First published in 1966, this remarkable novella by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Judite de Carvalho was recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa. It’s a work of great precision and compression – a quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see.
The story centres on Dora Rosário – a widow who we see over the course of ten years from the age of twenty-five through to thirty-six. For ten years, Dora mourns her husband Duarte’s death, making a career out of grief and widowhood, effectively building a shrine to him through the memories in her mind. Duarte – a lazy, unambitious man – left Dora virtually penniless, forcing her to embark on a humiliating round of visits, searching for handouts from family and friends. These are ‘the others’, separated from Dora and her daughter, Lisa, by the nature of their circumstances.
Many of Duarte’s friends and acquaintances distance themselves from Dora, fearing she will ask for help or financial support. Even Duarte’s mother – the forthright, morally powerful Ana – is reluctant to provide any money, despite her conspicuous wealth. While Ana is happy to look after Lisa, caring for her while Dora looks for a job, she draws the line at anything else.
…all this happened under the simultaneously suspicious and reticent eye of her mother-in-law, the eye of someone who “in her place” would have done things differently. However, this suddenly easy life didn’t smooth any corners or heal any riffs. She and her daughter continued to be on one side and the others on the other side. (p. 15)
Carvalho quickly conveys a striking portrait of Dora, a woman suppressed by the hand that life has dealt her, an inward-looking individual who seems old before her time.
She never said more than was strictly necessary—the bare indispensable minimum—or else she would begin to say only what was necessary, then quickly grow tired, or stop mid-stream, as though she suddenly realized that it wasn’t worth going on and was a waste of effort. She would sit quite still then, her face a blank, like someone poised on the edge of an ellipsis or standing hesitantly at the sea’s edge in winter, and at such moments, all the light would go out of her eyes as if absorbed by a piece of blotting paper; (p. 5)
Luckily for Dora, a friend finds her a suitable job, managing an antique shop while the owner is abroad. ‘The Museum’, as her daughter Lisa calls it, seems a fitting environment for Dora, with its collection of vintage tables, desks and chairs, ‘gathered together like decaying aristocrats in a home for superior elderly folk’.
Despite Duarte’s fecklessness and impractical principles, Dora still worships her deceased husband, whom she reflects on during the evenings after work. Her life is small and uneventful, except for the Museum and her visits to Ana and Aunt Júlia’s house for supper on Sunday evenings. Júlia too has been permanently damaged by men, haunted by the shame of her illegitimate son, who died young from Scarlet Fever. Now she is plagued by severe fits – possibly signs of madness – babbling uncontrollably in imaginary conversations with her former lover.
For Ana – who is desperate to hold off any signs of ageing – the future lies in her granddaughter, Lisa, a bright, inquisitive young teenager whose whole life is ahead of her. At seventeen, Lisa wants to travel the world, viewing a career as an air stewardess as her ticket to exotic locations. She sees her mother as hopeless and antiquated – a somewhat dowdy but polite woman who is wedded to the past.
One night, while Júlia is recovering from one of her episodes, Ana reveals something to Dora – a secret relating to Duarte which shatters Dora’s world.
[Dora:] “…At the moment, I don’t know where I am or who I am. I must be crumbling into pieces, there must be bits of me all over the place.”
[Ana:] “Sweep them up when you’re feeling brave enough and put them together again.”
“Yes, that’s what I have to do, isn’t it?” Dora said, not even thinking about what she was saying. And then immediately afterward, her voice rose dangerously in volume: When would she, too, fall and shatter? It was as if she had lost control of herself and of her voice. Or perhaps it was as if she were screaming for help from inside a coffin that had just that minute been nailed shut: (pp. 63–64)
Consequently, Dora sets about reinventing herself while simultaneously erasing Duarte from her memory, catalysing a series of events that ends in devastation.
Carvalho’s novella is narrated not by Dora herself but by a friend, Manuela, who also finds herself drawn into the turmoil generated by Ana’s revelations. Manuela has man troubles of her own; effectively isolated, she is stuck in a stagnating relationship with Ernesto, a vain, self-centred man in his early forties. In her failure to provide Ernesto with a child, Manuela realises that she is no longer her partner’s lover or companion. Instead, Ernesto sees her as ‘the landscape to which he had grown accustomed’ – a convenient audience or backdrop to reflect back his greatness.
He [Ernesto] would arrive home, give me a peck on the cheek, drink his usual glass of whiskey, then tell me all about his day in great detail, and so I thought he really loved and needed me. In fact, I was merely a convenient body beside him, and ever-attentive audience always ready to express unconditional admiration when he told me of yet another professional triumph. (p. 158)
I don’t want to say how this story plays out, other than to confirm it’s devastating to observe. Carvalho explores these women in depth, showing us how they have been failed by the men who supposedly love them. Betrayal, duplicity, selfishness and abdication of responsibility all play their parts in marginalising these women, confining them to the roles deemed acceptable by Portuguese society – a patriarchal doctrine, heavily influenced by Catholicism and Salazar’s authoritarian regime.
Furthermore, the relationships between these women are also far from ideal. Following Duarte’s death, Dora receives little support from her few remaining female friends or family members. Ana makes no secret of the fact that she partially blames Dora for Duarte’s lack of ambition – he didn’t amount to anything when alive because Dora had never pushed him. In light of this perception, Ana’s actions towards Dora – especially the bombshell revelation – seem unnecessary and cruel.
This brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. A timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them. All credit to Two Lines Press for publishing this English translation – and Gary Michael Perry, whose recommendation brought it to my attention. As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, fans of Anita Brookner, Natalia Ginzburg (and possibly Penelope Mortimer) would likely enjoy this rediscovered gem.