A Game of Cutouts: On Norah Lange’s Unconventional Narrative Experimentation
Charlotte Whittle Considers Notes from a Childhood and the Role of Perspective
When she published Notes from Childhood in 1937, it was clear to many that Norah Lange had come into her own as a writer. Leaving behind her prose poetry of the ultraist school, she had begun to claim prose as her territory more fully, and to mine her own life more transparently for her subject matter. Though her earlier prose works, 35 días y 40 marineros (35 Days and 40 Sailors) and the epistolary Voz de la vida (The Voice of Life), had drawn on her experiences, Notes from Childhood embraced a kind of life-writing the author had so far only skirted. It also served as a laboratory for the direction she would later take in her fiction.
The writing of memoir and autobiography in Argentina had been mostly dominated by male voices. Notes from Childhood could hardly be further in tone from the kind of autobiography that dwells on history and accomplishments—the official story. Instead, Lange developed a voice that plumbed the depths of domestic life. Historical events and the public sphere encroach only occasionally on this space in the form of official tributes to Lange’s father after his death, or a brief glimpse of the Argentine response to the First World War.
In her approach to memory, and in training her gaze on domestic, family scenes, the narrator of Notes from Childhood shows kinship with the young female narrator of the later novel, People in the Room, who writes of the three women across the way from her house that she is drawn to them because “[t]hey seemed to me like the beginning of an accidental life story, without greatness, without photograph albums or display cabinets, but telling meticulously of dresses with stories behind them, of faded letters addressed to other people, of the kind of indelible first portraits that are never forgotten.”
It is these private, intimate moments that the narrator of Lange’s memoir seeks to illuminate in her fragmentary account of the most indelible moments of childhood. Far from being a linear autobiography or tale of coming of age, this narrative takes the form of a constellation of pieces of childhood, and these pieces provide Lange with ground for experimentation.
Notes from Childhood was well received and garnered for its author the Primer Premio de la Provincia de Buenos Aires (the Province of Buenos Aires First Prize) and the Tercer Premio Nacional (Third National Prize), and continues to be Lange’s most widely read work in Argentina. But Sylvia Molloy has suggested that the reason Lange’s memoir was successful and enduring was not due to her inventive style but because it allowed readers to identify the unconventional Lange with the traditionally feminine subjects of domesticity and childhood. Lange was an eccentric, and until then some critics hadn’t been sure where to place her—her account of a journey she took to Norway by boat with 40 sailors, for example, was deemed inappropriate for a young woman. By celebrating the charm of the book’s subject matter, critics of the period may have overlooked the innovative nature of Lange’s prose.
In her brilliant book At Face Value: Autobiographical Writing in Spanish America, Molloy describes Lange’s project as “a game of cutouts” and her memoir as guided by an “aesthetics of collage.” A fragment of Notes describing schoolroom activities shows us the young Lange snipping words from newspaper headlines: “With a pair of scissors, I would clip words from the local and foreign papers, arranging them into little piles. Most of the time, I didn’t know what they meant, but I didn’t mind this at all. What drew me in was the typeface, the thick and thin strokes of the script.” Lange identifies this as one of the earliest instances in which she experienced “aesthetic” pleasure.
It was with Notes from Childhood that Lange claimed prose as her ground for stylistic innovation. Lange portrays herself as a fearful child, assailed by multiple obsessions. While the games she plays may be viewed as typical of childhood, in her retelling of them, the author turns them into an aesthetic strategy. Her anxious playfulness reaches an extreme in her game of entering the profiles of the people she meets, viewing their faces from within, contorting her body like an acrobat to fit inside them. Here we are closer to the limitless childhood imagination celebrated by surrealism than to a sentimental portrayal of domestic life.
Lange was no stranger to the numerous movements that shaped European and Latin American modernism, and was surely familiar with collage and its relationship to cubism. The ultraist movement imported from Spain by Borges, of which Lange’s book of poems La calle de la tarde (The Street at Dusk) is considered an example, was influenced by cubism, dadaism, expressionism, and futurism. (Marinetti famously visited Buenos Aires in 1926; Norah was slated to read him one of her poems, but her inhibition made it necessary for a friend to read on her behalf.) She had been steeped in the avant-garde milieu since she was a teenager.
With the poet Oliverio Girondo, whom she later married, and a cadre of contemporaries, she waged a “war on solemnity,” collaborating on the earliest journals of the Argentine avant-garde, participating in raucous dadaist happenings, and performing the speeches she wrote at an endless stream of banquets. Norah later recalled that she gave her speeches standing on a crate of wine, since she liked to “dominate the crowd.”
In the speech she penned in honor of the Lange family and performed at the banquet celebrating the publication of Notes from Childhood, she recalled the tertulias that used to take place at the house on Calle Tronador, where Jorge Luis Borges listened to old tangos, while Horacio Quiroga and Alfonsina Storni played parlor games, Leopoldo Marechal discussed “poetic possibilities” with his contemporaries, Macedonio Fernández sauntered through in a poncho and Ramón Gómez de la Serna in a pinstripe suit, and the painter Xul Solar “translated troubling horoscopes into 17 languages.”
Lange developed a voice that plumbed the depths of domestic life.
Solar spent over a decade in Europe, where he met the painter Emilio Pettoruti, whose cubist exhibition was inaugurated in 1924 on his return to Buenos Aires, and is considered a watershed moment in the vanguardia. That same year, the journal Martín Fierro, to which Norah became a contributor, was launched. The magazine’s manifesto positioned it in opposition to “the funereal solemnity of the historian and academic, who mummifies all he touches.” These were years of intense intellectual and artistic ferment in the Argentine capital, and many of the connections vital to this were forged at the legendary tertulias in the Lange family home.
Early in Notes from Childhood, the narrator recalls an often-repeated scene in which her parents would mount their horses in front of the family home, then ride off into the distance as their children looked on. The daughter describes the strange visual effect of her mother riding side-saddle in a long, old-fashioned riding habit. On one side, visible to the children as they look on, is the “whole length” of their mother, “the black brim of her hat concealing her face.” On the other side, they see “only a single gloved hand,” but “her profile was as sharp as if she had suddenly drawn alongside a lamp.”
To the narrator, the two sides, light and dark, visible and concealed, one “shadowy, mysterious,” one “whole” and “intact,” appear to balance each other out, yet for the reader (and the translator) the image is hard to visualize; it takes imaginative work to occupy the narrator’s perspective, to conjure these two sides of the mother before our eyes. What we have to work with are light and shadow, a profile, outlines, in order to inhabit her daughters’ experience of this game of concealment and revelation.
Partial views, oblique angles, and challenging images are essential to Lange’s prose, and in her memoir she found ample terrain for experimentation. The nameless narrator views scenes from childhood through her mother, father, and sister’s windows; she spies on a sister while hiding behind a door; she fantasizes about surreptitious glimpses of her French teacher’s daughter through a crack. Such perspectives are ideal for exploring a child’s partial understanding of her surroundings and of the adult world, and also for testing the parameters of modernist imagery.
In Lange’s memoir, the gazing subject’s view is often obstructed or mediated by something other than its object: the narrator speaks of the “poplars that so many times sliced through our view.” On a journey, the blanket keeping the children warm is “a still strip of shadow slicing the cart horizontally in two.” Beside the Christmas tree, her sisters’ faces are “happy triangles briefly glimpsed through a gap in the branches.” When Marta covers her face in misery when their father teaches her to tell the time, her sisters glimpse bits of her face through her outspread fingers, “a moistened eye, a patch of nose, a corner of mouth,” as if Lange had clipped the face into its components and reassembled them as a cubist painting. This mediation contributes to an aesthetic that can be likened to that of the tendencies explored by Lange’s contemporaries in the visual arts.This is not the behavior of a passive muse but of a young woman testing the power of her voice.
In the years preceding the publication of Lange’s memoir, the photographer Horacio Coppola made a series of photographs of Buenos Aires that became fundamental to the Argentine capital’s concept of itself as a modern city. His photographs appeared frequently in the journal Sur, and illustrated Borges’s Evaristo Carriego, in 1930. Coppola became famous for his documentation of urban life and for chronicling Buenos Aires architecture, and played a part in the modernist aesthetic renovation underway in all aspects of artistic culture. His photographs shot from balconies looking onto the street below, and from all manner of oblique angles, are a prime example of the kind of experimentation with perspective that was common to the period.
Photographs such as Medianera con aire y luz (Wall with Air and Light) and Toldos (Awnings), both from 1931, position the gaze at an unusual angle. In photographs such as these, I found not only a viewing subject analogous to Lange as a child, but an aesthetic of the fleeting that informed some of my translation choices. New visual technologies are often present in Lange’s work: in family photographs, in the scene where the protagonist’s sisters have their first-communion portraits taken, in the silent film the girls are finally allowed to see at the local cinema.
In this last case, the silent film seems to provide a key to viewing a reality that supersedes it: after the young Norah sees the film, it is the sight of the horse with a dead man over its rump that provides the more enduring image: “My memory of the first film we ever saw is always shot through with that of a lone man on the road to the town cemetery.” It was this consideration of the photographic in Lange’s work that finally led me to translate the book’s first word, entrecortado, as “flickering,” images recovered through the flickering of a screen, or viewed through a stereoscope as it comes into focus. In People in the Room, the connection becomes more explicit, when the young female narrator writes of her habit of gazing through the window at the women across the street, “It was as if I was slowly composing a silent film that might go on forever,” the narrator-viewer manipulating scenes from behind an imagined camera.
My first image of Lange, when I learned of her work ten years ago, came from Edwin Williamson’s biography of Jorge Luis Borges. Here, Lange is depicted as a gregarious, flame-haired tomboy who used to bedevil her neighbors by laughing and shrieking and throwing things from the rooftops. Williamson’s account of Lange’s friendship with Borges furthers the narrative that contributed to her enshrinement in literary history as muse of the Argentine avant-garde. The image of the enigmatic Lange making a spectacle of herself on the roof originates in one of the most striking fragments of Notes from Childhood, where Lange describes the routine she developed in adolescence of climbing onto the kitchen roof of Calle Tronador, wrapped in a poncho and donning a man’s felt hat. She would summon the neighbors by name, regaling them with a string of “expletives… paragraphs in English and French, disjointed sentences… the few words I knew in Italian or Norwegian, collective insults, a raucous guffaw, an affected line of verse.”
This is not the behavior of a passive muse but of a young woman testing the power of her voice. Here we see the seed of the self-possession and the instinct to act that would result in Lange’s dadaist banquet speeches. As Lange peers from the kitchen roof into the surrounding houses, we catch a glimpse of the spy casting her furtive glances from above, positioning herself as viewing subject but also as subject on view. The collagist manipulating her materials from behind the scenes has also become a performer, making the transformation from obsessive child into self-conscious narrator almost complete.
Excerpted from Notes from Childhood. Used with the permission of the publisher, And Other Stories. Afterword Copyright © 2021 by Charlotte Whittle.
With translator Charlotte Whittle, the press And Other Stories is bringing Norah Lange’s books into English for the first time. In 2018, the press’s Year of Publishing Women, it published People in the Room, and now in May 2021 Notes from Childhood.