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Lost & Found: A. N. Devers on Mariá Luisa Bombal

With the release of Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House, we’ve been thinking about women writers who don’t just push the envelope, but rip it apart and make it anew.  This week’s L&F features two writers capable of such magic: Tin House author A.N. Devers and her subject, Mariá Luisa Bombal, a woman whose life was as fantastic as her fiction.  A special congratulations go out to Devers, whose piece “On the Outskirts,” from our Class in America issue, is honored as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2011, due out tomorrow.

It is unclear to me whether the Chilean writer Mariá Luisa Bombal shot her lover, Eulogio Sanchez, or her husband, Eulogio Sanchez—the few biographical sources available to me are contradictory—but I do know that she shot him.  And she then fled, so the story goes, with help from her friends, Jorges Luis Borges, to America, where she spent most of the rest of her life depressed and in exile.  When I came across this anecdote, paired with the fact that Bombal counted Pablo Neruda (reportedly, he called her “Fire Bee”), Sherwood Anderson, and Faulkner among her friends and acquaintances, I marveled that I had never heard of her before.  The shooting alone should stand to make her at least as infamous as William S. Burroughs; she shot Sanchez in 1941 and went on the lam a decade before Burroughs put a bullet through Joan Vollmer’s head during a drunken game of William Tell. (Perhaps it isn’t as spectacular a piece of gossip because Sanchez failed to die.) And then consider that Bombal is one of the most celebrated of Latin American writers, that she still has Chilean high schools and a significant writing award named after her, that Carlos Fuentes said, “Mariá Luisa Bombal is the mother of us all”—referring to the tidal wave of mid-twentieth-century experimental Latin American writers—and there is a significant mystery afoot regarding why she is not more commonly known and read in this country.

Born July 6, 1910, in Chile, Mariá Luisa Bombal moved to France at the age of twelve and lived in Paris for over a decade.  During her time there she had access to the newly emerging avant-garde artists and writers and studied French literature at the Sorbonne.  She returned to Chile in 1933, but left two years later for Buenos Aires, where she socialized with Victoria Ocampo and the writers and artists involved with Ocampo’s renowned literary magazine, Sur.  She had been writing stories in French, but during this time she transitioned back to her native language and wrote her first novel, The House of Mist (La última niebla), which is considered her masterwork.

Narrated by Helga, a young newlywed, The House of Mist revolves almost completely around Helga’s fixation, to the point of obsession, on a single night of her life, when she slips away from her first formal ball for a lust-filled night with a complete stranger.  Bombal writes the evening as a fairy-tale escapade and casts Helga as a sort of Cinderella; when the clock chimes midnight, her heroine’s world fractures, but where Cinderella’s carriage turns into a pumpkin, Helga simply wakes up uncertain if the dream-like night has even happened.

Triggering her decision to cheat on her Heathcliffian husband, Daniel, is Helga’s belated realization that he will most likely never return the love she has held for him since childhood.  Instead, to put it crudely, Daniel treats Helga like sloppy seconds, having married her as a perverse form of mourning for his first wife, Teresa (Helga’s older sister, who died under mysterious circumstances), and now wallows selfishly in his grief.  When Helga’s memories of the illicit night—a honeymoon redux of sorts—are contradicted by those around her (Daniel, for one, insists she returned to their room much earlier in the evening), she begins to question her sanity.  Yet her certainty in the reality of this evening is central to Helga’s entire identity.  She sees her indiscretion as a night of true love and intimacy with a man who may be able to rescue her from a miserable life indentured to unrequited love; the alternative is unbearable.  She has already realized her marriage is doomed, on the night of her wedding, when Daniel calls out the name of her sister instead of her own.  It is, she explains, “unquestionably the most tragic experience any woman in love could have had to endure in all her life…I do not care to tell of my torture as I felt him embracing through me the fleeting ghost of a dead woman.”

In The House of Mist, fairy tales are the dreams of young girls cruelly shattered when life doesn’t turn out happily ever after.  In the opening of the novel, Helga and Daniel meet as children in a garden.  The two immediately discover they are both orphans.  Helga, much younger than Daniel, proclaims that she is looking for her prince (in the form of a toad) at the bottom of a well.  She casts Daniel as a brutish bear, the “Master of the Forest.” Daniel ridicules young Helga’s belief in fantasies, calling her “a little idiot” and returning Helga to reality: “‘Of course I’m not a bear,’ he says crossly, ‘and besides this is not a forest, it’s my garden, the garden of the house my parents left me.  They left books to you, didn’t they? Well to me they left this house and this garden.  Do you understand?”  Daniel, here, delineates a central tension of The House of Mist: a woman’s expected societal role is an untenable fantasy, encouraged via escapist literature, while a man’s role is ever tied to daily existence, with no room for dreaming.

The House of Mist’s narrative is fragmented and strange, and the English translation is sometimes strained, full of exclamatory dialogue that reads as melodramatic and sentimental. (And from what I can glean, it was criticized, on its American debut, for these faults; Bombal responded by swearing off English translations of her future work.)  Yet Bombal succeeds in so many other ways.  Because of its disjointed and ambiguous structure, and because of its malleable understanding of “reality,” The House of Mist is seen as the precursor to what is now labeled magical realism.  Bombal was haunted, even tortured, by her desire to find a new way of writing about a woman’s limited role in society.  She purposefully eschews a conventional structure to better explore the inequalities a woman faces, particularly after she marries. (Bombal herself had several unhappy unions.)

For me, The House of Mist resonates as an astute commentary on what young girls are still being sold today—the Disneyfied promise that every virtuous and wholesome princess will acquire a beautiful home, sparkly jewels, Prince Charming, and, perhaps most importantly, a perfect wedding day.  Instead of building their own dreams, young women consume mass-produced romantic fantasies as if they were made of Wonderbread.  Bombal is issuing a warning: when we defang our fairy tales to only offer happy endings, the discord between the dream and reality can be enough to drive a woman to distrust her own mind.

A. N. Devers’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bust magazine, the Brooklyn Rail, The Southampton Review, The Rumpus, TimeOut NY, and The Washington Post. She teaches in the English Department at Adelphi University and received her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She is the editor of writershouses.com, a website for literary pilgrims everywhere.

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