Interviews

Camilo José Cela, The Art of Fiction No. 145

Interviewed by Valerie Miles

Born in 1916 in Iria Flavia, a hamlet located in La Coruña, Galicia, Spain, into a wealthy family descended from Italian and English immigrants, Camilo José Cela later moved with his family to Madrid in 1925. In 1936, the year the Spanish civil war broke out, the twenty-year-old Cela completed his first work, Treading the Dubious Daylight, a book of poems. After being wounded in service, Cela spent a brief period of time during his convalescence as an official censor. Then in 1942, within the panorama of despair and chaos of postwar Spanish life, he secretly printed his first novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte, in a garage in Burgos. The novel sold out before the authorities were able to confiscate it, and met with immediate acclaim both by readers and critics alike. The event was so spectacular that today it is accepted as the starting point of Spanish postwar literary history. Cela consolidated his reputation as a novelist and writer by producing a few other works of great merit—including Those Passing Clouds, The Galician and His Crew, Rest Home, New Wanderings and Misfortunes of Lazarillo de Tormes, and his first travel book, Journey to the Alcarria. He also proved himself to be a multitalented artist, producing a series of paintings and drawings and appearing in a few movies.

Throughout these years, Cela earned his keep primarily through journalistic collaborations in various newspapers and magazines. 1951 proved to be a crucial year in his literary trajectory, being the year he published—in Argentina because it had been prohibited in Spain—his literary masterpiece The Hive. The official censors, angered by their inability to derail Cela’s brilliant and influential literary career, expelled him from the Press Association, which meant that his name could no longer appear in the printed media. But Cela unflinchingly continued and produced two more novels, Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son and The Blonde. He then considered it advisable to remove himself from the heated atmosphere of Madrid, perhaps remembering the fate of other intransigent Spanish writers such as Federico García Lorca. He left the Iberian Peninsula and installed himself and his family—his first wife, Rosario, and his son, Camilo José—on the island of Majorca, choosing against the exile to which many other Spanish writers of the period had resorted, and founded the literary magazine Papers from Son Armadans (Armadans being the neighborhood in which Cela lived). For however heated the climate, it was not able to impede Cela’s investiture into the Royal Spanish Academy in 1957. The years he spent in Majorca were fertile and saw the production of such works as The Rose, Slide for the Hungry, Secret Dictionary, St. Camillus 1936, and Officiating Tenebrae 5.

After serving king and country in 1977, the year he spent as a royal senator, Cela decided to take full advantage of having won his own war against Franco’s regime and its pesky censors. Not wishing to alter the image of the mischievous enfant terrible that he had had so much fun acquiring, he wrote a daring book full of scandalous language titled Chronicle of the Extraordinary Event of Archidona’s Dick. This was followed by another book along the same lines—an irreverent version of the classic La Celestina. After gleefully thumbing his nose at the ancien régime, Cela turned serious once again and in 1983 he produced Mazurka for Two Dead People, a structurally complicated and masterful story of love and death set in Galicia during the time of the civil war, which earned him the Premio Nacional de Literatura in 1984. In 1986 he returned to the region of La Alcarria to write New Journey to the Alcarria. However this second trip was not made with a backpack and on foot, but instead in a Rolls-Royce complete with a sculptor’s model as chauffeur.

Cela went on to receive every prize of merit in Spanish letters; in 1987 he received the Premio Príncipe de Asturias de las Letras for his overall literary work, and in 1994, the Premio Planeta for a new novel, Saint Andrew’s Cross, and in 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Yet it wasn’t until 1996 that Cela finally won Spain’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Cervantes, due in part to a penchant for ruffling feathers and his indefatigable insistence on being the indomitable and singular Cela.

 

INTERVIEWER

You have said that often literature is “a deception, yet another fraud in the long series of frauds to which human lives are made subject.” Was your attempt to write “without subterfuge” the reason for such stark novels as The Hive and The Family of Pascual Duarte?

CAMILO JOSÉ CELA

Well, I don’t know if that was the reason, but I don’t think a writer can permit himself subterfuges, or tricks, or camouflage, or masks.

INTERVIEWER

You have won a host of literary awards, including the Premio Nacional de Literatura in 1985, the Premio Príncipe de Asturias in 1987, and the Premio Planeta in 1994, among others. I would imagine that winning the Nobel Prize in 1989 was the one that has given you the greatest satisfaction.

CELA

Actually, I have won very few prizes. I am one of the least awarded Spanish writers; it just so happens that the prizes I have won are the important ones. But yes, of course, winning the Nobel was a great honor.

INTERVIEWER

Your Nobel speech was dedicated to the literary work of the painter José Gutíerrez-Solana. He is an illustrious painter and although his literary work is not very well known, you seem to find it of considerable merit.

CELA

Yes, that’s right. I admire both his pictorial and literary work. I have always said that every page Solana has written has its corresponding reflection in his painting or every painting corresponds with a reflection in his literature. If you don’t immediately find the reflection, just keep looking and you will find it eventually. Solana was an extraordinary writer who created six books—magnificent pages. But unfortunately Spain is such a poor country that it doesn’t lend itself to having two ideas issuing from one single person. If a person is a good writer, then he can’t play bridge well also. Or be a magnificent golfer. No, it just isn’t done. It is obvious that in the case of Solana this is an absolute lie because he was a great painter as well as a great writer. But as a writer no one paid any attention to him, which is a pity because his work is truly remarkable.

INTERVIEWER

Saul Bellow once wrote that you put yourself in a paradoxical position by attacking literature and then writing novels. What is your opinion?

CELA

Well, perhaps he is correct; I don’t really know. I believe that literature is always a subterfuge. Truman Capote, who was a friend of mine, once interviewed me for a weekly that was published in Tangier called España. He told me that he would have liked to have written Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son. But it cannot matter to a writer what others say of him. Bellow may be right, but I don’t really know.

INTERVIEWER

Many critics claim to have found an existentialist backdrop to your work; man is in the end responsible for his actions. However, Bellow considers there to be little theory in your work, that you are not trying to convey existential, sexual, or political messages.

CELA

And he’s right, without a doubt.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel then that a writer has a social responsibility toward his readers?

CELA

No, he has a responsibility before himself and his own conscience. He must have a very great sense of his own conscience, be very aware of himself.

INTERVIEWER

Would you agree with Bellow that in your frankness and lack of squeamishness in detailing the harshest of human landscapes your work can be compared to that of Jean-Paul Sartre or Alberto Moravia?

CELA

I’m not sure. Well, yes, they both were friends of mine, above all Moravia. It’s a pity that Moravia was never given the Nobel because he certainly deserved it. I think the things we writers say about each other are simply an extension of what we would like to be true, but that perhaps are not completely accurate. Also, there exists a certain responsibility—the commitment I just mentioned—to your own conscience. There is nothing more grievous than a writer who is at the service of a master. It’s really a horrible affair. Because afterwards, the writer has no choice but to swallow his own work. Look what has happened to the work of the artists who were under Stalin’s charge. Under Stalin’s or under anyone else’s for that matter. The other day someone called a piece of information to my attention that had been taken from The Guinness Book of Records. The human being to whom the greatest number of statues has been raised in the entire world is Stalin. He would give the order, Make me a statue! and they had to continue making them. Only to find that later they all came crashing obstreperously to the ground! It’s sheer nonsense and one shouldn’t allow it to happen.

INTERVIEWER

Then a writer should never allow himself to become captive to an artificial perspective or situation?

CELA

Look, there is nothing more ridiculous than, for example—I won’t give any names—but let’s just say the writer who characterizes himself as “progressive,” or who feigns poverty but actually has more money than all of us. It’s an affectation! One day a woman, a very elegant French woman told me, Your lifestyle and tastes are akin to those of a banker. I told her, Well, I’m not a banker and I haven’t got a red cent, nor do I need one. I have enough money to live comfortably. And why must I act as though I were a poor man? Be careful, because this would be nothing more than hypocrisy. And if I would give you the name of the writer I have in mind, you would tell me that I’m right. But he is rather vexed with me at the moment, so I won’t mention his name.

INTERVIEWER

You have defined your goal in literature as being “to touch the ulcer with your finger” and “write without the poultice of rhetoric.” Is this in keeping with your idea of “literature without subterfuge”?

CELA

Well, that’s my aspiration. If I achieve it or not, I don’t know. But it is certainly one of my intentions.

INTERVIEWER

What would you consider the greatest praise and the most painful criticism you have received?

CELA

Everything has been said about me; I have been called a genius and I have been called mentally deficient. At least one of the two charges must be erroneous!

INTERVIEWER

Does it bother you to be called mentally deficient?

CELA

No, no. One cannot be dependent upon these things, or one wouldn’t be able to show one’s face in public. The writer—well, I speak for myself, not for others—writes according to what he thinks he wants to say. Later, if he is correct or if he is mistaken, well, that is another problem. But you cannot take the attitudes of the reader or the critic too much to heart or you will lose yourself. It’s very clear.

INTERVIEWER

Then a writer must learn to harden himself to such commentaries?

CELA

No, it’s just the way a person is. I don’t think it’s a matter of hardening yourself. It’s an attitude. What matters to me more is the consideration I may have for myself. That worries me very much. Again, there is this phenomenon called the conscience. If I go against it, then my conscience feels remorse. But anything referring to the conscience of others is very subjective. Between the numerous readers that any writer may have, you will always find a variety of opinions to suit every taste. Every reader sees the same thing in a different way, often with good intentions and frequently coerced by the atmosphere that surrounds him. But for any specific subject, however miniscule it may be, there are always diverging attitudes. They cannot be kept in mind when writing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel that your work has been properly understood by the reading public?

CELA

Perhaps in Spain it is the case, but outside of Spain I really don’t know. Obviously, translations are always difficult and as the saying goes, traduttore, traditore; a translator can also be a traitor, although not deliberately and often subconsciously. I have seen some translations that are absolute nonsense. But it is impossible to look after them. First of all, I don’t have sufficient knowledge of all foreign languages to be able to do so, nor does anyone. Secondly, I don’t have the time to do so. And thirdly, it simply is not worth the effort. In the prologue to the Romanian edition of The Family of Pascual Duarte I go so far as to say that all translations should be forbidden. I say it paradoxically but it is also true. It’s impossible to say in one language what you are saying in another. For example, a Spanish ventana is not the equivalent of a French fenêtre or an English window; they are all different things. There is a nuance that covers each language.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t it true that your maternal language was English?

CELA

Well, I spoke English before Spanish but I don’t speak it anymore. My mother was English and my grandmother—her mother—was Italian and lived in Spain. After my grandfather died they tended to speak Spanish because it was easier for them. So, English lost ground as the family language and in the end disappeared altogether.

INTERVIEWER

Have you been able to read any of your English translations?

CELA

Yes, I have read some of them and they are not the worst of the lot. The North American Anthony Kerrigan did some very good translations. But then of course we did them together in Palma de Mallorca. We used to meet once a week. He would make a list outlining the doubts he had as they arose and when we met we would discuss them at length. That’s how a good translation is done. If not, when the translators aren’t completely familiar with the language they are translating from, they go directly to the dictionary. A dictionary is too cold. There are so many nuances that can’t be found in a dictionary and translations based on them are simply not good ones. In general, the French and English translations are not bad. The bad translations are the German ones. I don’t speak German, but Spanish friends of mine who speak German have told me that they’re pretty bad. It’s unavoidable. One day I received a book of mine translated into Chinese and I couldn’t even make out which book it was. That produces a certain sense of stupor. I thought that perhaps the person who sent the book was playing a joke on me and it wasn’t really one of my books. What was I to do? But then my name appeared on one of the interior pages in Occidental characters. Well, at least I now know it’s one of mine, although I still haven’t figured out which one it is!

INTERVIEWER

You once said that “in order to write books, all one needs to have is something to say, a stack of blank papers and a pen with which to say it; everything else is extraneous and nothing more than an attempt to add theatrics to the trade.”

CELA

Without a doubt. I think inspiration is a refuge for poets. All poets are generally very lazy. They’re loafers! Plato was right when he wanted to put colored ribbons around their heads and expel them from the boundaries of the state. Picasso once said, “I don’t know if inspiration exists, but when it comes, it usually finds me working.” One time a woman asked Baudelaire what inspiration was, and he responded by saying, “Inspiration is something that commands me to work every single day.”* And Dostoyevsky said, “Genius is nothing more than a long, sustained patience.” What a person has to do is sit himself down before a stack of blank papers, which is in itself terrifying. There is nothing as frightening as a stack of blank pieces of paper and the thought that I have to fill them from top to bottom, placing letters one after the other. And for that reason I have the feeling that I want to say something and that what I have to say is worth being said. Of course, one must have confidence in the fact that writing, like a child in school, “I will not talk during class” one hundred times, well, simply is not literature.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still write longhand or have you modernized with a word processor?

CELA

Yes, I always write longhand. The truth is I don’t know how to type and I don’t have a computer. There is a computer in the house but my wife uses it, not me, because I’m afraid it will give me cramps. It’s true! Confronted with such machines—computers, even automobiles—I’m like a person from a very remote and distant area. I look at them distrustfully and don’t touch them for fear that they may give off sparks. It seems very convenient for my wife and I’m happy for her, but I prefer to write longhand. Whether I use a fountain pen, a ballpoint pen, a pencil, or a marker is all the same to me. I’m not superstitious or maniacal about such things. One young journalist asked me once, Do you plan on writing until you don’t have anything more to say? and I responded by saying, No, until I no longer have anything to write!

INTERVIEWER

Would it be true to say that you are preoccupied with a search for the Spanish identity, the essence of the Spanish existence as a society lost in a certain decadence resulting from the memory of a splendorous past?

CELA

Yes, but my interest is not something deliberate. I mean to say that I don’t specifically look for it, but that I inevitably tend toward looking for it. Look, I’m half Spanish, a quarter Italian, and a quarter English, and my great-grandparents were Belgian. This causes me to gravitate towards a certain vision of Spain; I see it perhaps less as a Spaniard than as a Hispanist. For example, I love the Spain that the Spaniards themselves don’t like: Spain of the flies, the town bullfighters, the priests, the civil guards with their tricorns, the garrotes . . .

INTERVIEWER

A vision of the España negra.

CELA

No, it’s not truly negra. It’s not any more negra than any other country.

INTERVIEWER

Or perhaps the España árida?

CELA

Well, arid, yes. But pardon me, all the south of Italy is arid and so is Greece and the entire Mediterranean region. Let’s not get lost in stereotypes. I’ve never lived in the España árida. I live in the north of Spain in Galicia, which is of another color. We, the Galicians, have a country that is the same color as Belgium or Holland. In exchange for this color, we cannot go out of the house without an umbrella. I have just returned from the wedding of the Infanta Elena in Seville, where the sun shone radiantly and the temperature was magnificent. In exchange for this, they don’t have water. But what is there to do? That shouldn’t surprise anyone, because it is already known that things have always been this way.

INTERVIEWER

Has it ever occurred to you to write about the life of the Gypsies? Or perhaps you have been tempted to write a lovely romance with heroic characters and a happy ending?

CELA

Well, no, I haven’t. In a book of mine that Picasso illustrated I think there may be a romance, but I don’t remember it. I believe I speak of a Gypsy as well. I have this vague idea—yes, I think so. There are Gypsies in Spain and one cannot ignore their presence. There is a very curious problem with the Gypsies. Well, it isn’t really a problem, but the payos—we are the payos—are racist and completely reject the Gypsies. But be very careful, the Gypsies reject us all the more emphatically. The Gypsy is rigorously racist and doesn’t consider himself a part of our way of life. He doesn’t involve himself in our lives. He’s more like a spectator. A friend of mine, a Gypsy, once told me that we—the payos—are disgraced because we have to work in order to live. They don’t. By stealing a hen, they already have the problem solved for a day and tomorrow certainly another hen will fall from somewhere. The Gypsies don’t usually do military service, neither during wartime nor at any other time since they don’t figure within the census. However, during the war, the Spanish civil war, which I fought in since it caught me when I was twenty years old, there was a Gypsy in my regiment who told me one night after the day had seen a particularly heavy amount of fighting, How appalling your war is! You payos have really made a mess of things this time! They didn’t kill him but they could have. He said to me, Look, what does any of this have to do with me? And he wasn’t wrong. What was he doing there? They had caught him and within an hour dressed him in a uniform and sent him off.

INTERVIEWER

Do you agree with Pío Baroja’s statement that “art is not a series of rules, but life itself; the spirit of things as they are reflected in the spirit of man?”

CELA

Yes, of course, naturally. Don Pío Baroja was always right and in this case pointedly so. Yes, I think it’s very clear. You cannot be subjected to rules. Then writing wouldn’t go beyond being a mere ability. Rules can be found in soccer or any kind of sport and in the end they prove nothing more than a certain ability. Great art is differentiated by the fact that it is constantly in the state of being created. Any professor could say, This book doesn’t follow the rules of grammar. But what does that matter if you are creating new rules? Once Unamuno was told, The word you use cannot be found in the dictionary. He responded by saying, That doesn’t matter, it will be. You see?

INTERVIEWER

And you have never, in any moment, felt something akin to insecurity or doubt regarding your abilities?

CELA

Never. Look, my mother’s side of the family was rather Victorian and we received a very rigorous upbringing. We lived with my grandparents, and there was a great difference between the way the boys and the girls were treated. The boys could do anything they wished except for a few things. We couldn’t lie or tattle on a brother or a friend. But almost anything else was acceptable. We lived in the Galician countryside, and one of the things my family would never accept was when I came home crying with my head beaten in from a fight with another boy. The theory was that if a boy from this family was going to get into a fight, the injured person had better be the other one. It was inconceivable to my family to think in any other terms. Therefore, I had a certain inbred sense of security in myself. Believing in yourself creates self-assurance. For example, I was given an honorary doctorate in Sarajevo and both my wife and the then minister of foreign affairs, Francisco Fernandez Ordoñez, said, You can’t go there, it’s full of snipers. But I said, Let’s see, this is a war between the Bosnians and the Serbs. I’m Galician. Therefore, they aren’t after me. Yes, but if you’re there, they might hit you. No, they won’t hit me, they will always hit the other guy. I fought in a war and I must say that war is actually quite beautiful. Excuse me, war with conventional weapons. It’s like a rugby game a little a lo bestia. It’s lovely. And this war is between Bosnians and Serbs and I’m Coruñés. Why would they want to shoot at me?

INTERVIEWER

I guess you have a point, but I certainly would not want to be the one to put it to the test! But if I could ask, what would you consider the most important quality of a writer: his artistic vision, the form, or the content of his work?

CELA

Well, content and continent, essence or form is an age-old discussion of which I am not in the least interested because essence and form are one and the same thing. Literature is nothing more than words and it is within these words that the idea resides. There is not a single word in all the languages of the world that doesn’t have a meaning. Therefore, why look for the fifth leg on a cat? It’s just that way. No, essence and form, content and continent are all one and the same thing. It’s like the question of using a technique or not using a technique. It’s not necessary even to consider it! It’s similar to the need for a certain kind of scaffolding in order to raise a Gothic cathedral. Later the scaffolding disappears. Either they take it down or it falls down by itself.

INTERVIEWER

Can a writer be pardoned for certain aspects of his work that may not be quite up to par if the overall work has merit?

CELA

No, his lack of quality is unpardonable, because then he should have dedicated himself to some other trade. For example, he could do something useful, like registering baggage in train stations or dancing with female tourists and making a living off of them. On the other hand, that would be a very noble trade. I haven’t dedicated myself to dancing with tourists, well, first of all because I am no longer of an age to do such a thing, and secondly because I haven’t had the proper conditioning. Otherwise I would have loved it. Making a living off of flirting with women would be a magnificent trade.

INTERVIEWER

So then a writer must be willing to die of hunger or he should change his occupation?

CELA

That’s right. One should never allow oneself to be conditioned by anything. Absolutely nothing should influence you and even less the favors of power or money. There is another consideration to keep in mind: the writer can earn money in this world but he should never propose it to himself first. If the aim is to earn a lot of money, one sets one’s sights too low and never rises from a certain kind of poverty. But if one writes what one wants and later finds that there are whatever number of readers interested in hearing or reading it, the money will come as a result. But it happens without searching for it, or it may never happen.

INTERVIEWER

You are fundamentally an experimental author. What has led you to experiment so much in novelistic techniques—curiosity, artistic need, or discontent with existing techniques?

CELA

Well, there is nothing more undramatic than a writer who repeats himself, or who becomes a mere caricature of himself, not to mention the writer who transforms himself into his own death mask. When I published The Family of Pascual Duarte and the series of notes that describe my wanderings about Spain, Los Apuntes carpetovetónicos, which contain a more or less conventional vision of Spain—la España negra, if you wish—it became obvious that I would always have been able to enjoy great success in following that style. But I simply couldn’t persist in it. No, and I repeat, there is nothing more painful, more bitter, than to become your own death mask. A very important Italian painter became aware in his mature years that his paintings were not selling. He understood that people continued to look for the paintings he did as a youth. So he began to copy the style of his younger years. How bitter and appalling! I suppose it must be a terrifying feeling and therefore to avoid it one must experiment with various paths. If one of these paths serves for someone who comes after you, then let them continue along it. After all, the paths belong to everyone; they’re open to us all, no? All themes are fair game. I think it was Flaubert who one day was asked by a youth presuming to be a writer, Maestro, if only I had a plot, I would be able to write a novel. I will give you a plot, Flaubert said. Let’s see, a man and a woman love each other, period and end of story. Now develop it yourself. With talent, you will be able to come up with The Charterhouse of Parma. But you must put forth the talent. One day a writer, a young writer, approached me complaining that he didn’t have the proper resources that would allow him to write. I told him, I will give you one thousand pieces of paper and a fountain pen as a gift. If you have talent, you will write Don Quixote on one side and The Divine Comedy on the other. Now go ahead and write, and we’ll see what happens, although you probably will not turn out such works. It’s very dramatic, but also very true.

INTERVIEWER

Then you believe that talent is God-given, or I suppose one could say, genetically rendered?

CELA

I don’t really know, but evidently either one has talent or one doesn’t have it. Talent as applied to whatever you wish. I don’t believe in absolute talents, I believe in talents—oh, I don’t know what the adjective would be—but a talent for one thing or a talent for another. Either you have a minimum of talent or there is nothing that can be done about it. Time cannot substitute for lack of talent. For example, how long would it have taken Velázquez to paint Las Meninas? Perhaps a month? If I were given six years to paint the same work, would it have come out the same? No! We could stand for six years before a canvas and would never have the same results.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe in muses?

CELA

No, absolutely not. I spoke of this before. This is nothing more than a subterfuge used by lyric poets. It’s just so convenient. It’s a lie. The excuse is used not when a good piece of writing is being turned out but when a good piece is not forthcoming.

INTERVIEWER

One of the results of your experiments in literature is that you have destroyed many novelistic myths. Has it been your intention to do so?

CELA

Not at all. When someone attempts to go against something he usually does so independent of his own will.

INTERVIEWER

Which do you consider first, the technique or the content? That is to say, first do you think about the technique that you wish to experiment with or do you already have the story and the technique comes about as the necessary form of resolution?

CELA

 The technique is not deliberate. I once said, and I maintain, that in order for a woman to have a child it is enough that she is of a determinate age and that she has consented to certain amorous episodes. Later, she gives birth to a precious son or daughter with two ears, blond hair or brown, who is smart and a veritable delight. This woman may not know a word of gynecology or obstetrics, nor does she need to. She may even be illiterate! It doesn’t matter! This woman doesn’t know a word of genetic theory, she has simply reunited the adequate conditions of age and circumstance and, I repeat, she has a delightful child. A novel happens in exactly the same way.

INTERVIEWER

Then you sit down with your pen and write whatever comes to mind?

CELA

Yes, that’s right. I sit down before a stack of blank sheets of paper—which, again, is an absolutely terrifying experience—and I begin to write. If nothing occurs to me, I remain seated at the writing table until something finally does come to mind. If I got up and started walking around each time nothing occurred to me, I would probably spend long spells pacing about. Beware of such things! You must surrender yourself to a discipline. People often say that writers have the immense luck of not having a boss. That’s a lie. I have as many thousands of bosses as I do readers. Be careful! Because the day the readers open their hands and let go of me, I will be overtaken with cramps.

INTERVIEWER

How many hours a day do you spend before the stack of paper?

CELA

Now I spend less time, but I used to spend eight, nine, sometimes ten hours a day writing.

INTERVIEWER

Now that you have so many commitments it must be difficult to find hours for writing.

CELA

No, there is more than enough time for everything. The important thing is not to waste it. People tend to waste their time. I don’t mean only the Spanish, but everybody. I write a daily column for the ABC newspaper in Madrid. Nobody ever sees me carrying papers and running around with airs of being all fussed. Nobody has ever seen me that way. Dr. Marañon, to whom I am very indebted, once told me that when people asked him how he was able to fulfill the many demands on his time, he would say that he was a time ragpicker. He didn’t waste a single minute. Not a single one! One should never adopt these kinds of airs of being tormented: Call me, I’ll give you my phone numbers . . . No! I have no more than one telephone and I don’t even answer it. There’s no need whatsoever for me to do so. When I’m at home and the telephone rings, even if I’m right next to it, I never pick it up.

INTERVIEWER

Then why have a telephone at all?

CELA

Well, so that someone else in the house can pick it up.

INTERVIEWER

Which writers do you consider to have exercised the greatest influence on you?

CELA

All Spanish writers who have written before me, because we all come from each other. Also, those who have written in languages that are unknown to me or whose work I have not had the chance to read nor have the intention of reading in the future nor even have the slightest knowledge of their existence. There is something which is called “influence of scope.” Albert Camus shared the expression with me when we published The Stranger and The Family of Pascual Duarte within a very short period of time. There were a host of doctoral theses that attempted to demonstrate that The Family of Pascual Duarte was influenced by The Stranger and the same amount of theses attempting to prove that the opposite was true. He was dying of laughter when he said to me, When we published these novels, nobody knew who we were! Nor did we know each other. Nobody knew us! We were two very young writers, he being slightly older than I, but by a very little bit, and we were completely unknown. But the wise men come out to give their opinion [simulating the voice of an academic]: The influence is marked . . . What are they talking about? It’s so annoying. But yes, all the Spanish writers who have come before me and, if you wish, all those in all languages, even if I don’t understand them, have influenced me. Literature is like a race run with torches. Each generation bears its testimony to the point it desires, or to where it is able, then passes it along to the next. Then their part is over. There is no more to it than that. Anything else is mere dramatics.

INTERVIEWER

I think it was García Sabell, the Galician writer, who said that your “soul has a profoundly ironic baggage that could possibly come from the mixture of Galician and English blood.” Perhaps that is where you get your sense of humor?

CELA

Well, Galician and English humor are very parallel, if not identical. It’s not a very deliberate humor, as is that of the Andalusians who truly have a sense of humor that could be considered popular. The Galician humor is more ironic than comical and is very similar to the English style of humor. For example, in Galicia there are—or there were—lawyers who were called silveira lawyers. The silveira (blackberry bush) grows along the country roads in Galicia. These lawyers acted as arbiters in disputes that would arise between fairgoers and vendors over the prices of goods. A silveira lawyer was paid fifty centimes, which in those days was worth one peseta, and he would give his opinion regarding the argument. The decision made by the silveira stood. One day in my village a silveira was listening to an argument between a fairgoer and a vendor and he said something that only a Galician could understand. He said to the vendor, Yes, indeed you are being fair with your price. But only a little. A Catalan or a French person would never understand this kind of humor. It could be a typical anecdote of Bernard Shaw.

INTERVIEWER

What about the Basques, would they understand this type of humor?

CELA

Even less. The Basque sense of humor is very immediate and even infantile. The Basques belong to a race that is of the most ancient, but intellectually it is not one of the more solvent of Europe or even of Spain. As is the Andalusian, without a doubt.

INTERVIEWER

In your work there exists a certain duality in form: the content may be very harsh yet the style is always light with a beautiful lyrical quality. Would you consider this duality another Celan irony?

CELA

Yes, perhaps, but I repeat, it’s not deliberate.

INTERVIEWER

It comes from the writer’s ironic baggage?

CELA

It is a result of his moral, ethical, and psychological baggage.

INTERVIEWER

And, as is your case, a certain mixture of bloods?

CELA

Yes, and even if this mixture didn’t exist, I simply do not believe in deliberate literature. With this I think I could respond to all of your questions. I mean, if I would sit down before my stack of papers and write a novel deliberately, it would never work. For The Family of Pascual Duarte I first created an outline. I have since lost it and it’s a pity. But before I even finished the first chapter, the protagonist had gone off somewhere else. When a character is created well, he doesn’t obey the desires of the author but instead escapes him. The character does what he wants. Then the writer follows behind him, writing down what the character does, never knowing ahead of time what the character is going to do next. It’s like what happens in dreams when suddenly there is a situation within the dream that produces a great change. You had no idea where the dream was going. The person who was dreaming had no idea what was going to happen. That is similar to the life of your characters. The trick is to portray them skillfully and there you have the novel.

INTERVIEWER

Francisco Gómez de Quevedo is a master of irony. I know you say that you are the fruit of all writers who have come before you, but would you agree that he has particularly influenced your work?

CELA

Perhaps of all the illustrious literary ancestors, Quevedo would be my closest relative. More than Cervantes. I feel that Quevedo is the most important writer in the Spanish language and very difficult to equal. He is extraordinary. I never tire of reading Quevedo.

INTERVIEWER

In The Hive you situate some of your characters in the Quevedo barrio in Madrid. Does that have anything to do with your admiration for this writer?

CELA

No. The Quevedo barrio is so called because they have built a small square and put a statue in the middle of it. There is no connection there.

INTERVIEWER

You once said that you consider yourself the most important novelist since the generation of 1898 and that it horrifies you to consider how easy it was for you to reach that position: “I must beg your pardon for not having been able to avoid it.”

CELA

Oh, I said that as a joke. My aim was to irritate a journalist from El Pais newspaper. That’s what that comment was all about. I was only thirty-something when I said that.

INTERVIEWER

But you seem to enjoy irritating people. You have quite a reputation for it.

CELA

Irritating people? Well, there is nothing funnier than a person who is irritated.

INTERVIEWER

Then you do some things deliberately after all!

CELA

Yes, yes, well, I used to do it a lot more! Now of course I don’t do such things since I am what people call an older gentleman. I will turn eighty-one next year! But before, in a cabaret or some such place, when I would see a very serious gentleman sitting at a table smoking a cigar and not bothering anyone, I would look at him and begin to do this. [He makes a gesture raising the right side of his upper lip.] I would keep doing it throughout the night. Finally, the man would get up and go to the bathroom to look in the mirror because he thought something is wrong with his own lip! I would continue on and finally drive the poor man absolutely mad.

INTERVIEWER

You commented once that you suffered a lot while writing The Hive.

CELA

Yes, and I’m still suffering. The fact is that writing is difficult work for me.

INTERVIEWER

You mean that writing is something that causes you to suffer?

CELA

I have a foundation where all my original manuscripts are kept. It’s the only foundation in the world that contains the entire body of a writer’s originals. If you go there someday, you will find that all my manuscripts are replete with scratches and scribbles. I suffer while writing. But I also delight in writing. When I am trying to conquer a determined situation where it hasn’t occurred to me in what direction I need to move, I don’t jump ahead of it or leave it for later. No. I don’t continue until I have resolved the problem. So you will see in some of my manuscripts that I have written dates in the margin, marking days when I have written no more than three lines. Very few lines, but that doesn’t matter. I will never have to touch them again.

INTERVIEWER

Where is your foundation located?

CELA

In Padrón, Iria Flavia in La Coruña. Padrón is the seat of the city hall, the municipal village. Iria Flavia is a hamlet about two kilometers away as you follow the road that leads to Santiago.

INTERVIEWER

Is it true that before sending a manuscript to an editor you read the entire work aloud in order to polish it?

CELA

Not exactly. The case is that when I write I do it aloud. Many faults and cacophonies that the ear is able to catch cannot be seen on the written page. So, if it sounds poorly to my ear I can catch the error. Sometimes it takes me quite a long time to discover what isn’t working, that a word is lacking or that one needs to be taken out, but I insist on searching for it and finally finding what’s wrong—that there is a word missing or that a comma isn’t placed correctly, etcetera. It comes from listening. And one must, naturally, write as best as one is able. I will allow someone to say that in one of my pages there is something that is not well done. What is there to do? But it’s the best that I have been able to do because I always put the greatest interest in my five senses. If it doesn’t come out better, well, all the worse for me.

INTERVIEWER

Would you allow an editor to make changes in one of your manuscripts?

CELA

No! He would be flying out the window in seconds flat! Never—be careful in this—never! The Spanish editors are respectful of such things, the European editors are in general. But the Americans are not so respectful. Well, there are many different kinds of editor. But I think the American authors allow it. In Spain, France, or England it would be inconceivable. An editor would never dare to say something to an author because they know the author would pick up and move on to the neighboring editor.

INTERVIEWER

One of your literary trademarks is tremendismo, which has been defined as a mixture of “dirty realism” together with certain techniques taken from Joyce, Proust, and Dos Passos and something vaguely related to existentialism.

CELA

Let me ask you this, does any of that matter? Not a bit! And the critics say and the professors say . . . let them say what they want! Look, all of us must make a living at something. They take one of my books and say, This is how it is. Let them say whatever makes them happy! What does any of it matter? Bah!

INTERVIEWER

All right, then I will ask you if you see humans as being truly as perverse and the world as cruel as you portray them in your books? I mean, are there no redeeming factors to life?

CELA

Well, I’m sorry but I see it as I portray it in my books. Because I don’t pretend, I make no pretenses, and it’s truly horrifying.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe that society is what perverts man or is man already perverse ad ovum?

CELA

Well, I wouldn’t take it too far, but in general, I believe that society is what is perverting. I believe in the individual and not in syndicates, that’s very clear. I don’t believe in congregations, nor religion, nor political parties. I believe in the individual.

INTERVIEWER

Then that goes along with what you said before, that a writer must be wary of the favors of money and power, maintaining himself always on the outside of any conglomerate or institution.

CELA

Yes, that’s right, always. I am very much in agreement with that.

INTERVIEWER

Although you write about the degradation of the human condition, one can see that you have a certain affection for your characters and sympathize with their plight. I will go so far as to say that one can even sense a certain optimism. You would at least admit to that much, wouldn’t you?

CELA

Well, I’m not sure. I don’t feel that the human beings whose fate it has been to live in times such as these have too many reasons for optimism. Humanity has pretty much come unhinged. But I, individually and humanly, am optimistic. I believe that we will end up crawling out of the ruts. I remember when I was wounded in the war . . . I still have fuselage in my body that my wife and some crazy doctor wanted me to have removed. I refuse! It has been in my body for over fifty years and the only thing I must be careful not to do is walk in front of a store that sells magnets or I’ll end up stuck to the windows! But when I was wounded and in the hospital I was able to hear, although I could neither see nor speak, a doctor say to the nun, And this poor boy, for the short amount of time he has left, give him the best you have. And I thought, But I’m as good as a rose! I thought it, but I couldn’t say it. I was more than half-dead, more like three-quarters dead. Well, that happened more than fifty-some years ago and here I am! And still in pretty good running order at that!

INTERVIEWER

And still putting up a pretty good fight . . .

CELA

Yes, and as I have already mentioned I will turn eighty-one next year. I’m very proud of that. And do you know how many years older than my wife I am?

INTERVIEWER

No, not exactly. I know that your wife is very young.

CELA

Well, how many do you think?

INTERVIEWER

I’m not sure, perhaps about thirty years older?

CELA

No, forty-one. Well, forty at the moment because she has just had a birthday, but on May 11 I will once again be forty-one years older than her.

INTERVIEWER

You are very well preserved. Who has more energy, you or your wife?

CELA

She does. She fucks me so that she can tire herself out a bit.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find it rejuvenating to have a wife that is so much younger than yourself?

CELA

Well, I don’t know. I am certainly pleased with how things are now. She has me working very much . . .

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that you have the heart of a picaro?

CELA

No, no, I wouldn’t say that. I would say, however, that I have a vision of Spain similar to that of an English tourist.

INTERVIEWER

It almost seems as though throughout your entire work the true protagonist is Spain itself.

CELA

Perhaps you’re right. Maybe that is true. Spain is a very wide, manifold and varied country. You must see that yourself.

INTERVIEWER

Which of your works would you consider the most important?

CELA

Ah, well, I don’t know. It’s all the same to me. I haven’t read a single one, so I can’t really say. No, I haven’t read a one of them and I haven’t the slightest interest in doing so. I think it’s enough that I write them. There is nothing in the world more stupid than the writer who turns himself into his own Buddha and goes through life looking down at his own belly button.

INTERVIEWER

When The Hive was published in New York you were immediately expelled from the Colegio de Periodistas and your name was prohibited from appearing in any official newspapers. From that time forward you had to fight the iron fist of the official censors.

CELA

Yes, well, they didn’t censor The Hive; it was entirely prohibited in Spain.

INTERVIEWER

Knowing that you were threatened with censorship, did you ever change your writing or self-censor?

CELA

No, that never occurred to me. I knew full well that I would eventually stumble over the censors but it was just the same to me, and anyway I knew that in the long run I would win the battle, which is precisely what happened. Also, throughout the years the Franco regime was in power, it never became a regime of strength, but stayed a regime based on force. Which is not the same thing. A regime that is supported only by the police cannot resist; it will not stand. There is no theoretical structure holding it up, and there wasn’t in Franco’s case. The Nazis had a theoretical structure—the Fascists, the Communists, Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini all had one. But not Franco. Franco just went along, maintaining, which he was successful in doing for forty years.

INTERVIEWER

You never went into exile as many Spanish artists found it necessary, or at least preferable, to do. But you did distance yourself from the mainland by spending many years on the island of Majorca. Was that a conscious decision to escape too direct a confrontation with Franco’s regime?

CELA

No, not really. I went to Majorca for other reasons. I just didn’t want to be in Madrid. I spent many years in Majorca, perhaps thirty or more.

INTERVIEWER

They were very fruitful years for you.

CELA

Yes, well, if you continue to work, after a time you realize that quite a heap of pages has accumulated.

INTERVIEWER

You had a very active public presence during the difficult years after Franco died—during the period of the transition—and were named by King Juan Carlos I as a senator in Las Cortes Constituyentes in 1977, where you participated in drawing up the Spanish constitution. It must give you an enormous sense of pride to have contributed in so important a role to the history of Spanish democracy.

CELA

Well, my role was minimal, but certainly it is a beautiful experience to help in generating a constitution. What’s more, it’s a constitution that is functioning in Spain. That’s really something because in Spain constitutions have this tendency to last but a very short time. This one is working. One time, after being in a senate session for eight or nine hours (and I was more bored than an oyster, but I felt it was my duty to be there given the fact that the king had named me to the position and I had accepted as, well, as an obligation) I started to nod off a bit. The president saw me and said, Senator Cela, you are sleeping. Of course, I then woke up, or halfway woke up, and said, No, Mr. President, I was asleep. It’s one and the same thing, to be asleep or to be sleeping, he said. So I responded by saying, No, Mr. President, it’s not the same thing at all to be screwed as to be screwing. And it’s true, it’s not the same thing at all, is it?

INTERVIEWER

I’m sure the president must have loved having his grammar corrected so astutely!

CELA

Well, it’s the answer that occurred to me at that moment! Perhaps on a different day nothing would have occurred to me at all. It’s just that he gave it to me so easily that the response would probably have come out by itself.

INTERVIEWER

It seems as though the books you wrote based on your vagabundeos throughout Spain, which you call your apuntes carpetovetónicos, sprout from the same disquiet of the generation of 1898 and Unamuno’s search for the España eterna.

CELA

Yes, and a desire to flee the cities. That also interested them. Myself, I live in the country.

INTERVIEWER

You prefer country life over the city?

CELA

Absolutely. I live in the country and I have always lived in the country during my entire life whenever I have had a choice in the matter. Walter Starky, an Irish gentleman and director of the British Council in Madrid, also walked all over Spain carrying a violin.

INTERVIEWER

A violin?

CELA

Yes, yes, he played the violin and spent a lot of time with the Gypsies.

INTERVIEWER

Journey to the Alcarria stands out in this series. Your characters seem to react to the sophistication and overacademicism of city life. Would you qualify them as sort of actively anti-intellectual?

CELA

No, not really. The vagabundeo is actually quite literary in Spain and in other areas as well.

INTERVIEWER

And you have returned to the Alcarria, but this time as a very elegant vagabond.

CELA

Yes, in a Rolls-Royce. But I no longer have the Rolls, now I have a Bentley. I have come to realize that a Rolls is only for Arab sheiks or Texas oilmen. The British royal family and I drive Bentleys.

INTERVIEWER

And the attractive young mulatto chauffeur, is she still with you?

CELA

No, she is not with me any longer. Now my wife drives. The authorities took my license away.

INTERVIEWER

Really? For what reason?

CELA

Well, I simply do not agree with the traffic regulations. But since they are laws . . . The idea of having to put on a safety belt and stop at intersections and such nonsense. They say you must stop and look when at an intersection. No. I once said to a judge, I know very well that the law cannot be subjected to reason but I will demonstrate to you on a blackboard that the Chinese theory is true: the shorter amount of time one spends at an intersection—you must accelerate!— the less chance there is of having a collision. They told me that I was wrong and, well, since they denied the evidence, I burned my license and that’s that. This happened after I ran into a Biscuter, a small two-seater that used to be manufactured in Spain. There were five people in the car. All five were killed, naturally.

INTERVIEWER

All five of them?

CELA

Well, I feel very badly about it. I had a Jaguar then. I am limited to lamenting the affair, but they were five very stupid people. They were completely drunk in a small car that was turning off a small road onto the main highway. No, no. It was horrible. And after killing them, well, of course one feels sorry about it. Well, at least a bit sorry. Perhaps less than what you might think! Hey, be careful with how you write this up, they’re going to think I’m a savage.

INTERVIEWER

Don’t worry, Mr. Cela, I’ll be careful with what I put in the interview.

CELA

No, just say that there were only four people in the car . . . Oh my, this is really horrible, isn’t it? How appalling.

INTERVIEWER

In your latest novel, La Cruz de San Andrés, which won the Planeta award, the protagonist and narrator Matilde Verdú takes us through the “chronicle of a collapse,” the headlong fall of certain characters into abjection and the most absolute poverty, insanity, and social degradation. She writes her chronicle on La Marquesita, a brand of toilet paper.

CELA

Well, she used various brands of toilet paper; La Marquesita was the best of the bunch . . .

INTERVIEWER

Yes, but why did she write on toilet paper?

CELA

Oh, for no reason. Any psychiatrist would be able to write five hundred pages looking for a good reason.

INTERVIEWER

Then you did that out of a kind of solidarity for unemployed psychiatrists?

CELA

Oh yes, one must help other people out, no?

INTERVIEWER

You often incorporate into your work a highly sexual and scatological content that many people consider excessive. What do you think about that?

CELA

Well, I think that’s just fine. Look, I’m not going to criticize the critics. Let them say whatever they wish because it’s all the same to me.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about the current panorama of Spanish literature?

CELA

Well, I’m neither a critic nor a literature professor.

INTERVIEWER

But it seems as though Spanish writers are coming into vogue, especially in France and Germany.

CELA

Perhaps they are becoming a fashion, but it is all fomented by the ministries of culture. I’m not interested in any of it. It’s all bureaucracy.

INTERVIEWER

Is there any writer who stands out in your point of view?

CELA

Quevedo. Yes, Quevedo.

INTERVIEWER

Well, Quevedo’s work perseveres and remains very contemporary.

CELA

You bet. Quevedo is much more contemporary than all these young octopuses.

INTERVIEWER

But is there any young writer who has captured your interest?

CELA

Quevedo, Quevedo.

INTERVIEWER

Have any of the younger writers come to you seeking advice?

CELA

No, no. They wouldn’t dare. I would throw them out the window.

INTERVIEWER

But if they would dare, would you give them advice?

CELA

No, I would not. I don’t give advice to anyone; let each person make his own mistakes.

INTERVIEWER

You once dedicated an edition of one of your books to your enemies. Do you have many enemies?

CELA

Oh yes, and they have so helped me in my career. You must learn how to foment your enemies. It is good for a writer to foster his enemies.

INTERVIEWER

You mean that not only should a writer have enemies but that he should actually cultivate them?

CELA

Yes, so that they help him move up the ladder. I would love to be able to say what a certain powerful Spanish general of the nineteenth century once said. He was regent, a captain general, and president of the government. When he was on his deathbed, the priest who served as his confessor said, General, do you forgive your enemies? And the general responded, No, no, I don’t have any enemies. But General, the priest exclaimed, what do you mean you don’t have any enemies after holding the positions of power that you have held? The general responded, No, I don’t have any enemies because I’ve brought them all before the firing squad. I would love to be able to say the same thing, but no, I haven’t had the strength to do so. I’m just a poor, simple man, no?

INTERVIEWER

 Are you working on any project for the near future?

CELA

No, not at the moment. But you must understand that books are not something that you project. A novel does not exist until it is published and in the hands of the readers. Until then, it is pure phantasmagoria.

INTERVIEWER

You must have a million ideas swarming around in your head.

CELA

Ideas? My head is full of them, one after the other, but they serve no purpose there. They must be put down on paper, one after the other.

 

*The actual quote is “Inspiration comes of working every day.”