Sunday, September 2, 2012

Latest Translations

One's recent translations include a charming comedy by Marivaux, a short novel and a story by Federico De Roberto (The Wedding Mass and "The Rosary"), two short stories by Italo Svevo ("Death" and "Argos and His Master"), and one by Machado de Assis ("A Fire"). All are available--or will be very shortly--on the usual bookselling sites. Next up? Maybe Ganivet. Maybe more Machado, more Wedekind, more Stendhal (Mémoires d'un touriste?). Maybe nothing at all.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Julio Ramón Ribeyro, 31 August 1929

Julio Ramón Ribeyro would have turned 83 today. Nearly twenty years after his death, however, his work is no better known in the English-speaking world than it was when he died (Ribeyro's books are constantly being re-issued in his native Peru, a collection of his essays is being republished in Chile, and publishers in both Brazil and Portugal have recently brought out solid collections of translations of his stories; it is the United States and Britain that, as always, are lagging badly).

For Peruvians, Ribeyro is a beloved figure; other than the obvious (his work is superb), it's hard to say exactly why, but one reason, perhaps, was his modesty: he was seemingly unaware of his own greatness.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Absentminded Caress

Text 138 of Julio Ramón Ribeyro's Prosas apátridas:

For ten years, when I worked at Agence France-Presse, I went almost every day to the gardens of the Palais-Royal to walk around the galleries for a few minutes before or after lunch and, when I had no money, instead of lunch. And what is left in me of all those walks, good God, what is left? What good was that investment of hundreds and hundreds of hours of my life? Good for nothing, except to leave in my memory something like a foolish image of postcard-like precision. We have the idea that our lives have goals and we think that all our acts, especially those that are repeated, have some hidden meaning and must bear fruit. But that's not the way it is. Most of our acts are useless, sterile. Our lives are woven in a gray and flat weave and only here and there does a flower or a design suddenly emerge. Maybe our only valuable and fertile acts are the gentle words we sometimes utter, a bit of boldness, an absentminded caress, the hours spent reading or writing a book. And nothing more.

Confessions of a Journeyman Typesetter

Confessions of a Journeyman Typesetter is Gérard de Nerval's biography of the French author, printer, and libertine Rétif de la Bretonne, whose work the 1911 Britannica deems "unfit for general perusal."
Rétif de la Bretonne

It is a history of an eighteenth-century literary life, a life that, with its book pirates, self-promoters (Rétif, a printer by trade, not only published his own work but also publicized and printed it), crooked publishers, hyperinflated reputations, and other assorted features, will not seem altogether unfamiliar to observers of contemporary literary life. The English version is available only as an ebook and can be found on the usual online bookselling sites.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pla, the Rhapsody, and the Moonlight Sonata: El Canadell

Music plays a certain part in my childhood memories of El Canadell.
At the time, the instrument considered most effective at getting people to dance, and the most widely used one, was the barrel organ. But this contraption and its metallic and rustic notes didn’t imprint themselves on my memory: they have left in my nose the unpleasant smell of the gas lamps that lit outdoor dances.
 All the same, in El Canadell there was something of good quality: the Genover family’s piano. It was played by the two older siblings of the family—usually with four hands: Maria and Xicu. On very still days—in the terrible morning sun or at sunset, in the gentle half-light—you could hear the piano from a long way away, and in El Canadell a kind of abeyance was occasioned: the people who were going by the Genover place automatically tended to start walking on tiptoe.
Maria and Xicu would sit at the piano. Seen from afar—they played in a ground-floor parlor that had a big window facing the street—they looked like two automatons. They played stiffly and as if corseted. They were fans of select music. Maria, in addition to the playing piano, sang vaporous, sentimental ballads. Xicu, with the practice book in front of him, never tired of doing finger exercises. Cheap music is usually enjoyable, and it’s surely for that reason that those who cultivate it tend to make too great a show of it. Those who play select music are more closed to things, more difficult, and fussier. But Xicu and Maria—or Maria and Xicu—didn’t need as much persuading as corresponded to the notes they played. When an acquaintance came up to them with a friendly and pleasant look and said to them, “Oh, Xicu (or Maria), play the Rhapsody! It’s so pretty,” you contemplated the reassuring sight of seeing them—no matter how little free time they had—go over to the piano, sit down in front of the keys, open the music book, and play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Before beginning, they looked at each other to confirm their cooperation in the performance: a serious look that turned into a weighty smile. Complete silence fell over the parlor. Everyone was concentrating. Everyone was making that face of feigned suffering that people are in the habit of making before refined music. And from the piano, with a brilliance slightly diminished by petty-bourgeois taste, came Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.
This piece was quite the undertaking. It was hard to play. The furious parts gave the people—so they said—gooseflesh. But in the more contemplative moments—which perhaps coincided with an audience of greater refinement, an audience that made faces of solemnity rather than of suffering—there was another great piece: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. If the Rhapsody was a work for fingers and vigor, the Moonlight Sonata was a piece for feeling. Together they made a complete musical microcosmos.
In this way, I, as a teenager in El Canadell, found myself literally saturated with the Rhapsody and the Moonlight Sonata. And there’s nothing to be done about it now: this is the select music that will waft in my memory of those days for the rest of my life. It’s the music that will bind me to El Canadell for as long as I live—as I am bound to it by a distinctive smell, very sweet, of rice powders and patchouli, a taste for roast mullet with oil and vinegar, the novels of Paul Bourget, and the form—barely glimpsed—of the calves of a few hazy, indistinct young ladies of the time.
--Josep Pla, El quadern gris

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Civilization and Barbarism

"The only civilized people on the beach at Albufeira are those peasants who, dressed in black in the torrid sun, with their odd way of wearing their hats, pulled far down over their eyes and raised above the nape of the neck, sometimes descend from their plots of fig and almond trees and stand gazing in slightly astonished silence, but with dignity and indulgence and wisdom, at the tourists who, disguised as frogs skinned alive in the glare, surrounded by bags of towels, greased like firearms, have disembarked from moving vehicles come from the north and are now baking on the sand, reading Die Welt, The Times, Le Monde, and introducing into that beautiful place, unawares, the first signs of barbarism."

--Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Prosas apátridas

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Léautaud, Pla, Ribeyro

Paul Léautaud's monumental diary is endlessly fascinating (it seems that only some of the earliest volumes have been published in English translation, and anyone seeking to publish translations of the rest of them would have to secure the rights from the French society for the protection of animals, to which the never-married and childless Léautaud left the rights to his work), and references to it sometimes turn up in somewhat surprising spots. In the Spanish translation of Josep Pla's diary, El cuaderno gris, for instance, one comes across an undated note consisting almost entirely of an entry taken from Léautaud. It is introduced by Pla with the simple words "an opinion":
Paul Léautaud
Verses are clearly a childish thing. People who write things in rhythmic patterns, to particular beats, each line ending in similar sounds, that singsong of a child's reciting--at bottom, it's ridiculous. I've thought for a long time that if I had a son and he had a literary bent or even an inclination for the life of the mind I'd keep all the poets from him, even though I don't like being a guide in that field. Those people cause you to waste a lot of time when it comes to the development of the mind. I wasted at least fifteen years letting myself be lulled by their nonsense. And the novel? How can a man, at fifty, still write novels? How can a person even read them? Poetry and novel--they are certainly the lower forms of literature.

Léautaud also makes several appearances in Julio Ramón Ribeyro's La tentación del fracaso, yet another excellent diary not available in English (it is published in Spanish through 1978; the diaries from later years, still only in manuscript, are being held in a bank vault in Paris). Ribeyro, perhaps not surprisingly, refers to Léautaud's "atrocious" death, which he approached with complete lucidity and surrounded by a menagerie of animals. Foutez-moi la paix, he supposedly said on his deathbed. Leave me the fuck alone.

Stendhal, Wedekind, and Others

One keeps forgetting to plug one's more recent translations (the purpose of this blog, after all). They are available as ebooks on most of the usual online bookselling sites. Authors translated include Stendhal, Marià Vayreda, Leopoldo Alas, Federico De Roberto, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Heinrich Mann, and Frank Wedekind.

The Catalan Vayreda seems never to have been translated into English before; on looking up Wedekind to see what English translations of his work had been published, one is somewhat surprised to find oneself in what one might not have been inclined to consider good company. Oh well.

Soon to be published are English translations of Marivaux's play Les Fausses Confidences and of Nerval's Les Confidences de Nicolas (on the eighteenth-century libertine and printer Rétif de la Bretonne, whose books the 1911 Britannica encyclopedia describes, not altogether inaccurately, as "unfit for general perusal.")

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Three Easy Pieces

Three prose pieces from Julio Ramón Ribeyro's Prosas apátridas:

At uncommon moments my gaze acquires an intolerable sharpness and my mind a power of penetration that frightens me. Everything becomes a sign, an omen. Things stop being what they seem to be to become what they probably are. The friend I'm talking to is a clothed animal whose words I barely understand; the Monteverdi song I'm listening to, the sum of all melodies invented up to now; the glass I have in my hand, an object offered me, over the centuries, by Stone-Age man; the car crossing the square, the dream of a Sumerian warrior; and even my poor cat, the messenger of knowledge, temptation, and catastrophe. Everything loses its innocence to become what it hides, germinates, or means. These moments, unbearable, all you want to do is close your eyes, cover your ears, abolish thought, and fall into shoreless sleep.


The surprise--indeed, the terror--I felt as I saw the agency employee, with his withered arm, that one arm shorter than the other, topped off with a hand not a hand but a kind of stump with fingernails, threaten the waiter at the bar. I realized just then that the extremity I considered his weakness, and which I pitied him for, was his customary tool of aggression.


Facing forward or facing backward in a moving train: the amount of country you see is the same, but the impression you get from it is so much different. Those who travel facing the right direction feel as if the country were being thrown forward toward them or, rather, as if they were getting thrown forward toward the country; those traveling facing backward feel as if the country is fleeing them, becoming lost to sight. In the first instance, the traveler knows he's approaching a place, whose proximity he senses with each new fragment of space that appears before him. In the second, he knows only that he is moving away from something. Likewise, in life, some people seem to travel facing backward: they don't know where they are going, what's awaiting them, everything evades them, the world that others take in with a forward-looking act of perception is, for the former, nothing more than flight, residue, loss, defecation.


Monday, April 9, 2012

Josep Pla, Cherries, and Sparrows

Cherry trees haven't set fruit yet--it's too early--but it's hard to resist posting a brief entry, premature though it may be, from Josep Pla's El quadern gris. It is dated 19 June 1918:

A delicious combination these June days: desserts based on cheese and cherries. The taste of cheese and that of cherries are, in my opinion, complementary on the palate. Too bad that the cheese in this country is so tasteless and mediocre. The best cherries aren't the first ones, the blanquelles, but the firm red ones with dense flesh that we call heart of dove or matapedra. The ones slightly pecked by the beak of a sparrow are especially delicious.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Story of No Return No. 2

Story of No Return No. 2
Mario Levrero

A dog, Campeón. I lived alone with him and at some point he started bothering me. I took him to the forest, left him tied up with a cord that he could break with a little perseverance, and went back home.

A couple of days later I had him scratching at the door; I let him in.

He became unbearable; I took him to a more distant forest and tied him to a tree with a stronger cord (I knew that the flaw was not in the cord but in the animal’s loyalty; perhaps I had the secret hope that this time he wouldn’t get loose and would die of hunger).

A few days later he came back.

I realized then that the dog would always come back; for fear of pangs of guilt, I didn’t dare kill him; and I thought that even if I managed to lose him, in a forest more distant still, I would live with the constant fear of his return; it would torment my nights and cloud my joys; his absence would tie me up more than his presence.

For barely a second, then, I hesitated before majesty of the dense forest—shadowy, imposing, unfamiliar—rising before my eyes; resolutely, I began going into it, and I went in deeper and deeper until, finally, I got lost.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Fan Mail

In her late teens, Marie Bashkirtseff wrote a letter to one Monsieur de M. Thus began a brief (Baskhirtseff died in 1884, shortly before her twenty-sixth birthday) but lively correspondence between the Ukraine-born mondaine and Guy de Maupassant.
Self-portrait of Marie Bashkirtseff

Only shortly before her death did Maupassant discover the identity of the correspondent who tells him in her first letter that she will always remain anonymous:
I read you almost with happiness. You adore the truths of nature and find a truly great poetry in them, all while stirring us with details of feelings so deeply human that we recognize ourselves in them and love you with a selfish love. Is that a flowery remark? . . . Be forgiving—the essence is sincere.
I’d obviously like to say exquisite and striking things to you, but it’s very hard, just like that, right now. . . . I regret it all the more in that you are exceptional enough for a person to dream very romantically of becoming your beautiful heart’s confidante, if indeed your heart is beautiful.
If your heart isn’t beautiful and if you “aren’t into that sort of thing,” I regret it most of all for you and then I’ll call you a manufacturer of literature and that would be it.
It’s been a year now that I’ve been about to write you, but . . . several times I thought that I was overrating you and that it wasn’t worth it. When, all at once, two days ago, I read in the Gaulois that someone sent you a gracious letter and you ask for this good person’s address to answer him. . . . I got very jealous right away—your literary merits dazzled me again, and here I am.
Now, listen closely to me, I will always remain anonymous (really) and I don’t want even to see you from afar—who knows? I might not like your looks. I know only that you are young and that you aren’t married, two essential points even in the blue of the clouds.
But Ill have you know that I’m charming—this delightful thought will encourage you to answer me. It seems to me that if I were a man I would want no commerce, not even epistolary, with an old English hag, regardless of what might think
Miss Hastings.
R.D.G. (Bureau de la Madeleine)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

War Will Never Get in the Books

Beppe Fenoglio is almost entirely unknown to English-language readers, even to those who might have tried his countrymen and near contemporaries Pavese or Calvino. The fault (and it may be banal to say so, but the banality of it doesn’t make it any less true), lies with the reluctance of English-language publishers to publish work in translation and perhaps with the same inexplicable prejudice against simplicity, prevalent in literary circles, that has deprived English-language readers of the excellent work of the Catalan Josep Pla and the Peruvian Julio Ramón Ribeyro. 

Fenoglio, who died of a respiratory ailment just days before he would have turned forty-two (one’s own age), fought in the partisan war of 1944–1945; much of his work draws on this experience. The story posted below was found only after his death; it was untitled (anepigraphic, if you want to get fancy) and very probably unfinished. Of himself Fenoglio once wrote, “Ho una strana potenza di parola [I have an odd power with words].” It’s no idle boast. 

I knew my buddy Jerry was writing about the war. Too often, I’d caught sight of him intent on writing, feverishly, sitting under a tree or leaning on a low wall; sometimes he would go on writing until dark, facing the last of the sunlight. 

He would write—picking up and discarding a huge number of pencils every five minutes—in little schoolboy notebooks. I figured he had to have filled at least a half a dozen of them, counting from when he had transferred to my unit, of course. Before, he was with Giorgione at the detachment in Castagnole. I knew, too, that he didn’t like the town: he didn’t like that it was on the plain, that it was split into two cores. He didn’t like that it had a train station (even though the line had been cut since the spring of ’44); he didn’t like the population; he didn’t even like the sound of the Castagnole bells.

I would see him write and had no doubt he was writing about the war. I remember that when I became convinced of it a phrase of Lawrence’s (the good one, the colonel) immediately came to mind: “. . . to pick some flowers . . .” But I concluded that I couldn’t—I really couldn’t—attribute it to him lightly. 

“It’s an idea,” I said to myself commentarily. “This stuff will sell afterwards. Publishers will be all over this stuff afterwards, for at least ten years. But will there be an afterwards for Jerry?”

And from out of the corner of my eye, and from afar, I watched him write in those little notebooks of his, and meanwhile I asked myself if Jerry would make it through the war. I was slightly moved and, at the same time, slightly irritated by this kid (short, a fairly big head with overly sparse and overly thin blond hair, a slightly skinny chest, and proportionally overdeveloped thighs) who wrote in such solitary fashion, so feverishly and absorbed, surrounded by the whirl of activity of his companions, rash, extroverted, and community-minded even in idleness. 

From a certain obstinacy of his and from a certain movement of his hands, I got the impression that he must have been mixing the writing with drawings and sketches—the profile of a buddy, a view of hills, the arrival of a truckload of ammunition—but I was wrong.

One evening I literally ran into him. I turned into the low road around Mango and nearly found him underfoot. He had actually sat down just to the side of the road, on the grass already damp, facing the last sunlight. 

Jerry shut his notebook with a slap, then uneasily opened it back up.

I sat down as far away as possible and offered him an open pack of Craven A

He said no with a hand still armed with a pencil.

“I like everything English—” 

“I know.”

“Except the tobacco. It almost makes me throw up. I don’t know why.” 

I had lit it.

“You writing about the war, eh, Jerry?” 

“Notes,” he said hurriedly.

“Notes on the war,” I suggested. 

“Of course,” he said a bit belligerently.

He had caught the vaguely ironic tone I was using and, oddly, was unable to put right. So, since I couldn’t manage anything other than a strained seriousness, I tried to make it at least nicely ironic. 

“And . . . are they working out?” I asked stupidly.

“You can’t say that about notes. They’re just notes.” 

He had gotten me, and for a second I took a drag on a Craven A.

“You know,” I said then, “what Walt Whitman said about war? He was talking about the War of Secession, but of course it goes for all wars.” 

His face, nearly blotted out by the darkness, was shining with curiosity.

“The real war will never get in the books,” I cited in English. 

“It’s true, very true,” he said. “I’m noticing it myself. It’s like emptying the sea with a little pail.”

Then, with apparent tension, he started. 

“What did you do in life?”

“I taught English language and literature.” 

“Ah,” he said rather bashfully.

It was getting cold. The cold, nearly liquid, was rising from the nearby ravine. 

“You’re doing it for publication, I hope?” I went on.

“I hope so,” he said with a kind of non-hope. 

“All the publishers will be interested in this kind of literature. And . . . will it be something purely factual or something . . . decidedly artistic?”

“Artistic . . . I hope,” he replied in that non-hope tone of his. “As factual documents, they’re not even worth my lugging them around with me.” 

He was talking about the notebooks: so there must have been several.

It was perfectly clear to me that our dialogue had a resolutely literary and insubstantial tone made up of courtesies on my part and [reticence] on Jerry’s. But it was to my liking: for months I had uttered only words that were not words but mud, blood and fire and flesh . . . since the day I’d gone for tea with Fulvia Pagani at her villa in the first spurs of the hills above Alba, occupied by 2,000 Fascists. 

I didn’t have the slightest desire to have a look at so much as a single page, yet you could see Jerry was tormented by the fear I would ask him to. I wanted to relieve him of that suffering, but I really didn’t know how to tell him so.

“Where does your diary start from?” 

“It’s not a diary!” he blurted out.

“Whatever it is. Where does it start?” 

“At the beginning. At my beginning.”

“When did you come?” 

“In June.”

“You chose well. Those were splendid months. We had an empire, you could say, and—” 

He cut me short almost angrily.

“Just a second. It’s true I came in summer, but for me there was trouble right away. I joined up the twenty-third of July and by the twenty-fourth my life was worth next to nothing. Don’t you remember what happened the twenty-fourth of July?” 

Just then I didn’t remember. So much had happened. . . .

“On the Bricco di Avene,” Jerry said to me.
It came back to me instantly. Orlando’s folly, seven or eight dead on our side, none on theirs.

“Ah, you were one of Orlando’s bunch?” I asked without real interest. 

“Right, one of that madman Orlando’s bunch! Will you go ahead and say I turned up at the right time again? A guy who shows up the twenty-third and the twenty-fourth finds himself up to his neck in one of the finest massacres—”


This time I interrupted.

“Still, it was even tougher later.” 

“Not for me,” he said. “I haven’t found myself with my back to the wall the way it was the twenty-fourth of July. But on the whole I admit that it got infinitely harder. For me, everything sprang, all the hard stuff, from taking Alba. It was there for the taking, but we should have resisted the temptation.”

“It was a mistake, and we’re not here to see if it was magnificent or not. I was one of the ones who said it was a mistake, but when I went in I got drunk with joy like everybody else, and I nearly cursed myself for having thought otherwise. And, what’s more, I even thought, despite all of the blindingly obvious evidence to the contrary, that we could hold it.” 

I stirred uneasily on the grass and resumed:

“But whether we’d taken it or whether we’d left it to that garrison of fools we still would have gotten that big November thrashing.” 

“True,” admitted Jerry.

“And so let’s be thankful we lost Alba,” I said. “Let’s thank the forces from Turin that kicked us out by coming from the river. If they hadn’t managed, we would have stayed in the city and the divisions that attacked us from the south would have been on us. And all of us, as many as we were, would have drowned in the Tanaro. Remember how high it was?” 

Jerry nodded deeply.

“As high water, it was terrifying. But as a protective barrier it was really comforting.” 

I smiled.

“Is the flood of the river in Alba in your diary?” 

“Of course.”

“That must be a good bit.” 

“I hope so.” 

“Well then,” I said conclusively, getting up.

That very evening Jerry came over to me at mess. There was a hellish clamor of voices, and Jerry couldn’t make himself understood in a normal voice. I saw in his eyes a plea for me to go out for a bit with him, but I’d had enough of literature, had enough of it for a while, and I didn’t do as he wanted me to, with no little callousness. So he was forced to explain himself loudly, and you could tell it was making him suffer. He had come to tell that if anything happened to him he had arranged for all of his notebooks to be handed over to me. I could do whatever I wanted with them, whatever I thought best . . . in his memory. That’s exactly what he said. I remember I thanked him as soberly as I could: I mentioned only that in the overall turmoil the arrangements he had made might come to nothing. But he answered me, with nearly fanatical certainty, that I would get the manuscripts without fail if. . . . I remember as well that I didn’t tell him that nothing would happen to him and that he would be going back to Turin with his rucksack crammed full with those notebooks. We had gone too far, too far, for that sort of reassurance.

He left me immediately afterwards. He had been seconded to the English mission, but he didn’t stay there more than a week. His written English was good, and he spoke it fairly well, but he didn’t understand it at all. After a week, Major Hope, tired of writing questions down for him on paper, sent him back to me. He was fairly humiliated, but I bucked him up easily. 

“Write about your experience with the English mission in a comic tone,” I told him, before assigning him to Diego’s platoon.

I next saw him dead, together with five others, on the Valdivilla road, at around three the afternoon of the twenty-fourth of February. I barely threw him a glance, saw he had been stripped of his English sealskin boots: nothing more, because I had to run after Diego, who wanted to kill himself. He blamed himself for everything. He had gone to set up an ambush and had himself been ambushed. And he had lost six men, the first of them Jerry. 

I remembered the notebooks only when we got back from burying him in the cemetery in Mango. I remembered them and waited for Jerry’s executor to turn up. I didn’t expect it to be one of his companions, since he had only superficial relationships with all of them, but neither was I expecting the person who, three days after the burial, showed up asking for me at the Mango command post.

It was a girl, eighteen maybe. She was so physically shattered she didn’t spark the interest of the men on duty. She was struggling to hold up a floppy rucksack. I knew her: it was Paola, the daughter at the farmstead where Jerry had spent the winter after the general dispersal and until the return to duty. Her relationship with Jerry must have very close, at least on her part. She had an entire speech ready, but not even the strength to begin it, so I spoke. I told her not about my talk with Jerry but about my talks with Jerry and about my interest in his affairs. All she did then was hand me the rucksack and leave, as shattered and as unobserved as she had come.
There were six notebooks, duly and tediously numbered. There were neither drawings nor sketches. The handwriting was very steady and clear, and I was astonished: remembering the frenzy Jerry wrote with, I’d been expecting to have to ruin my eyes. Instead, it looked liked the fair copy of a dictation taken by a schoolboy of firm and tireless hand.
Cover sheet to manuscript of "Partisan Notes, '44-'45"

I started the real reading at night. I was staying at an isolated farmstead a kilometer from town, in the direction of Alba. My hosts were well off, and I could accept, without too many scruples, the courtesies and kindnesses they were constantly showering me with. I had a good bed, I had to get harsh to forbid the woman from putting a bed warmer in it, and I had a large supply of candles. I could read for hours, without pangs of conscience.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Josep Pla and the Gray Notebook

Josep Pla is the modern Catalan writer most widely admired by his countrymen (okay: and women). It’s disappointing, but hardly surprising, that none of his work has ever been published in English. Some of the reasons for this neglect are obvious: Pla wrote non-fiction rather than fiction, his relative conservatism kept him, to an extent, on the margins of post-Franco Catalan literary and cultural life, dominated by the Left, and, above all, English-language publishers are notoriously hesitant to publish work in translation, regardless of the author’s political leanings or his preferred genre (exceptions are made for an occasional international celebrity). But it is perhaps also that in the United States and other English-speaking countries there is a puritanical streak, a prejudice against simplicity, against the delights of irony: literature must be work. Anything else is a mere entertainment not worth the serious reader’s time.

At least two of the precious few American publishers that bring out translations trumpet their Catalan lists; but until they publish something of Pla’s—anything—these boasts will be little more than hollow rodomontade. 

The first entry of El quadern gris (The gray notebook), Pla’s diary, appears below. The diary has been translated into Spanish, French, and perhaps Serbian, so it isn’t entirely inaccessible to those who don’t read Catalan (one suspects that these translations may well be of little consolation to the vast majority of English speakers, but there’s nothing stopping you from learning to read Catalan; go ahead and give it a shot; you’ll be glad you did).
Josep Pla

8 March 1918
Since there’s so much flu around, they had to shut down the university. Since then, my brother and I have been living at home, in Palafrugell, with our parents. We are two idle students. I see my brother, who is a great fan of playing soccer—even though he has broken an arm and a leg at it—only at mealtimes. He is doing his thing. I don’t miss Barcelona and much less the university. I like life in the village, with the friends I have here.
At dessert time, at lunch, a big dish of burnt cream and a delicious, spongy, golden-brown pound cake with a light sprinkling of powdered sugar appear on the table.
“You know you turn twenty-one today, don’t you?”
Indeed: it would be absurd to argue: I turn twenty-one today. I take a look around. My father is eating in silence, in a state of absolute normality. My mother seems no more agitated than usual. Since only saints’ days are celebrated in this country, the presence of the pound cake and the cream make me wary. I wonder if they were really made to celebrate my birthday or to remind me that the total on the bottom line after the first years is altogether negative, downright paltry. This finishing touch, I think, is so natural. Having children in the form of mystery, of vagueness, must be unpleasant. My frivolity, all the same, is so great that not even the problems of conscience posed by the sweets is enough to keep me from finding the pound cake extraordinarily tasty and the cream literally exquisite. When I help myself to seconds, the indifference becomes visibly greater. Twenty-one!

Family! An odd and complicated thing. . . . 

By mid-afternoon it starts raining—a light, vaporous, steady drizzle. There’s no wind at all. The sky is gray and low. I hear the rain falling on the ground and on the trees in the yard. It makes a muffled and distant sound, like the sea in winter. A cold, bitter March rain. As the day wanes, the sky goes from gray to a gauzy white—pallid, unreal. Above the village, weighing on the tiled roofs, is a heavy silence, a palpable silence. The sound of the falling water spins it out into a indistinct music. I see, wafting above this patter, my obsession of the day: twenty-one years old!

Seeing the rain fall, in the end, makes me drowsy. I don’t know what to do. It’s clear I should study, go over my textbooks, to get these boring law studies out of the way. Not a chance. I may often have trouble resisting the temptation to read papers I find in the street, but in front of this sort of book my curiosity gets put under lock and key. 

I decide to start this diary. I’ll write in it—just to kill time, any which way—whatever occurs to me. My mother is a very tidy woman governed by an obsession with keeping the house in a frosty order. She likes to tear up papers, burn old pieces of junk, sell to the ragman everything that, for her, is of no immediate practical or decorative use. It will be enough, then, if these papers are rescued from her admirable housekeeping virtues. If they aren’t, don’t think, in any case, that there’s anything to be sorry about. . . .