Norah Lange: finally, 'Borges's muse' gets her time in the spotlight

A groundbreaking poet and novelist, Lange has been reduced to a decorative footnote in male authors’ careers. Might the first English translation of her fiction change that?

Outside Greek mythology, muses are passive; artists are active. One inspires, the other creates. The two roles are not mutually exclusive, though it is rare to be remembered as both. Norah Lange was renowned for her beauty and flamboyance. A young Jorge Luis Borges, arguably Argentina’s most famous literary export, once gushed about “the double brilliance of [Lange’s] hair and her haughty youth”. These days, Lange is largely remembered as a muse for Borges and for the Martin Fierro group of writers and the Ultraist literary movement.

There’s just one problem with this narrative: Lange was an author herself. She wrote groundbreaking, avant-garde fiction that was well received during her lifetime.

So why is she not remembered? In 1959, Lange was awarded Argentina’s highest literary prize, the Gran Premio de Honor of the Argentine Writers’ Association – the same award Borges won in 1944. Yet Lange’s image as a muse, as a footnote to her male contemporaries, persists. In her native Argentina, only a few of her 11 books remain in print, and only now – 68 years after its original release – is the first translation of one of her novels, People in the Room, being published in English.

Born in 1905 in Buenos Aires, Lange was already collaborating with major writers in her late teens, as her mother hosted literary tertulias at their family home on Calle Tronador. Following several books of poetry, she published two semi-autobiographical novels. The first was about an adulterous love triangle, thought to be based on her own experiences with Borges and the poet Oliverio Girondo, whom she later married. The second was about a lone woman travelling on a ship with 30 sailors from Buenos Aires to Oslo. Both received mixed reviews due to their “indecent” subject matter, and Lange would later disown them – but they are early examples of, what KM Sibbald calls, “her vanguard feminism”.

People in the Room, her penultimate novel, is an obsessive, claustrophobic book. A teenage girl watches three nameless, unmarried women in the house opposite hers. Events repeat and deviate, fact and fiction mingle. It captures both the domestic boredom of young women in the Argentina of Lange’s youth, and the tragically limited options available to older ones. It investigates the internal intensities and crises of self that can occur under such restrictions. And it does so in plain prose, with subtle dashes of dark wit, some of which play off our adolescent narrator’s naivety; the “wayward women” across the road, for instance, are spoken of as old crones, but are only in their 30s.

In an interview in the 1960s, Lange revealed her inspiration for People in the Room: she took Bramwell Brontë’s ghostly portrait of his three famous sisters and transposed it to Calle Tronador, the site of her mother’s soirees. Marta J Sierra suggests that the three women are stand-ins for the Martin Fierro group, who attended those literary meet-ups. Being one of the group’s two female members, Lange existed on its periphery and was, in the words of Patricia Nisbet Klingenberg, “someone they enjoyed but treated with fond condescension”.

“While the avant gardes of Buenos Aires strove for innovation in art and literature,” writes Vanessa Fernandez-Greene, “their progressive attitude did not extend to new modes of thinking about conventional gender roles.” And reviews of Lange’s work by her male contemporaries were often problematic, skirting around her feminist subject matter or opting for puzzling, gendered language (“Norah Lange knows the virginity of newly born turns of phrase”, poet Fermín Estrella Gutiérrez once wrote). Or, as Borges did in his prologue to Lange’s first poetry collection, they imply that she produced great literature despite being a woman.

Still, at least her work was, however begrudgingly, respected in her lifetime. “Lange’s work was valued by her peers all along,” People in the Room’s translator Charlotte Whittle says. “But that wasn’t enough for her work to transcend the dominant machismo of the period and gain her the wider recognition she deserves.”

In Argentina, everyone knows who Lange is, but few read her. People love literary gossip – sometimes more than the literature itself. And “the woman who broke Borges’ heart” is certainly an easier sell than an experimental novel about voyeurism.

Beyond a dedicated, niche audience, many “difficult” books survive because they are canonised. And herein lies the problem. “The work has always been there,” Whittle continues, “but it’s been ignored, and it has to do with gender bias at every level of literary production, both in these authors’ countries and in our own.” Very little fiction gets translated into English, and very little of what does is written by women. Dead women can’t do book tours, which is but another obstacle when it comes to marketing lost classics. And if historical female writers aren’t canonised, there’s even less reason for publishers to consider them. This is how a unique voice like Lange’s can subsumed by easy gossip. But the very release of People in the Room in English shows how great writing, sometimes, survives even the worst of our prejudices.

Contributor

James Reith

The GuardianTramp

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