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Posts Tagged ‘Spain’

The Weather Men

March 25, 2014 | by

The life, times, and meteorological theories of Josep Pla.

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Josep Pla at his house in Llofriu, 1975.

“I’ve attended the procession of my country with a match in hand. Not an altar candle, not a torch, not a candlestick, but a match.”

Josep Pla (1897–1981) is a controversial figure in Catalan letters, and a well-kept secret of twentieth century European literature. If Barça is more than just a football club, then Pla—a political and cultural journalist, travel writer, biographer, memoirist, essayist, novelist, and foodie, whose collected works clock in at more than thirty-thousand pages and thirty-eight volumes—was more than just a writer.

Now that his deceptively simple, earthy prose and mordant sense of humor are available to American readers, the best way to read Pla is to curl up with a crisp glass of cava and a few spears of white asparagus. It’s impossible to read Josep Pla and not fall in love with his Mediterranean landscape. His native Empordà, with its mushroom-laced winds and its hint of burnt cork, mesmerizes.

Pla’s most important work, The Gray Notebook, is out now in a graceful translation by Peter Bush; the Daily published an excerpt yesterday. In the spirit of a bildungsroman and the form of a diary, the narrative chronicles 1918 and 1919, two crucial years in young Pla’s life. It captures the raucous energy of a precocious country boy who falls on his feet in the city, full of the spit and vinegar of youth. These were ebullient years in turn-of-the-century Barcelona; the city saw the first roiling curls of the belligerence that would lead to the Spanish Civil War, giving The Gray Notebook a tang of dramatic irony. But Pla’s masterpiece wasn’t actually published until 1966, after he had rewritten and reworked the material from his earlier diaries—a process similar to that of Proust, who returned to material written during Swann’s Way to fashion Time Regained. Read More »

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A Vitreous Vault

March 24, 2014 | by

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.

"Aigua Xelida (Palafrugell, Girona)" by Asier Sarasua Aranberri

Aigua Xelida (Palafrugell, Girona). Photo: Asier Sarasua Aranberri, via Flickr.

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. Read More »

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Sacrosanct

September 17, 2013 | by

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The cement was dirty, but so were my pants after three weeks of traveling. I lay down on the sidewalk in front of the Sagrada Família, stretching back to look up at the Nativity Façade, trying to capture most of my older sister and all of the spires in my camera’s viewfinder.

Sagrada Família is one of the most beautiful churches that I have ever seen; it is also one of the few that I have seen under construction. Not renovation or restoration, but construction. Since 1882, except for a brief interruption caused by the Spanish Civil War, this church has been the constant, but hurried home of masons and stonecutters, carpenters and sculptors, architects and electricians. On any day, a few hundred might be working inside and outside its walls; every month, church authorities spend over a million euros on construction.

The church, like the tourists who scuttle about its lower crypt and the worshippers who bow their heads and fold their hands in its central nave, is in a state of becoming, not being. The most famous hands to touch the church were those of Antoni Gaudí, who took over its design in 1883. When he died forty years later, less than a quarter of the church was finished.

Originally the idea of a bookseller who was inspired by his pilgrimage to Rome, Sagrada Família has always been an expiatory church, funded by donations. It is hard to estimate the total number of persons who have donated to the cause over the last one hundred and thirty-one years. Millions visit the church every year, their admission fees funding the costly construction that will continue for at least another decade.

While it is only a minor basilica, lacking the seat of a bishop, Sagrada Família calls to mind the great gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. When I lay down on the cement in front of one of its oldest facades, looking up at my sister, I thought of the many generations that had already witnessed its construction.

I thought of the mothers who brought their sons, only to have those boys take their own children to see the magnificent basilica in the making. I thought of all the fathers who came with their grandfathers only to return with their granddaughters to see light pouring through newly installed stained glass windows. I thought of all the generations who had seen and would see this church the way generations before had witnessed the building of the great cathedrals of the world.

Gaudí wanted the interior of Sagrada Família to look like a forest. The columns of the nave stretch like tree trunks from the floor to the ceiling, branching to support the heavy weight of the ceiling, but also sprawling, reaching like tendrils for the sky. The church is beautiful because of its continual incompletion, its revelation that human construction is not so unlike natural construction: you plant a sapling as a child, then years later it is still growing into something taller, something more; your grandparents planted daffodils that decades later you see still returning every spring; you sit reading the newspaper on a bench in a park that your father tells you was once under water, the river having receded miles from its ancient reaches.

Cathedrals reveal human construction for what it is. In “The Cathedral,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote “Their birth and rise, / as our own life’s too great proximity / will mount beyond our vision and our sense / of other happenings.” The poet disdains the possibility that cathedrals eclipse their makers: “as though that were history, / piled up in their immeasurable masses / in petrifaction safe from circumstance.” Life, Rilke argued, was on the streets beneath the cathedral’s spires, while death was “in those towers that, full of resignation, / ceased all at once from climbing.”

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Labyrinths: On the Centennial of Salvador Espriu

July 10, 2013 | by

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Illustration by Josep Pla-Narbona.

The great Catalan writer Salvador Espriu—and he was a very, very great writer—was born one hundred years ago today, in Santa Coloma de Farners, a town some one hundred kilometers northeast of Barcelona. He moved as a child further south to seaside Arenys de Mar and later even further south to Barcelona. His imagination was inherently Catalan in its most expansive sense, mar i muntanya, the sea and the mountains, weaving in and out of his settings and his sense of character and fate: the sea bringing the atmospherics of maritime communities to his work, as well as the classical and Egyptian via the Mediterranean, and the mountains cradling all of the intimacy, hermetic folklore, and internecine conflict by which towns hemmed in by ecology are often marked. He wrote fiction, plays, and was perhaps best known for his poetry. His skill set was gigantic. He had a project: his imagined, mythical homeland Sinera appears in much of his work (Sinera being a phonetic rendering of his childhood home of Arenys written backwards); characters from his poems and plays would appear in his fiction, without set-up, warning, or explication; if you read all of his work together, you realize that he has created within it, for it, a thriving community with its own inner logic, inner laws, and even physical laws (his work at times paws at the fantastical and the absurd like a cat determined to grab a candle’s flame); he invented other names for Spain, Catalunya, Barcelona as though those names would not do; and, despite what it would mean for his career as a writer, he wrote almost exclusively in Catalan.

When I was asked to translate Espriu’s collection of short stories, Ariadna al laberint grotesc, I was happy to do so. For the record, I’m not someone who can kind of read Catalan or who approximates from Spanish: I speak Catalan at home and when we’re back home in Barcelona that’s all I speak and write and read. I write this not to brag but to admit that I didn’t think that Espriu’s prose could get the best of me. But the beautiful and bizarre Adriadna al laberint grotesc (published last year as Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth by Dalkey Archive) provided challenges that provoked in me at the same time great melancholy and great joy. After I was done, fortunately, joy was what remained. Read More »

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Notes on Comedy, My Own and Others’

June 24, 2013 | by

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Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Although we associate comedy with spontaneity, the comedies I’ve made to date—including this new one, I’m So Excited!—are rehearsed exhaustively during preproduction and afterward during shooting. Spontaneity is always the product of rehearsal.

A script isn’t finished until the film has opened. I rehearse a script as if it was a play. As it happens, both Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and I’m So Excited! are play-like, in the sense that the action takes place mainly on one set. I rehearse them like plays, but I don’t film them like plays (actually, I’ve never directed a play, so I don’t know what it’s like). They’re very verbal comedies: the action lies basically in the words and in the openness of the characters.

I usually improvise a lot in rehearsals, then I rewrite the scenes and rehearse them again, and so on, to the point of obsession. With improvisations, the scenes usually grow longer, but it’s the best way I know to find nuances and parallel situations that I would never discover if we stuck rigidly to the script. After stretching the scenes out and blowing them up, I rewrite them again, trying to synthesize what has been improvised. And then we rehearse again. Some of the actors, especially Carlos Areces, can’t bear you to cut a single one of their jokes, even if it has come up while the scene is looking for itself and hasn’t yet gelled. Everything that comes up and involves his character belongs to him. If it were up to him, the film would last three hours. (At times I shoot two versions of the same scene, and I admit that at times I edit the “improvised” one.) Lola Dueñas is another one who immediately appropriates all the antics that occur to me during the first rehearsals. Afterward, it’s heartrending to tell her that it was just a game, a way of stretching, of being crazy, of probing, of losing all sense of the ridiculous—above all losing respect for the script—and that it was all just an exercise. When Lola sees me improvising a scene with her character, however exaggerated it may be, if she likes it, she grabs on to it and it’s impossible to convince her that I was just fooling around. I admit that at times she’s managed to get her own way. When I had the idea for the mise-en-scène of the first time she goes into a trance in the cockpit, looking for sensations while groping the two pilots’ bodies, all those involved laughed, but I never thought about editing the scene like that—and yet that’s how it turned out in the film. After much insistence, Lola asked me at least to look at how she did it and then decide. The point was, I had to give her the chance to play the scene that way. She did it, and after seeing it, I had no choice but to include it. Lola is capable of breathing such truth into the most insane situations that she manages to make any craziness plausible. Read More »

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A Week in Culture: Carlene Bauer, Writer

February 5, 2013 | by

-2DAY ONE

Tonight I went to my first Spanish class at Idlewild on Nineteenth Street. 7:30 to 9 P.M.. When I signed up for this class in November, shortly after I came back from spending a few weeks in Barcelona, I was flush with the joy of recent travel, and intent on injecting some novelty, intellectual and otherwise, into my life. I had an idea that I might try to make it back to Spain at the end of this year, and if that happened, I'd like to be able to do more than buy a few peaches without tripping over my tongue, or wanting to revert to French, the only other foreign language I know. And if that never happened, I would at least be doing something to forestall dementia. But as the intervening weeks, growing colder and darker, put more and more distance between me and that trip—I dreamed that, didn’t I?—I started to wonder why I’d done such a thing. It seemed as unnecessary and out of character as signing up for ten colonics through Groupon. But when, after the fifteen of us had gathered in a circle in the back of the store, and the teacher welcomed us in Spanish, something in me quickened in response to hearing the language. Maybe it was just sound as souvenir, but some sleeping dog in me perked up. Something similar had happened back in Barcelona, while standing in the La Central bookstore, looking at all the books I wanted to read but could not, feeling a strange urgency to get the key that would unlock what lay between those covers, a strange feeling that this was a language I needed to know deeper. Read More »

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