Salvador Novo describes coming of age during the violence of the Mexican Revolution and “living dangerously” as an openly homosexual man in a brutally machista society
Salvador Novo, Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography, with 19 Erotic Sonnets by , Trans. by Marguerite Feitlowitz, University of Texas Press, 2014. excerpt + Google Books
Written with exquisite sensitivity and wit, this memoir by one of Mexico’s foremost men of letters describes coming of age during the violence of the Mexican Revolution and “living dangerously” as an openly homosexual man in a brutally machista society.
Salvador Novo (1904–1974) was a provocative and prolific cultural presence in Mexico City through much of the twentieth century. With his friend and fellow poet Xavier Villaurrutia, he cofounded Ulises and Contemporáneos, landmark avant-garde journals of the late 1920s and 1930s. At once “outsider” and “insider,” Novo held high posts at the Ministries of Culture and Public Education and wrote volumes about Mexican history, politics, literature, and culture. The author of numerous collections of poems, including XX poemas, Nuevo amor, Espejo, Dueño mío, and Poesía 1915–1955, Novo is also considered one of the finest, most original prose stylists of his generation. Pillar of Salt is Novo’s incomparable memoir of growing up during and after the Mexican Revolution; shuttling north to escape the Zapatistas, only to see his uncle murdered at home by the troops of Pancho Villa; and his initiations into literature and love with colorful, poignant, complicated men of usually mutually exclusive social classes. Pillar of Salt portrays the codes, intrigues, and dynamics of what, decades later, would be called “a gay ghetto.” But in Novo’s Mexico City, there was no name for this parallel universe, as full of fear as it was canny and vibrant. Novo’s memoir plumbs the intricate subtleties of this world with startling frankness, sensitivity, and potential for hilarity. Also included in this volume are nineteen erotic sonnets, one of which was long thought to have been lost.
I'll begin by reminding us all that Salvador Novo's Pillar of Salt, as it's reviewed here, is a work in translation. Too often readers and reviewers discount this fact -- we praise or lambaste verse or prose as it's been presented to us, disregarding its translated nature. Translators therefore (and unfortunately) are treated as understudies for the actors we went to the theatre to watch in the first place.
With this in mind, I want to say that Marguerite Feitlowitz's translation is nothing short of beautiful. I can only imagine that, like a translator of Marquez or Neruda, her challenge of bringing Novo's text to the English language might have felt insurmountable at times, finding herself at a crossroads with every choice and question of diction and nuance.
"To mind," Edith Grossman writes in Why Translation Matters, "a translator's fidelity is not to lexical pairings but to context -- the implications and echoes of the first author's tone, intention, and level of discourse. Good translations are good because they are faithful to this contextual significance." Novo, from what I can tell, is quite contextually significant. The introduction to Pillar of Salt, written by Carlos Monsiváis, especially helps to position us in front of so much of this context. And if "translators translate context," as Edith Grossman asserts, then what we encounter when we read Pillar of Salt is a supreme translation not only of language but also of culture, politics, sexuality, and boyhood.
"The bildungsroman," Monsiváis writes in his introduction, "the novel that charts the progress from youth to maturity, finds its form in this case through the extraordinary nerve of an essentially autobiographical writer who takes pleasure in showing that which he considers normal because it is inevitable, but which others will judge highly pornographic." Use of the word "pornographic" here refers to the explicit detail by which Novo gives us his experience of growing up. But if any of us, really, were to be honest in our coming-of-age stories, I doubt that at every turn they would be appropriate for an immature audience. There may be some G-rated kissing, but those points at which we really discover ourselves -- our bodies, our confusion, our desires -- should perhaps take responsibility for making us turn our heads and blush.
Novo's work here -- really, his ambitions -- bring to mind the memoir The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante, a book praised for its playfulness and experimentation with the memoir form. This comparison encourages us to ask how, exactly, the memoir (or autobiography, in general) can "play" -- I suggest that autobiography reaches playfulness when it prioritizes the interpretation of experience over fact. The dull autobiography acts as mere reportage, a chronicling of events that lead to one's present spot in life. But autobiography that reels us in often does more than just chronicle. It interprets. It's at times unsure of itself. It embraces Keats's Negative Capability.
"In his memoirs," Monsiváis also writes, "Novo is the novelist who will not be held back this time by the urgencies of journalism, he is the re-creator of a most unusual provincial childhood, and he is the forty-year-old gay man trying to impart the highest degree of materiality -- that of writing -- to the fundamental experience of his life, which is being homosexual." Use of the words "being homosexual" here provides a way for us to focus not on homosexual acts but on Novo's identification. Novo's book is no more a mere list of experiences than a manual for how one should act during teenage discovery.
Novo himself holds an impressive instinct for reflexivity; or, at least, Feitlowitz's translation gives us this impression, with moments like the following:
This is the period of my first sexual memories; though discontinuous and disjointed, they are recounted here in close proximity. We had at home a little servant, named Samuel, with whom I used to play. When I played alone, making altars with my blocks and empty cookie boxes, I didn't need anything or anyone else. But when I played with that boy, I wanted us to pretend to be mother and son, and he then would have to suck on my right breast with his hard lips and erect tongue. This caress filled me with a strange pleasure, which I only recaptured many years later, when in a moment of exquisite surrender, I recalled that first and perhaps definitive experience, which may have been the original trauma that explains the formation of my adult libidinal predilections.
We come to know that Novo is very, very good at working temporally with his prose. Without an ability to shift seamlessly between narration and reflection, autobiography often runs the risk of falling flat; with Novo, however, a careful craftsman with temporal details, we're able to glance at both who Novo was and who he is in the moment of his writing, which reminds us that he is, above all, thoughtful. Both thoughtfulness and uncertainty can be difficult things to translate, but Feitlowitz has handled both with care. She's provided us not only with a text but with a character -- Novo is a charismatic and charming individual here, one with whom I would make certain friends, and I owe this assumption to the treatment of language and idiosyncrasy given to the book while translating.
Lastly, we can't forget that Pillar of Salt contains erotic sonnets, which Feitlowitz has translated with equal skill. "Playing on the gender values of his native Spanish," Feitlowitz writes of Novo in "This Flower of Fourteen Petals," her introduction to the sonnets, "he said the soneto was the 'gallant husband' of the sonata in a marriage of music and mind, sense and sensibility." With stanzas like "A Proust who lives in Mexico! In these / pages I would paint the wordless idylls -- / delicious and forbidden -- / of a chauffeur, a robber, a policeman" we see that Novo is always at play. Calling himself "a Proust who lives in Mexico" should be evidence enough of this "marriage of music and mind," and we read on with ecstatic giggling and glee.
"Novo infuses his sonnets with the characteristics of other literary genres," Feitlowitz writes, "he sets the scene; weaves a plot; establishes a palpable identity for both the speaker and the one to whom the lines are addressed; he creates and manipulates our expectations; he draws us in, often, ultimately, to fence us out." Novo as Speaker is easy to hold, as his charisma shines through in every line, but locating "the one to whom the lines are addressed" is a more difficult task. With so many of his sonnets performing as love poems, one can't help but wonder to what lucky boy the poems might be addressed: "What do I do in your absence? I stare at your picture / trying as best I can for consolation; / when I get hot, I introduce a finger / in effigy of the plantain I pine for."
"It is fascinating and often fruitful to try on another skin," Luc Sante writes, "but it is ultimately meaningless if one hasn't acknowledged one's own." As with any good autobiographical performance, whether in verse or in prose, Novo has shown both his skin and others', giving us a titillating view of what it means to be both revealing and reserved. This may be the summit of Novo's presentation: the gaze we discover when we peek with an almost pubescent curiosity. - Micah McCrary
Written in 1945, but published for the first time in Spanish in 2008, Salvador Novo’s (1904-1974) secret memoir Pillar of Salt takes readers on an honest, unapologetic, whirlwind tour of the author’s formative years, spanning from his earliest childhood memories through the conclusion of high school. During this period of time Novo would become a first-hand witness to the brutality of the Mexican Revolution and quickly learn that his budding preference for members of the same sex was in direct contradiction of the machismo society into which he was born.
After opening the book with a brief introduction to each of the major members of his family, Novo wastes no time in recounting his earliest memories of sexual exploration. The first of these occurs as a very young boy:
We had at home a little servant, named Samuel, with whom I used to play. When I played alone, making altars with my blocks and empty cookie boxes, I didn’t need anything or anyone else. But when I played with that boy, I wanted us to pretend to be mother and son, and he then would have to suck on my right breast with his hard lips and erect tongue. This caress filled me with a strange pleasure, which I only recaptured many years later, when in a moment of exquisite surrender, I recalled that first and perhaps definitive experience, which may have been the original trauma that explains the formation of my adult libidinal predilections.
The sheer number of sexual encounters that Novo reveals to have had as a child would be cringe worthy to any parent, and one would think, damaging to the child himself. However Novo’s retelling of these experiences, as a then forty something year-old adult looking back, is never tinged with any signs of regret, remorse, anger, or guilt over that which has occurred, and his raw and unabashed honestly about his sexual experimentation and the feelings it awakened within him lend a sense of power and purpose to each of the tales he recounts. Furthermore, he makes no apologies for who he is or what he’s done, because none are deemed necessary. These are the experiences that have shaped and influenced the person he has become, and if anyone has a problem with it, well then that’s clearly on them. Two of the more hilarious stories that Novo recounts from this period include the unexpected benefit of his mother having taught him that the proper word for penis is actually anus (why she does this is in the first place is never actually explained) and a doctor/nurse play date with a young female cousin who wants Novo to insert his member into one of her holes, while he’s busy trying his best to convince her that it needs to go in the other.
Before he can reach his teenage years, a time where he’ll work to decipher the signs, codes, and inner workings of Mexico City’s “gay ghetto,” Novo will have to contend with more than just the dangers of his sexual curiosity. Among other things, he recounts in harrowing detail his family’s efforts to escape from the Zapatista Liberation Army of the South and his uncle’s tragic death at the hands of Pancho Villa’s men. When Novo finally does arrive however, he opens the reader’s eyes to a hidden world of endless desire, one that comes complete with its own unique cast of catty characters, built in stereotypes, and rules for conquest:
…he who with such descriptive acuity forever marked his friends and enemies with cruel nicknames: Walled-In Eva (on account of her deafness); Straining Gasbag, a name that perfectly described the constipated gait of the person alluded to; Emma Moreno, who was excessively morena (dark); Annie the Cock (who in deferring to Wagner and Levien by selling their printed music, sublimated her own faded but not renounced hopes of becoming an opera singer); Cushion Cunt, who by night received her friends (selecting them so that Annie the Cock, with whom she maintained a kind of old matrimonial tie full of mutual but mutually hidden infidelities so as not to arouse jealousy) in the tiny apartment that the laborious leisure hours of the government employee had yielded an infinity of capricious silk cushions that were, like the delicate merienda she offered, and the large blue floor lamp with gilded fringe and flowers, the work of her own hands.
Candid yet also conversational, Pillar of Salt is a fascinating piece of history told by a respected intellectual who would go on to become a famous writer and poet, work for the Mexican government, and be elected to the Mexican Language Academy, all without ever attempting to hide his sexuality from those at the time that would deem it to be both filthy and offensive. This volume’s publication now, over sixty years after it was initially written, serves as a bold testament of just how far we’ve come as a society, and serves as a much needed reminder that we’ve still got a ways to go.
[Pillar of Salt also begins with an in-depth introduction by Carlos Monsivais and closes with nineteen erotic sonnets written by the author which are both amusing and shocking in their content.] - Aaron Westerman
Poet, journalist, critic, historian, editor, anthologist, and permanent “exile from respectable behavior,” Salvador Novo (1904-1974) is one of Mexico’s most distinctive and original literary figures. With his dear friend Xavier Vilaurrutia, he founded two seminal literary journals, Ulises (1927) and Contémporaneos (1928). Other members of the influential Contemporáneos group included Jaime Torres Bodet, Jorge Cuesta, Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano, Gilberto Owen, José Gorostiza, Enrique González Rojo—all of whom maintained a kind of double life, working in official government, administrative, or cultural ministries even as they wrote provocatively about their society.
No one was more provocative than Salvador Novo, whose lifelong war against hypocrisy outraged “proper” Mexicans and could upset even his closest friends. Famously effeminate, Novo spoke in a high voice, tweezed his eyebrows, wore elaborate makeup, dressed with an extreme elegance all his own, and brooked no conflict. “Wearing the toupee is the toupee,” is one of his legendary quips. His humor was sharp like a sword, and aimed for the jugular. At a time when jotos were arrested in violent round-ups and made to sweep the streets on the way to the train that would take them to forced labor camps in the Yucatán, Novo’s bearing was courageous.
As Carlos Monsiváis notes, Novo wrote “to be read one day, and by himself at the moment of composition.” Time catches up to Novo, who wrote at a time when Mexico had no non-derogatory word for homosexuality (if it wasn’t in the dictionary, it didn’t exist). Luckily, there is a large body of work, much of it as-yet untranslated or out of print. In addition to Pillar of Salt, the University of Texas Press will also be re-issuing War of the Fatties. But there is more, much more to be (re)discovered.—Marguerite Feitlowitz