The life, times, and meteorological theories of Josep Pla.
“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.
In 1918, the Spanish flu epidemic forced Pla to abandon Barcelona, where he was studying law, and return to his village. Once the outbreak passed, he returned to the city and began frequenting the tertulias in Barcelona’s Athenaeum, using its well-stocked library and partaking of the charged social, cultural, and political atmosphere of the day. After graduating, Pla took off to Paris as a correspondent for the newspaper La Publicidad, initiating the first part of his writing life as an intrepid young reporter, travel writer, and cosmopolitan dandy. He covered Mussolini’s march on Rome and the collapse of the German economy from Berlin; in Russia, he met his countryman Andreu Nin, “the only practicing Nietzschean this country ever gave”; he traveled around Eastern Europe and witnessed many of the seminal events of the time.
But before all that, he had a farewell dinner with his circle in the Athenaeum, which he writes about in The Gray Notebook. In attendance was Salvador Dalí’s 260-pound elephantine uncle, Dr. Rafael Dalí; in the middle of the dinner, Dr. Dalí guffawed at a particularly saucy joke and was taken with an attack of the hiccups. “Dr. Dalí is paunchy and the spectacle of his paunch shaking with every hiccup was quite astonishing,” Pla wrote.
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Pla was a polemical figure for many reasons; perhaps the greatest was that he practiced individuality when the collective urged consensus. “I sacrificed everything for my writing. Yet there is one thing that is perhaps my greatest passion: my private, intimate, and public freedom. Compared to that, everything else has no more value than a pipe’s worth of tobacco,” he wrote.
His writing doesn’t fit easily into any school or pervading style of the time, yet he’s the most important modern stylist in Catalan prose. At a time when the highly affected Noucentista style was the currency, he preferred a simple prose that could be parsed by the average reader. His was a practical, pragmatic approach to writing, an example of the seny (“common sense,” “restraint”) that is so characteristic of the Catalan sensibility: when it’s spoken by so few people, a language that is in the process of being standardized needs to reach as many readers as possible if it’s to grow.
Pla’s stylistic bylaws: Use natural words to describe the object. Unearth the adjectif juste like the pig who smells a truffle.
And Pla had a peculiar way of hunting these elusive adjectives. He literally smoked them out. As he worked on a sentence, he would take out his pouch of local tobacco, or “caldo,” as he called it, and begin the ritual of rolling a cigarette as he wrote and thought. With each movement of his fingers, the touch of the rice paper and the tobacco, the rhythm of the rolling and licking and finally puffing, he would draw the adjective out of its hiding place and capture the natural cadence of a sentence. “The only place you’ll find an adjective is in the pauses that result from the elaboration of a cigarette and its intermittent combustion,” he said.
In Spanish, as in Catalan, the words for time and weather are the same. Pla saw a strong connection between the two. He distinguished between physical time, “tiempo,” and the psychological time, “tempo,” of a human organism. “From the confusing, shapeless mass of psychological hours moments are produced, like sharp pricks, that project time onto our organism. They influence our lives decisively. They are the stitches of the Fates on the canvas of our lives,” he writes in his preface to Humor, candor. “We’ve lived through dangerous hours.” He was also prophetic: “The life of a fisherman is so tied to his environment, it’s such a marvelous life, that there’s no way it can last. How many centuries have they lived this way. Sometimes the sensuousness of the Mediterranean, the happiness of the country scares me. It’s a world that’s bound to be lost.”
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In 1936, because of death threats by anarchists, he accompanied his fiancée Adi Enberg to Marseille. A Norwegian woman born in Barcelona, she worked as a spy for Franco. Eventually, the couple went their separate ways, and when Pla returned to Barcelona, Franco retired his passport—he’d written too many subversive articles. As the regime consolidated, Pla grew deeply disenchanted; the war had broken something in him, and he turned misanthropic, curmudgeonly, given to self-recrimination. He fled once again to the Baix Empordà, to isolate himself and recover.
Slowly, the dandy cosmopolitan was transformed into a sort of Catalonian Thoreau. He fell in love with the ancestral landscape, observing it with growing joy; it consoled him and he gave over to a sensual symbiosis, melding with it like a kind of neo-pagan Eros, eating its fish and vegetables, breathing its winds, smelling its violets and wild rosemary, touching its leaves and swallowing its minerals, contemplating the eternal indifference of the sea. “Here we live in a total cosmic dialectic. Seeing it has made me understand the human dialectic. How impossible it is that we’ll ever be able to understand each other,” Pla once said.
He came to believe that weather and climate determined character. The weather caused or relieved headaches, depression, elation; it made people boring or audacious, given to lethargy or fits of rage. Meteorology was an incipient science in the early twentieth century, and Pla thought it could become the “theology of the future.” He said the Empordà was locked in a perennial cosmic battle waged between the cold, dry north wind—the tramontane—and the hot, humid southeasterly—the garbi. In his article “Tiempo y tempo,” he writes, “This man has a stately and firm tempo, that one is more restless and caustic. How can they ever understand each other? The words each one uses can’t possibly mean the same thing. This man’s personality gives its best performance during a mistral or north wind, that man opens like a succulent when the languid, clammy, south wind blows.”
Spending his time with local fishermen, villagers, and farmers, he traveled around the countryside, delighting in the egg-yolk sun, observing the almond trees in bloom. He sipped at the sour homemade wine (read: vinegar) and referred to himself as a gentleman farmer who writes. Years later, in an act of pure Plasian mischief, he obliged the Prince and Princess of Spain, now King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía, to drink this local wine with him when they visited Mas Pla in 1975, the year Franco died. “Isn’t it delicious?” he asked, his formidable shock of hair tamed unconvincingly under his beret, his coquettish beauty mark dancing a sardana over the bulge of his cheek, where his tongue was tucked to keep from snickering.
Mas Pla, a rural farmhouse in Llofriu, has been in his family for centuries; he finally moved there in 1946. It’s where his grandfather died, widowing his young grandmother by what is, according to Trivial Pursuit, the most common form of death by natural disaster: he was struck by lightning while watching a storm from the window. Once Pla installed himself there, Mas Pla became a place of literary pilgrimage, and he received many illustrious visitors, such as Camilo José Cela and Salvador Paniker. He died there in his bed, at eighty-four, after jotting a last note in his diary, in which someone visits a farmhouse and finds that the person whom they came to see isn’t there anymore because he’s gone out to feed the hens. “Magnificent,” he writes. “That’s the best possible news!”
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Another kind of king visited Mas Pla in 1977: Salvador Dalí, the other genius loci of the Empordà. Josep Pla affectionately called his old friend “King of the Carts.” Dalí arrived, moustache first, in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac, the same one now on display in his museum in Figueres. Pla once told him, “You’re going to poke a hole in something with that moustache,” which the painter found terribly funny. Dalí complains in his Diary of a Genius that Pla’s friends “usually have bushy eyebrows and they always have the air of suddenly having been plucked from some sidewalk café, where they had been sitting for at least ten years.”
Pla and Dalí first met at the Athenaeum in 1926, through the latter’s hiccup-prone uncle. In the history of the institution, only two members have ever been blackballed: Josep Pla and Salvador Dalí. Pla was constantly tearing his own articles out of the library’s magazines and newspapers, destroying the collections. As for Dalí, he gave an incendiary conference in 1930: after showing up a half-hour late, he called the president, Àngel Guimerà, a “fat pig,” an “immense hairy putrefaction,” and a “big pederast.” A group of men went after him with murderous thoughts, calling him a “good-for-nothing, foul-mouthed nobody.” Chairs flew. A few months later, Dalí sent the library a copy of his book, The Visible Woman, dedicated to the Athenaeum “putrefaction.” Meanwhile, they couldn’t officially kick Pla out—he’d never actually been paying his membership fees.
Pla was never as extravagant in his dramatis personae as the Empordà’s other prodigal son, but they are like animated emblems of the two words that characterize the Catalan volkgeist; seny and rauxà. Seny means restraint and common sense, rauxà means passion and reckless abandon. There can’t be seny without a little rauxà; it’s the cosmic balance of human nature, Pla’s battle of the winds. Both Pla and Dalí blamed their cantankerous natures on these elements.
Dalí told Pla that everyone talked about his impotence. Pla replied that he was, himself, the most erotic impotent of them all.
They finally worked together on a book titled Obres de Museu, the text by the master writer and illustrations by the master painter. In 2011 the journalist Víctor Fernández and Enrique Sabater published a posh limited edition with new images, new documents, and a 1,999 Euro pricetag. Dalí illustrated Pla in the landscape the writer loved; he was wearing his perennial beret, a symbol of his unpretentious subversion.
Franco had eased up by 1946—the year Pla moved into the farmhouse—and allowed books to be published in Catalan again. That year Pla’s Cartes de lluny, Viatge a Catalunya, and Cadaqués saw the light of day. The return to writing in his native language and the ability to travel again—now by tanker, to places like Israel, Cuba, New York, the Middle East, and South America— brought renewed energy to his writing. In 1966, he began compiling his thirty-eight volume collected works, which was inaugurated with The Gray Notebook. Six decades spent observing a place and its people, its winds, in a prose swept clean by the north wind. He pronounced their names in the long nights in Mas Pla before everything vanished into time’s thinnest air, the glassy air of Mediterranean skies. He had the good sense to die on the 23rd of April, 1981: Saint George’s Day, when the people of Catalonia come out to stroll the streets and exchange books and roses.
Valerie Miles is an American writer, critic, editor, and translator who lives in Spain. She is the curator of the exhibit “Archivo Bolaño 1977 – 2003,” and a co-editor of the New York Review of Books classics collection in Spanish and Granta en español. An English translation of her book A Thousand Forests in One Acorn will be published in September.