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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son

Camilo José Cela

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To purchase Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son

Title: Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son
Author: Camilo José Cela
Genre: Novel
Written: 1953 (Eng. 1968)
Length: 216 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son - US
in Monólogos - US
Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son - UK
Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son - Canada
Mrs. Caldwell parle à son fils - France
Mrs. Caldwell spricht mit ihrem Sohn - Deutschland
in Monólogos - España
  • Spanish title: Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo
  • Translated and with an Introduction by J.S.Bernstein

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting presentation, and quite powerful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Republic . 3/9/1990 Christopher Maurer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/5/1968 Peter Sourian

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mrs. Caldwell's progression from lucidity to madness (she dies in an insane asylum,) allows Cela to display the whole range of his lyrical gifts. (...) (T)he miscellaneous and impersonal nature of the aphorism never threatens the intimacy and the unity of this lovely book." - Christopher Maurer, The New Republic

  • "(T)he atmosphere of Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son is euphuistic and rarefied. (...) In spite of its occasional strange beauty, the novel seems just that irrelevant: a madwoman interminably addressing a dead person who was never very real to her in the first place. (...) This book in its sterile brilliance is a retreat into abstraction, and its technique is in a tradition as paradoxically fossilized as the regime which invents paradoxes for the sake of "order"." - Peter Sourian, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Foreword by the author explains that this novel consists of the pages Mrs. Caldwell "was writing in memory of her beloved son, Eliacim" -- and that:

Essentially, the little work of Mrs. Caldwell's was entitled: "I Speak to My Dearly Beloved Son, Eliacim." She had various other titles in her notebook, but without a doubt, the most beautiful one is this one.
       As we also learn, these aren't conversations: the son she is speaking to is dead, Eliacim Arrow Caldwell having: "died heroically in the tempestuous waters of the Aegean Sea". And we also learn that Mrs. Caldwell herself died soon after the author met her, as a patient in the London Royal Insane Asylum.
       The novel is presented in short chapters -- 210 of them making up the bulk of the novel (with two variations of chapter 14 presented), with another four then presented as 'Letters from the Royal Insane Asylum'; most are only a few paragraphs in length, and many of them cover less than a page. Each chapter has a descriptive title, ranging from the simple -- 'Flies' -- to the more elaborate, such as: 'I Am Not Unaware of Your Most Hidden Thoughts', to some that are longer than the chapter-content itself (e.g.: 'Let's Get Up at Dawn to See the Sunrise, the Majestic Sunrise over the Round Old Hilltop Where the Fragrant and Timid Little Wild Flowers Grow').
       For the most part, the novel does not unfold in neat narrative progression, the chapters generally standing readily on their own, more like a collection of jottings and observations on a variety of subjects, but in a Preface Cela wrote for the definitive Spanish edition of the novel -- presented here as a Postscript -- Cela explains that:
     My novel Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son is, in its apparent disorder, an act of homage to order, and in its illogical evolution, my avowed tribute to logical rigor.
       Mrs. Caldwell struggles with order, and her own increasing mental disorder; nearing the end, she admits:
But now, Eliacim, in this house everything is upset, because order is something which no longer interests anyone, something which we do not know, I don't know, my son, what to do with, and the curtains, some nights, even stay undrawn.
       One chapter focuses on a: "vase which, on your first anniversary, my son, broke into a thousand pieces without anyone's touching it", closing with a paragraph neatly showing the gradual change in Mrs. Caldwell, as well as reflecting the presentation of the novel:
     The great admiration I had for that vase which on your first anniversary, my son, broke into a thousand pieces without anyone's touching it, has gradually been leaving me. Now, what I admire greatly are its pieces.
       Mrs. Caldwell suggests: "Everything we know, Eliacim, can be written on a not very large piece of blank paper" -- and also that:
     The great literary works of the future, Eliacim, are asleep in blank paper, the great literary works which are still to be written. Sometimes I feel tempted to confront the blank paper, and begin to put down letters, one after another, to see what comes out.
       In its conclusion, the story then also does clearly move forward, Mrs. Caldwell's madness, arising out of her overwhelming sadness and despair at the loss of her beloved son, taking greater hold and manifesting itself more clearly, with even Mrs. Caldwell recognizing that, in a number of ways: "I am no longer the woman I was". In the final chapters of the main section a doctor comes and appears to examine her mental fitness, asking here "impertinent questions" for two whole hours ("a doctor with the face of a madman (I don't know who sent him to me)") and she then leaves her house, coming to live in the Royal Insane Asylum, from where she sends her four last letters.
       The chapters -- the notes and letters -- are addressed to Eliacim, her eternal obsession: "I have a great deal of affection for your memory, don't I?" she acknowledges. Her passion -- though one of "firm disillusionment" -- is extreme: late in the novel she even admits having a dream of them getting married -- and that: "On our wedding night I was very indiscreet and unoriginal, Eliacim". Already early on she had written what soon becomes clear to the reader as well:
     You already know, Eliacim, that when it's something to do with you, I get very sentimental.
       For the most part she writes as if speaking a monologue, but occasionally she'll reach out as if in hope for response, as when she plaintively asks her drowned son, in one of the novel's loveliest lines:
     In your lengthy submarine leisure, Eliacim, do you sometimes remember me ?
       One chapter reads in full:
     I wish you were a dragonfly, or something as small and elegant as a dragonfly, so that I could carry you eternally near my heart.
       While the chapters and observations are always in some way personal, they also range very widely: "How far-off now, Eliacim, are the times of Benjamin Disraeli, and his beautiful dress coats", she observes, for example, or devotes a whole harsh chapter on chess, a game she used to play with her son and which she now sums up:
     Chess, Eliacim, is a hateful game that has had a good press, an apology for treason which has dressed itself in the innocuous, white lambskin of a pastime.
       She may sentimentalize a great deal about her lost son, but acknowledges his faults:
     You were a tortured young man. You put on an antisocial air for people. You felt yourself to be perhaps more complex than necessary. You wrote your verses and prose without much of a knack; that's the truth.
       But she loves and misses him passionately and deeply. At one point she brings home a fish without scales, but it dies; still, she: "kept him by my side as long as I could, until he began to smell very badly". She can get some closure with the fish -- she burns the remains -- but not with her lost son.
       The final quartet of letters, written in the insane asylum, are each in turn about the four elements, air, earth, fire, and, of course, finally water -- "something that I would like also to have kept away from you while there was still time ..." as she notes in the poignant close. An editor's note states that beyond these there were two more pages, but these are undecipherable .....
       Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son is a far from straightforward book, but aside even from the overarching story, of a mother's obsessive love for her dead son, its various fragments are often striking -- and sometimes beautifully put:
     Courtesy, Eliacim, is like the hydrangea, or like the taste of the most jaunty colored fish, those which resemble birds that have escaped from a Japanese etching, a most beautiful fraud which shines as sterilely as the starry skies.
       The novel is very much a literary work -- despite the claim of the title, Mrs. Caldwell doesn't speak with her son, she writes to him, she fills those blank pages --, with Cela experimenting and playing with form in the treatment of his subject matter. There's not that much reference to reading or books, but in one chapter Mrs. Caldwell does explain:
I dreamt of being able to give you an ancient book which would give you the key to all things, an ancient book which would explain to you, on a solid footing, the clearest mysteries of the universe.
     But now that ancient books are of no use to you, Eliacim, because at the bottom of the sea things are foretold which the ancient books fail to clarify, I reject ancient books.
     And I'm on the verge of swearing that they contain only painful lies.
       Its short chapters and great variety make for a very readable text, and the intensity of Mrs. Caldwell's passion and sense of loss come through strongly. Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son is an unconventional and an at times strange novel, but overall it is a quite impressive piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 October 2023

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Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son: Reviews: Camilo José Cela: Other books by Camilo José Cela under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Camilo José Cela lived 1916 to 2002. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1989.

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© 2023 the complete review

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