Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Pablo Neruda: Confieso que he vivido / Memoirs

Memoirs are not necessarily a good idea. At least, it’s often a bad idea to read them if you don’t want your worst impressions to be confirmed. I’ve never fully signed up to the cult of Neruda; his poetry always left me with an oddly antipathetic feeling, even though I could hear that powerful eloquent voice of his and marvel at the strength of his imagination. I always had the impression of a rather childish, egocentric man at the heart of it all; the same naivety and absolutism that informed his politics seemed to permeate his art too.

Confieso que he vivido is Neruda’s playground. Every thought he has about himself is explored in full. Every moment of celebrity, every sexual encounter, every bird, bee or butterfly is presented for us to inspect and admire. Like Salvador Dali, he dramatises his own life and acts out every one of his inner urges as if it were a divine dictate. It makes for an extraordinarily colourful read, shot through with astonishing, vivid moments of beauty. It’s also extremely tiresome.

However, if you have no illusions about the great man’s character (or love him so much you can withstand anything), his memoirs are worth reading for the language alone. This is Neruda’s great gift: the ability to present an object or a person or a scene in a way that is new and surprising and yet so evocative, you can’t imagine any other way to describe it. (I can never open a bottle of Chilean Cabernet without thinking of his “wine with purple feet”.) One reading has left me with a whole collection of images engraved in my mind: the vermillion-painted hazelnuts in the forests near Temuco; the luxurious table set out by the three elderly French sisters in their mansion in the woods; the strange nausea at the base of the skull that comes (Neruda tells us) from opium.

I would strongly advise reading this memoir after you have got to know Neruda’s poetry. Partly because he constantly explains his own work; it’s advantageous if you know it, and his account will give you startling insights into works you already think are familiar. And partly because if you enjoy his poetry, the chances are that you’ll enjoy his prose enough to put up with his personality.

Pehuen Editores 2007, paperback, 472 pp., ISBN: 978-956-16-0396-7

5 comments on “Pablo Neruda: Confieso que he vivido / Memoirs

  1. Jackie
    December 14, 2007

    This review certainly pulled no punches. You were quite objective without being snarky and admitted still liking some of his poems while disliking the poet. Your comparision with Dali is alarming, are they really so similar? I had thought that many of Neruda’s poems were romantic, but then Dali’s paintings are fascinating, evidently their ego can stay out of the way of their art at least part of the time.
    I like your style & look forward to more reviews from you.

  2. Kirsty
    December 14, 2007

    I’m glad that you liked the review. The comparison with Dali is really in the self-dramatisation through memoir – although Dali’s version of that was by far weirder (cf. “The Secret Life of Salvador Dali”) – their art is quite different! In both cases, you’re right to say that the artist’s ego doesn’t always get in the way of his work. In the case of Neruda, I think perhaps it was precisely his supreme self confidence that allowed him to preserve the kind of imagination most people only enjoy during childhood. In that respect, his ego contributed a great deal to world literature! I dare say Dali’s ego did the same for world art!

  3. Leena
    December 14, 2007

    Very interesting review, Kirsty. I must admit I’ve never read Neruda’s poetry (I know next to nothing about South American literature in general, I’m ashamed to say, though I hope to rectify this!) but it’s interesting how writers’ autobiographies are often – unsurprisingly, I suppose – all about aesthetic effect. I mean, there’s always a degree of artifice involved when you’re writing about your own life, but in the case of writers the artifice and self-dramatisation is usually obvious – they’re not even pretending otherwise.

  4. Geoff Skellon
    December 2, 2008

    Does anybody know if Dali and Neruda met wwhen Neruda was posted to Barcelona?

  5. wally williams
    December 8, 2011

    Leena, if you don’ t know about the South American poets, there’s a whole new world waiting for you. I would suggest you get a little book by Robert Bly called Leaping Poetry. It’s his way of differentiating South American thinking from the rest of the world and it’s a really fun read. It’s also a great way to put your toe in the water. Or you can just start reading Neruda and Lorca and let them take you on their wonderful journeys.

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This entry was posted on December 13, 2007 by in Entries by Kirsty, Non-fiction: biography, Non-fiction: memoir and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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