After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel (tr. Rosalind Harvey). Coffee House Press. $16.95, 264pp.
Loneliness warps our souls. The isolation from others—from embrace, conversation, community, understanding—can feel suffocating and, in our desperate flailing to breathe, we lash out violently at those who might connect with us, which only isolates us further. Or we suffer a sort of emotional atrophy, in which our failure to socialize makes us worse and worse at doing so in the first place. (We may try flirting on Tinder after not doing it for months, or even years, and it quickly becomes clear how out of shape we are.)
Or we just decide to drown for a while, buried in our books, records, DVDs, videogames, and porn, living socially only vicariously, through the visions of artists and performers.
In capturing the voices, travails, and eventual connection of two lonelyhearts, Guadalupe Nettel’s After the Winter captures the spirit of urban loneliness so vividly that it’s often painful to read. But, as with her story collection Natural Histories (2013) and novel The Body Where I Was Born (2011), Nettel casts a sardonic, cocked eye at all the sadness. She’s funny, wickedly so, just as much as she shows us these lonely souls from the perspectives of others.
Nettel’s alternate points-of-view are initially hard to see, as After the Winter is resolutely told from the first-person. The chapters alternate between Claudio, a Cuban expat in New York, and Cecilia, a Mexican expat in Paris. The narratives build separately as they evoke their funny, sad lives, until the moment that these lives—and their love and loin—converge. Until that union, these two are trapped in their own heads and cluttered apartments. Only Cecilia realizes it. Walking alone on a cold, overcast Parisian night, she thinks:
It was as if everyone around me possessed some information no one had passed on to me, or as if at some point in their lives someone had revealed to them a secret that I, for whatever reason, was ignorant of. It was as simple as this: they were clear about what they were doing in the world, and I was not. They were the protagonists of some thrilling or stupid story—as any life can be—while I was the spectator of a film whose beginning I could no longer remember.
Cecilia is self-aware to a fault, knowing full well that her life “had been reduced to a ghostly state” that she feels in no power to change. It’s noteworthy that she imagines herself as a passive spectator of her life. She listens to the radio constantly, loudly, in her apartment. She watches the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery across from her home for comfort. She doesn’t go out unless friends make her, and they ask her out less and less. She receives life but radiates very little.
Claudio, however, thinks he’s in control of things. He imagines that the strict order of his tiny Upper West Side apartment, and his elaborate rules for social decorum and cultural taste-making, makes him more engaged and indeed superior to those around him. In reality, he’s a control freak, which is to say that he’s not in control of everything but is so beholden to his sense of order that he doesn’t see it. On the novel’s first page, he notes:
The week I arrived [at his apartment] I spoke to the other residents in the building—most of them immigrants—to make the rules clear. I requested, politely, with a hint of a threat, that they abstain from making the slightest bit of noise after 9:00 p.m., the time I usually come home from work. So far, my request has been respected. In the two years I have lived here, no one has ever held a party in the building.
He imposes rules on himself—he only listens to music on headphones; no one other than him has entered his apartment (not even Ruth, his longtime lover); his telephone’s ring is muted—as a sort of purity gesture in alignment with rules that, of course, only he is aware of. His tastes are finicky to the extreme; he gets irritated if Ruth wears the wrong perfume or has emotions outside the realm of the polite.
So, both Claudio and Cecilia are crazy. Maybe we all are. Nettel renders them human and lovable while not dismissing how utterly difficult and self-absorbed they are. By the time they come together (it turns out they have a mutual friend who obliquely sets them up when Claudio visits Paris), their distinct voices and Nettel’s dry, exacting prose lead us to think they belong together.
But, just as the novel’s structure is tricky and alternating, so are its conceits. Claudio and Cecilia’s relationship, beginning at After the Winter’s midpoint, lasts only a few weeks, and Cecilia decisively snaps it in two during her first visit to Claudio in Manhattan. She’s justified in doing so. He gives her precise instructions, after all, on how to listen to a Keith Jarrett solo piano CD, down to the timestamps that she should listen for moments in the music. (Keith Jarrett acolytes, like prog-rock fans, are incredibly pedantic. Nettel nails that detail, among so many other social cues.) “More than inspiring repulsion or curiosity,” Cecilia notes, “such a level of precision bored me.” For his part, Claudio hilariously mistakes Cecilia’s sad home minimalism this way on his first visit to her efficiency apartment:
In Cecilia’s little apartment, the walls are devoid of pictures or any decorations or distraction. They are white walls, conducive to concentrating and enjoying the silence. I said to myself that, exactly as I am, Cecilia was a lover of order and cleanliness.
She’s been there a year and hasn’t dressed up the place one bit. He sees it as a positive, because he projects his fantasy onto her. Nettel efficiently shows how men are more apt to project in this way than women; though Cecilia enjoys the sex, she sees more quickly what Claudio actually is than vice versa. (This is notable even in tense: Cecilia tells her chapters mostly in past tense, as if as a memoir; Claudio tells us about himself primarily in present tense, as if he’s still living the events.) Their romance crumbles basically upon Cecilia’s contact with New York, and then—and this is Nettel’s revolutionary gesture regarding romance—they diverge again, anticlimactically. The second half of After the Winter features them going about their separate lives, for Claudio and Cecilia never meet again after she flees back to Paris. Their romance doesn’t last that long, and honestly the romance doesn’t resonate that sharply in their lives or in the novel. This is emphatically not a tale of grand passion.
Except that it is. Claudio’s deepest relationship is with Ruth, which is fuck-filled but utterly joyless and without love, largely because he’s such a controlling misogynist that he doesn’t respect her. Cecilia’s truest love is with her sickly neighbor Tom, there before and after Claudio. It’s not clear that Cecilia and Tom actually consummate their relationship. Theirs is a deep love—deep enough that she becomes his caretaker as he’s dying—that may be utterly sexless, except for a single furtive makeout session when Tom is hospitalized.
Ruth is chaotic when off her psychiatric meds. Tom isn’t functional without his physical ones. Both need their partners to get by, and their partners oddly find freedom in giving to them. Claudio is forced to loosen up by a number of circumstances, some Ruth-related and others not, and the lessening of his controlled grip releases him from his self-imposed isolation, especially once he suffers a harrowing loss late in the novel. Cecilia succumbs to the regiment of doctor visits, injections, and the orderliness of hospital walls and white noise, and that frees her from her loneliness. By leaning into others, Claudio and Cecilia become less isolated and more connected to the world. It’s not exactly clear—and here I see Nettel’s sly smirk at the proceedings—that they needed each other to realize any of this.
Nettel shows them as contrasting exercises in love and living, precise in their opposing parallels but nevertheless so much the same in their loneliness. After the Winter could have been schematic but her prose (and Rosalind Harvey’s translation from the Spanish) is so simultaneously supple and brusque that the almost-lovers feel fleshed out, even if their love never really gets full-blooded.
Walter Biggins is a writer and book editor based in Athens, GA. With Daniel Couch, he is the author of the forthcoming book, Bob Mould’s Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017).
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