On Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life – La vida breve (1950)

Picture a lazy summer afternoon. The heat is unbearable. You’re in a room with the blinds half down, lying on a bed listening to the voices of complete strangers in the apartment next door. You’re in a languid dreamy mood. Your imagination starts to invent a story based on the snippets of the conversation you hear.  After a while the lives next door seem more real than your own.

Many of the chapters in Juan Carlos Onetti’s famous novel A Brief Life capture this type of mood, describe inertia paired with a vividly active imagination. I liked this, because I like those motionless summer afternoons spend lazily doing nothing else but day-dreaming. I liked the languid and languorous feeling those chapters conveyed. Seeing the narrator Juan María Brausen captivated by his imagination was appealing but the narrator was not. I hated him big time. I rarely if ever use the word “misogynist” but I felt the narrator was exactly that. His wife has just undergone a mastectomy and the way he thinks about her, her pain, her mutilated body, is unfeeling, self-centered and lacking any kind of empathy. It just annoyed me so much that after 150 pages I stopped reading. Because life is indeed very brief, I decided to abandon this novel.

The novel is well written and parts of it had an atmosphere and a mood I liked a lot but it was also confusing at times. It constantly switches from the narrator’s real life to the invented story about a doctor living in the fictional city Santa María. From there it switches to a third narrative strand showing the narrator inventing himself a double life and visiting the woman, a prostitute, who lives next door.

I suppose if the narrator hadn’t annoyed me so much – and not only because he is misogynistic – I would have finished the book as I found the narrative technique interesting.

I was curious to see whether other people had felt the same and googled “Onetti and misogynist”. I’m not sure why I didn’t trust my own impression but I was relieved to see that it was something critics and readers had commented on very often.

Onetti was a Uruguayan writer. He is famous for his novels and his short stories. I’ve read the collection Tan triste como ella a few years back and liked the melancholic tone. Onetti fled to Spain after having spent 6 months incarcerated in a mental hospital by the military government. Onetti was married 4 times (why did that not surprise me?).

I’ve read Onetti’s novel for Spanish Literature Month hosted by Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) and Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog). It’s part of a readalong. It will be interesting to see what others thought, if they finished it and how they liked it.

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32 thoughts on “On Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life – La vida breve (1950)

    • I was going to say Caroline, sometimes a character is a misogynist and it’s ok as its part of the genre. I’m currently reading a Mike Hammer novel which is probably unacceptable to some for the character’s attitudes. Did you think, in the case of A brief life, that it was the author and not the character that you were hearing?

      • I think that was the problem exactly and when I googled Onetti and misogynist they didn’t even mention this novel as others seem worse and there was no clear distinction between author and narrator. Critics often came to the conclusion that the author hated women.

  1. I don’t blame you for giving up on this since certain things about it bothered you so much, Caroline, but I would have loved to have heard your thoughts on the second half of the book which was quite impressive to me (esp. the ending). As far as the narrator goes, yes, he is misogynistic and yes, he is an unpleasant cur I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with in life. However, that didn’t bother me that much because Onetti’s storytelling–and in particular his descriptions of the creative process and the narrator’s possible loss of self in the story–were so captivating. Does this make Onetti himself a misogynist? I’m not so sure. I do think that Brausen’s treatment of the prostitute neighbor, as reprehensible as it was, was prob. truer to life than the sanitized version of prostitution you see in movies like Pretty Woman. Whatever his pros and cons, he was not a writer of sanitized fiction–on that we can prob. both agree! :D

    • I think if, as I’ve read most of his narrators are misogynistic, then I would really suspect Onetti was not free of it. I could see the merrit in some of the writing but I don’t undrestand why he had to choose certain elements. All the female charcaters are treated unkindly. Sometimes it’s more sexist, at other times misogynistic.

  2. Loved the first passage of your post, Caroline! Amazing first paragraph :) I was so disappointed to know that you had to abandon the book halfway through because you didn’t like the narrator. It is sad when a book puts us off so much. I loved the narrative technique of the writer that you have so beautifully described. My friend and I used to do that during our younger days during lazy summer afternoons – look around and make up crazy stories :) Loved Richard’s comment too. Hope you love the next book you read.

    • I tried to make the readers of te post experience m disappointment and wanted to make sure that those who wouldn’t be bothered by the misogyni still get a chance to discover the book. I have a feeling if the book had a female narrator and the husband prostate cancer, more men would abandon the book.:)
      Richard’s comment tempts me a bit to finish one day… On the other hand…There are so many books out there.

  3. What an interesting thought – a book narrated by a woman about a man who had suffered some sort of bodily mutilation in which she showed contempt and horror for him… has anything like that ever been written? Yet the misogynist narrator is a common character in fiction (Michel Houellebecq springs to mind!). I can put up with unpleasant characters if they are represented that way for a reason – which is to say that the frame of the book is probably different, and something invites the reader to judge the harsh character harshly. If the frame and the narrator merge, however, so it’s difficult to tell if that attitude is actually being sanctioned, then the work becomes more troubling. I find these sorts of issues fascinating, because life is full of truly unpleasant people with bad attitudes. Yet on the whole, we like fiction to be clear in its ethics and to stay on the side of the angels. I know I do – or at least I find Houellebecq’s work very disturbing, and he’s as close to the misogynist narrator as I go.

    • I realy don’t think anyone has ever written anything like that and – beware if she would. Imagine the uproar. Of course she would be called a sexually frustrated feminist…. Bah.
      I had less of a problem with Hoellebecqs charcaters because I felt pity for those guys. Women can judge unattractve men quite harshly too and the Hoelebecq charcaters, I felt, became misogynistic because they were refused too often.
      It’s exactly the problem that the boundaries in Onettis book are blurred. we really don’t know whether it’s a unlikable charcater and the author disapproves of him or not. I felt the author was very present.

  4. This is a first, I don’t think you’ve ever written a post about a book you abandoned.

    As you can guess, I’ll pass on this one, not tempting, not even after Richard’s interesting comment.

    I don’t think of Houellebecq’s characters as misogynistic. The word involves a deliberate nastiness to me and his characters are too pathetic to be angry at them.

    • I completely agree with Houellebecq’s charcaters. I would call them misogynistic but with a reason. I always felt compassion for them.
      To get the full picture you would have to read Richard’s review. He really liked the book. I really hated the character.

  5. This sounds very disappointing. I wonder if the story is ever told from the wife’s point of view? It might have helped even out the attitude of narrator–or cast him in a different (maybe better) light perhaps? I actually have this on my reading pile, but I probably won’t grab it to read anytime soon. Sometimes narrators just grate on a reader and the best thing, I think, is to set it aside. Are you going to read any other books for the Spanish Lit Month?

    • I can’t imagine that you would enjoy this. There is never any female point of view at all. I thought it was disappointing as it had moments I liked a lot.
      I’m running out of time, so I’m not sure I’ll read something else although I would like to. Maybe a novella? One of Richard’s posts on Sergio Pitol caught my interest and I got one of his non-fiction/fiction blend stories.

  6. I have to google misogynist first, because it’s really new to me. I have to thank you for this new word.

    It’s quite surprising that you finally review a book you didn’t finish. The book must be really bad. I hope you have better luck next time

  7. Caroline – While I do not know much about Onetti, based upon you post, as well as your research and follow up comments, it sounds as if he was a misogynist and not just portraying a character or being ironic. This strikes at something that I have been thinking about lately. When do ideas and opinions become so offense as to lead one to dismiss an author and their work outright? While it would be self limiting to discount an artist just because one strongly disagree with them, I do believe that certain ideas do cross the line and warrant condemnation. It sounds as if the misogyny expressed in this books puts it firmly into the category of the terribly offensive. I personally avoid such works and would likely have abandoned the book too.

    • As I said in my post, I don’t use the word misogynist very often but when it comes to mind it’s usually well grounded. At first I gave the author the benefit of the doubt but after reading up on him I think he felt like that about women and not just his characters. Like you, I don’t think we have to agree with authors or people in general but indeed, he did cross a line.
      After a while I just thought, no, I don’t want to read this.

  8. Hi Caroline,
    I haven’t read this writer, but do you think the narrator actually reflects the writer’s misogyny, or could it be that the writer purposefully makes the narrator a misogynist? Can a writer deliberately give very annoying and uncomfortable characteristics to his protagonist and still expect the reader to like them? Nabokov created a paedophile, out of thin air I am sure, but I never could really dislike Humbert :)
    Thanks for all the food for thought!
    Do visit!

    • I think all of this is possible but would rule it out in this case. I’m not sure you’ve read French writer Houellebecq whom Litlove mentions. While I think he creates some really nasty and in some ways misogynistic charcaters we feel pity with them. I never felt pity with Onettit’s charcater and from what I read about him, most of his charcaters have misogynistic streak. I really think it’s the author.

  9. Hi Caroline, you certainly stirred the pot with this post. I do think that the book is interesting and not a justification of misogyny. I am sure that many writers are not pleasant people, or worthy of listening to for advice on living, but I find that if the book has honesty then I can see into and around mindsets that I may not agree with.
    This is a big part of what I look for in a book – whether the characters are pleasant or unpleasant doesn’t make the book better or worse for me. If I sense that the author is being dishonest and writing what people want rather than having something to say or at least talk around, then I have little patience with them. I think that writers who despise people tend to write what they think people want to hear.
    From what I can find out about Onetti he had two early marriages to cousins that didn’t work out. (inspirations for the two sisters in A Brief Life?) Then there was a marriage to a co-worker. His final relationship, with Dorothea Muhr, a violinist who played with the Madrid Philharmonic, lasted almost 40 years, up to his death.
    Not that this proves anything but I thought it worth mentioning. He was clearly capable of some sort of long term relationship with a woman.

    p.s. A violinist appears in the second half of A Brief Life.

    • Thanks for the comment Seamus. I don’t mind unpleasant characters but felt it was really not clear whether there was a boundary between Onetti and the narrator. Maybe this was part of what Onetti felt at the time and later in life his attitude changed. Who knows. It might have a lot to do with the times and the üplace he lived in. I found that at this point in time, despite, some really beautiful passages I didn’t want to read a book with this type of female characters or rather this type of treatment of female characters.
      I could imagine that writers who despise people let that transpire in their work.

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