Waiting for night to come
Monday, April 18, 2016
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Sunday, April 10, 2016
And where are the lilacs?
Adam Feinstein neatly combines the music of Pablo Neruda's poetry and the whirl of his life
Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life
by Adam Feinstein
497pp, Bloomsbury, £25
Saturday 31 July 2004 01.05 BST
Pablo Neruda couldn't hold a tune. "My ear," he admitted, "could never recognise any but the most obvious melodies, and even then, only with difficulty." His friends agreed with him. "The only thing he didn't have an ear for was music," said Aida Figueroa. "He couldn't understand music. He could hear the sound of birds, people's words. But not music."
This is remarkable: the artfulness and range of Neruda's cadences are crucial to the power of his writing. In early work such as Crepusculario (1923) and the best-selling Veinte poemas (1924) he has the mingled richness and discipline of a string quartet. In more political mid-century work he blows and drums with impressive vehemence. In later, more personal and/or metaphysical writing such as Memorial de Isla Negra (1964), he is a virtuoso solo instrumentalist. No one reading his poems in their original Spanish would want to separate their sense from their sound. Even when translated into English, their meaning is inseparable from their melody.
Adam Feinstein's new biography, published to coincide with the centenary of Neruda's birth, is fuelled by an infectious enthusiasm for the poems: this is its greatest strength. But it also has an admirable patience with the dizzying detail of his life. It's difficult to think of a 20th-century poet who did more than Neruda. He wrote a huge number of books, he travelled like a man possessed, he whirled himself round in the life of his times, he loved and lost a large number of women, he collected a small army of famous friends. Some of these things are grist to the biographer's mill: Feinstein's account is crammed with adventure stories, narrow scrapes, passionate encounters. Others are harder to deal with: globe-trottings which have to be logged but risk becoming a list of place-names. By pacing the story so as to give pre-eminence to the writing and the adventuring, while recording the duller passages more briefly, Feinstein creates his own sympathetic music. His book turns Neruda's life into an opera - a blend of aria and recitative.
Sensibly, he relies a good deal on Neruda's own Memoirs (now reissued along with a bilingual edition of Isla Negra by the Souvenir Press). These are packed with marvellous details that give colour to the story, as well as providing a way of understanding how Neruda's fascination with real things, in real places, gives a shape to even his most vatic poems. At a parting with a grief-stricken girlfriend, for instance: "She kissed my arms, my suit, in a kind of ritual, and suddenly slipped down to my shoes, before I could stop her. When she stood up again, the chalk polish of my white shoes was smeared like flour all over her face."
Feinstein is too thorough to accept the Memoirs at face value, wonderful as they are. He understands that an author's reminiscences are a way of creating disguises as well as revealing secrets, and regularly checks them against the available evidence, amplifying the many complicated or contentious issues hushed up by Neruda himself. In fact he is alive, from the first, to the sense that Neruda grew up among secrets, and was therefore likely to enjoy them later. He had a half-brother and half-sister only reluctantly acknowledged by his family, his father was a disciplinarian whose severities provoked subterfuge, and his mother - who died shortly after his birth - later became a means of addressing illicit loves under the shelter of her name.
Neruda's own original name was Neftali, which he retained until the age of 16, then jettisoned as a sign that he had become his own man. Leaving his home-town of Temuco, and joining the relatively cosmopolitan world of Santiago, his interests rapidly expanded to accommodate social as well as family matters; also to create a more suggestive style.
Picking his way through the labyrinth of publishers and magazines, he relied heavily on French symbolist poetry to stretch his imagination, combining surrealist touches and impressionistic overviews with his original fidelity to facts. The result was a fusion never previously known in Chilean poetry - rarely seen in poetry anywhere - and his success was meteoric. Veinte poemas sold in enormous quantities; he was the toast of the town.
But it wasn't a town, or a country, where he wanted to stay put: his exploded imagination needed a larger canvas, and the cultural and economic condition of Chile both compelled and exasperated him. He chose various kinds of consular activity as the means of escape. By 1927 he was in Rangoon, then moved on through France, Japan, China, Ceylon and Java (where he met his first wife, Maria), before returning home in 1932. By this time his Spanish was apparently "quite odd... very much influenced by his solitude", and his sense of himself much altered: "He was no longer the sombre, melancholic, absent young man. Now he talked a lot, laughed for the strangest reasons." But these were not changes which threatened his audience: they added authority to his originality.
They didn't, however, do much for his political conscience. This only began to develop in the early 1930s, when he was posted to Spain, fell in love with Delia del Carril and made friends with Lorca. Delia persuaded him to become a communist - a process which meant that he inflicted a great deal of pain on his first wife and their sickly daughter, while producing poems that exalted the suffering masses. It confronts Feinstein with the classic biographer's dilemma - how to respect the work while dealing with a contradictory private life - and he copes with it well, by presenting the facts rather than wagging his finger, and by foregrounding the writing. As the background scenery changes from France to Chile again, we see Neruda the romantic lyricist turning into Neruda the "truth-teller and exposer of the world's injustices: 'You will ask: And where are the lilacs / And the metaphysics petalled with poppies / And the rain repeatedly spattering / Its words, filling them with holes and birds? ... Come and see the blood in the streets. / Come and see / The blood in the streets. / Come and see the blood / In the streets!"
Supported by Delia, feted by his home-crowd, increasingly famous on the world stage, Neruda spent the late 30s and early 40s travelling round South America, converting his experience of other people's suffering into poems, standing as a senator, and defending the new emphasis of his work: "I have a profound sense that I am fulfilling a duty. I was a nocturnal writer who spent part of his existence clinging to the walls on empty nights. Now I am happy. We must walk down the middle of the street, meeting life head on."
Given the political climate, it was bound to end in trouble - or rather, given Neruda's personal climate, in trouble and adventure. In 1949 he made a daring escape from Chile over the Andes into Buenos Aires, then through the early 50s set off on his travels again, speaking for the oppressed everywhere while courting the likes of Picasso and Hikmet, and neglecting Delia in favour of Matilde, who eventually became his third wife.
These paradoxes bring their own difficulties - but their tensions are massively increased by fault-lines in Neruda's politics. Even after Khrushchev had condemned Stalin's crimes at the party congress in 1956, Neruda still hesitated to speak out against him - as he also refused to condemn the Soviet invasion of Prague. What was the problem? Incomprehension? Naivety? Stubbornness? Neruda himself simply (too simply) made a distinction "between two periods in the life of Stalin and his policies: the one which 'embodied the direction of the day / when he asked opinions of the light' and the one in which Stalin usurped absolute power".
Feinstein lets his readers draw their own conclusions about the moral muddle of Neruda's life, shining the same clear light on his politics that he turns on his private life (even Matilde was betrayed, when Neruda had a late fling with her niece). This is as well. The faults and weaknesses are plain to see - but so is the undimmed exuberance and generosity of the work, which feeds hungrily off the life and yet stands as a thing apart. So too is the suffering, with which the book ends. After a triumphant association with Allende, Neruda died in the early days of the Pinochet era, his house in Santiago wrecked, and his funeral wake held amid the ruins. No one could read these pages without feeling a sharp sympathy. Everything that was vain, silly, greedy and blind about Neruda weighs less than the humanity of his work, and the essential nobility of his spirit.
· Andrew Motion is poet laureate.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Friday, April 1, 2016
Adam Feinstein, a British journalist, is the author of the first biography of Pablo Neruda in English, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life (Bloomsbury, 2004). He is also an expert on autism, an interest that emerged when his son Johnny, now 21 years old, was diagnosed with the condition. Feinstein came to Buenos Aires to speak at the second congress on autism, hosted by the Asociación Argentina de Padres de Autistas (APAdeA); I spoke with him at the Bisonte Palace Hotel an hour before he went to dine with Borges’ widow.
The first part of our conversation, about his work with autism (and its connections with Neruda) was published in the Boston Review. Here we discuss his engagement with Neruda’s poetry.
— Jessica Sequeira
How did you become interested in Neruda?
While living in Paris I read his memoirs, Confieso que he vivido, in French translation. I thought they were incredible; some of the descriptions of the places and people are just beautiful. Like all memoirs, they’re also completely unreliable. We know he was married three times, but he doesn’t mention his first wife; he doesn’t mention his daughter who died. Did you know he had a daughter? You wouldn’t. She was called Malva Marina Trinidad and was disabled; she died at age eight.
His second wife, Delia del Carril, was a famous Argentine painter of horses. She died when she was nearly 105, outliving everybody. She lived with Neruda for twenty years, but only gets two or three paragraphs in his book. ¡Machismo! But no, it wasn’t that. I don’t know what it was. Excellent artists are not always ideal humans. There were certain episodes of his life Neruda didn’t talk about. But he was a great friend; he had lots and lots of friends.
I read his memoirs and poetry while at the Sorbonne studying for a year. When I got back I started working as a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent, and forgot them. Then years later, in 1995, I suddenly remembered. I thought, “Here is a wonderful life story. Has anyone written a book about him?” I knew his life was fascinating. He saved all those people on the Winnipeg, over 2000 Spanish refugees, shipping them out on a fishing boat and bringing them to the coast in Valparaíso. A lot of people on that boat became famous, like the Chilean artists Roser Bru and José Balmes. It was remarkable. Not many poets save 2000 lives, do they? Nor do many poets cross the Andes on horseback, which is what he did in 1948-49.
There was one full biography by Volodia Teitelboim, his greatest friend in the Communist Party; Neruda was a Communist. And it had a lot of gaps. It was in Spanish and had been translated into English. It was the only book in English. I thought, “What’s going on? A great poet with a great life and no one’s done it.” I had an agent and asked him if I could write it, and he said, “Go ahead”. I’d translated short stories and written poetry, but that was my first book. Bloomsbury brought it out in 2004, the centenary of Neruda’s birth. There was a mad rush to get it out in time. And it was republished last year because we wanted to add a chapter on how they’d exhumed him, how they dug up his body. The family is split. Most of them think it was rubbish for his chauffeur to come forward with poisoning allegations, but there’s a nephew who thinks there’s something in it.
It’s timely given they’ve recently discovered more of Neruda’s poems.
They did find the poems, which will be coming out here next week. They’re absolutely genuine. Some people thought it was suspect there were twenty, because his first famous book was Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada [Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair]. But there weren’t exactly twenty; there were a few more than that. I’ve seen some of them, not the whole lot. They’re wonderful. We don’t know why he left them out. There are some speeches as well; this will be a good little book.
What was your writing process like? Did you visit the same places he did?
Yes, I visited almost all the same places. I spoke to some of the people who hid him when he was avoiding arrest, and to some of the people on the Winnipeg in 1939. Academics, too. I didn’t want it to be an academic book, but I had to talk to some of them.
The thing about Neruda is that his poetry is so interrelated with his life that you have to take care to avoid traps. Neruda wrote a very famous poem while in Buenos Aires called “Walking around”; the title is in English. The first line is well-known: “Sucede que me canso de ser hombre” [“It so happens that I’m tired of being a man”]. It’s the most pessimistic poem in the Spanish language. And yet at the time he was happily married, nor did that seem to stop him from enjoying himself.
Buenos Aires is where he met Lorca for the first time, not Spain. Neruda was in Buenos Aires in 1933-34 as Chilean consul; Lorca was here for the premiere of Bodas de sangre, one of his most famous plays. And they became great friends. Then two years later, Neruda moved as consul first to Barcelona, then to Madrid, where he witnessed the Spanish Civil War and the murder of Lorca in August of ’36. That’s when Neruda’s poetry completely changed. He began to hate his early poetry, the self-obsessed anguished stuff. Do you remember Poem 20 of the Veinte poemas, “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche” [“Tonight I can write the saddest lines”]? He went back on that, said that’s not what poetry should be. It should not be life negating. When people tried to get him to read those poems, which they did for the rest of his life, he attempted to avoid it. The audiences went on strike. They refused to leave the auditorium until he read them. But they were something he turned his back on, and his late poetry became a weapon for social and political justice.
There’s a famous poem called “Explico algunas cosas” in which he writes, “Preguntaréis: Y dónde están las lilas? Y la metafísica cubierta de amapolas?” [“You will ask: But where are the lilacs? And the metaphysics covered with poppies?”] It starts by talking about how peacefully he’d been living in Madrid with his friends, such as Raúl González Tuñón, an Argentine writer who spent a long time in Spain and who wrote a famous book called La rosa blindada. He was a great influence on Neruda; they had a wonderful time over there. That’s also where he met his second wife Delia, the one I talked about, who was a real influence on him politically and culturally. Delia knew Picasso before Neruda, knew Fernand Léger and other artists.
Anyway, the first half of that poem is about how his anguished poetry had to change after he witnessed the brutality of fascism, how it should be not just about the poet but outward-looking. Towards the end of his life he wrote eight books he was hoping to publish for his 70th birthday, in 1974. He didn’t make it because he died in 1973, twelve days after the Pinochet coup. They were published here in Buenos Aires by Losada, which published all his books, including the eight posthumous ones. They’re books that look back. I suppose that’s what you do when you get old, look back… and they contain gorgeous poems.