The Back Room

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Carmen Martín Gaite is one of a group of Spanish women novelists who began writing in the period about ten or fifteen years after 1939, the year that marked the end of the Spanish Civil War and the triumph of Francisco Franco’s Fascist government. Of this group, which includes Carmen Laforet, Dolores Medio, and Ana María Matute, Martín Gaite was perhaps the most immediately successful. In 1954, her first novel, El balneario won the prestigious fiction prize awarded by the Café Gijón, the traditional gathering place of Madrid’s artistic intelligentsia. Three years later, Entre visillos received the Premio Nadal, and in 1962, her novel Ritmo lento was the runner-up for the coveted Premio Biblioteca Breve. During that period of prolific writing, she published in 1960 a collection of short stories, Las ataduras (attachments), which bears the same title as the popular novel published years later by the American writer Judith Rossner. It is a curious coincidence, for the fiction of Martín Gaite is dominated by the same feminist concerns that characterize Rossner’s work.

In the male-dominated Spanish society of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Martín Gaite’s success was aided to some extent by the fact that she was married to Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, himself a noted novelist and winner of the Premio Nadal. After the publication of Ritmo lento, Martín Gaite abandoned fiction and turned to scholarly research and writing. She published first a history of an eighteenth century literary inquisition and then her doctoral dissertation in Romance philology at the University of Madrid on the courtship habits of eighteenth century Spaniards. During the 1960’s, she also published articles in the most prestigious literary and cultural journals of Spain, articles which were later collected in La búsqueda de interlocutor y otras búsquedas.

In 1974, Martín Gaite returned to her exploration in fiction of the significance of being a woman in Spain: Retahílas is the story of a young girl’s attempts to escape the web of submission that binds Spanish women. In 1978, Martín Gaite published El cuarto de atrás (The Back Room), for which she received the important Premio Nacional de Literatura. The translation, done by Helen R. Lane with the polish and elegance that she has bestowed on the works of other contemporary Spanish novelists, is the first of Martín Gaite’s works to appear in English and is part of a series initiated in 1983 by Columbia University Press to publish translations of contemporary Continental fiction.

One of the most significant facts about Martín Gaite’s novel is that it is her first work of fiction after the death of Franco, her first novel in the post-censorship era. The Back Room is a synthesis of evocations of memories of the narrator’s life and of the narrator’s earlier fictional works. Because the remembered episodes correspond so closely to the details of Martín Gaite’s life—indeed, Martín Gaite and the narrator share the same first name, Carmen—and because the fictional works attributed to the narrator bear the titles of Martín Gaite’s own novels, The Back Room is dominated by an autobiographical tone. The back room of the title is a metaphor for her place of retreat and escape, and this fictional narrator-novelist takes refuge in that haven from the world to explore the significance of the episodes of her past, a significance that until this period of free expression could not be addressed.

This new freedom embraces not only liberation from the strictures of the Franco era, but also freedom from the tyranny of social norms, and particularly from the sex-role stereotyping that characterized the society in which Martín Gaite was trained and educated. The enormous changes that took place in Spain and throughout the Western world during the period of Martín Gaite’s retreat from fictional writing are reflected here in The Back Room, in the form of revaluations not only of her autobiographical narrator’s historical life, but also of her fictional inventions.

The stimulus for the narrator’s introspection is a visit from a mysterious man in a black hat. The man knows her literary work by heart and possesses an extraordinary ability to criticize her fiction and elicit from her the most intimate details of her life. Early in the interview, he identifies the essential fact of her literary activity—that it is a refuge, a sort of “back room” of her existence. Through the emphasis that Martín Gaite gives to the unconscious motivation of her narrator’s literary work, she creates an interesting parallel between this fiction—the novel The Back Room as a Martín Gaite novel—and the novels of Carmen, the protagonist-narrator. In each case—the fictional and the historical—the novelist becomes aware of the evasion of reality disguised as a creative impulse. This moment, however—the moment...

(The entire section is 2042 words.)