Transfixed before the mirror, arm in arm so no one could cheat, we gambled as to who would be the first to die | On Norah Lange’s Notes from Childhood (Book acquired, 30 March 2021)

I’ll admit I’d never heard of Norah Lange until the nice people at indie superpublisher And Other Stories alerted me to her memoir, Notes from Childhood.

Lange was an Argentinian writer, publishing poems and prose from the 1920s through  the 1950s. She was part of the Florida Group, along with Jorge Luis Borges and his sister, the painter Norah Borges, as well as Victoria Ocampo and others, and first published her poems in ultraist magazines.

In her note at the end of Notes from Childhood, Lange’s translator Charlotte Whittle suggests that Lange’s memoir marked a break from the ultraist school, embracing a new style of prose—her own style. Whittle points out that Lange’s “approach to memory” trains its “gaze on domestic, family scenes.”

Whittle continues,

Far from being a linear autobiography or tale of coming of age, this narrative takes the form of a constellation of pieces of childhood, and these pieces provide Lange with ground for experimentation.

I read the first forty pages of Notes from Childhood this afternoon; the book showed up last week and I didn’t have a spare half hour to carve from a day to sink into it.

I didn’t have a spare half hour this afternoon, but I opened it, after moving a pile of books to another pile of books, and then I just kept reading.

Lange’s Notes feels subtly cinematic—in vivid flashes, brief vignettes, scenes of a page or two, she conjure the irreal reality of childhood. The memoir opens in a hotel, where, in the dining room, Lange and her sisters spy the “owner of the circus, and next to him the strongest woman in the world,” who, every night “lifts three men with her teeth.” They later light lamps in their new old house to “watch the spiders and kissing bugs all over the walls.”

A few pages later, Lange describes her mother riding sidesaddle horseback in nine succinct but powerful paragraphs. She frames the poetic photograph for her reader:

I see her framed with a gentleness no one could touch without taking something away, without adding more grace than that which was essential and true.

And our narrator riffs on her eldest sister, Irene, framed through a “third window” in one chapter: “I was always a little afraid and a little in awe of her. She was six years older than me. Sometimes, she was allowed to sit at the table in the large dining room during visits from family friends.” Irene at the big table! We get a trickle of information about whispers of Irene, who is growing up while our narrator remains a child:

Susana and I, the youngest two, weren’t shrewd enough to guess the reason for these long whispering sessions. One afternoon, I heard them speak of breasts. When I think back, I understand the fear she must have felt—the first sister, all alone—when she saw her body begin to curve, her rib cage lose its rigidity, her breasts start to ache and stir imperceptibly.

A few chapters later (there aren’t really chapters in Notes), sister Marta, convalescent, repeats, “God is evil. God is evil.” A few pages later, schoolbound, Little Lange is enchanted by typeface:

Words in capital letters, like TWILIGHT, DISCOVERY, DAGUERREOTYPE, LABYRINTH, and THERAPEUTIC, brought me a zeal and contentment all by themselves that now I would have to describe as aesthetic.

And then this wonderful weird episode. Scene: Lange and the sisters:

We had made big hats out of paper and the five of us stood before the mirror, each absorbed by the reflection of her own face, contemplating the effect of shadow over our eyes, the changing glimmer taken on by the light from the window as it fell on our hair against the newspaper.

The door opened suddenly, and a gust of air caused the hats to teeter on our heads.

One of my sisters said,

“The first one who loses her hat will die before the others…”

Transfixed before the mirror, arm in arm so no one could cheat, we gambled as to who would be the first to die.

Great stuff! Read an excerpt of Notes from Childhood here.