Monday 28 April 2014

"Gliding in the arms of your own writing": Rosa Montero's La loca de la casa

The dedication of Rosa Montero’s La loca de la casa (2003) enticingly sets the theme and tone of this beautiful hymn to human imagination. The words are presented, appropriately, within a half rectangle – the half that includes one long side on the top and one short side on the left. The other half is missing. The dedication reads: “For Martina, who is and isn’t. And who, not being, has taught me a lot” (all translations are mine). At certain points in the narrative, the reader is forced to question indeed whether Montero’s sister Martina, who figures so saliently in important passages of this autobiography/novel, actually exists. Over the course of the narrative, it becomes clear that Montero’s first point is that, from the perspective of the reader, it doesn’t matter whether her sister exists. What matters are the emotions, thoughts, simulations, and insights experienced along the way. But her more radical second point is that the interlacing of her own life and that of her sister exist more crisply in her imagination than in her memory and even than in her day to day interactions with Martina. 

In the skirmishes between memory and imagination, Montero accepts that, often enough, imagination wins: “In fact, when a certain amount of time passes, say twenty years, since the thing I remember, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish whether I lived it, dreamed it, imagined it, or perhaps wrote it (which highlights… the power of the imagination: imagined life is also life)” (224). It is clear in the peregrinations of her thoughts, memories, and citations of other writers that she feels a deep respect for the realness of what we imagine, and the imaginative quality of what we experience as real, and most especially for the mutual influences of the two. 

She explores rich questions concerning the imagination and its role in our lives, madness, falling in love, feeling the need to escape death through creating art, and the struggle between memory and fantasy. She believes that imagining can help one’s mental health, relates her personal story of suffering panic attacks in her twenties as a journalist, and reports the diminution and disappearance of those experiences after she began writing fiction.  She says that “One always writes against death” (13) and shares stories she has read that illustrate this notion: how the Persian noble woman Scheherazade and the painter Wang-Fô, of ancient Chinese legend, are saved by their practicing of their respective arts: storytelling and painting. She shares the two questions she most detests being asked at conferences and readings: Is there a women’s literature? and Which does she prefer, journalism or fiction-writing? Her answers are no, and fiction. “I can easily imagine myself not being a journalist, but I can’t conceive of myself without novels” (181). 

But Montero is not a believer in the “muse”, as one might surmise from her great respect for the imagination. She introduces the question of craft, quite intriguingly, by performing it. Montero cryptically introduces a narrative of her encounter at the age of twenty-three with a famous and very handsome European actor, M., who is in Madrid making a movie. She is set up on a date with M. through a friend in the movie business. Strangely though, after telling us about her amorous encounter with M, she tells us that she will tell us the story again later. In fact, she narrates the same encounter two more times. The three versions of Montero’s encounter with M. are different in quality, with one more purely suspenseful, another more purely emotional and erotic, and the culminating one a finer version with the best parts of the previous two excised from their original narratives and combined, and added to, such that it is quite powerful, much finer than either of the previous versions. And yet they are all told as if they really had happened to her. Her point here seems to be that the iteration of the encounter towards its final version is also work of the imagination in a simmering pot of tasty bits of images, memories, suppressions, juxtapositions, and symbols, and not the work of a muse. 

Trained as a psychologist, Montero nevertheless is not up to date on some questions in this area. She says that one can test her hypothesis that a “woman’s literature” does not exist, she says, by “reading another person passages from novels, and I am sure that the hearer will not guess the sex of the authors at a rate any better than mere statistical chance” (171). But studies suggest that readers can guess the sex of the writer of literary works, and better than at chance levels. A few pages later, when she writes “I would say that the great majority of the world’s psychiatrists and psychologists are individuals who have had mental problems” (184), one wonders how she is defining her categories. But it is interesting to hear of her informal survey based on a question originally posed by the writer Nuria Amat to writers: if you had to choose between never writing again and never reading again, which would you choose? Montero asked this “worrisome question” (199) to a number of writer friends and acquaintances over the years after having heard of it. She reports that over 90% (including herself) would rather give up writing than reading. A fascinating result. And perhaps one that one of our readers involved in research on response to literature might like to take up and empirically test.

I would recommend this exquisite narrative to anyone interested in questions of creativity and writing, although it’s not clear whether there is an English translation available. My cursory searches have yielded nothing yet. If there is one, I certainly hope that the title is not The crazed woman inside me, which seems to be a suggested English translation for the book on “La loca de la casa” means something closer to “The loony one in the family” or “the family loon.” Here there is a double referent to the author herself and to the imagination. I think this translation better gets at the idea of the commonness of madness or “craziness,” because Montero’s point is that since each of us has an imagination, each of us has una loca en casa, and perhaps la locura is not something contained inside one person (as the earlier translation suggests), but is an interpersonal and social process as well.

Finally, I’ll leave you with what is probably my favorite passage of this work. It is a lovely meditation on what it feels like to be writing well, and perhaps experiencing what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (1990) has called “flow.”

“In fact, there are days in which you feel so inspired, so overflowing with words and images that you write with a complete feeling of weightlessness, you write as someone soaring over the horizon, surprising even yourself with what you’ve written: But did I know that? How was I capable of writing this paragraph? Sometimes it happens that you are writing way beyond your capacities, you are writing better than you know how to write. And you don’t want to budge from this spot, you don’t want to breathe or blink, much less think, so that you don’t interrupt this miracle. Writing, in these strange raptures of lightness, is like dancing a very complicated waltz with someone, and doing it perfectly. Rounds and rounds in the arms of your partner, weaving in and out with intricate steps, such beautiful steps, with winged feet; and the music of the words echoes in your ears, and the world all about is a sparkling of crystal chandeliers and silver candelabras, of shining silks, and lustrous shoes, the world is a whirling pool of splendours and your dance borders on the most complete beauty, one turn and another and you continue without missing a beat, it’s marvelous, however much you fear losing the rhythm, stepping on your partner, being once more clumsy and human; but you manage to continue for one more round, and another and perhaps another, gliding in the arms of your own writing” (49).

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. NewYork: Harper.

Montero, Rosa. La loca de la casa. (2003). Mexico: Alfaguara.

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