Bombal was born on 8 June 1910, in the Chilean seaside resort of Viña del Mar, near Valparaiso, where her upper middle-class family lived in a comfortable and cultured environment. Her father, Martín Bombal Videla, died when she was twelve, and her mother, Blanca D'Anthes Precht, decided to move with her to Paris. María Luisa attended school at Notre Dame de l'Assomption and at the Lycée La Bruyère. She completed her baccalaureate, with a major in Latin. She then enrolled at the Sorbonne, where she studied literature and philosophy. Her dissertation dealt with the works of Prosper Mérimée. At age fifteen, she wrote a play that was generously praised by the Argentine novelist Ricardo Guiraldes. Referring to those formative years, María Luisa described herself as an avid reader. In an interview with Alfonso Calderón, she said, "My literary life began under the influence of Andersen. Then I discovered Victoria by Knut Hamsun, and Goethe's Werther, a book about impossible love that, in time, would lose its significance for me due to its rhetorical tightness. I also read Selma Lagerlöf and other Nordic writers, seduced by their mixture of dreams and tragedy, mist and temptations."
She wanted to write, but other artistic disciplines had, at the time, a stronger appeal for her. She studied violin with Jacques Thibaud. Then she joined Théâtre de l'Atelier and took acting lessons with Charles Dullin in a group that included Jean Louis Barrault. What is most important about her experience in France is that Bombal was a witness to the development of the literary avant-garde at a time when key figures of Latin American art and literature were already working in Paris · writers such as Vicente Huidobro, Alejo Carpentier, and Miguel Angel Asturias, and painters such as Diego Rivera and (Roberto) Matta.
In 1931, Bombal returned to Chile and lived at Los Molles, a country property owned by her family in southern Chile, near the Malleco River. These were times of deep political commotion in her native country. The Chilean navy · sailors and petty officers · rebelled in 1931 against the government in a revolutionary movement that, indirectly, resulted a few months later in the establishment of a socialist republic, which lasted scarcely two weeks. A de facto junta took power and ruled the country for three months. Bombal left Chile in 1933 and settled in Buenos Aires. She soon realized that, in contrast to the political turbulence she had left behind, Argentina was experiencing what amounted to a cultural renaissance. Powerful young writers had gathered around Jorge Luis Borges and Victoria Ocampo, contributing their work to Ocampo's new journal, Sur. In Buenos Aires, Bombal lived in the house of Chilean Consul Pablo Neruda, and through him she met Federico García Lorca and other famous literary figures. Neruda was instrumental in inducing her to work with a sense of discipline. According to Bombal, they worked together in the kitchen, sharing a large table; they showed each other their production and engaged in serious discussions.
In 1934, Bombal married the Argentine painter Jorge Larcos. By that year, she had finished the manuscript of The Final Mist. The book was published in a limited edition by Oliverio Girondo under the seal of Ediciones Colombo and included three short stories: "El árbol" ("The Tree"), "Islas nuevas" ("New Islands"), and "Lo secreto" ("The Unknown"). Practically no one remembers this edition anymore. In 1935, Ocampo brought out what amounts to the official first edition of the novel and these stories.
Bombal's husband died, and in 1940 she moved to the United States. In New York she met Count Raphael de Saint Phalle and married him; they had a daughter, Brigitte. Bombal led a productive and exciting literary life in the United States. Her novellas were published in English translation. Bombal rewrote La última niebla in English as House of Mist and motion picture rights were sold to Paramount Pictures. In 1970, her second husband died, and she returned to Chile.
The publication of The Final Mist had surprised everyone in Argentina. The book was totally alien to the traditions of Chilean regionalism, strongly and sometimes brilliantly sustained by the likes of Mariano Latorre, Eduardo Barrios, and Fernando Santiván. It showed no relation to the slow-moving, solidly documented, dramatically inclined type of fiction written by Marta Brunet and her disciples. Bombal's brief novel had a mysterious and poetic aura about it, a conciseness and adroitness in its fastmoving descriptions, and at the same time a self-conscious ambiguity of language that certainly did not derive from Spanish peninsular novels. Bombal's roots were of a different and distant world. Had she read the works of Virginia Woolf? Most critics answer in the affirmative. Yet if one considers the facts carefully, it is rather improbable that she had. There is no record of her having read Woolf while living in France. Ocampo, who introduced Woolf's works in Argentina, did not begin to publish them in Sur until December 1935, and her edition of A Room of One's Own came out in 1936. It is possible, of course, that earlier Bombal may have read something by Woolf, either in Europe or in Argentina, and that she had an understanding, however superficial, of the experimental nature of Woolf's work.
Bombal was never a feminist in the current sense of the word. She never joined any movement, political or social, devoted to arguing for women's rights. Gabriela Mistral, who was militantly involved in feminist campaigns, never associated with Bombal and had no literary influence on her. Bombal was not a fighter, but rather an outsider. She never editorialized about anything. She lived in a Chilean bourgeois society heavily dominated by class distinctions and the interplay between machismo and matriarchy and felt deeply hurt by it; she wrote about it with irony, pity, and disillusionment, covering all with a delicate veil of sophistication that almost succeeds in concealing her painful scars. A few lines in her second novel, La amortajada (The Shrouded Woman, 1938) reveal Bombal's basic feeling about the position of women:
Why, why is a woman's nature such that a man must
always be the center of her life?
Men succeed in applying their passion to other things. But
women's destiny is to brood over a love pain in an orderly house,
surrounded by an unfinished tapestry.
In The Final Mist, Bombal writes about the state of alienation of both a woman and a man living under the unwritten terms of a fraudulent matrimonial pact. There is no real love between the two, only the acceptance of a situation that, in the high society to which they belong, must be kept under wraps. The man is a widower, haunted by the memory of his first wife. The woman is an artificial figure destined to preside over their stately home in a remote country estate in southern Chile. It is the man who dictates the rules of the game; she submits for social convenience. This state of alienation is the cause of her hysterical neurosis, which includes moments of strong hallucination. He reacts with a cold indifference that is at the same time cruel and morbid. Abandoning themselves to cynical sensuality, they indulge in a sexual relationship that the narrator describes as shameful and perverse.
In a state of hallucination, she finds a lover. Her encounters with him are always lost in a setting of thick mist and darkness. She appears to be in extreme agitation, feverish, unconscious. A series of brutal happenings awakens her from her dream: A servant's child drowns in a pond in which she bathes naked; Regina, her intimate friend, who is thought to live in blessed happiness, having everything that the heroine lacks, commits suicide; suicide tempts her also; suddenly, she recognizes the real face of her husband in its sinister ugliness. Then her lover dies in a mysterious way. We learn that the lover was a blind man who lived in an old house, in which he falls to his death.
The Final Mist is a moving tale of love, mystery, illusion, and disillusion. The reader is left with the impression that the whole episode involving the lover has been the result of a painfully sweet, sad hallucination. But then uncertainty enters in. Perhaps the love affair was real. There were letters written; there was a tree, a street, a garden; there were stairs · secret signs of a real world now dead in the mist that disappeared. This haunting feeling of ambiguity is so masterfully sustained by the narrator that the reader never comes to a clear understanding of the episode. Here lies the power and fascination of Bombal's narrative. One is never aware that the narrator is manipulating the characters and the development of the story. The literary elements flow effortlessly, everything falls into place smoothly, no time is lost in needless descriptions or explanations. Bombal keeps tight control of language and silences.
Amado Alonso, the eminent Spanish critic who lived for years in exile in Buenos Aires, was quick to salute and celebrate Bombal's novel as a masterpiece, in an article in the journal Nosotros (We) in 1936; it was used as a prologue in the first Chilean edition (1941) and in modern editions of the book. After praising her use of language and sure instinct in sketching characters and situations, Alonso emphasizes the "fantastic nature" of Bombal's story: He takes it for granted that the love affair with the blind man has been imagined by the narrator. He says, "Everything that happens in this novel happens within the mind and the heart of a woman who dreams and fantasizes" (La última niebla, 2nd ed., Santiago, Chile, 1941, p. 11).
Unintentionally perhaps, in his analysis Alonso has ignored one of the most important factors in Bombal's narrative style: the element of poetic ambiguity. However, he recognizes that Bombal's instinct to discard all that is superfluous in her descriptions is the result of her "poetic conception and sense of structure." He adds, "Once the dreamer has adopted the autobiographical form to attain total identification with the life narrated, she experiences the fearful conflict between dream and reality, somewhat in the manner of Don Quixote in his adventure in the Montecinos cave. Both remember as real that which has been a dream" (pp. 21-22).
In his observations, Alonso pays tribute to Bombal for her admirable fusion of reality and unreality. What is difficult to accept in his analysis, still venerated by some critics, is the assumption that Bombal is the kind of writer she is because she is an extremely sensitive, fantasizing woman. He says, "Hers is the creation and expression of a manner typically feminine and at the same time originally personal in her expression of emotion and sentimental life. . . . It is a primal emotion, born out of the primary impulses of a woman" (p. 25).
The narrator, according to Alonso, is possessed by a passion that cannot find an object, a passion that is like "stagnant water" that becomes more and more poisoned by its own fermentation. This, he adds, symbolizes all the strength and weakness of the novel: "If women live for emotions of the soul, and men for the creations and realizations of the spirit, this narrator has a totally feminine temperament" (p. 27).
Aside from the fact that this assertion smacks of sexism, Alonso seems to be suggesting a feminist reading of The Final Mist, something that women critics are practicing today based on entirely different premises. Their point of reference is the social reality in which Latin American women are condemned to live, a reality full of injustices and abusive conventions. Bombal was twenty-one years old when she left Europe with the intention of living in Chile. At that time, Chilean women did not have the right to vote, could not open bank accounts in their own names, needed their husbands' permission to leave the country. No women were seen at the meetings of the Chilean Society of Writers. Among the members of the Society, there was a manifest dislike for Gabriela Mistral, who was identified as a perennial suffragette and laughed at because of her mannish appearance. Bombal was not one to run away from difficulties or to sulk in isolation. She went to Argentina because she was aware of the avant-garde literary movement growing there and because she wanted to be near Neruda.
The feeling of alienation and the ambiguity permeating her novel are forms of protest against society. But, on a deeper level, they are also the expression of a rupture between a woman and the reality in which she is meant to discover the meaning in her life. Lucía Guerra-Cunningham has made particularly lucid observations about this subject. Analyzing Bombal's first novel, she says, "Originated in the basic stratum of the narrative mode, ambiguity in The Final Mist is mainly the result of two phenomena: (a) absence of specificity regarding the surrounding reality and the objective temporal element, and (b) elimination of rational and exact limits between the oniric experience, dreaming, and objective reality" (p. 70).
Guerra-Cunningham suggests that ambiguity and subjectivity are connected to a "typical" avant-garde vision of reality. This can be accepted, but not her inference that Bombal's narrative discourse is related to an avant-garde style. A brief comparison between Neruda's El habitante y su esperanza (The Inhabitant's Hope, 1926) and Bombal's novel reveals the intrinsic difference that separates a poetic surrealistic narrative from an intuitive psychological one.
The narrator of Bombal's fiction experiences reality as the failure of an overwhelming aspiration to sexual fulfillment. Hers is the defeat of a passion that fails to identify, and thus to possess, its object. Bombal named Werther as one of the obsessions of her youth: The romantic inevitability of her character's tragedy is akin to the desperation of Goethe's hero.
It would seem that the natural assurance with which the narrator simply, although equivocally, tells her tale owes much to music, that is, to a movement of cadences that surrounds her intimate world and that leads her to fuse dream and reality.
Bombal deftly handles symbols and leitmotiv, playing on certain words and phrases, like playing notes on a musical instrument, to evoke ancient sounds and meanings, ancestral connotations. The reader may recognize, for instance, allusions to Christianity and Druidism in the use of agua (water) and árbol (tree).
The Final Mist is a moving tale of love, mystery, illusion and disillusion. It is said that Paramount Pictures bought the movie rights to the novel because of its title (House of Mist) and the ambiguity of its subject matter (unsubstantiated adultery), but the story was never filmed.
In 1938, Ocampo published the first edition of The Shrouded Woman under the Sur imprint. The world of passions, which in The Final Mist came out as a secret well of undefined feelings of hurt and desperation, of presentiments and divinations, becomes, in The Shrouded Woman, a vibrant discovery of the heroine's senses, an experience of deep suffering in body and soul, expressed in a language of innumerable tones and echoes, surprising for its preciseness and sense of timing.
The couple · Bombal's eternal couple · is no longer the creation of a dream; these are real people who marry and expect to make a lasting union out of an obvious mismatch. She has had an affair and an abortion and is still secretly in love with the man who abandoned her. The young husband, very much in love, doesn't know her secret but senses that she loves someone else. Irked by her rejections, he takes her back to her parents. Then the old game begins. Slowly, painfully at first, she begins to miss the physical power and the considerate tenderness of her husband. She thinks she is discovering a new form of love, a mature understanding and appreciation of the man she has abandoned. She decides to come back, but her husband is no longer the devoted lover. He is still kind and patient, but now sexually indifferent to her. From that point on, they become the couple of The Final Mist, joined by a shameful and tacit agreement, silently hating each other. With time, even hate disappears, because hate inadvertently has become routine, habit, indifference.
Why did Bombal resort to a metaphor · a dead woman witnessing her own funeral · to give form to the retelling of the old fable so familiar to her? Is it possible that the affair of passion was no longer the real object of her story, but death itself and, as a tour de force, a surrealistic vision of the world beyond? The shrouded woman is a corpse who desperately holds on to life. The narrative device reminds the reader of André Maurois' fantastic tale Le peseur d'âmes (The Man Who Weighed Souls, 1931). The woman's last bit of life · a suspended fragment of consciousness · is slowly leaving her body and soon will disappear completely. From the brink of another world, she takes a last look at relatives and friends, people she loved, people she hated, people she observes with detachment now. She becomes the supreme ominiscient narrator. Her voice will be heard beyond the limits of time and over the constraints imposed by conventional feelings. An eye and an ear give testimony: they have memory but no moral commitment.
The shrouded woman's testimony is built on sensory perceptions. She evocatively narrates her awakening to sexual impulses in terms of pure physical sensitivity:
Then, one night came the revelation.
It was as if from the center of her entrails had risen a
boiling, slow chill, growing with every caress, embracing her with
rings to the root of her hair, grasping her throat, stopping her
breathing, shaking her body until, exhausted and faint, she found
herself abandoned in the crumpled bed.
Pleasure! So that was pleasure! That trembling, that immense
flap of wings and that falling together into a common shame!
Her description of how, as an adolescent, she became aware of being pregnant is another example of this sensuous writing:
What day was it? I can't remember the precise moment
when this sweet tiredness began. I imagined that Spring made me
languish, a Spring still hidden under the winter soil, breathing
already, wet and perfumed through the half closed pores of the earth.
I recall. I felt lazy, without wanting anything, body and spirit
indifferent, as if already satiated through passion and pain. I
thought it was some kind of truce, I abandoned myself to it. . . .
I didn't know why the landscape, things, all became an object of
distraction, a placidly sensual pleasure: the dark and wavy mass of
forest immobile in the horizon, like a monstrous wave at the point of
crashing down, the doves' flight, coming and going, leaving shadowy
traces on the open book resting upon my knees
The effectiveness of Bombal's narrative art in this novel depends on the balance between two essential factors: the time frame in which events find an untransferable place, and the structure that, through the use of language, lends that frame the necessary consistency and permanence. Timing is essential in this kind of narrative, and Bombal handles it masterfully. The structure is based on a counterpoint between the first-person and the third-person speakers. The speaking voice slides from one person to the other, without transition or interruption; characters talk in soliloquies, yielding almost absentmindedly to the voice of the shrouded woman's conscience. The impression given to the reader is that of a choir cleverly orchestrated. Again, Bombal's narratives are like musical scores, or perhaps echoes of sounds and voices that at one time had a musical structure. "The Tree" is another good example.
It is difficult to say how conscious Bombal was of manipulating language. At times one notices her deliberate choice of an adjective over a noun, of one verbal form over another. There is never accumulation of words or hesitancy of any kind. That is why we have the feeling that the narrative moves along like a dance in which gestures and attitudes do not admit breaks or indecisions.
The Shrouded Woman begins with the words of an unnamed narrator who avoids the intrusion of the voice and consciousness of the dead woman. Then the shrouded woman's voice takes over. The lead goes back to the narrator for about four pages, and then the dead woman takes over for three pages. This alternation goes on for a while until suddenly we hear a third voice: that of Fernando, the rejected lover. The narrator helps him along and eventually takes control, until a priest's voice provides important information. At the end, the narrator's voice becomes dominant and, in a grandiose solo, describes the definitive fall into death. The final words have a subdued tone, like that of oboes and strings, a meditative, philosophic fading out: "She had experienced the death of the living. Now she wanted a total immersion, a second death: the death of the dead ones."
I have mentioned "The Tree" in connection with musical influence on Bombal's composition. This short story may well be the quintessence of Bombal's narrative art, an art that caught critics by surprise, as if it had come before its time, strong and fragile, mature from the very beginning and, in its innocence, also a little puerile. In "The Tree," Bombal's basic theme, that of solitude and unmanageable nostalgia, appears in its most dramatic and poignant force. We learn that the solitude of the woman in love without a lover is the other face of a more painful and lasting one: the mythical solitude of the woman-tree, the mother of all, and that her discovery of her hidden roots leads into the majestic, helpless, and sad entrance to the labyrinth of death.
Bombal's art is, in essence, the art of her personal solitude and the power to conjure in her stories the shadows of persons who appear and disappear like leaves in the forest of her childhood and her youth.
Bombal wrote other short stories, including "Trenzas" ("Braids"), "The Unknown," "New Islands," "La historia de María Griselda" (María Griselda's Story), and "La maja y el ruiseñor" (The Maja and the Nightingale).
These stories add little, if anything, to her literary reputation. They seem to reflect her impatience before the vast silence that had begun to engulf her. Some of them were written in her brilliant Argentine period. "María Griselda" and "New Islands" are, in my opinion, the best. Borges praised them, with reason, because there is mystery, fatalism, and fantasy in them, as well as strong traces of Emily Brontë.
Bombal is, like Neruda, a poet of strong atavistic, telluric roots. Intrinsic elements in their creations are the woods, forests, and rains of southern Chile. (See, as an example, a description of the Malleco River in "María Griselda".) Bombal seemed to write from the depths of a remote world that marked her from childhood: a world of gigantic trees, of dazzling climbing plants, and undercurrents.
Her narrative world is a closed one. She had only one story to tell; she told it profoundly and beautifully, then remained silent. She wrote about one woman, one man, and one solitude. The anguish and the hope are the same in all of her stories. The poetic projections of her voice never lost their somber resonance.
It is a tribute to her greatness as a novelist that new generations continue to read and venerate her in spite of the silence and isolation that surrounded her at the end of her life. Many writers, young and old, demanded that the Chilean National Prize of Literature be awarded to her. She never received it.
From: Alegría, Fernando. "Maria Luisa Bombal." Latin American Writers, edited by Carlos A. Solé, vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.