Looking at Some Rodoreda Criticism [Two Month Review]
Coming up on this Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast I join Brian Wood and George Carroll to talk about some of the stranger, more war influenced, Rodoreda stories. Specifically, we talk about “Before I Die,” “Ada Liz,” “On a Dark Night,” “Night and Fog,” and “Orléans, Three Kilometers.” I’ll try and preface that conversation below.
If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.
This is the first week that we’re looking at stories outside of Vint-i-dos contes, with four of the stories under discussion coming from Rodoreda’s Semblava de seda i alters contes (It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories) from 1978.1 As we note on the podcast (a few times), the stories in these later collections move away from more domestic settings about relationships, betrayal, and sadness, into stories with more magical elements (“On a Dark Night,” “The Salamander”) and ones that are clearly influenced by her wartime experiences (“Orléans, Three Kilometers,” “Night and Fog.”).
In trying to come up with what to write about this week, I thought it might be interesting to bring in a slightly different perspective—a more academic one. A long time back, I mentioned the two extant academic books about Rodoreda: Voices and Visions and The Garden across the Border, both edited by Kathleen McNerney.
A good portion of the essays in these two books are about the novels—especially The Time of the Doves (aka In Diamond Square) and Death in Spring—but there are a number of interesting pieces about the stories to pull from. And since Kaija left a question on the Goodreads group about the differences between the male and female perspectives in the stories, especially as they relate to their emotions and situations, I thought we could take a look at that this week.
Adding to that, as both another Goodreads member and Brian have pointed out, the stories told from a male perspective have tended to be the least convincing, and usually have something different going on in terms of their emotional content and setting.
As is so happens, there’s an essay in The Garden across the Border by Josep Miquel Sobrer called “Gender and Personality in Rodoreda’s Short Fiction,” which sounds, well, interesting. Let’s check it out!
In Sobrer’s piece, he focuses on three particular stories: “The Red Blouse,” “The Hen,” and “On a Dark Night.” (Which, SPOILER, happens to be the story that most baffled George on this week’s podcast.) Before getting into these though, Sobrer lays out a few interesting things about Rodoreda’s female characters that might interest anyone reading this:
According to Geraldine C. Nichols, for example, Rodoreda’s women may be sorted into triomfadores (winners [or writers, as in Nichols’s title]), wantons, and witches. These three categories, in my view, emerge from the crossing of two opposite but complementary forces: oppression and liberation. Rodoreda’s women come to life when they accept their thirst for liberation, often in the form of an obstinate desire, and become conscious of the oppression that has been forced upon them. [. . .] Rodoreda’s women characters are born in rebellion and often in anger. These are the forces moving Rodoreda’s literature, and indeed those characters are often narrators, conceived as voices, eminently a voice crying out for consciousness and freedom.
And in a much more learned way than how Brian and I would describe it, Sobrer gets at what makes these stories so emotionally charged:
In her world, characters come into being as they open to feeling. Her characters oscillate between their desire for happiness and an inner and dark need for self-destruction or at least for spiritual misery. Desire often crumbles into disenchantment, reality into resignation. Awareness comes dangerously close to despair. Women [. . .] feel the prodding of their desire for freedom and love, and a barely confessed fear of attaining either of those ideals. Men dream of freedom, commitment, and duty while they continue to behave possessively, even abusively. Rodoreda offers a pessimistic (or perhaps only realistic) vision of a world in which overcoming suffereing leads mostly to solitude, emptiness, and even death: Lisa Sperling, Ada Liz, the Marta Coll of “Before I Die,” and the protagonist of “Paralysis” are all good examples.
That’s a pretty good rundown of why these stories can be so hard to read at times. There’s a lot of despair and resignation, but given how perfectly depicted, how charged, how well internal states are reflected by external surroundings, Rodoreda elevates these stories from being simply “depressing” into something amazingly well-crafted and lasting.
What he says about the male characters—dreaming of freedom and duty while behaving awfully—is pretty true? I’ll come back to this in a minute, but one of the difficulties of writing about, or simply evaluating, a collection of stories is that generalizing can be kind of tricky. Even the omnipresent flowers seem to shift in meaning and importance from story to story. So let’s look at one specific story narrated by a man—“On a Dark Night.”
This story is as mysterious and evocative as “The Hen” is grim. A soldier leaves the trenches during a cease fire and, after traversing a zone now magically moist and fertile, finds a house with three sets of walls. Inside, an unknown young woman is awaiting him. They fall into each other’s arms in a rapture. She says of herself: “I was born to live only at night.” The soldier is convinced her name is Loki: “Why this name and not another, since I was certain that she hadn’t mentioned it?” [. . .] Just as many other male characters, the soldier repeats the name Loki obsessively and possessively. Naming the woman, repeating the woman’s name, and even changing the woman’s name is a clear sign of obsession/possession.
After some talk of the oddness of this name—be it a reference to the Thor and the Ragnarok, or to luck or to “loca”—Sobrer reiterates that regardless of which path you might go down, Loki is a “representation of death.” “The war brings death everywhere in the story, and our soldier is soon fatally wounded. [. . .] Loki is the night and the soldier’s death, his liberation in the release of his vital fluids.”
This is all fine and interesting, and circles back to a lot of things you’ll hear on Thursday’s podcast. But in terms of the male nature of this story? . . .
The treatment of character I have discussed above shows the ways in which Rodoreda builds her fictional world. People in her short fiction tend to follow major gender-related lines. Both men and women are moved by fantasy, but with a difference. Fantasy leads women toward their liberation or makes them aspire to it; on the darker side of the same general process women are moved by their ambition, be that material or spiritual. Ambition in these characters is born from an aspiration, their aspiration for self-fulfillment. [. . .] It is that aspiration, ultimately a quest for self-fulfillment, that leads so many of Rodoreda’s characters to worldly ambition, to a confessed or unconfessed reaching out toward money and ownership of space.
I have to say that I particularly like this characterization. It comes up in “The Thousand Franc Bill,” a story we’ll surely talk about next week, which opens with the line “I’m fed up with being poor” and then goes off in some uncomfortable—yet aspirational, in a sad, dirty way—directions.
But the men! Their aspirational qualities are different:
Aspiration in male characters, on the other hand, has its roots in an outward movement; it is other-directed. Men are condemned to their possessiveness whether they act on it or not. Their greed will not liberate them, but rather alienate them, chain them to their ownership and even thrust them into madness [. . .] Rodoreda’s men project their fantasy outward, a quality that often makes them obsessive, and not infrequently afraid.
I’m not sure all the stories/characters fit this sort of rubric, but it’s a useful idea for looking at stories like “Nocturnal” and “On a Dark Night” and “The Red Blouse.”
It’s really hard to write about a short story collection every week. At least for a “selected” or “collected” story collection. This is a lame complaint to make about a project that I forced on myself, but it does relate to the never-ending complaints by publishing folk that “short stories don’t sell.” I’m not 100% convinced that’s true, but it’s one of the reasons why we see a lot more “Collected Stories” or collections that have a clear, singular theme or style.
Like, it’s a lot easier to describe a George Saunders collection than a book like this. And if a book takes some sort of work to understand, to digest, if it’s not handed to you in the jacket copy, then most people just ignore it. Readers are, to be honest, pretty lazy. I believe in the general collection though. I think 95% of the stories in Rodoreda’s book are some of the most brilliant, well-crafted stories I’ve read. I think she’s on par with the best of the best and that the fact her books haven’t sold 10,000 copies in English translation is proof positive that we live in a fucked part of the multiverse. I mean, seriously, The Big Bang Theory is popular. Bazinga!
Which brings up another question, that’s partially on my mind because of the deep(ish) dive I’ve done into academic writing—what’s the best way to talk about an author like Rodoreda?
There’s another article in Voices and Visions called “Mercè Rodoreda and the Criticism of Her Works: Analysis and Selected Bibliography” by María Isidra Mencos, which addresses the evolution of Rodoreda criticism over the years. This is sort of analogous to trying to write about this collection every week . . .
As various critics have indicated, Mercè Rodoreda was marginalized as an author in various respects. First, because of her political position as a catalanista and a supporter of the Republic, she was forced into exile after the Spanish Civil War. Second, her way of life, atypical with respect to social norms of the period—specifically, her relationship with a married man, the writer Armand Obiols—produced feelings of hostility in a certain sector of the Catalan intelligentsia. And finally, as a woman who, moreover, belonged to a minority culture, her literary efforts were condemned to being undervalued. This is revealed in histories of contemporary Spanish literature: these conced far less importance to Rodoreda than to her male contemporaries, whose works entered the canon much earlier, although they are neither superior in quality, nor as well received by the reading public.
YES. Insert “Dubravka Ugresic” and “Yugoslav War” in there and you’ve explained the shitty situation surrounding another Open Letter author.
An examination of the criticism of Rodoreda’s work enables us to identify different theoretical perspectives, although, in many cases, several are combined within a single study. The perspectives most frequently utilized are the following:
—thematic or symbolic analysis, which associates the work of Rodoreda with her
—formalist analysis, structuralist analysis, narratological analysis, etc.
All of these approaches have their merits, but as we head into Death in Spring, I want to end this meandering post with one last long quote:
There are researchers in many places who have based all or part of their studies on symbolic analysis. Bachelard is the theories most often cited. There are many articles, however, that are based directly on Rodoreda’s work, and that accomplish a contextual analysis of its symbols. Many of these articles combine symbolic and thematic analysis with other types, and they reveal a certain bias—feminist, narratological and/or psychoanalytic—but without explicitly aligning themselves with a specific theory. We should include in this category of symbolic analysis the studies of archetypes, which link Rodoreda’s work to rites of initiation and the trajectory of the hero; such studies are often made with respect to War, So Much War. Another example of this, although somewhat different, is the study of the symbols in Death in Spring, carried out from an anthropological perspective.
1 Quick note: We lied on the back of this book. These stories are not in chronological order. For whatever reason—I can’t remember Sunday, much less what our then-editor did seven years ago—we put the stories from It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories before the ones from My Christina. If you’re a stickler for chronology, you should read “The Salamander,” “Love,” and “White Geranium” after “Before I Die” and before “Ada Liz.” Given that these three collections do have different themes—more on this later—it might make sense to reorder and group these together.