LA ESPAÑOLA: Riveting Writing from Spain with Alice Banks. April: Catalan Focus

My new monthly column for the European Literature Network will explore Spain’s exciting literary landscape, and April is the perfect month to start. The 23rd of this month marks the most important day in Catalan’s literary calendar: Sant Jordi. Over the years Sant Jordi’s day has become a celebration of Catalan culture, but most importantly, a celebration of Catalan literature. So, much as I love my home, this month I leave behind the windmills of Castilla-la-Mancha for the shores of Mallorca and the streets of Barcelona to focus on Catalan literature. For the first ‘La Española’ I’d like share three of my observations with you: the first, of a quiet Catalan novel that is yet to appear in English translation; the second, a new translation from Catalan published by And Other Stories, and finally, a special feature-length interview with translator Louise Johnson on her translation of the dystopian novel Andrea Víctrix, published later this month by Fum d’Estampa Press.

So, without further ado, here is my Sant Jordi gift of literature to you.


CATALAN LITERATURE
YET TO BE TRANSLATED

Les Possessions, Llucia Ramis (Anagrama, 2018)

Les Possessions is a novel of memory and inheriting the ghosts of one’s past, but above all about what we lose both physically and emotionally as we age and mature. This quiet novel follows our narrator as she travels from Barcelona to Palma in the hopes to bring her recently retired father back down to earth. As she attempts to understand her father’s strange behaviour, she reconnects with her past, reflects on the sad reality that life has passed her by without her quite realising, and revisits a macabre past event that still haunts her family to this day. Ramis’ concise and internalized prose is incredibly reflective, forcing readers – like the narrator – to examine their deepest thoughts.

I highly recommend this brilliant novel for translation into English. Details can be on the New Spanish Books website.


CATALAN LITERATURE
NEW RELEASE

Permafrost, Eva Baltasar, tr. Julia Sanches (And Other Stories, 2021)

A Number One bestseller in Catalan, and winner of the Llibreter booksellers’ prize, Permafrost is the poet Baltasar’s debut novel. Released in Julia Sanches’ exquisite translation earlier this month, this astounding novel is a visceral and striking read that calls attention to the need for female freedom. Permafrost’s unforgiving lesbian narrator is witty, blunt and uninhibited. Eager to break free from the mould that her family and society has forged for her, she flees Barcelona, boldly seizing freedom wherever she can find it. Baltasar’s prose is powerful and striking. She certainly does not shy away from heavy and important topics, but does so with an edge of humour and wit.

Permafrost can be ordered here


CATALAN LITERATURE
SPECIAL FEATURE INTERVIEW

Andrea Víctrix, Llorenç Villalonga, tr. Louise Johnson (Fum d’Estampa Press, 2021)

Andrea Víctrix is an exhilaratingly camp dystopian vision of Europe in the year 2050. First published in 1974, this novel is considered to be Villalonga’s most ambitious. Drawing on ideas from Huxley’s Brave New World, he speculates on a future not too far away for a contemporary audience. In the year 2050, on the island of Mallorca – whose capital is here known as ‘Turclub ‘– gender no longer exists, love and sex mean two very different things, and hyper-consumerism props up the new nation of the United States of Europe. For this month’s special feature, I interviewed the Sheffield academic and translator Dr Louise Johnson about her translation of this brilliant novel, released by Fum d’Estampa Press later this month.

ALICE BANKS: Louise, I understand that you have written a number of publications on Villalonga’s writing and teach Andrea Víctrix as a text at the University of Sheffield where you work. Can you tell me about your first encounter with Villalonga?

LOUISE JOHNSON: I was first introduced to Villalonga via a short extract when I was around eighteen. I wasn’t studying Catalan formally, but I decided to pick it up on the side just to give my brain another space to go into, to take me away from the pressures of what I was doing in French and Spanish classes. I already had an interest in Catalan through my first trip to Spain as a teenager where I’d been very aware of this “other” language. I was intrigued by it, so when I went to college and had the opportunity to learn Catalan on an extra-curricular basis, I took it. From here, one of the first literary extracts I read was from what is widely considered as Villalonga’s masterpiece, Bearn. Our teacher talked about Villalonga’s interest in the decline of the aristocracy and the old social hierarchies – and that was interesting enough. But actually, when I started to read Villalonga a little bit more, I noticed that he had a genuine interest in swimming and in physical culture. I swam throughout most of my childhood competitively, through adolescence and into my early twenties, so it was the swimming that captured my imagination – specifically the way that Villalonga looked at it. It was wrapped up in concerns with physicality, physical culture and sexuality, and there were other modulations around swimming and physicality that I hadn’t really encountered before that point and found very curious. The swimming pool was my point of entry to Villalonga’s world. I did, however, soon start to see Villalonga’s blind spots, especially where women are concerned. These also kept me reading. 

Andrea Víctrix is a book I’ve been familiar with now for more than a quarter of a century, but I understood it quite differently when I translated it. Even though I’ve read it several times before, through translation, I identified other dimensions. I don’t necessarily think my core reading of it has changed but it made me pay attention to different aspects. There is certainly a lot of Villalonga within Andrea Víctrix, but it’s packaged in a slightly different way. It’s taken to an extreme. It’s moved on, particularly in terms of gender and sexuality, and I think that comes across very clearly to the reader already familiar with Villalonga. To a degree, it does encapsulate the many themes previously explored by him, but it does much more, expanding on subjects that don’t have the same prominence in his other novels. 

AB: Villalonga has written novels in both Spanish and Catalan. Andrea Víctrix was originally written in Catalan, specifically the Mallorcan variety. Were there any Mallorcan specificities that presented challenges in translation? 

LJ: Andrea Víctrix is written in Villalonga’s version of Mallorcan which incorporates many Castilianisms. You’ll see him sometimes borrowing Castilian words and trying to Catalanize them or just using them ‘as is’. It is fair to say that he was not very comfortable writing in Catalan. But I didn’t really have any problems with the Mallorcan, no more than I would if I were translating from Spanish, Catalan or French. Although when I learnt Catalan, I learnt standard grammar, most of the reading I was doing was Villalonga, so I kind of grew up in Catalan through Mallorcan, or Villalonga’s version of Mallorcan, and so as a result this variety didn’t create any additional difficulties for me. 

AB: That’s good, as I can imagine it was challenging translating other aspects of language within the novel. In Turclub, we’re introduced to a world without gender. The characters are gender-neutral, and as a result, the new language, a “hybrid of Romance languages”, is also gender-neutral. Rendering this into English must have been tricky. What was your approach to this, and what solutions did you come up with?

LJ: The gender-neutral language is fictional, of course. And we don’t – can’t – see it on the page. One of the first things the narrator says, and that he reiterates throughout, is that he cannot render this new language of Turclub in Catalan. What Villalonga does is underline this supposed gender neutrality (the novel uses this term) thematically. Therefore, in order to write about characters in the novel (who for the most part appear gender-neutral), Villalonga switches between using him, her, man, woman, etc. Most of the time, I could replicate what Villalonga does in the English, switching between pronouns to describe characters.

In the case of Andrea Víctrix (the character) it’s trickier. Precisely because the figure is undecidable, this poses a dilemma for the narrator. At the beginning I decided to play around with the third person to describe Andrea, using they, but that doesn’t ring true. I then alternated with he and she, and in some of the first drafts I tried s/he, but that’s too contemporary and seemed artificial and very marked in the text. However, if the reader internalises the narrator’s dilemma (as I have done over the years), the dilemma being, “I’m attracted to this person, but what if they’re a man,” the reader accepts the narrator’s contract, as it were. So, what I opted to do, at least in the first few chapters, was choose the pronoun that best suited Andrea’s behaviour at a particular moment – following stereotypical gendered behaviour conventions. For example, when Andrea hits the narrator, at that point, “he’s an ugly man.” I experimented a little bit with pronouns there. But after that, the narrator settles into a pattern where the gender is focussed more discursively than grammatically, and this seemed to work. 

If you read the work within gendered parameters (to some extent one has to because the gender-neutral is not yet a consummated reality in the novel) there is a strong compulsion to read Andrea as either male or female, after all, it was written in the 1960s by a writer for whom binary gender was a pretty fixed category. I always read Andrea as male or masculine – funnily enough until I started translating. Upon starting my translation, it became easier to accept the premise of Andrea as non-binary or gender fluid. However, these are anachronistic terms I don’t think I can put into the diegesis of the novel – although I would certainly normally use them. So that was one change between my earlier readings; first of all, reading Andrea as male and the novel as a big dilemma of homoerotic attraction, then translating, and finding it much easier to see Andrea as non-binary. 

AB: That’s very interesting. Personally, I read Andrea as more feminine. Perhaps that’s because the narrator wants Andrea to be female as he is attracted to them and feels a sense of shame that they could be male. In Turclub gendering someone is “blasphemous” and subject to punishment. Villalonga’s text is somewhat critical of this idea, with the narrator desperately attempting to gender each person he comes across. How did you so carefully balance the translation of this text between then and now, retaining the criticism of these ideas that the Villalonga puts forth, whilst simultaneously being aware of the changes that have occurred with regards to this issue since the book’s initial publication? 

LJ: This comes back to what I was saying earlier about accepting the narrator’s contract. You have to put yourself into the narrator’s head to a degree. Even though Catalan and English deal with gender very differently, they’ve both got the same problem in that they lack a ready means of expressing the gender-neutral, although of course in recent decades that has begun to change. Some of the solutions that I came up with initially really didn’t work, I’m not convinced that the ones I have used are wholly effective. When I went back, the markedness of some of my solutions sprang back up at me. Using they for example, flattens too much, because the narrator really is confused and this needs to come across. I do jump around quite a bit at the beginning, and this reflects the narrator’s confusion and how perplexed he feels when confronted with this society. And then, as the Catalan version settles into some sort of pattern, I felt more comfortable about dropping the insistence on gender “instability” – I think it would be problematic to insist on that all the way through. You have to assume that the reader has taken on board the premise. 

AB: A challenging task to tackle in translation! Moving on from the trickier aspects, I can imagine it was quite fun to work with a text written 45 years ago that speculates a future closer to our times. Several elements in the novel are not at all far from our current reality. How was it translating Villalonga’s speculations that today ring true? 

LJ: In terms of his foresight, Villalonga always said he was not claiming to be a prophet – and then of course there’s a but that follows that. I do think we have to be a little bit careful because many of the ideas aren’t actually Villalonga’s own. He is drawing on Oswald Spengler, Waldo Frank, and other thinkers and writers whom he’s read, often in translation, whose ideas chime with his own, and he assimilates them, to a greater or lesser extent. Built-in obsolescence and the influence of major corporations – read Big Tech – is right up to date. And whilst the decline of the nuclear family is something that we are familiar with, it’s more the deterioration of interpersonal relationships that is probably of note in Turclub. But there’s a big difference, because despite this deterioration, decorum and etiquette are central, it’s still a rules-bound society in that sense. And interestingly there’s always an emphasis on consent, which is something that today’s society seems to have a problem with and is something that is all over the UK media at the moment. Then we have issues such as the nature of truth, misinformation and disinformation – these things are absolutely current, as well as being staples of dystopian literature. 

Coming back to gender, Villalonga is quite prescient about the issue of the gender-neutral, which is now being referred to as post-gender – this being the idea that if we can get rid of gender and the stereotypes it carries, then we can reduce pressures on individuals to behave in certain ways. It seems to me that Villalonga, in thinking about this gender-neutral society, is perversely in tune with discussions on post-gender that are really here and now, at least in some quarters. Although this isn’t by any means a reality that he is happy with, that he underscores at any level, nevertheless it’s there. And this speaks a lot to us, gives us a lot of room for discussion. 

Were there other aspects of it that really chimed with you in terms of contemporary relevance?

AB: I think everything you’ve mentioned has a scarily accurate contemporary relevance. However, Villalonga draws very heavily on the idea of the collective, and this is an element of the novel that I don’t see today. Perhaps I’m being a little pessimistic, but I think this is for the most part due to politics, where I see a big divide. I feel that within Europe today, individualist ideas are very strong, so this collectivist future doesn’t quite ring true to me, at least not as much as the other elements of the novel. 

LJ: It’s really interesting, isn’t it, how the historical moment is so influential there. We can see that there is a sense of continuity on the environmental front and in terms of consumerism and so on, but for many readers the historical connection isn’t necessarily obvious. If you think about the 60s when the novel was written, you get a sense of Spain beginning to look more towards Europe to try to move forward from their past. There is a sense of coming together more and the European project is feeding Villalonga’s response at this particular point. Whereas of course now we’ve had decades of the European project and we have seen that evolve in a series of ways, we’ve seen it fracture, and we’ve seen the tensions. But yes, the idea of the collective is one of the aspects that you actually need to explicate, I think. Villalonga critiques socialism in Andrea Víctrix, but he is less categorical here than elsewhere, and you have some sense of a discussion going on at least because of the dialogues between the narrator and Andrea, and between the narrator, Dr Orlando and Dr Nicola. There’s a little bit more openness here than there is in his other work. 

AB: Perhaps more openness than in one of Villalonga’s earlier books criticising Mallorca, Mort de dama. It was met with a lot of controversy as it mocked both Mallorcan society and the Catalan language. Can you comment on this? How did Villalonga’s political views differ from other Catalan writers of his time?

LJ: In writing this first novel, Mort de dama, Villalonga was a young man, an aspiring writer who was contributing regularly to the press and experimenting with literary forms. He was beginning to get a sense of self and he was very much looking beyond Mallorca for his inspiration, often to France. At this time, he saw influential cultural circles on the island as lacking in quality and ambition, and he satirised this. These groups would later align themselves with Catalan writers on the mainland. Since these are Mallorcan-speaking circles, the obvious way in which to critique this society would be to stand outside it and critique in Spanish, but instead of doing that, he actually caricatures them in Catalan. Since the insults come from a place of linguistic familiarity, from “inside”, as it were, the satire is more keenly felt. Villalonga was certainly willing to stoke controversy, and this didn’t gain him many fans locally. Mort de dama is an amusing read, though, if you’re on top of the cultural references. 

If we look at Villalonga’s own vision of order and discipline, and the fact that his father was a military man, it’s not surprising that he became a member of Falange Española in the 1930s, as other Mallorcans did too. By no means was he the only right leaning Mallorcan writer at this time. But there was also a very substantial body of people who aligned themselves with Catalanist intellectuals on the mainland in Barcelona and he resisted this because he resisted this sense of pan-Catalanism, of being subsumed into what he perceived as a relative cultural “backwater”. Villalonga’s affiliation with Falange has a legacy even in the present day, with some Mallorcans thinking he shouldn’t have been “allowed back into” the Mallorcan cultural sphere in the way that he was after the Civil War. He had to work his way back in, however, and the process was accompanied by an increasing awareness on his part of the importance of Catalan as a literary language. The publisher Francesc de Borja Moll was also instrumental in Villalonga’s return. In the wider Catalan context, we can think about the example of Josep Pla who supported the Francoists and is considered to be one of Catalonia’s greatest writers. It’s dangerous to generalise about literature and politics because we risk stereotyping and homogenising. It’s not true that all Catalans were Republicans, by any means, or that writers in Catalan necessarily militate for the language, except inasmuch as they choose Catalan as their vehicle of expression. It’s about nuance. 

AB: Definitely! This rings very true with political questions in Catalonia today too. 

A final question to end: what Catalan literature are you currently reading? 

LJ: I have to confess, I am very much detached from the whole Catalan literary sphere at the moment, partly because of Covid. I am going to keep a keen eye on Sant Jordi this year to see what titles are out there, and the online press is invaluable, when not behind a firewall! I just can’t wait to be able to get back into bookshops over there and see what people are putting on displays. I’d love to be able to wander around Barcelona and the bookstalls on Sant Jordi, and root around the antiquarian booksellers. I have stacks of Catalan books piled up here that I haven’t read, and I’m looking forward to catching up on those at some point. There are lots of historical novels that I want to get into because I’ve become more interested in what the historical novel looks like in this day and age in Catalan. 

Recently I’ve also published on a writer called Guillem Viladot and he wrote some great short stories. If I were tempted to translate something else, I might have a go at a collection called Orgànic. Viladot lived through the dictatorship, he was an engaged and committed writer in the sense that he moves into Catalan consciously to work for the survival of Catalan. But he was not primarily Barcelona-based, and he doesn’t have the same profile as other writers from that period through being associated with particular literary circles in Barcelona. There are lots of writers on the periphery who are really quite fascinating and deserve much more attention. 

AB: The last year has certainly made the act of reading very difficult for some – myself included. It would be great to see more of these writers from the periphery represented more prominently – who knows, perhaps we may see your English translation of Orgànic in the near future! 

ANDREA VICTRIX

written by Llorenç Villalonga

translated by Louise Johnson

published by Fum d’Estampa Press (15 April 2021)

My review of the book appears in April’s #RivetingReviews here on the European Literature Network.

I hope you enjoyed this first ‘La Española’! See you next month.

By Alice Banks (aka ‘La Española’)


Alice Banks is a copy editor and literary translator from French and Spanish based in Ciudad Real, Spain. After graduating with a French degree from Bangor University, Alice went on to study for an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. She currently volunteers for both The European Literature Network and Asymptote Journal.


Louise Johnson translates from Catalan, and has taught Catalan and Spanish language, literature, culture, and translation at the University of Sheffield since 1996. Louise’s interests centre on modern Catalan and peninsular Spanish literature and culture. She has published on major twentieth-century Catalan writers including Llorenç Villalonga, Manuel de Pedrolo and Maria Aurèlia Capmany; edited collections of articles on twentieth-century Catalan culture, and on humour in Spain, and contributed widely to volumes across Catalan and comparative literatures and cultures. Most recently, she has written on the extraordinary novel, poet, sculptor and prolific commentator Guillem Viladot. Her monograph on Llorenç Villalonga, La tafanera posteritat, was awarded the first Llorenç Villalonga Prize in 2001.

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