Jordi Coca: Sota la pols (Under the Dust)

The latest novel on my website is Jordi Coca‘s Sota la pols (Under the Dust). This is a very grim fictionalised autobiography of a boy growing up in the slums of Barcelona during the Franco era. Our unnamed narrator lives in poverty (no running water in their one-room flat), with an abusive father. His younger brother dies of meningitis, his grandfather was shot at the end of the Civil War (though it is not clear why), he is bullied at school and, as his best friend succinctly puts it, life was shit. His only vague redemption is meeting an even poorer family who, at least, have some books and he is introduced to Crime and Punishment and Robinson Crusoe but even there, he seems to abandon reading. His father falls out with his brother – they are running a business together – and is also in trouble with the law. There seems to be no hope of escape, with only the prospect of a badly paid job ahead.

Llorenç Villalonga: Bearn o la sala de las muñecas (Bearn or The Doll’s Room; The Doll’s Room)

The latest addition to my website is Llorenç Villalonga‘s Bearn o la sala de las muñecas (Bearn or The Doll’s Room; The Doll’s Room). The book has been published in English with two different titles (see above), though the translation is the same. It tells the story of an old Mallorcan noble family, the Bearns. The Senyors – Don Toni and Dona Maria Antònia – both die within an hour of one another at the beginning of the book, having had no children (or, rather, no legitimate children; Don Toni has various illegitimate children he does not recognise). The story is told by Don Joan, the family chaplain, who was unofficially adopted by the Senyors as a child, when destined for a career as a swineherd. Don Joan has a lot of affection for the Senyors, despite Don Toni’s many faults (he runs off to Paris with his eighteen-year old niece, Xima; he is, in Don Joan’s eyes, often heretical). Then there is the mystery of the dolls’ room, permanently locked with no-one allowed to enter it. What does it contain? Above all, this is an affectionate account of a way of life that has long since gone (the story is set in the nineteenth century) and which Villalonga clearly – to some degree – regrets.

Joan Sales: Incerta glòria (Uncertain Glory)

The latest addition to my website is Joan SalesIncerta glòria (Uncertain Glory). This is a long rambling novel but is considered the best Catalan Civil War novel. It focusses on four people. The first is Lluis, an intellectual and a lawyer who lives in his own world, though he has a common-law wife, Trini, and a son back in Barcelona. He meets the widow of the local lord of the manor, a working woman who had married the lord, and he falls for her. His best friend is the cynical Soleràs, who is secretly in love with Trini himself but whom she considers as a brother rather than a lover. The second part of the novel follows Trini in Barcelona, both her life before the War and her current life, agonising over Lluis and his fidelity (he hardly writes to her) and suffering the problems in Barcelona, while reminiscing about her past. The third part focusses on Cruells, the unit medical orderly, who is religious (a dangerous, at times fatal thing to be in Barcelona), who becomes increasingly disillusioned. We see the war is 99% boredom, 1% sheer terror approach, as the unit sees some action, which gets worse as the war progresses, but much of the time they spend drinking, chasing women and philosophising. It is perhaps a bit long but still a worthwhile read to see a picture of the Republican cause that is not always rosy.

José de Almada Negreiros

Painting made for a café

Our weekend in Porto introduced me to José de Almada Negreiros, a Portuguese writer and artist, of whom, I admit, I had never heard before. The Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis is a museum named after António Soares dos Reis, the Portuguese sculptor who left many of his works to the museum, after committing suicide when only forty-one. Though the museum certainly has a section devoted to his works, it also has a collection of nineteenth and twentieth century Portuguese painting and a collection of decorative arts from earlier periods. More particularly, it currently has a special exhibition devoted to José de Almada Negreiros (link in Portuguese).

José de Almada Negreiros was born in 1893 in São Tomé and Príncipe. His father was a Portuguese cavalry lieutenant based in São Tomé and Príncipe while his mother was born on the island but died when her son was only three. His father was later posted to Paris but José and his brother were sent to boarding school in Lisbon. He graduated from the International School in Lisbon and, by now, was drawing and sketching, particularly satirical works. An exhibition of his work was held at the International School and it was there that he met Fernando Pessoa. As well as producing sketches, he was also writing poetry and other works for Orpheu, a progressive literary journal. He also designed a ballet. He published his first novel, A Engomadeira (it means a woman who starches and irons clothes) in 1915. (I have a copy which I hope to read some time in the not too distant future.)

He was also responsible for the famous Anti-Dantas Manifesto (link in Portuguese). Dantas was Júlio Dantas, a Portuguese playwright, who was fairly conventional. The Manifesto, supported by other prominent modernist Portuguese writers, including Fernando Pessoa, was a pro-modernist, anti-traditional manifesto. It caused quite a stir as Almada Negreiros did not hold back in his views. The text in Portuguese is here.

He spent time in both Paris and Madrid and became involved in a wide variety of artistic activities. In writing, he wrote novels, stories, poetry, plays and screenplays. He worked for a while as a dancer. He acted in films. He painted, he sketched, he designed. He married the artist Sarah Afonso (link in Portuguese). He died in 1970.

There is a wonderful description of his acting career in the exhibition:

I played the part of a very wicked aristocrat who gets killed right at the beginning. So, I was overjoyed. I got murdered in one of the first scenes, for kidnapping a girl. There was actually an incident sort of disastrous there. The girl was Maria Sampiao, and at some point, she fell from the horse we were riding, damn it! But I fell down with her… It was a very bad movie, a big mess, a beastly thing. I had to do a jump, a twenty-feet jump, from the top of a wall. Of course, I would lay (sic) down on my belly with outstretched arms, lower myself as much as possible on the wall and flip my legs over it. I could always pull it off just fine. Well, I used to be a gymnast […] I simply remember that it took them sixty-seven takes to kill me. And it was very hard for me to die, because I had to fall to the ground. Stabbed to death!

[Note that the English text is the translation used in the exhibition and not mine. The original Portuguese is not as badly written.]

Section of storyboard designed by Almada Negreiros for a film

As you can see, Almada Negreiros had a very varied career. Here is what he said about that:

I draw, I write, I sculpt, I do stained glass, I dance, I do theatre, I do cinema, and, if my art doesn’t speak through any of these voices, what can we do then? Just pretend that I am already dead – and that I left behind these posthumous works.

Many of his works can be seen at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. If any of them are available in the UK or US, I am not aware of them. Not surprisingly, none of his written work has appeared in English, the fate of most Portuguese writers, though one or two are available in French and Spanish. I hope to get to get round or one or two of them in the not too remote future. It seems to be stating the obvious when I say that he should be better known in the English-speaking world and undoubtedly would be, were he to be French or German. By the way, this exhibition sadly finishes on 18 March.

Livraria Lello, Porto

A long weekend in Porto revealed a few things, one of which is that it is wetter and colder in Porto than in (the South of) England. We visited the Livraria Lello, a bookshop famous for its appearance. As you can see from my not very good photo to the left, it is certainly an attractive interior. Indeed, J K Rowling, who spent two years teaching English in Porto, was inspired by it when she wrote Harry Potter. As a result the bookshop is permanently packed, mainly with Japanese tourists, taking photos. As a result the shop now charges an admission fee of €4, which you can put against any book purchase. However, while the interior is certainly attractive, the shop’s selection of Portuguese (and Portuguese-language) fiction was less so. They had a fairly pitiful selection – Saramago, of course, Eça de Queiroz, Miguel Torga, valter hugo mãe, who was their author of the month, but not his a máquina de fazer espanhóis [The Machine for Making Spaniards] and a few others but no Teolinda Gersão, no copy of José de Almada Negreiros’Nome de Guerra (see next post), a copy of which I found in the a chain book shop near by hotel, and a not a single one of the Portuguese books on my list to buy. It was even worse for other Portuguese-speaking countries. So go for the shop, particularly if you are a Harry Potter fan, but don’t bother going for the Portuguese literature.

Baltasar Porcel: Primaveras y otoños (Springs and Autumns)

The latest addition to my website is Baltasar Porcel‘s Primaveras y otoños (Springs and Autumns). The novel is set at a Christmas Eve dinner in modern times at Taltavull Hall, home of the Taltavull family, living in Orlandis, Majorca (based on Porcel’s home town of Andratx). The novel tells the stories of several of the key characters, of some of their nearby relatives, and visitors (who are related to them). The key subjects of most of the stories are, inevitably, sex and death though the Civil War, travel abroad and other topics do appear. Some of the family members are very decent people, others have blood on their hands (particularly from the Civil War), some make good parents and spouses, others do not. In other words, they are like many other families even if one or two of them have more colourful stories(a clash with South American guerillas, involvement with a British spy in Burma, for example). Porcel tells his stories very well, with each family member proving to be different from the others,

Jesús Moncada: Camí de sirga (The Towpath)

The latest addition to my website is Jesús Moncada‘s Camí de sirga (The Towpath). This is is factionalised account of the town of Mequinenza, Moncada’s home town. which was moved to the other side of the river Ebro to make way for a hydroelectric dam. Moncada gives an affectionate but at times mocking account of the town and its inhabitants as they prepare for the move, delving back into the history of the town. We follow, in particular the story of Carlota Torres, from her childhood to the time of the move. She remains the last hold-out, refusing to move. There are many divides in the town but, in particular the divide between the rich and poor, which comes to the fore during and after the Civil War. The rich are hypocritical, conducting numerous extramarital affairs, while condemning immorality. The town has done well out of coal, particularly in the two world wars, and shipping on the Ebro. Moncada gives us a rich account of many of the people of the town, past and present, rich in humour but also in affection, at times, poignancy.

Víctor Català: Solitud (Solitude)

The latest addition to my website is Víctor Català‘s Solitud (Solitude). Víctor Català (real name: Caterina Albert i Paradís) published this novel in 1905 but, though she lived to 1966, only published one more novel. It was this novel that made her name. It is both a feminist novel but also a fine story. A newly wed couple, Matias and Mila, have to go up into the mountains to run a hermitage, used by hunters and the like when the weather is fine but also associated with St. Pontius, the local saint. Mila is befriended by the shepherd, Gaietà, a good man. She is attracted to him and to a younger local man, who is engaged to someone else. Her attraction to these men is helped by the fact that her husband is lazy, runs up debts and, eventually, takes up gambling. However, there is another problem – Anima – the wild and very nasty mountain man. He is also attracted to Mila. It all ends badly but it is a fine tale and if there is a moral, it might well be Be careful who you marry!

Catalan Literature

Every year at around this time, I focus my reading on one country. My original plan was to focus on another country but, with recent events in Catalonia, I decided to move it to the top of the list. If you are a supporter of Mr. Rajoy, you may well argue that Catalonia is not a country. However, if you have poked around my website, you will note that my definition of a country does not accord either with the UN’s idea of a nation state or with Mr. Rajoy’s views. I have always been a strong adherent of balkanisation. It preserves cultures and reduces wars or, at least, keeps them small. I strongly believe that if countries like Russia, China, the United States and Spain were broken up, the world would be a better place. As a result, several smaller entities that call themselves countries, even if they are not nation-states, appear on this site. Many of them (but not all) have separate languages from the sovereign state of which they are part. All of them have a separate culture and and separate literature.

Catalonia has, of course, had a colourful history. It had a certain degree of independence in the Middle Ages under the count of Barcelona, a Frankish vassal, and then united with Aragon, under the Crown of Aragon. Catalonian literature flourished during this period. During the Franco-Spanish war of the mid seventeenth century, Catalonia sided with France and was under French control for a while. After the war, parts of Catalonia went to what is now Roussillon in France. During the War of Spanish Succession, early eighteenth century, Aragon sided against Philip V of Spain and lost. Catalonia became part of Spain and its independence ended. There was a greater independence movement in the early twentieth century and Catalonia gained some autonomy in the 1930s, only to see it crushed when Franco won the Civil War.

As regards literature, the earliest surviving Catalan texts are the Homilies d’Organyà, sermons dating from the late eleventh century. The first major Catalan writer was Ramon Llull who lived in the thirteenth and early fourteenth century. His novel Blanquerna is the first major work of literature published in Catalan and and possibly the first European novel, preceding works such as Don Quixote and La Celestina. There is a recent English edition published by Dedalus in 1988. However, most early works were either chronicles or poetry.

In the fifteenth century, the key work of early Catalan literature was published: Joanot Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanc, an epic romance. It was a big influence on Cervantes; indeed, he said it was his favourite book. It is readily available in English and I can strongly recommend it.

However, after this period, while Spain was having its Golden Age Catalonia was having its Decadència, with Catalan being less used as the cultural language, though there is a view that things were not necessarily as bad as they have been painted. This was followed by a Renaissance, starting in the early 19th century and leading up to the late 19th century and beyond. I shall be reading one writer associated with this period, who went on well into the 20th century and, in fact, died in 1966, aged ninety-six. She is Caterina Albert, known by her pen name Víctor Català, whose best-known novel was published in 1905 and has been translated into English. She is more associated, however, with the Modernism period. Catalan modernism was more associated with architecture, including Gaudí, Domènech and other world-famous architects.

Noucentisme (=TwentiethCenturyism) was a reaction to Modernism. Most of the Catalan writers associated with it were poets. Carles Riba delivered a famous lecture called Una generació sense [A generation without the novel], complaining about the lack of competent novelists and and blaming the moral poverty of contemporary Catalan society. There were some novels, often rural in nature, of which Víctor Català was the best-known writer. I might also mention Raimon Casellas’ 1901 Els sots feréstecs, which is in print in English under the title Dark Vales and Miquel de Palol (link in Spanish) (not to be confused with the later writer of the same name), whose Camí de Ilum was praised by Unamuno.

There were other novelists who came to the fore during this period though, in some cases, only made their name later. Llorenç Villalonga, another writer whom I shall be reviewing, published his first novel in 1931. However, he switched to the Falange during the Civil War and took an anti-Catalan stance before reverting to being pro-Catalan after the war. Xavier Benguerel (link in Spanish) published his first novel in 1929 but his best-known novel, which I shall be reviewing, was not published till 1974. Sadly, he has not been published in English. Francesc Trabal published his first work in 1925 but is best-known for his 1935 novel Vals, published in English by Dalkey Archive Press as Waltz.

However, under the dictatorship of first Primo de Rivera (1923-1930 and then Franco, Catalan was suppressed. Many Catalan writers left Spain after the Civil War, often to go to France or Mexico. The best novel of the Civil War in Catalan is Joan SalesUncertain Glory, now readily available in English, and which I shall be reviewing. It took him twenty-three years to write and it is long (544 pages in the Catalan edition and 464 pages in the English edition.)

Two writers whose success mainly came after the Civil War but who published before it should be mentioned. Salvador Espriu was mainly known as a poet and some of his poetry has been published in English translation. However, he also wrote novels, including Ariadna al laberint grotesc, actually a series of interrelated stories, published in 1935 and published in English by W W Norton as Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth in 2012. Though I have a copy of this, I shall not be reviewing it this time.

The other novelist who must be mentioned in this context and may well be the best-known Catalan novelist is Mercè Rodoreda. There are three of her books already on my site and I shall be reading another one as part of this project. She did start to publish before the Civil War but her best-known books and the ones that have been translated into English were all published after the Civil War (and after World War II).

Pere Calders may be best-known for his stories rather than his novels – a collection of his stories called The Virgin of the Railway and Other Stories was published in English in 1991 – but he did publish novels. Unfortunately, none has been translated into English and only a few into French and Spanish. His best-known novel is Ronda naval sota la boira (it means something like Ship Sailing Round in the Fog) and is about a ship caught in a loop in heavy fog and unable to escape, with the passengers left discussing good and evil and the world powers helpless. It has only been translated into Spanish.

Manuel de Pedrolo was highly prolific – he published over a hundred works – but only a few are available in English, including one novel: Touched by Fire. He is best-known, however, for a science fiction work: Mecanoscrit del segon origen, translated into quite a few languages, including English as from April this year (as Typescript of the Second Origin).

Montserrat Roig, whom I shall be reading, sadly died of breast cancer when she was only forty-five. She wrote short stories, plays, a book on the Catalans who were sent to Nazi concentration camps and five novels. One of her plays was translated but none of her novels.

Moving to a slightly later period, Joan Perucho is known in English for his Natural History. However, he published many books – poetry, novels, short stories, art criticism and essays – in Catalan and Spanish. His work has an element of the fantastic in it and he is seen as a precursor of magic realism.

Jordi Sarsenadas is best-known as a poet and short-story writer but he did write two novels. Despite the fact that he taught for a while in Glasgow, none of his works has been published in English.

Pere Gimferrer is one of the foremost Catalan poets but he did write one novel, Fortuny, which I shall be reviewing. It was published in English in 2016 by Verba Mundi. Like many good novels, it is not really a novel, more a series of tableaux around the family of the painter Marià Fortuny, set primarily in the first half of the twentieth century.

Baltasar Porcel was a journalist, literary critic, dramatist, scriptwriter and short-story writer as well as a novelist. He has been extensively translated, particularly into Spanish but also into many other languages. Two of his books have been translated into English, one of which I shall be reviewing. Most of his work is set in his native Majorca.

Terenci Moix wrote in Spanish and Catalan. I shall be reviewing one of his best-known novels, El Dia Que Murio Marilyn [The Day Marilyn Died], which was originally written in Spanish. It is about growing up in Barcelona but, as the title suggests, unlike most of his contemporaries, he introduces a lot of pop culture. He is actually better known for his novels set in ancient Egypt. None of his work has been translated into English. (His Hollywood Stories, despite their title, were written in Spanish.) His sister – Ana Maria Moix – was a novelist who wrote only in Spanish.

I have already read Quim Monzó. Like Moix, he gets into pop culture, sex, the modern world and post-modernism. Three of his books – the two novels that I have read and a collection of short stories – are available in English.

Biel Mesquida has not been translated into English or, as far as I can see, any other language besides Spanish. He moved to Paris, where he was influenced by French writers such as Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot and Julia Kristeva. As the title of one of his works – El bell país on els homes desitgen els homes [The Beautiful Country Where Men Desire Men] – shows, he dealt with gay themes before they appeared elsewhere in Catalan and Spanish literature, though Terenci Moix also wrote about gay themes, when homosexuality was still illegal in Spain.

Jesús Moncada has had one work translated into English, which I shall be reading. We see the influence of the Spanish Civil War in this work and we shall be seeing it more and more in Catalan works, both of those authors already mentioned and other, later ones.

Jordi Coca is a playwright, poet, short story writer and novelist. He has also written extensively on the theatre. His novel Sota la pols has been translated as Under the Dust and I shall be reviewing it. His website is partially in English.

Jaume Cabré has had one novel and one non-fiction work published in English. The novel, which I shall be reading, is about evil and most of his works deal with the human condition.

Lluís-Anton Baulenas started life in the theatre, as an actor, director and playwright. He has since made his reputation as a novelist and has also translated works from English and French, including Jean Cocteau, William Gibson, Marguerite Yourcenar and Eugene O’Neill. One of his novels has been translated into English, dealing, of course, with the Civil War.

Ada Castells is a journalist and professor of creative writing as well as a novelist. She has published both novels and stories, though they have only been translated into Spanish and, in one case, into German, but not into English. Her website is partially in English.

Najat El Hachmi was born in Morocco but moved to Catalonia when she was eight and writes in Catalan. Her first work was called Jo també sóc catalana [I too am Catalan]. One of her novels has been translated into English, which I shall be reading.

This review does not cover anywhere near all the worthwhile Catalan writers nor, indeed, all the ones I plan to read over the next few weeks. Catalonia has a very rich literary tradition – in fiction, drama and poetry – and deserves to be far better known in the English-speaking world. As you can see, some works have been translated into English but all too many have not and, of those that have been translated, not enough are known outside Spain.

I will start with the oldest of the ones I plan to read: Victor Català‘s Solitud (Solitude), a Catalan feminist novel from 1905, which should be better known.

Clarice Lispector: O lustre (The Chandelier)

The latest addition to my website is Clarice Lispector‘s O lustre (The Chandelier). This is Lispector’s second novel, written when she was in her early twenties, and now published in English more than seventy years after publication in Portuguese. Much of the novel takes place in the head of Virginia, whom we first meet as a girl under the sway of her controlling brother, whom she adores, and her bullying father. In the second part of the novel, she is an adult. Her brother has married and she has a boyfriend, Vicente. However, she is not sure whether she loves him and still lives very much inside in her head. She heads off back home where nothing has changed and still does not know where she belongs. Most of the novel takes place inside her head and we get a detailed and superbly well written story of a complex and insecure girl/woman.