What’s in a Gaze?

Only one authenticated portrait of the three Brontë sisters survives. Completed by their brother, Branwell, around 1834, it was discovered atop a cupboard in 1914. Remarkable as a record of the ...

Only one authenticated portrait of the three Brontë sisters survives. Completed by their brother, Branwell, around 1834, it was discovered atop a cupboard in 1914. Remarkable as a record of the likenesses of Anne, Charlotte, and Emily, the painting also contains a spectral presence: the faint outlines of a man, widely assumed to be the artist himself, showing through a conspicuous central column. The apparition was initially understood as a flawed attempt to efface a finished figure, but recent studies of the paintwork suggest Branwell had made only a cursory sketch before abandoning what would have been a crowded composition.

Rather than haunting the painting, the artist’s appearance reminds viewers that a gaze directed at another always contains indelible traces of the self. The visible folds in the canvas form an imperfect grid revealing an uncertain sense of perspective—an uncertainty that also applies to the sisters, who look in different directions. When the Argentine writer Norah Lange came across a reproduction of the painting in the 1940s, she was struck by the enigmatic ensemble. Later, she would cite the portrait of the three sisters as an inspiration for People in the Room, her hypnotic 1950 novel that And Other Stories has just brought out, in Charlotte Whittle’s artful translation, as part of its Year of Publishing Women initiative.

Lange’s full-length English-language debut, People in the Room traces a young woman’s fascination with three sisters who have moved into a house across the street. After catching sight of them through an unshuttered window one night during a storm, this 17-year-old narrator (none of the characters has a name) discards the books that had been her constant companions and becomes obsessed with watching the sisters. She contemplates them night after night as they sit facing the window that frames them perfectly. Such intent observation is made possible, and is perhaps partly explained, by the obliviousness of the narrator’s family, who even fail to notice when she begins to regularly visit the sisters’ house. There she forges a curious relationship with them, one marked by concealment and cool cordiality.

Unlike in the Brontë painting, here it is the figuration of the trio that feels faint. Details, as the novel’s deliberately imprecise title indicates, are not forthcoming. The three women often occupy either a dining room or a drawing room. The latter is a space whose name comes from the act of withdrawing, which the sisters have turned into an art. (The etymology of retrato, the Spanish word for portrait, also leads back to an idea of withdrawing.) They remain remote even when sharing a glass of wine or engaging in sporadic and cryptic conversation with the narrator. Although she never learns why they have moved to this home, which they almost never leave, her curiosity is unfailing, fueled by a need “to know how strange they were, whether they were really worth watching, whether there was more to them than my detailed vision.”

In our current moment of overdue cultural reckoning with an ingrained way of seeing that overlooks women as it objectifies them, People in the Room offers a corrective. Combining scrutiny and the inscrutable, it emphasizes, through a series of indirect interactions, that looks alone provide few insights into character. Little happens, and still less is certain. Lange synthesizes some gestures of the mystery genre into a simultaneously ethical, narrative, and visual imperative: there’s more to this situation than meets the eye.

The same was true of Lange. The daughter of first- and second-generation Norwegian immigrants to Argentina, she was often regarded merely as a muse for an avant-garde dominated by male writers, including Jorge Luis Borges, a distant cousin, and his rival Oliverio Girondo, who later became Lange’s husband. But she was a poet herself, one whose first two collections were excerpted and reviewed in Martín Fierro, a prominent and polemical journal named after the gaucho epic.

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The reception of Lange’s early work was frequently dismissive, either patently patronizing or too quick to point out her youth. A review of her second collection began by evoking Lange’s supposedly ongoing adolescence, even though she was already 21: “Her window of astonishment remains open onto the world … she sings of the spectacle of her inquisitiveness, interrogates the meaning of every dream, and in her exaggerated expectation every incident becomes significant.”1 If you look past the condescension, this is a fair sketch not of Lange but of the narrator of People in the Room, which would appear nearly 25 years later, long after its author had repudiated all three of her poetry collections and two of her early novels.

By turns oblique and positively opaque, Lange’s late style is the expression of a longstanding preference. “I love anything surrounded by a certain sense of enigma; I could never stand directness,” she explained in an interview. “I was educated that way, and I consider it more a blessing than a curse.”2 The focus in People on spying, which Lange once called her favorite pastime, therefore seems only natural. Surveillance serves as an endlessly renewable source of new uncertainties and circuitously acquired knowledge. Yet spying is also central to an early and defining experience of authorship for Lange. At an early age, she gave two writers visiting her home a notebook with some of her poems. “I let them read it alone,” she recalled, “while I spied on them through a window. They were laughing.”3

That laughter was enough to make her hide the notebook, but not so much that Lange refrained from exploring the emotions such a reaction provoked. People in the Room offers an enigmatic version of her formative experience as the narrator elicits neither laughter nor any other clear response from the three sisters in her attempts to learn something of their story. To produce their first exchange, she delivers a telegram addressed to them—one she claims to have accidentally received but had in fact intercepted. Yet even this stratagem to elicit a response fails, for they seem indifferent to the fact that the narrator read the brief, uninformative message. The telegram’s sender, who subsequently makes a brief visit, is the only other figure the narrator witnesses interacting with the isolated trio. They are evidently content with their own company. Other means of communication briefly appear—the women receive a packet of letters, and the narrator convinces them to install a telephone, which they never seem to use—but these devices ultimately offer more noise than signal, conveying only that the narrator is concerned with these women whose concerns never really involve anyone else.

As she works to flesh out the story of the three women, completeness is never really her priority. The narrator prefers her portraits “to be missing something only I knew how to add, a detail forgotten at the last minute.” This sense of acquiring, through attention, something unavailable to others finds a parallel in the way she refers to her activities as collecting. As Walter Benjamin, famously a collector of postcards and children’s books, once put it, this pursuit consists of a special relationship between objects and collector in which it is “not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.”4 There could hardly be a more fitting description of this narrator, who most fears what she so often inflicts: any sort of careful inspection that could “reach through my face, or through my habits, and find the faces across the way,” namely those of the three sisters who belong to her private collection of close observations.

Lange’s novel articulates an alternative both to the male gaze and to what Lili Loofbourow recently labeled the “male glance,” which glibly “looks, assumes, and moves on.”

Thwarted by the reticence of the three women, the narrator turns to speculation—the term “speculate,” we might note, has roots in the Latin for “to spy or examine.”  She imagines their involvement in some sort of crime; she visualizes the circumstances and aftermath of their deaths. What she sees and what she envisions only rarely come into conflict, however, since the women offer up little that could contradict her fictions. Her frequent and sometimes disorienting shifts between the imperfect and the conditional tense—between what regularly happened and what one day might happen—are masterfully managed by Whittle, who often deploys the different senses of “would” to convey this tension.

In an early passage about the three sisters’ house, for instance, the narrator remembers how she “liked to glance at it carelessly,” and then: “I would look at it once more, knowing it was there, safe, and I imagined it wouldn’t be long before a window opened and a hand slowly emerged to close a latticework shutter.” The passage exemplifies what César Aira, in his introduction to the novel, calls Lange’s “prose woven from silence, poetry, and ambiguity.” Girondo, in a poem composed to celebrate the novel’s original release, lyrically captured the cumulative effect of Lange’s mesmerizing sentences by describing the three sisters as an “exhaustively exact blur.”5

One might list Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, and Silvina Ocampo among Lange’s peers, but People in the Room is also arguably a precursor of another Argentine tale of intertwining observation and obsession: Julio Cortázar’s “Las babas del diablo” (1959; The Devil’s Drool), translated into English as “Blow-up” and the inspiration for Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film of the same name.6 The shutter of a camera rather than a window prompts a case of fixation in Cortázar’s story of surveillance, doubt, and deferred details—a story that  develops along different lines the interplay of exposure and inspection that Lange had powerfully captured in People. Other kindred works would include Rear Window and, more recently, The Virgin Suicides.

Yet where those works evince a male gaze, People in the Room articulates an alternative both to it and to what Lili Loofbourow recently labeled the “male glance,” which glibly “looks, assumes, and moves on.”7 Never content with a mere glance, the narrator possesses a gaze that is neither sexual nor superficial but is instead driven by a desire to comprehend both substance and surface. Although Lange recognizes the value of such a view, she also insists on the impossibility of attaining it. The narrator, after all, is entranced by three women who ensure that her fascination is always accompanied by frustration or, to use her preferred term, vexation. Commanding her attention but also demanding distance, they impart the lesson that looking to be satisfied often risks looking for things to be oversimplified.

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As a result, People in the Room can be read as the converse of Lange’s 45 días y 30 marineros (45 Days and 30 Sailors), a semiautobiographical work recounting a lone woman’s voyage from Argentina to Norway aboard a cargo ship with an all-male crew.8 This early novel deftly depicts stifling masculinity and lustful looks exacerbated by constant inebriation. The same combination suffuses a famous photograph from a party in Buenos Aires on the occasion of that book’s publication. Dressed as a mermaid and staring into the camera, Lange, the only woman, stretches out in front of men sporting sailor uniforms, Pablo Neruda among them. In the background hang decorations to make the room look like a ship’s deck.

By playfully manipulating scale to produce a spectacle, the photograph recalls another inspiration for People that Lange mentioned: seeing a series of small-scale architectural models of an Austrian royal’s rooms on display in Buenos Aires.9 It’s easy to picture Lange, whom Aira calls “a novelist of interior spaces,” spying into those empty rooms, and she remembered leaving the exhibit with a clear understanding of a suitable setting for the figures born from the Brontë portrait. Establishing that space was, however, ultimately less significant than exploring the inner lives of its inhabitants. “The only fact about people and about my characters that interests me,” she once claimed, “is the psychology, the interiority.”10 What People in the Room reveals about such interiority is that even the steadiest stare gets you only a glimpse of it.

 

This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. Leopoldo Marechal, “Los días y las noches, por Norah Lange,” Martín Fierro, December 12, 1926. All translations of Spanish-language sources other than the book under review are my own.
  2. Beatriz de Nóbile, Palabras con Norah Lange (Carlos Pérez Editor, 1968), p. 22.
  3. Ibid., p. 11.
  4. Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt and translated from the German by Harry Zohn (Schocken, 1968), p. 67.
  5. Quoted in de Nóbile, Palabras, p. 23.
  6. Julio Cortázar, “Las babas del diablo,” in Las armas secretas (Sudamericana, 1959), pp. 77–98.
  7. Lili Loofbourow, “The Male Glance,” Virginia Quarterly Review, March 5, 2018.
  8. Norah Lange, 45 días y 30 marineros (Tor, 1933).
  9. De Nóbile, Palabras, p. 22.
  10. Ibid., p. 23.
Featured image: Woman Sitting in a Window (ca. 1940s). Photograph by simpleinsomnia / Flickr