María Luisa Bombal

María Luisa Bombal (1910-1980) was a Chilean novelist and story writer, one of the first to break away from the realistic tradition in Latin America.

María Luisa Bombal was born in Viña del Mar, Chile, on June 8, 1910. Her father was an Argentine of French origin and her mother was of German extraction. In 1923, on the death of her father, María Luisa journeyed to Paris with her mother and two sisters, and there spent her adolescent years. She came to adopt French as her own tongue and wrote her first literary pieces in that language. Perhaps this explains in part why her style is so clear, in the French manner, stripped of superfluous material, unlike the traditional Spanish prose style heavy with rhetoric.

Bombal graduated from the University of the Sorbonne in Paris with a thesis on the 19th century French writer Mérimée. She also studied dramatic art and participated in several theatrical groups, both in France and in Chile. During these formative years spent in Paris the literary and artistic movement of surrealism was in fashion, and a strong surrealist tendency can be seen in her novels and short stories.

Her Works

In 1931 Bombal returned to her native Chile, but soon left in 1933 to live in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she became a member of the thriving literary group which included Jorge Luis Borges and Victoria Ocampo, publisher of the famous magazine Sur. Bombal worked for this journal, which published her two novels and short stories. Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and later Nobel Prize winner, was at the time consul of Chile in the Argentine capital, and under his inspiration Bombal composed her first novel, The Final Mist (La última niebla), which came out with critical acclaim in 1935. In 1938 her second novel, The Shrouded Woman (La amortajada) appeared. That same year she married an Argentine painter, but the marriage broke up two years later.

The following year Bombal took a brief trip to the United States where she met such important writers as William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson. Back in Buenos Aires she published her stories "The Tree" ("El árbol") and "The New Islands" (Las islas nuevas"). After a short sojourn in Chile in 1941, she went again to the United States where in 1944 she remarried, this time a French American.

During a long span of 30 years Bombal lived in New York where the only works she published were reworkings of her two novels in English versions written by herself, The House of Mist (1947) and The Shrouded Woman (1948). She added so much additional explanatory material to the original of The House of Mist that it almost became a different book, unfortunately losing much of its power and fascination.

Finally, in ill health, Bombal returned to spend her last few years in Chile, where she died in Santiago on May 6, 1980.

Her Importance to Literature

Bombal was one of the first Spanish American novelists to break away from the realist tradition in fiction and to write in a highly individual and personal style, stressing irrational and subconscious themes. During the 1930s when most of her fellow writers were turning out works emphasizing social conflict, Bombal turned inwardly for her inspiration and produced several works of remarkable artistic quality. She incorporated the secret inner world of her women protagonists into the mainstream of her novels. In this respect she may be regarded as a precursor of the later Boom writers of the 1960s and 1970s in Latin America. And she accomplished this in a prose charged with poetic vibration, filled with a sense of imminent tragedy, a melancholy atmosphere in which the factors of time and death play sombre roles.

In both her novels the reader sees almost everything through the eyes or sensations of the protagonist, who feels things deeply. The story line is relegated to a lesser role, particularly in The House of Mist. Poetry seems to flow from this crystaline prose, and Bombal uses repeated symbolic images (such as mist, rain, and wind) with good effect and in an elegant simple style. The heroine of The House of Mist lives most of the time in a dream world of her own fashioning, far from the reality of her unhappy marriage. In The Shrouded Woman the protagonist lies dead in her coffin, viewing the chief mourners who come by to see her one by one, reliving her love affairs and family relationships with a final clarity and futile wisdom. In "The Tree," her most famous story, the reader encounters not only a deep psychological analysis of a woman, but also an impressive technique of point counterpoint. While Brígida listens to a concert, her life and its tragedy unfold, evoked by the power of music.

During most of her life Bombal did not achieve the fame she deserved, although in her last years the Chilean government granted her a stipend. With the keen interest in the feminist movement in later years, her works were read and commented on more widely.

Further Reading on María Luisa Bombal

María Luisa Bombal is listed in The Oxford Companion to Spanish Literature (1978). Though there is no biography of Bombal in English, short studies on aspects of her life and works exist: M. Ian Adams, Three Authors of Alienation: Bombal, Onetti, Carpentier (1975); and Margaret V. Campbell, "The Vaporous World of María Luisa Bombal," Hispania 44:3 (1961). Additional brief sketches in English appear in standard anthologies of Latin American literature.

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