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 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.

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