Gustave Caillebotte, Woman at a Dressing Table, 1873. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
My grandmother collected perfume bottles, a seeming whimsy for a woman of such plainness and ferocity. I have three of them, given to me when she was still alive. They lived in a drawer and then later, in a decorative moment, on the bookshelf, where I have since placed them higher and higher out of reach, as my daughter has attempted to climb up to play with them, a slow-moving game between us, until now they are so high up as to be out of view. I tend not to be sentimental about objects, but I at least don’t want them to break, this being all I possess from my grandmother, anything else guarded by her surviving daughter, who, having remained unmarried, still lives alone in the house in which she was born, that being the way in my family. The bottles are candy-colored glass—blue and purple twins with matching Bakelite flowers as the stoppers, and another newer, smaller one, with complementary hand-painted purple flowers with bluish-green stems and yellow pistils at the centers, and with a gold atomizer. They are not valuable—objects in my family become antiques only through accruing dust in the house they’ve inhabited, on mantles and in glass. I can still see the menagerie that resided on the heavy wooden dresser in my grandmother’s bedroom, which was covered with plastic and underneath it a lace doily. On top of the doily, viewable through the plastic, were black-and-white photographs: portraits of relatives, baby photos, and photographs of her late husband, who died when she was still a young woman with a young child, leaving her a widow until her death in her nineties, half-paralyzed from a stroke but still ruling the world from her dining room table, waving her grabber at her grown children, gleefully threatening to hit them with it for whatever crime committed, usually (her word) stupidity. The table itself was covered always with at least a cheap cloth-backed vinyl or plastic decorative tablecloth of garish pattern, frayed or cracking at the edges, and for holidays, a nicer, solid-colored linen cloth on top. Underneath was the heavy mahogany table, like all the furniture in my grandmother’s house, the immovable furniture of generations. My grandmother’s collection of perfume bottles crowded next to her jewelry, which was minimal and rotely worn, including not only her heavy wedding band, which my sister keeps asking for, but also her silver watch, which my grandmother must have had to wear to keep time while working the linens counter at Marshall Field’s all those decades after becoming a widow, having had to close up her husband’s butcher shop and store where she had previously presided behind the register, the calves widening from girlish into matronly, all those varicose vein decades, after suddenly becoming a single mother with a young child to raise, her older grown sons, the twins, away in the Navy, later returning in order to gather around their mother, one staying unmarried and in that house until his untimely death, the other moving away, but not too far, that other being my father, who accrued his own museum, having lived for his own decades in the state of the widower, although his savings account was never the subject of existential dread, he having been the one who made all the money in his marital life, my mother at home with the children, as was the way. She was a saint, an angel, both my uncle, my grandmother’s son, and my father, my grandmother’s other son, said about both their mother and my mother, respectively, at their funerals, one having died of an astonishing old age, and the other, at a sudden and tragic middle age. I didn’t recognize who they were talking about. All I recognized was the empty monologue of Catholicism, which serves to erase by anointing the woman at home, who only exists in service to others but not to herself. Does she even exist, I often have wondered, to herself? Writing this I have no idea why my grandmother collected perfume bottles, were they gifts that her sons brought home from overseas, and they began to unthinkingly accumulate, over birthdays and Christmases? My grandmother cut her ridged nails with the kitchen scissors, she never wore makeup, let alone perfume. I have no idea what my grandmother, or my aunt, or my mother, thought about at night in their empty houses, in the solitude of caretakers. I have no idea if they were unhappy, whether they thought of their girlhood, or when the children were young, whether they had regrets, and if they could, what would they confess? I have no idea because I never asked, and they would never have said. It would have been an impossibility. Their inner monologue would have been closed to me.
What you need to understand is how a woman can become a piece of furniture. The kind of woman who lives in a house like a museum, filled with artifacts of her past relevance. In the Portuguese writer Maria Judite de Carvalho’s only novel, the compact, merciless tragedy Empty Wardrobes, published originally in 1966, the widow Dora Rosário manages an antique shop referred to by her young daughter as the Museum, an occupation secured for her by a pitying network of female acquaintances, the plight of necessary supplications that Carvalho mocks, that bitter sharpness of waking up to a society’s cruelty, masked by exhaustion. What you need to understand about Dora Rosário is she is meant to be ancient, past her prime, meaning in the tradition of great women’s melodrama, she is thirty-six years old. While he was alive, her incompetent husband refused to let her work, she was supposed to be at home, taking care of her child, who grows to be a cheerfully callous teenager over the course of her mother’s decade-long career as a widow. For that past decade as well Dora has lived amid the antique furniture at the Museum, dressing like an “off-duty nun,” tending also to her late husband’s memory, the required dissolution of self like an ecstasy of sustained mourning brought to an art form. The permutations of her consciousness are an exercise in the way the imagination can drift in tedium, resembling the clerk Bernardo Soares in another famous translation from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. The exquisite style of the passages set amid these baroque objects that possess more value than the solid and unmoving woman hired to guard over them. The ache of this emptiness and dustiness, the matron as a museum:
She had spent the best part of the last ten years there, among tables large and small, some semicircular and propped against the wall, others like long-legged birds, half-asleep and slightly unsteady on their feet, others standing imperiously on sturdy legs with strong metal claws gripping the floor. There were also sundry writing desks and a tall, delicate Etienne Avril escritoire, chests dating from various centuries, a solitary Regency lounge chair, its upholstery wearing thin, and many other pieces of furniture, all with very full curriculum vitae and all devoured by generations of energetic woodworms, but still very solid, gathered together like decaying aristocrats in a home for superior elderly folk. Glass domes covering beautiful clocks that had long since stopped, images from the eighteenth century, ornate boxes, exquisite, elegant ivory figurines, odd plates held together with metal brackets, a fine Persian rug, and, scattered here and there on the walls, frozen after many years in flight, were a profusion of Baroque angels, chubby and cheerful, modestly veiled or else fully clothed and even wearing boots, all of them with their bird wings spread. It was there in the Museum—because it really was more museum than shop, since it had more visitors than buyers—that Dora spent her days.
There is a gesture among the elders in my family of a slight turning away when anything taboo is brought up, the subjects one is not supposed to refer to—adultery, divorce, the great unhappiness of a traditional marriage. Empty Wardrobes is set amid a cloister of three generations of women who also have been refusing to hear any such taboos, or perhaps truths, except in the quiet hangover of the monologue of a maiden aunt becoming undone (explained away as eccentricities, or an episode), which then catalyzes the midnight confession of the mother-in-law/matriarch—whose aging appearance across the novel is rendered in a series of hilarious grotesques—to her daughter-in-law, Dora, the closed and severely unfashionable widow. This speaking of the unspeakable between generations of women unleashes a series of events, which opens up an abyss of regret for our heroine’s wasted life, and, temporarily, a return to the self, or a new self, with optimism’s ephemerality and artifice. Then sometime later on, supplying the novel’s frame, Dora Rosário, out of will and despair, tells of the tragedy of her life to the devastatingly witty yet still mournful narrator, a former friend and tossed-aside mistress of one of the men, a buffoon, all of the male characters in the book being buffoons, mere shadowy catalysts who still unfairly hold all the power. There is also the teenage daughter, unthinking in her own youth and beauty about her pronouncements of her mother’s hopelessness, who never sees her mother’s lifetime sacrifice, although there is a recursive sense of her future fate once she gets what she thinks she always wanted, which is to become a rich man’s wife.
Reading Empty Wardrobes I thought of the great Modernist novels of wives, which are by their occupation works of tedium and duration—The Passion According to G.H. by fellow midcentury writer of Portuguese Clarice Lispector, Marguerite Duras’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein, and of course, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (although Carvalho’s characters are funnier and more cruel than Woolf’s). Reading this novel, I felt awakened by the possibility of literature, which is to tell of a consciousness that in real life is rendered dull and redundant, incapable of imagination or higher thought (the disappearance of the clerk, as well as the wife and her past tense, the widow). It feels shocking for such a complete and alive work of literature like this to have been untranslated for so long. This is a hilarious and devastating novel of a traditional Catholic widow’s consciousness, encased like ambered resin in the ambient cruelty of patriarchy, an oppression even more severe in the God, Fatherland, and Family authoritarianism of the Salazar regime in Portugal. A work like this, set in the regime of a dictator who weaponized Catholicism and “family values,” is by its very nature deeply political, even if—no, especially if it’s set in a series of interiors, in the domestic space, in the space of service. I read this novel with something resembling a rapturous grief, as if I couldn’t believe this consciousness had finally been rendered in literature, the consciousness of so many women familiar yet unknowable, no longer muted, not saturated with sanctimony but alive, alive with rage transmuting disdain into hilarity by sheer force, alive with intense paroxysms of sadness.
Kate Zambreno’s most recent book is a study of Hervé Guibert, To Write As If Already Dead. She is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction, and is at work on a collection, The Missing Person.
Introduction used by permission from Empty Wardrobes (Two Lines Press, 2021). Copyright © 2021 by Two Lines Press.
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