La última niebla, 1934 (The Final Mist, 1982; previously translated as The House of Mist, 1947)
La amortajada, 1938 (revised and translated as The Shrouded Woman, 1948)
La historia de María Griselda, 1977
New Islands, and Other Stories, 1982
María Luisa Bombal (bohm-BAHL) is one of the best-known Chilean fiction writers. She was born in Viña del Mar, Chile, on June 8, 1910. Her father died when she was nine years old, and at the age of twelve she traveled to Paris with her mother and sisters. She received most of her formal education in France, receiving a degree in French literature from the Sorbonne. The years in France had a profound effect on Bombal’s literary development: She was exposed to the work of many avant-garde artists; she attended lectures by Paul Valéry, studied violin with Jacques Thibaud, and was a member of Fortunat Strowsky’s literary workshop, where she won her first prize as an author for a story written in French. She also continued to read and write in Spanish, a language to which she referred as a secret love, a natural impulse to be cultivated in private. Among the books she would later speak of as important to her development were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779), Ricardo Güiraldes’s Don Segundo Sombra (1926), and the novels of Selma Lagerlöf. She would later be profoundly moved by her readings of Virginia Woolf’s fiction and essays.
When one of her uncles discovered that she was acting at L’Atelier, a theater workshop directed by Charles Dullin, María Luisa Bombal was abruptly sent back to Chile in 1931. She moved to Buenos Aires two years later, accompanying her longtime friend poet Pablo Neruda and his wife. She became a part of the group of illustrious writers gathered around Victoria Ocampo and her magazine, Sur, and much of her fiction first appeared in the pages of this publication. She became friends with other writers such as Federico García Lorca, Alfonsina Storni, Conrado Nalé Roxlo, and Jorge Luis Borges. In 1934, Bombal wrote her first novel, The Final Mist, while she shared a kitchen table with Neruda, who was working on Residence on Earth, and Other Poems. Both of these books were landmarks in Latin American literature at the time of their publication. The Final Mist, published in 1934, incorporated techniques of French avant-garde writing in order to depict Latin American reality in a new way. The book startled and excited its readers with its new possibilities of perception and description. The Final Mist is a narrator’s account of her life within a sterile marriage and the dreams, hopes, and fantasies that make her survival possible. In the novel, there is no clear dividing line between concrete facts and fantastic imaginings. Reality is a mysterious mixture of factual events, dreams, and fantasies. Subjectivity and objectivity cannot be defined separately, and the fusion is both lyrical and ambiguous. At first, the novel seems to be an account of the narrator’s escape from an oppressively loveless marriage into a romantic love affair, but later in the novel, it seems more likely that she has invented her lover, that she has imposed a dreamworld upon an otherwise unbearable existence. The uncertainty is never resolved but becomes part of a misty, dreamlike, even supernatural landscape, a shadowy drama of light and dark, ice and fire, life and death. The novel is both the story of a frustrated woman and a depiction of the new dimension she creates for herself.
A second novel, The Shrouded Woman, was published in 1938. Another mysterious realm is explored as the narrator, who has just died, moves back through her memories of life and forward into a new dimension of death. Past and present are juxtaposed, the factual and the imaginary, the concrete and the supernatural. As in The Final Mist, a new reality is created from the complex fusion of the feminine and the fantastic. Both The Final Mist and The Shrouded Woman portray woman’s role in society as a powerless one: Men make the important life choices, and women must cope with them as best they can, by drawing on their creative, intuitive imaginations and on their sense of physical fusion with the universe. The rational logic of men limits them to a factual plane, whereas women are in touch with primordial depths of emotional coherence which cannot be defined in rational, scientific terms.
In 1939, Bombal made a short visit to the United States, where she met William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, and Erskine Caldwell. That same year, Sur published “New Islands” and “The Tree,” Bombal’s most acclaimed and most anthologized story. “The Tree” tells the story of Brigida’s life, recalled by her as she listens to a concert. She reflects upon the emptiness and sadness of her experiences and becomes conscious of her increasing ability to comprehend and define her own identity. In flashbacks, she traces the gradual failure of her marriage and her dependence upon the symbolic tree of the title, which mitigates harsh reality and facilitates fantasy. When the tree is cut down, Brigida must face her real self and her circumstances.
In Buenos Aires, Bombal married the Argentine painter Jorge Larcos, from whom she was separated two years later. She later married Count Fal de Saint-Phalle, an international banker, with whom she lived for thirty years in the United States, not returning to Chile until after his death in 1970. They had one daughter, Brigitte, who became a professor of mathematics.
In 1946, Sur published “The Story of María Griselda” and Bombal rewrote her first novel into a much longer English version published under the title The House of Mist in 1947. She and her husband also rewrote and extended her second novel in an English version, and The Shrouded Woman was published in the United States in 1948. The novels did not meet with great critical success in the English editions, but they have continued to be highly acclaimed in their spare and lyrical Spanish originals.
For years, Bombal said that she was working on a novel, “El Canciller,” which she had written originally in English in 1954 as “The Foreign Minister” but not published. She also spoke of writing poetry, stories, film scripts, and another novel, “Embrujo y el Señor de Mayo” (enchantment and Mr. de Mayo), about an earthquake in Chile. A children’s story, “La Maja y el ruiseñor” (La Maja and the nightingale), was published in 1960. In 1977, Bombal was awarded the prize of the Academia Chilena de la Lengua, and in 1979 she won the Joaquin Edwards Bello Regional Literature Prize. She was ill for many years and died in a hospital in Santiago on May 6, 1980. A collection of her short stories in English translation, published in 1982 under the title New Islands and Other Stories, includes the translation of the Spanish original of The Final Mist. Since her death, Bombal has been one of the most discussed and critically analyzed of the contemporary Latin American writers, and it is appropriate that one of the major Chilean literary prizes has been named the María Luisa Bombal Award.