California Book Club host John Freeman started the hour by talking about how the word nostalgia is grounded in the Greek idea that “the path home is full of pain.” Out of the powerful feeling of nostalgia, nearly 50 years ago, while in exile in Venezuela, author Isabel Allende crafted her family saga, The House of the Spirits, the March CBC selection. When Allende joined him, he asked her to take the audience back to that time, when she began writing the novel as a letter to her grandfather.
Allende responded that during that time in exile, she had been paralyzed in many ways. Her life wasn’t going anywhere. Her husband was working in a province far away, and her kids were growing and didn’t need her so much. She worked 12 hours a day in a school. She had the feeling that nothing she was doing really represented her: 40 years old with nothing to show. At that point, she received a phone call from Chile with the news that her grandfather was dying, and she’d written to him often, so she began another letter for him. She assumed that by the time the mail brought her letter to her grandfather, he would either be too incapacitated to read it or dead.
She wrote to tell him that he could go in peace because she remembered everything he’d ever told her. To prove she remembered all the anecdotes of the family, all the legends, she told him “the story of my great-aunt Rosa, who was my father’s first fiancée. And she died in mysterious circumstances, apparently poisoned…. Her photograph, a very old sepia portrait, was always on the piano, and my grandfather would say that she was beautiful as a mermaid.” Allende grew up with the idea that Rosa “was like a mermaid: she had green hair.” She started telling her grandfather about Rosa in the letter, and she gave Rosa green hair because of the connection to mermaids. As soon as she did that, “something shifted.” She realized it was not a letter. “I knew that I was doing something else,” she said, “but I didn’t know what. I didn’t know if it was a chronicle of the family, or a memoir, or fiction. It didn’t have a shape—for me…I didn’t know what the heck I was telling and where it was going.”
Allende wrote the novel only at night while sitting at the kitchen counter. Referencing Freeman’s lyrical comment on nostalgia at the top of the hour, Allende explained that she had always called the letter an exercise in nostalgia. “I wanted to recover everything I had lost in exile,” she said. “My grandfather, to begin with. The family. The stories. My little tribe. My work. My house. Everything. My country, of course. And at the end of the year, I had 500 and something pages on the kitchen counter, and it didn’t look like a letter anymore.”
Freeman noted that she’d had many lives before writing The House of the Spirits and asked “how having a variety of experiences made it possible for you to retell, if at all, some of the stories you were going to retell because you were writing as a 40-year-old woman and not a young person, and so you were possibly understanding in ways you wouldn’t have: childbirth, motherhood, the beginnings of midlife.” Allende commented that, as the daughter of a diplomat, she’d been displaced all her childhood and adolescence. She thought she would never move again after going to live in Chile as an adult, but then she had to move again as a political refugee. Tracing her personal history, she concluded, “I belong in my books, in my memory, in my work.”
She elaborated on her inclusive view of the world. “Nothing is quite strange or alien to me,” she said. “I feel at ease almost anywhere because people are people. They’re all the same. I mean with differences—in language or color or customs—that people are the same. We all feel the same way. When I write, my works are about relationships and about connections. It’s about the characters more than anything else, more than the stories, and the passions that move these characters are universal.… What I talk about is what you and I feel, and it’s always the same. We all want the best for our kids. We are all afraid of more or less the same things. We love and fear and want and dream alike.”•
We hope you enjoyed the March selection and this beautiful and memorable conversation with Allende and Freeman. Join us on Zoom on Thursday, April 20, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Claudia Rankine will join Freeman and a special guest to discuss her crucial and groundbreaking work of poetry and criticism, Citizen: An American Lyric. Drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for next month’s event.