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. . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment