had erased the image of himself)). At times the narrator achieves a vividness that thrills or horrifies her: “It rained so close to their faces, and on mine, on the carriage, on the patient horse, and it seemed as long as I was still young nothing so complete or perfect could ever happen again.” The three women in the room are no more animated than dolls upon which the young narrator projects her fears and desires. Their features and characters and histories slowly accrete through speculation, but the details are impermanent, attaching and detaching from their objects with equal ease. It is as if the narrator is obsessively inflating them into three dimensions, whereas it is natural for them to revert to two dimensions, into silhouettes. In this way, the novel is about the way in which the novel is written, the way in which all novels are written. “It was as if I was slowly composing a silent film that might go on forever: a film without action or scenery.” The three women suck up, take possession of, transmit, both embody and nullify, all tragedies and stories that exist in the narrator’s mind. We are told that the narrator sees them at the post office, sending a telegram, that she observes a visit to their house by a man who touches off some rivalry of feelings between them, and that the narrator thereafter visits the three women in their drawing room almost every evening, but we cannot be any more certain that any of this *actually* happens than we can of the recurring motifs of the dead horse in the street or the fire that claimed three infants’ lives. To spy, to observe, is to be disempowered, to be outside. The spy, the voyeur, has no identity but the object of their obsession, but the object of any obsession is always primarily indicative of suppressed impulses in the one who is obsessed. When the narrator states of the three women that “I know that they alone had the right to speak of death, of ill-timed affairs, of suicides, of bitter loneliness,” she is projecting upon them, among other things, her own suicidal impulses. The three women could be seen as future versions, ten or fifteen years older, of the narrator herself, future versions she both yearns for and wishes dead with desperate ambivalence. Several times she notes a similarity of voice or demeanour between her and them: “My face, which must express - it was impossible that it shouldn’t express - their three faces behind my own, expressionless.” “I only believed in hopeless lives.” At what point would tragedy or suicide relieve her from her future? Are the three women the future selves she will never become, unachieved futures, or are they each future possible exit points from an unfulfilling life? “That is what you get for not dying,” she tells them. She senses the fragility and unsustainability of her obsessive ‘watching’, of being “alone with my gaze”. What is achieved immediately starts to slip away: “Everything changed, it was my fault, and anything could come between them and my watching them, and destroy what had begun, what had scarcely begun.” Lange keeps the melancholy and the tension perfectly balanced as the book charts the disintegration of the narrator’s (and the reader’s) ability to distinguish internal and external realities as the novel moves towards its jaw-dropping paragraph-length final exquisite sentence.
A young woman in Buenos Aires spies three women in the house across the street from her family's home. Intrigued, she begins to watch them. She imagines them as accomplices to an unknown crime, as troubled spinsters contemplating suicide, or as players in an affair with dark and mysterious consequences. Lange's imaginative excesses and almost hallucinatory images make this uncanny exploration of desire, domestic space, voyeurism and female isolation a twentieth century masterpiece. Too long viewed as Borges's muse, Lange is today recognized in the Spanish-speaking world as a great writer and is here translated into English for the first time, to be read alongside Virginia Woolf, Clarice Lispector and Marguerite Duras.