I have just finished another biography: Pablo Neruda A Passion for Life, by Adam Feinstein (Bloomsbury, 2004). I know virtually nothing about poetry, so why did I read a book about a poet? Experience has taught me that the lives of poets are most often of great interest, even apart from the poetry. This book is no exception. Indeed, the stuff of Neruda’s life would lend itself just as readily, perhaps even more readily, to novels and adventure stories.
Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto, born in 1904 in Parral, Chile, lost his mother two months after being born, and against the wishes of his strict and pragmatic father, grew up to become Pablo Neruda, one of the most internationally acclaimed poets of all time. As a child he was sickly and often bedridden, but blessed with a stepmother who doted over and encouraged him. His first published book of poems, Crepusculario, when he was only nineteen, was well received, but his second book, Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desperado (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, i924) made him famous. This book in particular was republished so often and translated into so many languages it sold over a million copies during his lifetime (and probably that many more by now).
Reading this book about his life leads me to believe that he was actually born to be a poet. He wrote poetry all his life, no matter what his circumstances or situation. It must have come easily to him and he established a reputation of being the finest poet of love in any language. The idea, or the concept of love, seems to have been the most driving force in his life. You might wonder what love meant to him, given his three marriages and untold affairs. He seems to have fallen in love easily, but he did apparently distinguish true, more permanent emotion, from the promiscuous sexual affairs he often engaged in. I believe he was genuinely in love with his three wives, and although he left each one for another, often in unpleasant and devious ways, it was apparently because he could not keep them all at once. Although he treated his second wife very shabbily (she was twenty years his senior) when he met his third wife, I believe he wanted desperately to cling to both of them.
The emphasis in this book seems to be primarily on Neruda’s love life, along with his love of life in general. Once he overcame his initial poverty and began to earn money from his fame he spent much of his time time partying, greatly enjoying food and wine, and being with his many friends and admirers. He was generous and helped many young authors as they struggled to become known. He is often described as being childish and even helpless in the everyday process of life. It is tempting to quote H. L. Mencken’s claim that “A poet over forty years old is simply an overgrown child,” but this would do a terrible disservice to Neruda, as he was far more than merely a poet. He served his country successfully as a diplomat, was an active politician, had an in-depth knowledge of wine, and his hobby of collecting seashells, and was an astute observer of nature. He knew and was friends with most of the major poets of his time, as well as with Picasso and many writers. He also arranged a ship for 2000 Republican fighters to flee Spain in safety after their defeat at the hands of Franco, not a task for a petulant child. Nor can his legendary and difficult flight over the Andes to escape political persecution be considered juvenile, or the months he spent escaping the authorities on another occasion.
He was always a man of peace, but until the Spanish Civil War, he was basically apolitical. He was in Spain when the war broke out and witnessed the horrors of Fascism first hand. When his good friend, the fine Spanish poet, Frederico Garcia Lorka was murdered by them he became dedicated to Communism, a dedication he clung to for the rest of his life, even after the horrors of Stalin, although he did, towards the end, recognize those horrors. This political stance changed his poetry dramatically and he began to write more for the people than for other poets. As for the terrors of Stalinism, he wrote in towards the end in one of his poems:
Forgetting is better
In order to sustain hope…
We found the light
And we recovered our reason
His attitude towards his writing can be seen in what he said in an interview with a Mexican newspaper:
“You cannot be happy if you do not fight for other people’s happiness. You can never abandon the sense of guilt of having something if others do not. Man cannot be a happy island.”
Of course it was his dedicated Communism that both sustained him and threatened always to destroy him. He traveled widely to many countries, especially often to the Soviet Union where he was treated royally. He was important to the Communist party and was feted at their meetings everywhere. It was only because of the help of Arthur Miller that he was allowed to attend meetings in the United States. And, as an avowed Communist, he had many enemies that tried to destroy his reputation. But he triumphed in the end, winning the Nobel Prize, the first (and only?) Chilean to do so. He was a staunch supporter of Salvadore Allende, and enraged at the meddling of the U.S. in Chilean affairs. Interestingly, he did not like Castro. His death from prostate cancer could not have been more miserable. Not only did he slowly wither away in pain, it coincided with the Pinochet coup that brought death and destruction to his native land.
I must say that I enjoyed this book, but I did come away somewhat unsatisfied as I think there was so much more to Neruda that his biographer gave us. I think there was too much emphasis on Neruda’s sexual and marital exploits, and on his supposed childishness (he certainly was childish in many ways), as well as on his poetry, and not enough detail on his many other accomplishments. Also, I find it most interesting that a poet could have gone so far and accomplished so much in Chile. Such a thing could not have happened in the United States, where poetry is something only impoverished poets or beatniks do.