Norah Lange’s People in the Room, first published in 1950, has been read as a Künstlerroman, as a critique of women’s stultifying domestic experiences, and as a female writer’s response to life as an object of the male gaze. It is all these things, as well as a powerful evocation of an overactive teenage imagination.
An adolescent girl living with her family in Buenos Aires’s affluent Belgrano district notices three women through the window of the house across the street. Their faces are framed perfectly by the window, as though in a portrait, two sitting next to each other, one slightly apart. She begins to watch them obsessively, her imagination running wild. She thinks perhaps they are hiding something, ‘that it would be beautiful for them to be hiding something, or remembering something dreadful, inevitable, endless’. Perhaps they have committed a terrible crime or are contemplating suicide. Fascinated, she intercepts a telegram and uses it as an excuse to introduce herself. Soon the unnamed protagonist is spending every evening with the three sisters, apparently in their thirties, drinking small glasses of wine and collecting scraps of information about their past.
Lange was born in Buenos Aires in 1905 to Norwegian parents. She came of age in the company of better-known male writers including Jorge Luis Borges, a distant cousin, and Oliverio Girondo, her future husband. One of the only female writers in a male-dominated coterie, Lange was celebrated as much for her northern European beauty as she was for her writing. Now, however, she is recognised in Latin America as an important member of the Argentine avant-garde. This translation of People in the Room is the first instance of her work appearing in English. That this is Charlotte Whittle’s first full-length translation is impressive, for it cannot have been an easy book to translate. Lange’s prose is so full of ambiguity, grammatical elisions and perspectival pirouettes that finding the line between obliqueness and total opacity must have been no easy task. In Whittle’s English, Lange’s prose is both hallucinatory and cinematic, as when the narrator catches sight of her own reflection just as the ‘oppressive silence of a flash of lightning deranged the shadows’.
Lange herself described the book as ‘sheer espionage’, but, as César Aira points out in his introduction, it is a strange type of espionage, because the protagonist discovers almost nothing, not even the women’s names. All the novel’s drama – and there is somehow plenty of it, although very little happens – takes place inside her head. The narrative progresses by way of minuscule occurrences: the appearance of a spider on a dresser, the turning on of an overhead light. If one of the women crosses her legs or sighs, it can take on exaggerated significance. The reader always feels that something monumental is about to occur, and, although it never does, the narrator’s imagination is so powerful that it cannot help but be engaging.
The protagonist is a precocious seventeen-year-old whose anxieties, preoccupations and fantasies are lived out in disturbing detail. Readers are told in the opening pages that ‘in those days, so many things troubled me that the things to which I was most drawn became obsessions’. Suffocated by her narrow domestic existence, she yearns to feel the heightened emotions of adult experience: death, ill-timed affairs, suicides, bitter loneliness. For her, watching the three women is a game, although a deadly serious one. She is fiercely protective (‘I claimed them like a possession’) but also contends with violent impulses, wanting to hurt them or for them to hurt themselves. Soon she is imagining them dead, ‘the first threads of a spider’s web, spun from their eyes to their chests or hands without their noticing’.
Part of the novel’s intrigue comes from the fact that the narrator is so self-aware, acknowledging and yet indulging her own adolescent self-absorption. She curls up in bed at night, thrilled at the prospect of hours alone to enjoy the delicious secret of the women’s faces. She is deliberately coy with her family, both wanting and not wanting them to ask her about the house across the road, and remarks that ‘it seemed a little sad and absurd for my mind to be crowded with so many thoughts, and for no one to notice’. Readers soon suspect that her version of events is not entirely to be trusted and begin to wonder: do the women actually exist at all?