Carmen Laforet: Nada (1945) A Classic of Spanish Existentialism

One of the most important literary works of post-Civil War Spain, Nada is the semiautobiographical story of an orphaned young woman who leaves her small town to attend university in war-ravaged Barcelona. Edith Grossman’s vital new translation captures Carmen Laforet’s feverish energy, powerful imagery, and subtle humor. Nada, which includes an illuminating Introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa, is one of the great novels of twentieth-century Europe

I  had read an article about Carmen Laforet’s book when the re-translated German version came out in 2006 and although I was interested I forgot all about it until I read Richard’s intriguing review a couple of weeks ago. After having read what he wrote I had to get it immediately.

What a fantastic book! One of the best I read so far this year which is saying a lot as there were quite a few wonderful books already.

I can only agree with Richard,  Nada deserves to be called a classic. However, as he correctly stated, it isn’t a classic because of the plot which can be summarized in a few sentences but because of the style. This is a young writer’s book who manages to capture the intensity of living typical for the very young and passionate.

Set in post Civil War Spain, Nada (Nothing) tells the story of a young orphan, Andrea, who leaves the country for Barcelona where she wants to study literature. Young, enthusiastic and full of hopes she arrives in the middle of the night to find that no one is waiting for her at the train station. She is going to live with her family but since she missed the earlier train, they didn’t bother to wait for her.

Andrea is too happy to be in the big city to think much about it and enjoys the ride in a horse-drawn carriage in the middle of the night. When she arrives at the apartment of her relatives, they are sleeping. What awaits her reads almost like a scene from a horror movie.

In front of me was a foyer illuminated by a single weak light bulb in one of the arms of the magnificent lamp, dirty with cobwebs that hung from the ceiling. A dark background of articles of furniture piled one on top of the other as if the household were in the middle of moving. And in the foreground the black-white blotch of a decrepit old woman in a nightgown, a shawl thrown around her shoulders, I wanted to believe I’d come to the wrong flat but the good-natured woman wore a smile of such sweet kindness that I was certain she was my grandmother.

The flat has clearly seen better times. It used to be a big and elegant apartment once but after the death of the grandfather, the apartment was halved and the family continued to live in one part, keeping all the furniture. Apart from being messy, the flat is, as we soon will see, also very dirty. Not unlike his inhabitants who are all displaying various states of squalidness. The grandmother is not the only one who lives here in those narrow crowded rooms. Her two sons, Juan and Román, one of her daughters, Angustias, Juan’s wife Gloria and their son, and Antonia the housekeeper plus the dog Trueno, all share this sordid abode.

There was something agonising in the entire scene, and in the flat the heat was suffocating as if the air was stagnant and rotting. When I looked up I saw that several ghostly women had appeared. I almost felt my skin crawl when I caught a glimpse of one of them in a black dress that had the look of a nightgown. Everything about that woman seemed awful, wretched, even the greenish teeth she showed  when she smiled at me. A dog followed her, yawning noisily, and the animal was so black like an extension of her mourning. Then they told me she was the maid, but no other creature has made a more disagreeable impression on me.

As surprised and alienated she is, Andrea hasn’t seen it all. The more she enters the apartment, the more it gets squalid.

The bathroom seemed like a witches’ house. The stained walls had traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair. Everywhere the scaling walls opened their toothless mouths oozing dampness. Over the mirror, because it didn’t fit anywhere else, they ‘d hung a macabre still-life pale bream and onions against a black background. Madness smiled from the bent taps.

Andrea’s family is a family on the verge of madness and total poverty. Juan is a brutal man who hits his wife, Román seems deluded, the old grandmother is half-demented and Angustias is a Catholic zealot who follows Andrea’s every step, lecturing her every minute. They fight constantly over one thing or the other and there is not one moment of peace to be had.

At the university Andrea doesn’t fit in at first. There is a rift between her and most of the students who come from rich families.  But then she makes a friend, Ena, a charismatic girl whom she loves fiercely. Ena will take care of her, invite her into her family and spend a lot of time with her.

Nada is as much the story of a young girl as a novel about Barcelona. It reminded me of an extended stay in this mysteriously beautiful city. Andrea is a loner and she loves to go for walks. We follow her on her ramblings through the nocturnal city.

Andrea is such an endearing narrator, she must have been given the writer’s voice, as Carmen Laforet was only in her early twenties when she wrote Nada. This is the story of a young woman who experiences everything with an intensity that is often lost in later years. Sorrow and joy are very close. And loneliness, a loneliness that makes her sad but that also permits her to explore states of mind she otherwise might not have explored. And there is the hunger. Andrea is constantly hungry, hungry to an extent that makes her almost hallucinate. She is poor and the family is poor. They are all skinny and starving. Andrea has a little allowance but she prefers to spend it on presents for Ena or cigarettes.

I was really touched by this story and curious what the outcome would be as it was obvious that the family wasn’t improving, on the contrary, they acted crazier and crazier, the violence intensified from page to page.

Nada has quite a surprising finale to offer and an ending that was not foreseeable.

The book is also very interesting as it paints an accurate picture of Spain after the Civil War. The rift between the rich and the poor is getting bigger and bigger and families that were well off before the war, loose everything and slide towards poverty.

Despite many gloomy descriptions, highly dysfunctional characters and a lot of sadness and loneliness this is not a depressing novel at all. Andrea is still joyful and her curiosity and intelligence are uplifting.

I read the German translation (not the brightest idea but it would have taken too long to receive the Spanish book), you can see the cover below.

I have read a lot of Latin American and Carribbean novels but, apart from a few, I don’t know a lot of Spanish books. Do you have any recommendations?

29 thoughts on “Carmen Laforet: Nada (1945) A Classic of Spanish Existentialism

  1. Great cover. I saw the book’s title and thought it had something to do with the Claude Chabrol film of the same name.

    For some reason, I thought about the garotte and how it was used until 1973 in Spain.

    • It isn’t a political book at all but the association may be justified as there is a dark undercurrent that stems from what happened during the Civil War.

  2. Thrilled to hear you enjoyed this so much, Caroline! By the way, I think you make wonderful points about Andrea’s voice as a narrator and Laforet’s skill at bringing out the “intensity” of youth with all its passions and searching. Those were two things that really sold me on the novel in any event. As for other modern Spanish literature recommendations, I’ll throw out a handful of ideas with the titles in Spanish or Catalan (though I think most are available in English and/or French translations): Javier Cercas’ Soldados de Salamina, Javier Marias’ Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí and Todas las almas, Carmen Martín Gaite’s El cuarto de atrás, Antonio Muñoz Molina’s El invierno en Lisboa, Mercè Rodoreda’s La plaça del Diamant, Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla, and Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby y compañia. Carme Riera’s short story, “Te deix, amor, la mar com a penyora,” is lyrical and not too be missed. (And Roberto Bolaño was Chilean but wrote all his wonderful novels during his final years in Spain, of course.) The Cercas and Marías titles are challenging “dramas” with some masterful writing. The Martín Gaite, Unamuno, y Vilas-Matas works are more consciously metafictional or avant-garde, with Unamuno and Vila-Matas also being quite humorous. Muñoz Molina’s novel is like a French noir from the 50s and 60s: crime-centered but intelligent and jazzy. The Riera and Rodoreda pieces, both originally written in Catalan, are prob. closest to Laforet in spirit in the way they question women’s narratives. Anyway, hope this helps. I’ve recently bought a handful of other 20th century Spanish classics, so maybe I’ll be better informed by the end of the year. Cheers!

    • Thanks for this fantastic comment and the many recommendations, Richard! I have heard of a few of the names but many are not familiar at all. I’m a huge Almudena Grandes fan and like a few others but then my knowledge stops which is a shame. I read Almudena Grandes’ work in Spanish which was challenging as two of them are really chunky. Los aires difíciles is wonderful. I would love to try and read Catalan but I’ not sure if I can get the books here. I was looking at Soldados de Salamina the other day and put it on my amazon wishlist. In French though. I’m very tempted by Riera. Thanks! I’m sure I will discover more in your future reviews.

  3. Wow…I love the quotes you have chosen, it is indeed like a horror movie scenes.
    It is really interesting to read a description that sound so horrific eventhough the reality is not that scary. Her way of seeing things is the one that intrigues me the most.

    Has she ever written horror book?

    • No, I don’t think she has. Her descriptions are absolutely fantastic. The narrator is great, she experiences things in a very intense way.The circumstances in which she has to live are really bad. That family would freak anyone out. I could relate to her very well, I was a lot like her in my late teens and early twenties. And like her I always met completely crazy people. I was like a magnet, just attracted them and it almost ended in a bad way when some totally psychotic guy started to stalk me. It was nightmarish. I could write a novel.

  4. I’ve seen this book around and wondered what it was like. Thank you for the scintillating review! I have a small problem with Spanish literature, in that so much of it doesn’t seem to work for me, being loose in its plotting and writing. However, I did enjoy Javier Marias’ novel Old Souls and intend to read A Heart So White by him (I think that’s the translation).

    • I haven’t read Javier Marias yet but I’m sure he is very good. I never came across anything Spanish that was loose, Nada definitely isn’t. You might like Almudena Grandes’ The Wind from the East (horrible English cover!).She also has a new one out, The Frozen Heart (800 pages) that does sound good,

  5. The English edition has a beautiful cover and the French edition has the same as the German one. (not the first time it happens)
    I didn’t know it before seeing Richard’s post and then yours. It’s really tempting. Thanks to you both, as I’m not familiar with Spanish literature.
    I have read Le Roman d’Oxford by Javier Marias (don’t know the Spanish title) as I’m fond of books with universities as a setting. I remember I liked it

    PS : you can order books in Spanish on http://www.decitre.fr

    • I am really glad I read it. I like the cover as well, not too keen on the German one though. I seem to remember Richard was in favor of the Spanish one with the Schiele on it. It’s a great book I could imagine you would like it. I’m not sure which Javier Marias it is.
      Thanks for the link. I’m not sure they also have books in Catalan but maybe they do.

      • Caroline, I actually like the U.S. cover of Nada and the French cover of the work that’s similar to the German one. The British have a nice cover of it as well: very moody. Don’t like the Egon Schiele cover at all, though! Le roman d’Oxford, which Bookaroundthecorner mentions, is the French title for Marías’ Todas las almas or All Souls in English. I’m reading it right now and loving Marías’ observational style, quiet humor, and prose.

        • I’m such a plonker. Sorry. I mixed it up. I found the Schiele a bit harsh… I reversed your reaction in my memory. I haven’t seen any other covers. I’m curious to see the UK one. Another good Marias then.

  6. I read this several years ago and also think it really should be more widely read. I never see mention of it online, so I’m glad you’ve written about it and must read Richard’s post as well. Like you I’ve read lots of Latin American writers, but very few Spanish, so I will take note of the suggestions you’ve received.

    • I have only seen it reviewed by Richard. It got a lot of attention in Germany and think still does but I think the English-speaking world is neglecting it somewhat.

  7. Hi Caroline
    Thanks for mentioning this review – Nada has now shot up to the top of my list of books to read! The excerpts you quoted are really beautiful and quite chilling. There are lots of other great recommendations in the comments here as well – plenty to keep me occupied.

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for visiting. I’m very interested to read what you will think of Nada. I saw from comments and your blog that you are also looking for writer’s voices that are different. That is what I liked so much about Nada. It is unique. I have Rodoreda’s Plaça del Diamant here and want to read it soon. Richard is one of my main sources for literature in Spanish, be it Latin American or European.

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  10. Thank you for this review 🙂 it was very helpful. And you should try reading “Yerma” by Frederico Garcia Lorca. Its a play about a woman that wants a child so desperately but can not conceive, it literally drives her mad. Its amazing.

    • Thanks, Taylor. I’m glad it is of help and thanks for your suggestion. I will participate in a Spanish Literature Month in July and am still looking for the one or the other book. I’m very tempted to read Yerma.

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  12. Wonderful novel to read in Spanish. Some recommendations (-:
    La casa de los espiritus (The House of the Spirits) by Isabel Allende
    **Cien anos de soledad (A Hundred Years of Solitude) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (and other books by this author)
    Diez mujeres (Ten Women) by Marcela Serrano

    • Thank you, Aurora. I’ve read Allende and Marquez some years ago and loved them. Especially Marquez but I wasn’t familiar with Diez mujeres. I’ll try to find it. Thanks for your comment.

  13. Beautiful review, Caroline. How did I miss this review… I loved Nada, I had to read it in Spanish for a university assignment and found it fascinating. The image of Andrea, walking the streets, eating small pieces of chocolate is still vivid in my mind. When we discussed the title at uni, I didn’t agree with the interpretation, the fact that “nada” (nothing) was what Andrea took from her experience at her relatives’ house.

    • Thanks, Delia. It’s a fantastic book. I meant to read more Catalan authors , as Richrad said at the time, there were quite a few that were equally good.
      It didn’t occur to me at all that this would be the meaning of the title. I’m not sure what I thought it was. It didn saty with me as well. More that I can say of most books.

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