Vicki Baum, the author of “Grand Hotel,” once wrote that “you can live down any number of failures, but you can’t live down a great success.” After witnessing the fall and rise of his novel “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” Manuel Puig likely would’ve agreed with her. Originally released to critical dismissal—Robert Coover called it “a rather frail little love story” in the Times—the book landed with a thud, managing to make Puig a celebrity in the gay enclave of New York City’s Christopher Street, but not much else. Yet “Kiss of the Spider Woman” had a remarkable afterlife. A play adaptation, co-authored by Puig, became an international success, and led to an Oscar-winning film starring William Hurt and Raul Julia as well as a hit musical written by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrence McNally. Puig disliked the film, and, shortly after a disastrous workshop of the musical at SUNY Purchase, died from a heart attack, at the age of fifty-seven. Yet for all his frustration with the adaptations of his novel, they guaranteed its longevity. “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is the only book of Puig’s in English that remains steadily in print—his first novel, “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” was recently issued for the second time this century by McNally Editions—and the cover of the Vintage International paperback boasts the same typeface and image as the playbill of the Broadway production.
The film and musical so overshadowed their source material that, when I first encountered the book, in a course called Subjectivity in Literature my freshman year of college, I thought that my eccentric professor had assigned a novelization to us as a way of challenging our assumptions about which books were worthy of study. Within a few pages, I realized my mistake. “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is a mysterious, formally inventive, beguiling work about two prisoners during the Dirty War in Argentina: a Marxist guerilla named Valentín and a gay window dresser named Molina, who develop a transformative relationship as the latter narrates the plots of his favorite movies to the former. When I was nineteen, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” struck me as a work about finding love and preserving one’s humanity in the most inhumane of places. It is in some ways the opposite of Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden,” a play in which the psychic scars of the Pinochet regime in Chile prove a universal solvent, dissolving any attempt at decency, or humanity, or truth. Reading the novel in the period between the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act and the repeal of sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, I believed it to be a work of protest art, one that defiantly asserts Molina’s personhood even amid the Dirty War’s depredations. Reading “Kiss of the Spider Woman” today, the prison seems less like a real place, and the novel seems far trickier, and far harder to nail down to any one meaning. “Kiss of the Spider Woman” slips between different interpretations, just as its late-night conversations wander from the most frivolous of trivialities to the deepest of truths.
Puig would likely have objected to the idea that frivolity was opposed to truth. His sensibility was rooted in cursi, a word that lacks a direct English translation but is key to the consciousness that underlies his work. Cursi is the Blanche DuBois to machismo’s Stanley Kowalski, passionately insisting “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” Its closest equivalent in the United States is camp, but the two are not exactly the same. There’s a yearning to cursi, and a nostalgic fabulousness. Puig was the great twentieth-century writer of the cursi sensibility. He disdained the self-seriousness of many of his contemporaries in the Latin American Boom, particularly Gabriel García Márquez, who he felt had been ruined by critical praise. “Every sentence pretends to be the maximum phrase of all of literature,” Puig griped, about the future Nobel Prize winner’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” “and each one ends by weighing a ton.” Puig’s novels are deliberately playful and provocatively effeminate. They often ride the line between satire and sincerity, producing a result that is somehow both sincerely felt and heavily ironized. As Puig himself put it once in a letter, “that’s the real me: Cursi and truthful.”
“Kiss of the Spider Woman” grew out of Puig’s frustrations with the politics of his era and his contemporaries. He eschewed explicit polemic in his work, which led to his being viewed with suspicion by both the left and the right. His first novel was panned by the center-right magazine La Nacíon for using colloquial Argentinean Spanish and accused of having Peronist sympathies. Living among fellow exiled Argentinean intellectuals in Mexico City, Puig found that he “was still a reactionary for not having joined the movement. Worst of all my book had been banned by the right wing and the Argentinian left didn’t care.” From this pain, he began taking notes on a novel in which two men—one straight and one gay, who “doesn’t have much education, but a great fantasy life”—would “meet through a mediator—movies.”
Puig, who wanted to be a screenwriter and only turned to writing novels after his thirtieth birthday, all but grew up in a movie theatre. According to “Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman,” a biography of Puig by his translator and friend Suzanne Jill Levine, his home town of General Villegas, in the Argentine Pampas, had one movie house, which showed a different film every day. Beginning in 1936, his mother, Malé, with whom he would remain extremely close throughout his life, took him to see “mostly American stuff” almost daily, at 6 P.M. Staring at the screen, he fell in love with the female stars of the thirties, constructing a pantheon out of Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, and others. “I understood . . . the moral world of movies, where goodness, patience, and sacrifice were rewarded,” he later said. “In real life, nothing like that happened. . . . I, at a certain moment, decided that reality was what was on the screen and that my fate—to live in that town—was a bad impromptu movie that was about to end.” Malé had initially only intended to stay in General Villegas for a year and passed her frustrated dreams of cosmopolitan life down to her son. “It was like living in exile,” he would later say, and, in his first two novels, he would create a thinly veiled version of his home town, called Colonel Vallejos, and treat it unkindly. As Clara, his fictionalized aunt in “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth,” puts it:
The Puigs left Villegas, moving to Buenos Aires by 1949, and it’s unclear whether Manuel ever returned to his home town, except in his imagination. Much of his life was lived in one form of exile or another, particularly after his novel “The Buenos Aires Affair” was suppressed in Argentina in 1974.
“Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” highlights again and again the contrast between the magic of cinema and the tawdry doldrums of everyday life. Puig preferred melodramas, which he called “the language in which the unconscious speaks,” along with screwball comedies and, once he got over the trauma of seeing “Bride of Frankenstein” at too young an age, cheap horror films. In his essay “Cinema and the Novel,” Puig wrote that the films of the thirties and forties had such lasting power because they “really were dreams displayed in images. . . . When I look at what survives in the history of cinema, I find increasing evidence of what little can be salvaged from all the attempts at realism.” He disliked much of Italian neorealism and the films of Martin Scorsese (“so much pretension and slowness”), and called Meryl Streep, Ellen Burstyn, Jill Clayburgh, and Glenn Close “the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse” for ushering in a more realistic femininity onscreen.
Escape into the dream world of cinema was an obsessive quest. Later in life, he would write his friend Guillermo Cabrera Infante a long list of the authors of the Latin American Boom as Hollywood starlets. Borges was Norma Shearer (”Oh so refined!”), García Márquez was Elizabeth Taylor (“Beautiful face but such short legs”), Mario Vargas Llosa was Esther Williams (“Oh so disciplined (and boring)”). Among the eighteen names was Puig’s own. He was to be played by Julie Christie, a “great actress, but since she has found the right man for her (Warren Beatty) she doesn’t act anymore.” Years later, after his writing had brought him money and international acclaim, Puig would buy television sets and VCRs for friends, and then cajole them into recording classic films for him, eventually amassing a library of more than three thousand movies on upward of twelve hundred video cassettes.