A Vitreous Vault
March 24, 2014 | by Josep Pla
In 1918, when Josep Pla was in Barcelona studying law, the Spanish flu broke out, the university shut down, and Pla went home to his parents in coastal Palafrugell, Spain. Aspiring to be a writer, not a lawyer, he resolved to hone his style by keeping a journal. In it he wrote about his family, local characters, visits to cafés; the quips, quarrels, ambitions, and amours of his friends; writers he liked and writers he didn’t; and the long contemplative walks he would take in the countryside under magnificent skies. Nearly fifty years later, Pla published his youthful journal as The Gray Notebook, the first volume and capstone of the great Catalan writer’s collected works.
3 November 1918, Sunday. Spent with friends. Piera the tailor, Bonany, et cetera. I walk up to Sant Sebastià. A beautiful afternoon. The sinuous ribbon of road draws the loveliest afternoon light. I hear someone chopping wood in the distance. A donkey brays in a remote spot. A black-and-white magpie jumps over the green alfalfa. When I walk past Ros, I think, as I always do: I wish I owned Ros, the vineyard and the pinewood. By the hermitage, total solitude. Opposite Calella, boats—bobbing like walnuts—fish for squid. Two brigs appear on the Italian horizon, driven by a northeasterly wind. The sea is purple-edged beneath the hermitage terrace. Far out at sea, opposite Tamariu, another sailing ship is returning. A crabbing boat sails slowly by Cape Begur. An empty steamer passes arrogantly by, very close to land, spitting large mouthfuls of water overboard in fits and starts—like a dog barking. The water on the horizon turns deep violet; the water by the strip of land darkens. We circle the hermitage, marveling, awestruck. The afternoon seems in limbo, abstracted from time—a creation of the mind. If I could imagine or create another world, it would be a world like this.
We return at dusk. The road is thronged by the shadows of hunters and mushroom pickers; we hear the hum of invisible people conversing. As I stand on En Casaca bridge, I remember the frog that sang there in summer. The evening dissolves into a delicate gauze, a misty haze floating and shimmering above the land. The sky is very clear and the starlight cold and metallic.
A night at the cinema. Frou-Frou, with Francesca Bertini, Gustavo Serena, and the usual Italian suspects. A very ordinary plot played by people who spend hours and hours posing for their portraits—who would like to pose, night and day, indefinitely. Bewildering, enthusiastic cries of admiration go up from the audience when a luxurious set or an elegant dress puts in an appearance.
As we leave the cinema, Roldós plays a Schumann score for Coromina, lluís Medir, and me. Schumann never got a note wrong. He is as round as an apple. Or an almond. Though slightly sweet, with a circumference that’s ever so, ever so slightly too perfect. Schumann seems two-dimensional. Chopin, three.
4 November. Feeling idle, unable to devote a moment to my textbooks, rather bored by café conversation, I go for an afternoon stroll. I walk along the road to Llafranc. At this time of year, the plain of Santa Margarida is simply beautiful. I can’t walk by the fence around Can Vehí without remembering the scent of the roses of Sant Ponç. Llafranc is so deserted it seems skeletal. You sometimes see a gaunt figure taking a stroll, or a hesitant cat or dog, on the other side of the beach. Everything reinforces the effect. Seagulls flap their wings near the beach, above the green sea. They emit cries now and then that sound almost human. As dusk approaches, the contours of the mountains in the west glow with an archaic light. I wrote: an archaic light. What is an archaic light? I mean a light from an antique painting, the luminosity that remains on a painting when it’s engrained with centuries-old layers of dust and grime. Like a light that passes through thick, yellow glass. To the west—Maragall’s warm, gentle west—the vineyards in the foreground are blood-red. The crab fishers returning to the Bo port in Calella, helped by a blustery tailwind. When I gaze at the pine trees by the side of the sea it makes me think of the curves, the idiosyncratic, unmistakable arabesques painted by Joaquim Sunyer. A Gypsy woman stands under a streetlamp by the entrance to town cradling a half-naked child: The child opens her eyes wide, too wide—perhaps from the cold. These eyes also make me think of eyes painted by Joaquim Sunyer.
At night in bed, I return to Plato’s Dialogues. How wonderful! In the early hours, fifty gross, crazy roosters are screeching, but I can’t switch off the light. The power of suggestion is so strong, so fascinating I sometimes think that it’s inevitable I will encounter Socrates in the street one day. I don’t think this could happen with any other figure in the history of culture. How is it possible to suggest so many things with so few words, in such an apparently simple fashion?
5 November. Coromina has purchased a motorcycle—one of the first to be ridden in the country. He is beaming and—as one would expect—has become an ardent champion of motorcycles. He has bought a helmet, goggles, and some flashy gloves. He is almost scary.
Today he made me try out the attractions of his new toy, so I straddled the rear seat—if it can be called a seat. We sped along the Bisbal-Pals-Begur-Palafrugell circuit. Hellish roads that Coromina climbed cheerfully.
The machine flies and that sensation of flying would feel even more real if it weren’t for the hugely uncomfortable seat. The ridges in the road resonate on my posterior through a merciless iron mesh separated from my flesh by a single, stupid cushion that has no substance or guts. But I act bravehearted. I have no choice.
Now and then, he turns around slightly and says, “Are you all right? We’re going seventy an hour.”
“I am fine. My backside’s hurting a lot, I’m not sure I can stand much more, but I think it’s a wonderful experience.”
“You’ll soon get used to it.”
“Many years from now maybe. We’ll see!”
We stop in Begur and drink a glass of cognac. It’s the drink of choice for those who deal in iron engines and tools. I reflect on our trip for a moment. I realize that I wasn’t at all frightened. If it had been any different, I would say so. I found the speed fascinating though never what you might call rapturous. They are unique moments when you forget almost everything else. Though not entirely. The machine always made me feel safe—for example. And something else was always mentally present—an awareness that my butt was slowly becoming a misshapen, painful lump of dough.
“Forget it!” Coromina exclaims, sternly. “If you say so.” Just then Lola Fargas crosses the square, dressed for winter. She is a pure delight. I find it incredible that women who can be so shapeless and off-putting can furnish such distinct, tangible beauty. What an apparition! I try to interest Coromina in my thoughts. But it’s hopeless. He is obsessed by his machine. He has become the perfect motorcyclist and dodges the issue with a platitude worthy of the village wit. He says, “Yes, you can say what you like, but her beauty is as fleeting as the road my bike leaves behind it.”
The old road from Begur is hellish and on our way back we have to do without gears. Nevertheless, my nether parts continue to suffer. I reach home a sore, battered, mutilated man, as if I’d been given a real caning. But all in all the worst of the journey was Coromina’s wisecrack. His sentence is a sure sign that machines will create literature, and horrible literature at that.
The newspapers are full of grim news. Half of Europe is collapsing, like a battered building that’s subsided and falling apart. Russia, Austria, Germany … my feelings sway me toward the side that’s collapsing. My reason doesn’t!
At night I read Pompeu Fabra’s Catalan Grammar. It brings to mind a standard European grammar—Augier’s French Grammar, for example—and above all it makes me forget those grisly texts that made high school such a torture. How beautiful a grammar that is clear, simple, precise, and understandable! As I read, I wonder how I could make so many spelling mistakes. I can’t seem to impose any discipline on myself. This feeling of insecurity I have when I discover I’m a slovenly bohemian is extremely unpleasant. However, there’s nothing at all I can do about it …
6 November. In the afternoon, I walk up to Can Calç de Sant Climent along the path by the cemetery and the Morena spring. It’s a farmhouse that belongs to my mother: three hundred square yards of cork oaks, a shadowy kitchen garden, a small patch of thin wheat-growing earth, and an old family house on the ridge. All in the parish boundaries of Fitor.
It’s a luminously white afternoon with a cream-cake glow in the sky. The snow on the peak of El Canigó is opaque and dull. Its lower, snowless buttresses are gray, soft, and doughy. Water whines down irrigation channels. Everything is damp and slimy.
The woods are full of voices. Woodcutters are chopping everywhere. You occasionally hear the sound of a tree falling. The owners make charcoal or sell the logs. It will soon all be bare. It’s an astonishing sight. The number of trees that must have been felled in these war years is crazy, too many to count.
At three o’clock I reach the Teula spring. The water flows impassively in that dark, solitary spot. The remnants of a banquet of snails litter the stone table. The surrounding shabby eucalyptus trees secrete sadness. Country springs are so cheerful in summer, so dismal in winter. When I reach the Fitor saddle, past the dead vines, the vista opens up and out: I see the dull, tinny sea by Estartit and the Medes Islands.
The farmhouse is a rural drama. I’m almost afraid to go in. When they see me coming, they give me strange, suspicious glances out of the corner of their eyes. It’s hard to start a conversation. Luckily, two hungry hounds, ears drooping, pad over and sniff my shoes. That provides an excuse to talk. The forlorn, squalid house is home to the tenant farmer, his wife—a twisted, squint-eyed, filthy woman with unkempt hair—a coal-black charcoal burner, and a son of theirs who looks like a complete moron.
Naturalism—I believe—has just one defect: telling it as it is. Carner’s quip about reading naturalist books with a bouquet of roses at your side is rather trite, but it is sensible advice. Naturalism will never be popular because it implies the description or recognition of that sewer—large or small—where we all slog. We mount our mean, miserable convictions over that sewer. Gori is right: idealistic literature will always be what readers like—even if it is a fairy tale, as long as it is idealized.
I walk back at dusk, through the damp cork-oak woods. Owls fly across the low, gray sky.
Before supper, a long conversation with my father about the new map of Europe and the massive upsurge of socialism. My father, who’d clung to the idea that Germany would win the war as long as possible because—in his view—it was best for the onward march of progress, is shaken. Nonetheless, curiously enough, we speak perfectly calmly. Personally this sudden advance by the poor impresses me: an inextricable mixture of satisfaction and fear.
At night, at the club, my friends and I pitch in to play baccarat. When it is time to add up it turns out we have won four pesetas per head, that is, sixteen coffees each.
Afterwards, Coromina and my brother—a chemical sciences student—get embroiled in an endless argument about science. To my great surprise, Coromina attacks my brother’s deeply rooted belief in the absolute priority of science in any system of human knowledge. Like all anti-rationalists, Coromina fashions brilliant, beautiful turns of phrase: He says, for example, that the discovery of Hertzian waves was more the fruit of poetic intuition than of any systematic observation. My brother is indignant. It has always been a mystery to me that some people seem fated to be rationalists and others anti-rationalists. Why? Is it prompted by the branch of studies or the body of knowledge pursued? I think not. There are very sensitive individuals with artistic temperaments who are rationalists, and individuals obsessed by particularly technological inclinations who are anti-rationalists. Is a difference in temperament the root cause? Or a difference in curiosity? There are rationalists with extreme tunnel vision. Generally anti-rationalists are not interested and are indeed irritated by any tangible scrap of knowledge. Why?
The smallest, most fundamental problem hurls me into an abyss of ignorance and sadness.
A long, solitary stroll in the early hours, along the town’s deserted streets. I see the light from the Sant Sebastià lighthouse burning from different positions. The beam shines ineluctably, with perfect precision. At four o’clock, it is still burning. Faced by the relentless tenacity of machines I can’t help but think about the extent to which man has been diminished. One sometimes feels like taking a bucket of water and putting out that light.
7 November. A very loud, noisy family row. They heard me come home too late. I’ve still not been able to solve the problem of entering the house without making noise. I can’t report any progress on my old pledge to become economically independent. I serve no purpose. I am totally useless.
I spend the afternoon reading. Zola is considered a naturalist, but I see in the Mercure de Paris that in fact he documents himself very little on real humans. So just as you eat slices of melon in the summer, naturalists devour slices of life. However, Zola generally improvised, invented. That explains one thing that had baffled me until now: the one-sided, rather simplistic, rarely contradictory psychology of the characters in his novels. They are characters—with different clothing, in a different era—of a piece, hewn from a single kind of stone, like Racine’s.
I am rereading Shadows on the Peaks, by Ramón Pérez de Ayala, which impressed me when it was published. Now the book drops from my hands. It is a brilliant first novel, no doubt. Ayala has real, natural control over the spiraling sentences of Castilian prose—something Baroja and Azorín don’t have.
It was a bright day and a warm afternoon that waned as I watched through my window. Twilight clusters of dark clouds against the off-white vault of the sky, a touch of pink and streaks of purple in the west.
Before dinner, I pop into the arts school for a moment. I find lluís Medir, Coromina’s assistant, tidying away materials with a passion for order, cleanliness, and efficiency I find admirable. lluís Medir is one of the most estimable youngsters of my generation, with a striking understanding of concrete things. I think I am drawn to him largely because of my own—often frenzied—longing to learn. Deep down I am only interested in people who can teach me something. I feel Medir is well aware of this.
Aperitifs unravel the final part of my day. Countless cafés after supper. I lose my hat and coat playing baccarat. A second supper, late at night, with my friends. I never have money but there is always somebody who does. Besides, people are trusting. Gori eats solemnly, like a priest. Someone decides to order manzanilla. The Spanish drink gives me a splitting headache. Pain at the top of my head—between the encephalic mass and my skull. We spend the last hours of the night in the brothel. Paquita.
8 November. A stroll along the road to Sant Sebastià. A beautiful, colorful day. The sky is a bright gray, a swarm of light. The pale whites are wonderfully subtle. On the house walls certain whites seem alive. Trees pose elegantly in the gray mist. A gentle breeze blows, like a rose petal caressing one’s skin, and makes the bamboo hum. The mountain is full of mushroom hunters. I climb Cape Frares via Ros. A magnificent spectacle. From the side of Sant Sebastià, the raw, vertical geology is oppressive. The scene is more appealing to the north: a pale leaden Cape Begur, pinkish Cabres Cove, and Aigua Xallida. Tamariu, above the dark green of the pinewoods. The sea is a grayish blue. Banks of great cottony clouds on the horizon drenched in the light of sunset. The land in repose. The red vines are a ripe, creamy, oily red. A cypress dreams. The west dissolves into orange juice.
At dusk, from one window I can see a flock of sheep munching grass in the old cemetery. I can make out a bunch of white flowers—little white heads—as if some child were buried beneath. Beyond, the grass fields seem to be shivering from the cold.
A bright, animated night under a vitreous vault.
At two in the morning a fire alarm sounds. The sinister bells underline how peaceful the town is—peace that can strike terror. Tomorrow people will be saying: First, they store; then they burn. I don’t think there is a community in the world more insensitive to fires.
Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush.
Josep Pla (1897–1981), the eldest of four children, was born in Palafrugell on the Costa Brava to a family of landowners. He studied law in Barcelona, abandoned law for journalism, and in 1920 moved to Paris to serve as the correspondent for the Spanish newspaper La Publicidad. Banned from Spain in 1924 for his criticisms of the dictator Primo de Rivera, Pla continued to report from Russia, Rome, Berlin, and London, before returning to Madrid in 1927. He supported the new Spanish Republic that emerged in 1931, but was soon disillusioned and left the country during the Civil War, returning in 1939. Under the Franco regime, he was internally exiled to Palafrugell and his articles for the weekly review Destino were frequently censored. After 1947 his work began to be published in Catalan, and his complete works were published in full in 1966. They comprise forty-five volumes, of which The Gray Notebook—begun in 1919, but polished and added to throughout the intervening years—is the first.
Reprinted with the permission of New York Review Books.
Copyright © 1966 by the Heirs of Josep Pla.
Translation copyright © 2013 by Peter Bush.