"Mi dolor de exilio es tan grande que cubre todo mi cuerpo.

Muevo un dedo del pie y sufro".

Lejos de casa

Elisa Lerner: “Solitude is the writer's homeland” —Interview by viviana marcela iriart, Photo by Efrén Hernández, Caracas, May 13, 2012

Elisa Lerner by Efrén Hernández


She said it once the interview had finished, while we were having tea and biscuits in the cozy kitchen of her Caracas apartment. “Elisa, you've just given me the interview title” I told her excitedly. “It's from the novel I'm writing, but you can borrow it” the writer, essayist, playwright, and winner of the 2000 National Literature Award answered smiling.

However, we had not begun the interview - one hour before - by talking about her new novel, but about Julio Cortázar's compliment on her monologue “La mujer del periódico de la tarde” (The Afternoon Newspaper Lady, 1976):

“Children? No, I don't have any. My negligence, my carelessness, and my lack of attention have not  
allowed me to have them. But now I take care of every wrinkle in my face as if it were 
a child. And what a prolific mother I have become! Of course, my greatest slovenliness has been turning 50. (…) But lately I have been 
harboring a certainty that first class products, on a 
fifty-year-old woman's face, become second class. (…)  
By spreading some oil on my Ponds cream I feel much 
more nationalistic. (…)  
For us, inflation begins after 40.  
How expensive it gets at that stage to have a man.”

Julio Cortázar wrote a letter praising that monologue.

Yes, it's a letter he did not write to me but to a young woman, Susana Castillo, who was a professor at California University and who used to come here often because she wrote several books about Venezuelan theater.  In 1979, she sent Cortázar my monologue, and he wrote back saying: “Please remember to tell Elisa Lerner that I loved her monologue”.  I have publicly mentioned this letter but have never published it because it had not been addressed to me.

At 11 you told your father you wanted to be a writer. How did you know what you wanted to be at such an early age?

Because I got very good grades on writing assignments at school, I was always the best, and that was not easy because I had really smart, brilliant classmates like Marianne Khon Becker.  That is why I believe writing is a gift.

Did you use to read a lot as a girl?

Yes, during my holidays I would read a lot, and those were actually my holidays—reading. And on the other hand, I had a sister - I still have her but she's very sick - who is older than me, Ruth, and who was full of light.  She was a very important person here in Venezuela, she was Minister of Education, UNESCO ambassador… But to continue with the story, for me the most important thing is that she was full of light, of happiness for being alive, during all our childhood, our adolescence, as if she had been leading the way.

Did your sister write as well?

No. If she had wanted to, she could have written very well, because I read an assignment she did in primary school about a Spanish classic, and her writing had such a marvelous fluency. But she chose recital because she had been born in Europe - I, instead, was born in Valencia and was brought here at 3. Our move happened to coincide with the death of General Gómez.  I found out about this I'm going to tell you when I read a long interview my sister gave: because of the fact that she arrived at Venezuela when she was 3 and a half, she did not have a good command of the language, and even though she was a gorgeous girl I suppose other girls laughed at her or bothered her in some way because she did not speak Spanish very well. So one day she stood up at the Bolívar square in Valencia and started reciting poems. She had a great talent for reciting poems in a special way, not with solemnity of the professional reciters of the time.  So, thanks to my sister, I listened to the most beautiful poems of those times, Lorca, Antonio Machado and Rubén Darío, always Rubén Darío, his long poems… My sister would also recite the great South American poetesses, and since she had to learn every poem by heart, I was there listening to them once and again. So I got used to the rhythm of the language, of Spanish. On the other hand, my mother's native language was German and she had gone to high school in Czernowitz, a very important city which had been like the last stronghold of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my father was from Nova-Solitza, a small town in the border which at some moments belonged to Russia but which, when he came here, belonged to Romania. My parents were never able to speak academic Spanish.  When I was very little, my mother would talk and sing to me in German, for example, to make me drink my milk, which I did not like. But one day, she stopped talking and signing in German, and that happened when Nazism began.

Did your mother renounce to her mother tongue because of the war?

Yes, she did it out of respect for my father, who was more religious than her regarding Judaism. However, she did speak in German with other people, but not at home. So I was left with a longing, a double longing for having lost a language without having learned it. On the other hand, I wanted to speak perfect Spanish because my parents had never been able to speak it very well. My mother always read Venezuelan newspapers, and my father spoke fluent Spanish because of the work environment, the streets, and Caracas was a very friendly city, open to immigrants. So there were various factors: having lost a language before even having learned it; thinking that I would never - this was unconscious - master the language with the degree of perfection other children with native parents could, and at the same time, the paradox of always listening to the language through the poems my sister recited.

Wasn't it distressing to want to be a writer if you thought you didn't speak Spanish very well?

No, quite the opposite, it made me extremely happy, because I got very good grades on writing assignments at school, which gave me great confidence. What I did not feel confident about was what I was going to say. And it never crossed my mind that I was not a rich girl and that in Venezuela it was clear that only… this was a Venezuelan tradition, that when a writer belonged to a rich family, or if he had been successful and earned money by himself because luck had been on his side, then he had an open path to devote himself to writing and publish. This was a problem I did not contemplate at the time. I told my parents “I'm going to be a writer”, and I did it the day they gave me a pair of shoes which had little braids, and I thought they were the shoes of a professional writer. So I felt prepared to set off, with those shoes, on a long journey to Literature.

In one of your chronicles, you say your father gave you a Parker pen when you told him you wanted to be a writer.

Yes, but that was not at 11, when I told him for the first time, but during my adolescence.

And what did your mom say?

My mom said nothing. My mom was the authority figure, while my dad played the indulgent role, the one related to affection and dreams. My mom was… I believe I could only think of clean sheets of paper because I had clean sheets in my bed, appropriate underwear as a child, order, food.


A good meal is a form of affection. The things my mother provided us were very difficult to get in the Venezuela I was born in, which was terribly poor. For a long time, I was not conscious of this situation because no one talked about it. I had too little contact with the girls in my school to realize that what my mother gave us was not that common.

“Actually, this thing about shoes is one of the most fascinating topics 
in democracy: it marks the boundary between left and right. Flat or low heel shoes 
follow a left-wing line. Because low heels, or flat shoes as well, 
are really close to the ground. Now high heel shoes, like Louis XV, for example 
(the Beauty looks at her shoes with certain discomfort - they are Louis XV), bend
 rightward. They are farther away from reality, from the ground. (…) But the most political thing is going 
to the zoo. I met an activist who invited me to go one Sunday to a zoo 
that had been sponsored by Pro Venezuela: all the animals in the zoo were 
from our country.  The universal constant does not prevail there. 
Anyway, it was really nice: 
there were monkeys and leaders alike.”   
Una entrevista de prensa o La Bella de Inteligencia 
(A Newspaper Interview or The Intelligent Beauty), Elisa Lerner, 1960

Were you shy?

Oh no, I was not shy.

Was your lack of contact with the other girls due to the fact that there was Antisemitism?

Not at all! We were the most popular ones, Marianne and me, who studied in the same class, and Dita, her younger sister, who was extremely popular because she had an overwhelming personality, she was very pleasant, very humorous, she had a great vitality, and she was very sympathetic and generous.

Like today.

Like today, of course. Let me tell you an anecdote about Dita. We received the newspaper El Nacional, which was a very important newspaper - and it still is-, a very literary newspaper, full of hope, because it had been founded by people who had opposed the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez. And these were times in which there was a great battle underway against Nazism, and it was believed that Venezuela was going to deepen democracy. These were times in which there was an ideological frenzy around the world.  El Nacional was in favor of the Spanish Republic, so there were also articles from Spanish exiles who were living here. Together with books, this newspaper greatly encouraged me to believe that someday I might be able to write in a newspaper. There was a young writer there, Ida, who wrote such beautiful interviews.

The poet Ida Gramcko?

Yes. So I would read Ida's interviews and say: Well, perhaps one day I might have the chance to write… Of course this was something I only said to myself and very hesitantly because I did not tell anyone that I wanted to be a writer. I had told my father, and he had smiled and thought this was only a little girl's dream.

And what's the anecdote?

Every Sunday I would receive the newspaper, which was brought by a town crier. In downtown houses, where we lived, there was a hall, and at first light he would leave the newspaper there. Every Sunday, the newspaper included the Literary Paper which often contained an Ida Gramcko interview in the center page. One day, when I was about 11 years old, I arrived at school crying my eyes out. Dita asked me why I was crying so loudly and I told her the reason was that I hadn't been able to read Ida's interview because the town crier had not brought the newspaper. The next day, Dita took her newspaper to school and gave it to me as a gift… And she was collecting them too!

Have you had the chance to meet Ida Gramcko?

Yes, with time, I became almost a part of her family, because Ida wrote in La grutavenidera, a book Elizabeth Schön published when I was coming out of adolescence. I was so fascinated with that book that once I came across her while walking on Bolívar square - she was with Silva Estrada - and I told her, and Elizabeth Schön, even though we were not friends, gave it to me as a gift. That book, as well as Ida's interviews and poems, meant very much to me. She has been a great influence.

More than Ida?Or in a different way?
In a different way.  She was very important to help me get to write my first piece, “La bella de inteligencia”, but more than that, she was a great friend, a great advisor, she was like a young aunt or an older sister, older than my sister Ruth. She was a very sensitive, sensible, protective, moderate woman. When I saw Queen Sofía of Spain, her blissful smile, she strongly reminded me of Elizabeth, because she had the manners of a natural queen in her garden at Los Rosales. I don't know how she could manage - I think she didn't even finish primary school, though she did some Philosophy courses - to acquire such wisdom in life, such a remarkable diplomacy. She never complained nor argued about trivial things, and I say it because it's true. Ida was also a very discreet woman, but she was more impetuous regarding her moods.

How did you meet Ida?

During my childhood, when I was a little girl of about 11 or 10 years old, I went with my parents to an Israeli Ashkenazi Union event to honor León Felipe, the Spanish poet. I had no idea what was going on, because he was reciting his poems and I saw everybody was crying. He was saying that it was like the same exile and that he - because of the fact that he was called León Felipe - had also been part of the Jewish exile. There I saw that men who were tough businessmen during the day now had tears in their eyes. And when the ceremony - which was held in a house - was over, I saw Ida Gramcko in the dining room. I recognized her because I'd seen her in the newspaper, so I asked for an autograph. She gave it to me, but I felt like a great coldness, a certain arrogance… She made no attempt to establish a connection with that little girl who admired her.

What happened then?

After that I found her during my adolescence when she arrived at the Soviet Union, where she was named chargé d'affaires at the embassy when she was very young. These were her glory days, the 40's and 50's were her days of splendor. The problem was that we were under a dictatorship. I went to the Venezuelan-French Center, often with RománChalbaud but sometimes alone because it was close to my house… well, not that close, because I lived in the upper part of San Bernardino. Anyway, I was a teenager and I took the bus and walked to Los Caobos, and Caracas was a safe city, a smaller city, and there I would find Ida. I started a dialog with her, I told her I kept her articles, and she said that was tacky or something like that. But after that, a sort of implicit friendship began to emerge, and when she published Poemas (Poems) - that amazing, famous book of hers - I came across her one day on a bus in San Bernardino, because she lived in the lower part, and she offered me her book. Unfortunately, I foolishly told her a friend had already given it to me, and she was fascinated because I was delighted with her book.

“Death endures all indiscretions, all details. 
That is her way of longing, once again, for life.”
La envidia o la añoranza de los mesoneros 
(The Envy or the Longing of the Waiters), Elisa Lerner, 1974

Why do you say that Elizabeth Schön was you theatrical influence?
Because she wrote La Gruta venidera, which was a book I really liked, and then she wrote Intervalo, which is a theatrical piece and she read some extracts to me and I believe this… I also read Beckett of course. I was also influenced by the fact that I did not know, when I wrote La Bella de Inteligencia, that I had written a theatrical piece. I had just graduated from Law School. I'd never had a great vocation, but I thought that if I studied Arts… the School of Arts did not have the prestige Law School had when I started studying. I felt my thing was not teaching but writing, and I was right - I don't like teaching. I know that sometimes when I speak, I can experience things that only happen to me when I write, but it may also happen that, when I'm speaking, I may mistakenly believe I am writing, I may betray myself in some way.

Have you been able to live off literature?

No one lives off literature. In a country like Venezuela, at least, that is very difficult. However, I can say that during some time my theatrical pieces, especially Vida con Mamá (Life with Mother), which was fairly successful, did produce some money, and I got payed for my articles. But of course I must recognize that I'm a writer from the periphery, that I'm a writer from these parts.
And how did you manage to live and keep writing in these parts?

Well, I did many things. My first job was in a magazine, but they payed me very little, so my mother got fed up and asked me to quit. My sister got upset because I had quit but I did not stay. After that, I had an unpaid job at the Casa de Observación, which was directed by Dr. Renée Hartman. This helped me a lot because I was able to go to the United States with a modest grant. I also wrote for Radio Nacional, though I lost that job after being away for a year, and I gave half of what I earned to my mom, who had become a widow. I worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in Madrid I was Cultural Counselor. Throughout my life, there were times I had more luck, times I had little luck, but I've always had to work.

Was it easy to get your plays mounted?

It was very easy to get my first piece mounted, and they mounted it several times. What was difficult was to get El vastosilencio de Manhattan (Manhattan’s Vast Silence) mounted. This was a play no one wanted to mount in Venezuela - Argentinians liked it but Venezuelans did not, they said there were too many characters. I remember CipeLincovsky talked a lot with Carlos Giménez to get him to mount the piece with her, but Carlos was a bit complicated, he had many engagements and apparently he was enchanted by the play but in the end he did not mount it, though he did monitor the setup of Vida con Mamá, which I could not see because I lived in Spain. Finally, after many years, the piece was mounted by Gustavo Tambascio, with whom I have a beautiful friendship because later on he went to Spain, while I was living there, and with his sister too, who has already died unfortunately - she was a great friend.

  “Like José Balza said, the mother and the daughter in Vida con Mamá are both me.”

I went to a party where Billo's Happy Boys were performing. 
People were gobbling down a lot of Russian salad.
A pure thirst for knowledge. 
Stalin, Marxism.
Perhaps there's a political refugee coming.
(Intermittent shots are heard).
I hear shots. The city policy once again.
It's the gate of the building. When it opens, it sounds like a shot. 
The refugee should already be here!
I can still hear shots. At night, in the street, 
there are more policemen than prostitutes. It won't be long till the guys that slept 
with the whores have to do it with the policemen.
These mailmen were like honorable literary critics: 
they commented on the letters they brought, as if they had read them. ”
Vida con Mamá, Elisa Lerner, 1975

Has your mother seen Vida con Mamá?

She has, yes. She was delighted.  My mother was so happy when my plays were being mounted that there was a change in her, a great closeness, though she used to buy me the Billiken magazine when I was a child, but there was an immense affection from the moment she saw how my plays were mounted.

Some people think that Vida con Mamá is your life.
Not at all. As you know, a theatrical piece or a book may produce admiration but also a certain anomalous form of admiration which is gossip and envy. If that were my life, I wouldn't have been able to go to Spain, I wouldn't have been able to keep on writing, I wouldn't be able to live alone in an apartment nor fight against an awful disease such as blindness - a problem that started when I was very young. But actually, that is not a problem - a problem would have been marrying a Venezuelan man and having to work like mad and not being able to continue writing. I also had the luck of having met, since my high school days, very pleasant people, poets, who told me - even my teacher Dr. Caldera - that I was a writer. Dr. Velásquez too.Always. I wanted to work in culture. During my years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in  Caracas, I worked with Eugenio Montejo, our famous poet, in a magazine that was published abroad, and I also worked in Radio Nacional. I wouldn't have been able to write if I had married. Do you know what would have been terrible for me? Having to take care of two or three children, to teach or to be a lawyer at a ministry or a lawyer's office, for which I had no special talent nor vocation, and, on top of that, having three Bar Mitzvahs a week and a wedding every Saturday. When would I think? When would I write?

Weren't your mother and father worried that you did not want to marry?

Well, the truth is that in the end my mother was no longer worried. She finally understood that my thing was writing and that I was very particular.  If I had found a man who supported me as a writer, like Virginia Woolf, who had a husband that even accepted her alleged lesbian adventures - though this is not my case because I'm not a lesbian - that would have been great. I have always liked men but not to the point of sacrificing my writing, not as an unhealthy passion.
Are you religious?

Jewish heritage is very present in me but it is expressed through my writing. I don't talk much.

“At times writing is like a vessel that is getting away from us… 
A victorious bottle of wine that shatters into pieces and does not stain 
tablecloths but something more arduous and intense with which we are born.” 
El país odontológico (Dental Country), Elisa Lerner, 1966

Are you writing anything at the moment?

Yes, I'm writing something.

What's the genre?

I don't know what the genre is, as you know now genres… (Hesitates whether to tell or not). It's prose.

When will you be able to show it to the public?

No, I don't know that because I don't know when I will be able to finish it, given that last year my health was very poor and this year… I hope I can finish it. I had been working on this for several years when I realized that I had largely failed, that during those years I had not achieved like the smoothness, you know, as if you put on some cream on your face when that was not the appropriate treatment.

Do you write every day or only when you feel inspired?

No, I write when life allows me to, because there are many things that sometimes get in the way.

Did your life change when you won the National Literature Award?

Not at all.

Didn't that open any doors to publish more, or mount more plays?

No, I don't think so. Though Blanca Pantin reedited Carriel for the third time, and I practically rewrote the book from its first edition, which had a really nice prologue by Ramón J. Velásquez. I mounted Ávila, directed by Alexis Márquez, he published a chronicle book I had written, and then I published a small story book that I had written in Madrid, Homenaje a la Estrella (Homage to the Star), and the novel De muertelenta (With a Slow Death), which I finished in 2005 but was released in early 2007. However, I don't think any of these had anything to do with the fact that I had won the prize.

Which genre are you most identified with?

Well, I'm going to tell you what Carmen Ruiz Barrionuevo says about me. She holds the Ramos Sucre chair at Salamanca University - an absolutely wise, humane and charming woman. She wrote an essay saying that mine is a plural siege on literature that goes beyond genres. People don't know that when I was 16 years old I wrote several prose poems - not many, about three - and one of them was published in El Heraldo, which was a very prestigious newspaper at the moment. When I was between 16 and 23 I wrote a story book but it got lost along the way. I started to write chronicles and plays, and I had a novel set in New York. When I met Emir Rodríguez Monegal he got interested in the novel, and I read some chapters to him and he told me there was a wonderful novel there. But I made the mistake of reading it to another person - because that comment was a disproportionate compliment coming from Rodríguez Monegal - and the answer was not good, so I got discouraged, I did not continue with the book, and that turned me away from narrative.  Later, perhaps due to my mother's death, the sickness, the changes in the country, I turned towards narrative again. I have published a short story book and a novel. Not long ago I published a chronicle about a teenage memory of when I met Ruiz Pineda by chance at my sister's house. He was a leader, a man who had had to make many sacrifices due to the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship, a real treasure full of nobleness, and that chronicle had a great impact. But right now I'm writing this book which you could say is a novel, a story, a memory simulation, I don't know what it is.

And you don't want to reveal anything.

The thing is that I cannot reveal anything because I can't even say if I'll get to finish it. I see that what came before does not flow the way I wanted, anyway, I feel very insecure. And you know that revealing too much in advance…

Is never good.

Well, I had a bad experience with my first novel, which was left unfinished.

You were arrested during the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship.

Yes, but that was almost by accident. The one who really confronted dictatorship was my sister Ruth and my brother in law, who died in December. What happened to me was accidental. I had received some letters that were regarded as a serious offense by the regime, because one of our friends, who became desperate in his fight against Pérez Jiménez, did not take into account that my house was being watched closely. Dr. Ramón J. Velásquez always told me: You can express your opinions but do not get into trouble because your mother is not well, and my father was ill - he died soon after that- and Ruth was abroad. But without even realizing it, I got into trouble, one of those crazy things you do when you're young, but it was an awful experience.

Were you in jail?

Oh no! Estrada… I don't know how I was able to talk to Estrada with such ease.

You were questioned by Pedro Estrada?! (The feared, bloodthirsty Chief of National Security)

Yes, and when I saw the interrogation would be with Estrada, I told myself: Nothing is going to happen.


I don't know why I had that feeling. I knew that they had been watching the house for a long time, I felt that something happened with the phone, that some guys were following me. It was horrible, really horrible, and the night before, I could not sleep. It was terrible. And Estrada told me: Why does a pretty girl from a Jewish family mix with these people from the Democratic Action. These are thieves, they have no care for you, how can you get involved in this? And I had a book from a friend of mine, from the Sardio magazine group where I started writing, Adriano González León, which was called Las Hoguerasmásaltas (The Biggest Bonfires), and with that name and the cover, which was somewhat orange, you might be led to believe it was a Communist book. So he told me: What do you think about Adriano, the writer? And I said: Well, who is going to talk about the freeways? And I'm planning to be a writer. What do you think Mr. Estrada? And the dialog went on like this.

And they let you go?

They let me go.

And they never bothered you again?

They used to annoy me a lot on the phone, especially at night. But fortunately they arrested me in July 1957 and they fell in January 1958.

Weren't you terrified after that?

I was terrified, yes, but only for some time. I did not go out much, and I did not sit for all subjects that year. I had received those letters because it was hard to say no, because the situation in the country was difficult and because when you're young you don't consider the consequences, you don't make calculations because you think you have all the time in the world.

And now, when you look at this regime, do you make calculations?

The thing is that I have experienced it in a different way.

How do you feel about this reality?

In this reality, what I have had to deal with is my sister's illness.

And what about the political situation?

Look… There's not much I can tell you.  When they gave me the National Award, I did have the honor that two of the members of the jury were Eugenio Montejo, one of our greatest poets, and Salvador Garmendia, one of our greatest prose writers, who both died soon after that, so it is a very significant National Award for me. But look, about that… I would prefer that people read what I write.

What a strange day that deprives me of the city bridges when the 
trees of spring have not yet woken the sky!” 
El vasto silencio de Manhattan, Elisa Lerner, 1963-64

Caracas, May 13, 2012
Translation by  ©Luciana Valente

All extracts are taken from the book: 

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