Handfuls of Dust
Catalonian writer Merce Rodoreda's work is often bleak indeed, a tradition that would include Zola, Juan Rulfo and Laszlo Krasznahorkai, but Colm Toibin, in his introduction to Rodoreda's Death in Spring, reckons this despair accumulated as the oeuvre developed: "if The Time of the Doves is a book of tender and subtle grace, filled with a deep innocence, Death in Spring, published in Catalan three years after Rodoreda's death (she was born in 1908 and died in 1983), is a much darker book." Death in Spring is unequivocally black as it shows us a surreal range of miserable rituals including the villagers who approaching death must swallow cement just in case the soul tries to escape their body when they die, and where a prisoner is put into a cage and displayed and abused until he is suitably de-humanised. But anyone reading through Rodoreda's collected stories will see darkness visible everywhere. The stories, many written in the middle of her life, are frequently very dark indeed. To give some idea of this despair we can offer a few last lines. "She was still weeping when the sun came up." ('Threaded Needle') "Yes, a deep grief without really knowing why." ('Summer') "I'm terribly sad." ('Guinea Fowls') "Never, not even on the worst day of those eighteen years, had I wished so furiously to die." ('In a Whisper') This could indeed be darkness risible, a pessimism so consistent that we react against it and find it amusing. But it doesn't become laughable at all and the reason for this is that Rodoreda's prose is never mechanical, never falls into the conventions of despair as it individuates the misery that visits itself upon her characters. Even when a story offers a miserable irony to events already pretty despairing, Rodoreda turns the knife in the heart rather than tugs at its strings. Describing the body of her work, Paul Kerschen says: "Her subject, both in the earlier domestic books and the later irrealist ones, is the destructiveness of desire, the brutishness of power, the primacy of hunger and death. She was not alone, in or out of Spain, in choosing these topics. Her particular power and challenge lies in the style that she created to address them: a fearsomely pure deployment of words, empty of rhetoric, in which the beauty of the world shines so clearly as to seem a kind of cruelty." (Quarterly Conversation) In 'The Thousand Franc Bill', a woman of vague means leaves her apartment and, while waxing the parquet floor, the cleaning woman comments on how nice she looks before she goes out on to the Parisian streets. She passes by the local flower seller hoping that the woman she regularly sees doesn't notice her with so much make up on, but the flower seller does and the seller asks if she wants to buy any flowers. She says she will - but later. She has no money but will soon be offered some when a man propositions her on the street and offers her "five hundred", and ends up giving her a thousand. With the money from the elliptical encounter she then goes to buy some flowers but the seller informs her that she doesn't have change of a thousand franc bill. She heads off to the baker's for change, coming back saying the bill is fake. The seller insists on giving her some flowers for free and after she gets home she burns the thousand franc bill on the gas fire as she prepares to cook dinner for her husband.
Though the story on the one hand indicates a woman in dire straits (no money in her wallet) it also implies she isn't poor at all: a woman at the entrance of the apartment cleaning the floors; the idea that she regularly buys flowers, and a bill that when it turns out to be false there is nothing to suggest the flower seller thinks she is trying to get one over on her. We might assume then that she deliberately left the apartment with no money and the intention of finding a man who would pay for her services. Even if the area in which she lives is near Pigalle (famous for its prostitution) it seems to be the first time she has tried to sell her body. The story suggests she doesn't usually wear much make up, evident in the cleaner's comment and her initial need to avoid the flower seller's gaze, and after the man initially whistles to get her attention, when she stops, her heart is pounding. Rodoreda keeps the details of the woman's life from us. Yet we can infer she might not be so badly off while and her decision to prostitute herself is hardly for fun. Is it revenge, boredom, the need for a bit of extra cash to buy flowers, make-up and do her hair? Is it that she lives in an area well-known for its prostitution and she thinks she might as well try it? We cannot know for sure but the story nevertheless fits well within the 'Roderadan' the miserable is a stronger force than the emancipatory. Whatever we might make of the closing line that "her husband would be home soon" it doesn't conjure up much optimism. It is the final irony in a story that suggests a woman seeking a little bit of freedom ends up getting screwed and screwed over by one man and will then wait at home for another. The story's sadness isn't at all manipulative, however, not least because it is so elliptical: we can't easily ascertain the circumstances of her decision even if we can conclude little positive has come out of it. The reader can feel the despair but not quite be moved by the predicament.
One might say the same for 'Before I Die', where the sadness of the tale is contained by the vengefulness of the narrator. Here is a woman looking back on the last two years of her life, a life she is about to end. She recalls how she took up with a comfortably off man who treated her with kindness and generosity. She marries him only to notice his secretiveness over some letters and in time she discovers what they concern: a love affair that ended not long before she met him. Jealousy gets the better of her as she investigates further and decides to take her own life. Again the story could have lent itself to the sentimental as a woman finds that she isn't husband Marius's great love but there to assuage his pain without him remotely sharing with her the details of that despair. She is neither emotionally so important or someone he can speak honestly with. She is understandably devastated but Rodoreda's closing paragraph captures the misery while also acknowledging the narrator's own cruelty and self-pity. "When you receive this manuscript and packet of letters, Roger [her friend and admirer], I will be dead. Return the letters to Marius. They are all there. Tell him that he has the contempt of a twenty-year-old girl. No, don't tell him. It will be abundantly clear to him. I know these letters will scald his hands. That is all I wish." ('Before I Die')
A story that could have emphasised the pathos, ends by playing up the bitterness. 'Before I Die' is one of Rodoreda's most obviously plotted stories. We have a mysterious man who seduces the young narrator, a figure who seems to be hiding something from her when he appears to overreact as the narrator goes through his suitcase looking for a book she can't find in the library and that she remembers Marius reading. In the suitcase, there is a pack of letters and the narrator becomes fascinated by what they contain and finds a way in which to access three of them. Here we have mystery and suspense, wondering what the letters might contain, exacerbated by the narrator saying that "my desire to possess the letters was so intense that I was willing to risk everything." But though the story utilises suspense it would be wrong to say it is motivated by it. The thriller aspect contains an existential bleakness: as though the narrator is looking for the despair that the letters justify but that despair is the thing. Early on, before she marries Marius, before she finds the letters, the narrator notes in her diary, "I felt suffused by an infinite emptiness in the afternoon....I've learned something about myself. I don't believe in anything." The diary entry appears just after Marius has proposed to her should she be happy and see life does have meaning?" Yet the proposal has been odd indeed. "Would you mind marrying a miserable man?" Marius asks her, perhaps seeing the unhappiness in her while also hinting at the past he has which will become the still deeper unhappiness the narrator will introduce herself to when she finds he had a mistress he very much loved. Any complexity in the narrative is still weak next to the thematic exploration of despair that Rodoreda so often makes her work revolve around.
The other stories we will focus upon, 'Rain', 'Love' and 'Blood' are less plotted and one way of looking at plot, without getting too hung up on how narratologists distinguish plot from story, is to view plot as device-driven and story as temporally driven. E.M. Forster might distinguish the two by saying a story is when the king dies and then the queen dies, bu that "'the king died and then the queen died of grief' is a plot." (Aspects of the Novel) Aristotle believed what made a plot was "the arrangement of incidents." (Poetics) Others have seen plot as "an artificial rather than a natural ordering of events." (A Handbook to Literature) It is this latter definition that interests us in the context of 'Blood', 'Love' and 'Before I Die'. 'Before I Die' has this artificiality much more than the former pair but the 'artificiality' (the plotting) then becomes secondary to the problematic the story seeks out. The story may need the narrator to become suspicious of Marius, to notice the letters and to find a way of accessing them, but when she says she was willing to risk everything for them this is less the thriller's need to create a character for whom the discovery is so important than Rodoreda showing how little meaning there is elsewhere, evident in the diary entry about believing in nothing. It is the artificiality of the plotting that allows the writer to examine the emptiness within the narrator. When at the end of the story she takes her life, Rodoreda suggests it isn't the tragic woman who has loved deeply, but the figure without meaning who in her death will hope at least to cause Marius immense unhappiness. Her demise will create a meaning of sorts. The story needs a plot because it wishes to unravel the convoluted existence of its narrator rather than requiring a standardised figure to carry the story.
In other words, the story could have been a very sad tale indeed about someone who discovers she was never really loved and cannot recover from this realisation, and the mechanics of the plot would serve not only the thriller aspect but also the sentimental conclusion. But Rodoreda is interested instead in using the plot to reveal the emptiness of the narrator's life before meeting Marius and after meeting Marius. This isn't the same as saying that any person would do, though perhaps this might have been the case initially. When she frets over Marius's love for her later in the story she shapes her life around trying to maintain it, succeeding only in making her friend Roger fall in love with her instead. But we may wonder if her love for Marius is love or a mode of anxiety fearing loss. At the beginning of the story, when Marius and the narrator talk about marriage, he asks if she has ever been in love. She replies never. He asks her if she loves anything at all. Again she says no, and says no once more when he asks if she loves flowers, and again when he asks her if she loves art, animals and music. She does indeed seem to believe in nothing; then finds in the anxiety of losing Marius, or never having been loved by Marius as another was loved, an unusual sense of self. But it is one so precariously located that even when she kills herself it is to make another as miserable as she happens to be. The plot serves the nuance of being Rodoreda seeks. It is artificial perhaps, but necessary. Kerschen in his very fine piece says, "one feels that this is the kind of thing Rodoreda would later dismiss as literatura, and she will not indulge the mode again." Whether she 'indulged' in it again or not we can disagree on this point and see that strong plotting needn't arrive at platitudinous emotion.
In other fine stories like 'Rain', 'Blood' and 'Love', Rodereda works more with the temporal than the plotted. The most obvious way to look at this is to see the plot as containing a question that expects revelation while the temporal allows time to pass through the story without us waiting to find a particular answer. Now the writer might then forestall that answer, may make it more ambiguously revealed than in a typical thriller, but the question is there nevertheless. When we wonder who the killer happens to be, or whether the husband might to be having an affair, the writer is in the world of plot. When no such questions are being invoked, we are 'merely' in the world of the temporal story. In 'Rain', for example, a woman awaits an admirer who has never been to her home before and whom she happens to be ambivalent over. There is certainly curiosity in the tale as we wonder who this man happens to be and whether he will turn up, but Rodereda undercuts the potential for plot by observing instead idiosyncrasy of character. If the man hadn't shown up and central character Marta went looking for him we would have been in the realm of plot as we are presently understanding it. But instead what happens is that Marta doesn't show up: before he is due to arrive she decides to exit the apartment and wander the streets. We've already been told that she likes Albert who is dynamic and easygoing, but there is an aside too about a previous lover who is dead and that "true love was behind her". Instead of the plot about the missing Albert, Rodoreda follows the temporal day of Marta as the enigma remains within the character rather than played out over the situation. Yet whether generating plot or allowing the temporal story to unravel, Rodoreda would seem to be exploring a similar terrain and retaining the tone of bleakness. If true love is behind her it is as if there can be nothing but aimlessness in front of her. This isn't a difficult 'emptiness' as she acknowledges she has a small inheritance and a job in an office, that she can afford her own apartment and that she has time to read Valery, Shakespeare and Virgil, as well as to write. But while the narrator in 'Before I Die' couldn't find anything worth living for until she found something worth dying for, Marta has had in the past a true love that future lovers will struggle to match. In both instances, in 'Before I Die' and 'Rain' the enigma of character is greater than the suspense of story even if the former chooses to activate the plot while 'Rain' eschews it.
In 'Love', a husband goes into a haberdashery hoping to buy a pair of fancy knickers for his wife on her Saint's Day. But can he find the courage to purchase this treasured item and, even if he can, what are the chances that she will fit into them? After all, the scaffolder and his wife have been married thirty years they might have fitted perfectly when she was twenty, but not anymore. "We're old now" he says, acknowledging his wife would finally wish for something useful instead of beautiful, practical rather than erotic. "I can't show up empty-handed" he says. (Though thinks instead of says might be more appropriate as the narration is caught between interior reflection and conversation it is a first-person conversational narration but with no quotation marks.) He adds, "Unless I buy something from the bakery on the corner. But that's not a thing to do. A man who works all day has so little time to do things to please, show him in a good light..." Again, like 'Rain', the story takes place over a short period of time - the few hours in 'Rain' here turned into a matter of minutes at the haberdashery store as the tale begins, "I'm sorry to make you open the door, just as you are closing" he says. Yet once again Rodoreda works not so much bleakness into the story but a terribly small sadness. Throughout the tale, Rodoreda informs us of this man's attempts at love which haven't quite been met when offering it in material form. "When we got married I bought her a glass necklace, beads the colour of dessert wine. I asked her if she liked it and she said: Yes, very much. But she never wore it, not once." There are hints she isn't always so nice: "sometimes when she is in a bad mood, she treats me like a child." But he credits this to thirty years of marriage: "it's from over-familiarity. That's what I always say. Too much of the same thing, always sleeping together, too many deaths, births, too much of this our daily bread." The story, very straightforward in its narration (man goes into a store covers it), is complex in its register. It reads like an internal recollection at some moments, as a story of interaction at others. The story is entirely from the point of view of the narrator and no comment comes from the store shop worker though he or she is sometimes invoked: "what do you advise?", "what do you think I should give her?"
The story asks us to understand this man from a modest proximity. We don't see him either in context or in interaction and it gives us a claustrophobic affection for this figure who wants to please his wife and arouse pleasure in himself. "This character comes alive through his discourse and behaviour", Louis J. Rodrigues says in 'Merce Rodoreda's Short Stories', "...while the reader may want to smile at his discomfort, there is the inclination, at the same time, to want to sympathise with him for his evident inadequacy as an adult male." That seems a harsher response than we believe the story demands as though he is a sympathetic idiot, with the idiocy driving the story while the sympathy leavens it. Perhaps, but one feels that Rodoreda's style indicates less the harsh and the compensatory, with the latter serving to accommodate the former, than an intricate tissue of feeling which shows that life is above all difficult and those difficulties must be shown. Thus whether the story is heavily plotted ('Before I Die) or barely a story at all (Love') nevertheless Rodoreda finds ways to bring out despair in its various manifestations. In 'Before I Die' we are well aware before the narrator discovers her husband's past that she is far from happy, while in 'Love' those thirty years weigh heavily indeed before we discover that the wife herself is far too heavy to fit into the kickers he wishes to buy. In the former, plot is pronounced as it tries to understand the narrator's search for meaning within her own meaninglessness; in the latter Rodoreda wants to show the awkward hesitations of a man whose life is more behind him than in front of him, despite his own anticipatory feelings as he enters the shop determined to buy an item that will embarrass him by the mere mention of it. The story seems both inside his head and squeamishly taking place in front of the shop worker.
In 'Blood', the story covers a moment and a vast period of time simultaneously. Like 'Love', it is a discussion between one person and another but on this occasion much more clearly differentiating between the person telling the story to us and the person telling the story to the narrator. "See this?' she said to" me as the narrator to whom the story is being told recedes and the narrator within the story takes over. The woman talking describes her life over many years, and more especially her marriage to a man her father disapproved of (her lover was illegitimate) but with whom she was "madly in love". The woman thinks that at first when her father died a year later it was because he was old; in time she became more inclined to think it was her disobedience that killed him. The focus of the story concerns a woman she believes her husband falls for, a colleague at work with whom he would walk home. The wife tries to talk about it to him but he resists and in time, and after the girl gets married, he falls ill and cuddles up to her like a child.
The story incorporates dreams and the ongoing presence of nature as this childless woman attends to her flowers, but above all else it attends to the passage of time the story of the young woman incorporated into a tale of immense sadness as the temporal and the vulnerable work away on this figure, with the temporal to some degree generating the vulnerable as the woman sees in the younger figure her fears and anxieties about getting older and potentially losing her husband. At one moment she relates how she knew she was no longer young and thinks about ageing in others. "Before when I would catch sight of an old man, I saw him as he was, I mean without ever thinking that he'd been young at one point, as if old folks were just a certain kind of people who were born ugly, wrinkled, toothless, hairless." She realises at this point that she misses the blood - the same blood that had me weep the first time I glimpsed it, believing I was flawed and no one would want to marry me because of the flaw." This is the period blood that made her ashamed but also told her that she was a burgeoning woman. In its absence she knows she is no longer young. A story that could have been told suspensefully, as it concerns like 'Before I Die' a jealous woman, instead becomes a wonderfully temporal tale of a woman ageing. We don't want to suggest it is necessarily a better story than 'Before I Die 'but we do want to make clear that if 'Before I Die' only relied on the suspenseful it wouldn't have been much of a tale. The reader may very much want to find out more about the letters in 'Before I Die' but Rodoreda makes clear what is in them is still relatively unimportant next to what is going on in the narrator's mind. It is this question of what happens to be going on inside all the characters we have focused upon here (the characters in 'Before I Die', 'Rain', 'Love' and 'Blood'), that pressing need to unfold the complicated despair at work in a life, that makes Rodoreda's stories often so moving without at all arriving at the sentimental.
There is a lot more to be said about Rodoreda, and many could be dismayed that we have offered so little about the Spanish civil war, a central event in both her life and in her fiction - but "typically literary criticism explores a relatively small part of an author's production" Janet Perez, says, noting that many focus chiefly on The Time of The Doves and The Street of the Camelias. A small part of the author's production is is precisely what we have chosen to focus upon, seeing in a small handful of stories what TS Eliot refers to as a handful of dust: "the dryness of it, the emptiness...Fear your death. Fear the handful of dust that symbolises it." There is joy in Rodoreda too, and a sensuous aspect to touch and smell that indicates the 'dustiness' of her work shouldn't be exaggerated, but she knows finally dustfulness is our fate and the stories refuse to pretend otherwise.
© Tony McKibbin