Norah Lange – Notes from Childhood (& Other Stories, 2021)
The older I get, the more I find myself drawn to pleasantness.
The Western classics are lacking in this regard. They rightly diagnose the general condition of life to be one of struggle. Struggle; in love, in war, in work, in survival.
Eastern classics are most accommodating, with the Japanese Tale of Genji and Chinese Story of the Stone being two grand scale epic narratives primarily concerned with tea parties, flowers, love letters and courtly manners.
So it’s not impossible to say profound things through pleasantness. It’s just, perhaps, counterintuitive. At least for our culture.
In resuscitating the work of Norah Lange, Argentine modernist and “Borges’ muse”, the translator Charlotte Whittle has done a tremendous service both to Argentine letters and to contemporary Anglophone writing.
Notes from Childhood follows 2018’s translation of People in the Room. The first was a breakthrough, but its follow-up is even more so.
Notes from Childhood is a series of very short reminiscences – the longest being four pages, most being one or two – each of which captures a moment in the idyllic childhood of the author.
First published in the 1930s, it describes a turn-of-the-century ranch house filled with siblings, relatives, friends and animals. A Latin American Little House on the Prairie.
The prose is shimmering, crystalline. We can feel the sun beating down. White dresses and the smell of pine needles.
There is a sense at once of being there, and also of the older Lange hovering over her childhood self, gazing on lovingly. Whittle contributes to this nostalgia with her own careful prose. Our protagonist speaks to us directly, despite the layers of authorship.
And the stories she tells us are captivating.
There is the older sister, so often moody and lovelorn, who sneaks out of the house to bathe naked in the moonlight. An old book told her it would make her beautiful.
There’s the younger sister believes totally in “Destiny”, and refuses to do anything on the grounds that all is prewritten. “If I fall over, it’s because I’m meant to fall over. What’s the point in tying my shoes?”
And there’s the governess who teaches entirely in proverbs. She is paid off after just one lesson. Wages in hand, she walks away saying “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.
There are emotional moments too. Deaths. Departings. But there is no structural attempt to weave these into a climax. They simply come and go, as in real life. The moment comes and it passes.
It is far better this way, as it’s in the exquisite moment where Lange’s writing is at its best. She leads us through a story and then holds us in place, appreciating the moment.
It’s as though we’re suspended above it, looking down, admiring. There is something painterly in it. A stillness.
The moment resonates. It speaks for itself. It invites us to reside within it.
In spite of critics’ attempts to frame this as somehow a novel about a writer’s journey, or about gender construction, Lange does a remarkable job of capturing childhood unmediated. There are no adult politics here, nor the cause-and-effect of a bildunsgroman.
I, for one, am getting tired of reading about wimpy kids who find solace in reading. Lange shows us children who explore, who goes on adventures, who do magic, paint, become obsessed with counting sips of water, torment their nannies, make new friends and dare each other.
The writerliness of the Notes is in their ability to capture these experiences. Experiences common to us all despite their uniqueness.
More than anything, they are pleasant. A perfect book for summer. For a day off. For a treat. But also a tremendous literary achievement. It is a very rare thing for a book to be both.
- Joe Darlington