*Martín Gaite, Carmen
Martín Gaite, Carmen
Literary criticism, history, translations, adaptations of plays, television scripts, novels, short stories, poetry, and a one-act play: the literary forms Carmen Martín Gaite has cultivated attest to the range of her work. She is prone to blur the boundaries among these different forms, and her essays contain narrative, dramatic, and lyrical elements. The elasticity of the essay genre makes it a particularly suitable vehicle for Martín Gaite’s blending of historical, literary, and linguistic interests. Her writing revolves around a core of abiding preoccupations: problems of communication in life and in literature, the complexity of emotional attachments, and the relationship between past and present. The single most important concern is the search for an interlocutor, or “La búsqueda de interlocutor,” as she entitled a 1966 essay. In it she emphasized the primacy of our need for interlocution, arguing that both speech and writing originate in the desire to break out of our solitude and find an audience for our words. Speaker and writer alike seek to establish and maintain contact with a receptive listener or reader; the writer enjoys the advantage of being able to invent that ideal figure. Given the significance that interlocution holds for Martín Gaite, who is a brilliant and seductive conversationalist, it is no surprise that communication and accessibility are major goals of her essays.
Basic to the familiar essay is a relationship of intimacy between writer and reader, the former seeming to speak directly to the latter. Martín Gaite’s writing frequently resembles speech. The voice heard is that of an intelligent, educated, cultured woman who was 11 when the Spanish Civil War broke out and who lived through the dreariness and repression of the postwar era. Many of her readers also have direct knowledge of that period, and shared experience constitutes a special bond between them and the writer. In Usos amorosos de la postguerra española (1987; Love and courtship customs in postwar Spain), which was awarded the Anagrama Essay Prize, Martín Gaite’s recollections are complemented by extensive research, the result being a personal and carefully documented history that presents in essayistic form material previously elaborated in her novels. Quotations from publications of the time hold up to ridicule the restrictive ideology expressed by the more retrograde elements of society, and irony and humor underscore the absurdity of their moral strictures. Martin Gaite’s gift for satire is evident in thumbnail sketches of Franco’s wife and of Pilar Primo de Rivera, sister of the founder of the Falange and head of its Sección Femenina. Descriptions of the feminine ideal promulgated by the latter, courtship rituals, cinematic fare, and fashions make for a vivid and often poignant picture of what it was like to grow up female in the Spain of the 1940s.
A gendered perspective also informs Desde la ventana: Enfoque femenino de la literatura española (1987; From the window: feminine focus in Spanish literature).
Martín Gaite’s reflections on the significance of the window shed light on her own writing. Windows, which allow us to see without being seen, have traditionally been observation points for Spanish women, shut in and away from the world. Martin Gaite ventures the opinion, based on her own experience and her analysis of texts by a number of women, that a literary vocation is often born while standing at a window and longing for liberation and the opportunity to speak one’s mind. Windows, she argues, impose a distinctive focus upon our perceptions and situate us in a concrete reality. Apropos of A Room of One’s Own, Martín Gaite calls attention to the immediacy of Virginia Woolf’s writing, the significance of details, the charm of the humor, and the absence of pedantry, all of which characterize the Spanish author’s writing and contrast with what she terms “the patriarchal methodology of learned men.”
Martín Gaite’s penchant for the unconventional and for transgressing generic boundaries is evident in El cuento de nunca acabar (1983; The never-ending tale), where literary theory is enlivened by personal anecdotes, conversational tone, and confidential manner. The subtitle Apuntes sobre la narración, el amor y la mentira (Notes on narration, love and lies) is reassuring in its suggestion that the book is not a learned treatise but a series of notes jotted down at odd moments. The inclusion of seven prologues hints at the leisurely pace of what is to follow and its digressive structure, but the jottings all bear upon the art of storytelling and are strategically positioned despite their seeming disorder. Like Montaigne, Martín Gaite conceives of the essay as a journey and persuades us that the ultimate destination is secondary to the pleasures encountered along the way. We, the readers, are cast in the role of traveling companions and conversational partners to whom she repeatedly stretches out her hand so as to make contact and invite us to engage in a dialogue with her. In the opening paragraph of El cuento de nunca acabar she compares the process of writing the book to embarking on a voyage along a river swollen by water from various tributaries (her previous works, other journeys, her first readings, youthful visions and desires) and fed by a subaqueous current (the conversations she has heard during her lifetime).
Phillip Lopate reminds us in The Art of the Personal Essay (1994) that the novel and the essay rose together and fed off each other as literary forms, and Martín Gaite relies on novelistic techniques in her essays, telling stories, incorporating dialogue, portraying characters, and painting scenes. The sense of her presence is strong, and yet the “I” that speaks in the essays, however much it may resemble that of the real-life author, draws upon her experiences, and invites identification of the writerly with the historical self, is in fact carefully constructed. The creation of a persona is one more strategy in the game of literature that Martin Gaite plays so well and with such relish. Although she is best known for her fiction, she is also a talented essayist, and this aspect of her writing is gaining increasing criticai attention.
Born 8 December 1915 in Salamanca. Studied at the Feminine Institute of Salamanca;
University of Salamanca, 1943–48, degree in romance philology, 1948; University of Madrid, doctorate, 1972. Married Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, 1953 (divorced, 1987): one son and one daughter (both died). Writer-in-residence, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1982.
Awards: Gijón Prize, 1954; Nadal Prize, 1957; National Prize for Literature, 1978; Anagrama Essay Prize, 1987; Booksellers’ Guild Golden Book Award,
1987; Prince of Asturias Prize, 1988; Castile and Leon Prize for Letters, 1991; National Prize for Spanish Letters, 1994.
Essays and Related Prose
Usos amorosos del dieciocho en España, 1972; as Love Customs in 18th-Century Spain, translated by Maria G.Tomsich, 1991
La búsqueda de interlocutor y otras búsquedas, 1973
El cuento de nunca acabar: Ap.untes sobre la narración, el amor y la mentira, 1983
Usos amorosos de la postguerra española, 1987
Desde la ventana: Enfoque femenino de la literatura española, 1987
Agua pasada: Artículos, prólogos y discursos, 1993
Other writings: several novels (including El balneario, 1954; Entre visillos [Behind the Curtains], 1958; Ritmo lento, 1963; Retahílas, 1974; El cuarto de atrds [The Back Room], 1978; Nubosidad variable, 1992; La Reina de las Nieves, 1994), short fiction, and books for children.
Bergmann, Emilie L., “Narrative Theory in the Mother Tongue: Carmen Martin Gaite’s
El cuento de nunca acabar” in Public Forums, Private Vieivs: Spanish Women Writers and the Essay, forthcoming
Brown, Joan Lipman, “Carmen Martín Gaite,” in Spanish Women Writers: A Bio- Bibliographical Source Book, edited by Linda Gould Levine, Ellen Engelson Marson, and Gloria Feiman Waldman, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993: 286–95
El Saffar, Ruth, “Shaping the Chaos: Carmen Martín Gaite and the Never-Ending Tale,” International Fiction Review 11, no. 1 (1984):25–30
Gómez Pérez, Angel Javier, “Pasos en busca de esa soledad”(review of Usos amorosos del dieciocho en Espana), Nueva Estafeta 42 (May 1982):94–99
Pérez, Janet, “Spanish Women Writers and the Essay,” Siglo XX/20th Century 4 (1986– 87):43–54
Pope, Randolph D., Amy Kaminsky, Andrew Bush, and Ruth El Saffar, “El cuento de nunca acabar: A Critical Dialogue,” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 22 (1988):107–34
Sullivan, Constance A., “The Boundary-Crossing Essays of Carmen Martín Gaite,” in The Politics of the Essay, edited by Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres and Elizabeth Mittman, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993
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