viernes, 29 de junio de 2012

Virginia Woolf and Eugenia Rico: Time, Literature, Love, Death

Why do writers write? What moves them to tell us stories, to put words together to express or evoke emotions? The reasons for each author are unique, different, or, conversely, if we pay enough attention we will find a single and primitive impulse common to all who are called "writers"?

Could it be that we were not aware of it, but perhaps through this question is possible to understand one of the most inexplicable behaviors we, the readers, have: to compare writers with another writers. It is increasingly common that publishers and libraries intoduce an author connecting him or her with another writer. "The Agatha Christie of the Nordic countries", "the German Faulkner", "a postmodern Oscar Wilde" or, as has actually happened a few months ago (these are invented epithets), "the Virginia Woolf of the facebook era" or the new Virginia Woolf, as the New York Times blog in Spanish called Eugenia Rico.
I have always been annoyed by these forced relationships between writers, but I must recognize that as a reader I also incur in this fault. Lately, for example, I don't keep comparing "Life and Fate" by Vasily Grossman (one of the best novels I have read) with Tolstoy's "War and Peace". Although we rationally condemn that, we insist in doing these kind of comparisons, and even classifications (the ten best books I have read, the greatest writer of the twentieth century, the best romantic poet, etc..). One of the favorites hobbies of our species is collecting (when you pay attention to young children -or even chimpanzees or other great apes- it is easy to notice that). And this hobby leads us to the habit of classifying and ranking. Put the blame on the genes, there is nothing we can do.
In regard to the literature this diversion is deeply unfair. Each author is unique and has its own voice. I think that if I were a writer I would dislike to be compared to other author. It does not matter if the comparison is with an unknown writer or with an absolute genius as Dante, Shakespeare or Cervantes. Each artist must have its own place under the sun or in the limbo of the damned. Certainly some places are big and others small, but everyone is entitled to have his or her own site.

However, despite the injustice, there are deep reasons for continuing making this set of comparisons. Maybe the most important of them is that through the answer of this questions we can peek, if only to sneak, one of those great mysteries of literature, the reasons for writing. When we compare authors, stories and styles we are dealing, often unknowingly, with this issue. This is the reason why so often we intend to find the keys to an author in her or his biography, his or her life circumstances, in the events of the author's life. It seems that lately has been vilified this way of making literary criticism and prevails the opinion that the critic must be disconnected from the authors' personal circumstances. I'm not sure what is the purpose of that, but intuitively it seems wrong for me. Certainly the personal story is literary irrelevant by itself, but it is relevant when it is possible to connect that story with the reasons that have compelled the author to write. In this case the story is not just an anecdote, but a key that can be valuable for understanding this nuclear question: why they write? Taking this into account it can make sense to compare one author's biography with another author's biography. When similar experiences lead to literary works that somehow can be related we are in the way of finding out why writers write.

In the case of Virginia Woolf and Eugenia Rico there is an element in the biography of both women that immediately seems relevant to anyone who tries to connect these two authors. When they were teenagers both suffered the loss of a very close relative. Virginia Woolf lost her mother and sister when Virginia was thirteen and fifteen years old respectively, Eugenia's brother died when she was sixteen or seventeen years old. The footprint of that loss in Eugenia Rico's oeuvre is explicit in which for me is her best book, "La Muerte Blanca" ("The White Death"). In this book it is difficult to separate what is true story of what is invented, but in any case it is not so important to define precisely the borders between true facts and imagined stories because everything in the novel is deeply real, real in the literary sense of the term. There is no deception in the book, no artificial recreation, but on the contrary, a speech that sounds like relief and grabs the reader from first page to last.
In regards to Eugenia, therefore, the first -and quick- response to the question of why she writes is easy to answer after a short consultation of her biography. The death of her brother had to be told, the profound change that occurs when a person suffers a similar loss must be explained. Years of inexpressible pain finally found its way out through this story. Eugenia wrote because she wanted to tell, which means (and we will turn over it again a little later) that she wanted it to be read, that she wished that her grief was shared in some way. No one writes to enclose the sheet in a locked drawer or better yet, to burn what was written without giving opportunity to anyone to know. There are cases of writers who gave to fire his work or ordered to be given it to fire, but these are special cases which are related to particular circumstances and can not be taken as a rule precisely because the rule is that the writer wants to be read, which is a particular manifestation of the desire to be heard; universal desire so well summarized in Orlando by Virginia Woolf when she explained that human beings "will yet endure ridicule and misunderstanding rather than keep any experience to themselves".
"La Muerte Blanca" is therefore the clearer impression of an early loss in the work of Eugenia Rico, but not the only one, of course. Others footprints are more subtle, but for this very reason, perhaps more significant. Death is not worth just for itself but, above all, because death tints life. We can not imagine life without death (or perhaps we can, but that will come later) and this makes that the experience of the death changes the perception we have of life. In "La Muerte Blanca" the treatment of death is explicit, but in Eugenia's other works death can be seen through the way in which death transforms the perception of life. This happens in "La Edad Secreta" ("The Secret Age")', where the reference in the title is just to the years left to live. The story shows how a near-death experience transforms life. A woman in their forties seeks to hasten the conscious of her life when she realizes that life is a good that is exhausted and may end at any time. Thus the story becomes a paradigm of how death changes life and that is relevant, because seldom we realize that the eternal change, the flood of time that is essential for our understanding of the world is just a consequence coming from the brutal shock of death against life. Without death there would be no time as we know it and the whole perception of the world would be different.
It is in this perception where Virginia Woolf and Eugenia Rico find a common place. To my knowledge in Virginia's work there is nothing that resembles Eugenia's "La Muerte Blanca". Maybe if Virginia had been written at one time or another a book like that, would not have suffered what she suffered in life and had not died so prematurely as she died. Perhaps, but the truth is that this work -which had been the medical equivalent to an incision that allows flowing the blood that has been accumulated within the tissues and bones after a blow- does not exist. Despite that, death is not absent in Virginia Woolf's work, but it is not present in an explicit way, but just as a soft paint which changes the colors of life. The stream of time through our lives is a key element in many novels by Virginia Woolf. "Waves" shows us a picture of tremendous strength despite its topical nature. These waves which reach the beach from the sea undisturbed by the changes that occur from dawn to dusk are perhaps more important even than the extraordinary soliloquies that make up this masterpiece. The pass of time is also present in other works of Virginia Woolf. The way in which the story of one single day can light an entire life -and that happens in "Mrs. Dalloway"and in "The Years"- could be just a metaphor of that particular experience in relation to time, an experience that is very close to those who know that eternity is not a long time but the lack of time.
The exception to this particular way of conceiving time is a novel that, perhaps, is the most beautiful work of Virginia Woolf, "Orlando". The leit-motiv of the book is time. Time passes but the main character does not grow old and, of course he/she does not die. It is true that Orlando suffers a non minor change, because in one point he, a man at the beginning of the story, becomes a woman, but this change precisely is a way to express a whole experience of the world and life. In other works of Virginia Woolf time defeats life, but in "Orlando" is life which prevails over time. That has an explanation; as has once been said, "Orlando" is the longest love letter ever written. Through this book Virginia told the world what the affaire she had had with Vita Sackville-West had meant to her. And the result is extraordinary. Do not think it's coincidence that when love (and what a love!) enraptures her, an explosion of beauty as I have never seen light us, an explosion of love and beauty that it is only comparable to the much colder and rational that Dante's "Commedia" is; but, of course, the love of Dante was painstakingly built by himself, while in the case of Virginia Woolf she had really enjoyed the passion of her lover, and that's not a trivial difference either in life or in literature.

Virginia Woolf did not write, as we have said, a book equivalent to "La Muerte Blanca"; and Eugenia Rico has written nothing equivalent to "Orlando". Eugenia's book which deals more with love is, precisely, "La Muerte Blanca," but the love there is the brotherly love, not the sexual and passionate love that brights in "Orlando". It is true that also in "Los Amantes Tristes" ("The Sad Lovers") and in "La Edad Secreta" we can read about lovers, affairs, sexual relations and maybe about something close to love, but real love (or if you excuse me the vulgarity, "LOVE" in capital letters) is not present. Eugenia (as a writer) has not yet discovered, therefore, this special fest which is able to reduce time to ashes and death to immaterial smoke. In Eugenia's work we can find just the dissection of transcendent experiences that develop as flashes, like flames that turn on and off in seconds but whose memory or explanation may takes hundreds of pages. This is true in the whole "La Edad Secreta' and in many moments of "La Muerte Blanca" (unforgettable here the narration of the moment when the main character is informed of her brother's death). In his latest novel, "Aunque seamos malditas" (Although we are damned) the option is another one. Here the pass of the time is represented by two parallel stories separated by several centuries and developed on the same places. In this novel the story works as a metaphor for fear, and therefore hate, to those who seem weaker, different, to those who, however, hide occult knowledge and skills. A universal history of oppression, which is incomprehensible (and thus unwritable) as a whole is represented by the simple union of two related stories (one, two, many; as small children count).
Probably all I have written till now is just frivolous speculation without substance. However, I like this "divertissement". I obtain a great satisfaction from pretending to guess that both Virginia Woolf and Eugenia Rico tell us about the pass of time because they are well aware (or, maybe, not in a conscious way) that death becomes an essential and irremediable element for our conception of life and time; ant that gives me a deep pleasure, as I have just said,  because this kind of thoughts are connected to the question I have begun with: why writers write? Anyway, we do not know yet why we, the readers, are interested in knowing why writers write. Why should we worry about the reasons of those who write? Should not be enough to read what we offer without considering the reasons that prompted them to write it? It seems that the answer should be "not", because, as we have already seen, the readers like to know about authors' life. We are deligthed with the details of the existance of those who give us their pages. The answer to this question (why we are interested in writers' reasons?) could be interesting because it connects us with a deeper question: why do we read?
The impression I have is that the question on writers' reasons is intimately connected to the question of readers' reasons. At the end, literature is not a solitary exercise, but requires the interaction between author and reader, as Perec masterfully expressed in "Life: A User's Manual". We have already  considered here that authors usually need readers (or they, authors, like to have readers). The writer does not write just for himself, but she or he pretends to communicate with others. He or she desires to provoke thoughts, emotions, concerns... that should be, ideally, answered by the reader. But why should the reader consider what the author proposes? The answer is also intuitively clear: because when the writer speaks of himself (don't be disappointed!, all writers talk about themselves) is also speaking  about the reader. If the reader does not identify him or herself with what he reads will leave the story, poem or novel. If we keep reading is because consciously or unconsciously discover that the author, an author which has never directly spoken to the reader, or maybe dead centuries ago, or maybe completely unknown, is speaking of ourselves, the readers, and our experiences and feelings; often feelings or experiences of which the reader was not even aware before the reading. In fact the more full of own experiences is the work more interesting for the reader it will seem; that is why good literature must always contain the right amount of mystery, of difficulty. Enough to incite the reader to make an intellectual exercise that will make him or her look a little beyond what their normal horizon is, but not enough to discourage the reader overcome by a gibberish that is absolutely inextricable. Wallace Stevens put it well when he said  that poetry must resist the intelligence "almost successfully." Literature is great when the reader finds a work that requires just that effort rewarded with the satisfaction of discovering feelings or moods that are proper and did not know before reading the novel, the poem, the story or the essay. Literature at the end is an intimate communication between the author and reader that allows both to explore lands beyond the common experience, very often literature departs from this common experience, the reality known, to reach the unknown reality, the most authentic.
Taking this into account we can consider from a new point of view sentences like "we are facing a very personal work." Usually this kind of statements are referred seemingly to the writer, but perhaps the critic or reviewer is referring to himself, and he or she is trying to express that the work in question is connected to his or her inner self in an unexpected and fruitful way. For me this is where the magic of literature lies, and it is also the proof that we all, individuals of a species characterized by an exaggerated symbolic capacity, are connected by common feelings and, finally, there are some people, artists, who are able to highlight it. If we analyze the reasons why they write and we read, we discover that we are a brotherhood deeper than we sometimes think. The major issues addressed by the science, philosophy or theology are transformed by writers in personal experience. I am delighted that Virginia and Eugenia have been able to talk about those great issues: death, time, love, in such a way that talking about themselves they are also talking about all of us.

3 comentarios:

Anónimo dijo...

Very interesting article about two great authors, I was impressed by Virginia Woolf's Orlando and by Rico's "The White Death" two masterpieces, we need books like that in those times, book with Truth and Beauty.

Rafael Arenas García dijo...

Thank you!

Timothy dijo...