Happy birthday to the late Spanish author Carmen Laforet, who was born on this day in 1921. She’s a writer I knew zilch about prior to this summer, when a passing mention of her 1945 novel Nada in an essay that I was reading made me curious about it.
And holy ass-flattening debuts: Laforet was only 22 when she wrote this utterly transfixing, existentially sophisticated novel about Andrea, an orphaned young woman who moves to Barcelona to live with relatives in the bleak aftermath of the Spanish civil war. It’s an intimate novel about Andrea’s experiences, Laforet’s language terrifyingly beautiful at times (even in English translation), and by the time Laforet has you gripped by Andrea’s saga you realize the novel is as much about Spanish politics and society and the struggle just to get by itself. Nada is one of those kinds of sneaky knockouts.
My ignorance of 20th century contemporary Spanish fiction is shameful—actually, my ignorance of most 20th-century fiction that isn’t America is shameful—and the most cursory of poking around led me to recognize that Laforet is a major female author in a male-dominated post-Spanish Civil War literary world, and I think Nada is the only novel of hers widely available in English translation. (This is, like, reason number 90 million why my white Mexican-American ass needs to learn Spanish.)
Laforet passed in 2004 at the age of 82; see The Guardian‘s obit. Nada was reissued in new English translation by Edith Grossman in 2007 by the Modern Library, and if I read writer Fernanda Eberstadt’s review in the New York Times back then, I don’t recall doing so. (The Times even included an online excerpt from the first chapter.) The Guardian‘s review was even more potent.
If I came across either of those reviews then, neither moved me to pick up the book. So this post is merely me hoping to encourage a few people to check out this quiet brain bomb of a novel.
From Mario Vargas Llosa’s introduction, translated by Grossman, to that 2007 Modern Library Edition of Nada:
“In the world of Nada—the unsurpassable title says everything about the novel and the city where it takes place—there are only the rich and the poor, and like a third-world country, the middle class is a thin, shrinking membrane and, like Andrea’s family, has half its being sunk into that plebian jumble where workers, beggars, vagabonds, the unemployed, and the marginalized commingle, a world that horrifies the middle class and that it tries to keep at bay by means of fierce prejudices and delirious fantasies. Nothing exists beyond the small larval world that surrounds the characters; even the little bohemian enclave that Andrea sometimes visits, created in the old district by young painters who would like to be rebellious, insolent, and modern but don’t know how, is parochial and something of a caricature.”