Garden by the Sea

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “They are different from you and me.” Set in a villa on the Catalonian coast on the 1920s, Merce Rodoreda’s Garden by the Sea, translated last year by Maruxa Relano and Martha Tennant, tells a similar story. The novel unfolds over six years, narrated by the widowed gardener who observes the summer activities of its wealthy owners, Francesc and Rosamaria, and their friends, while also sharing in the gossip of the servants. As he says on the opening page, “There was no need to go to the Excelsior to see films the year they came with their friends.” However, their happiness does not last forever, and their seemingly care-free lives do not disguise a sense of foreboding:

“Such gaiety and youth, so much money… so much of everything… and two wrecked lives.”

Rodoreda’s masterstroke is the character of the narrator, who, as he says himself, is not garrulous, but likes people (and is liked). Far from being inquisitive he lets the story comes to him, adopting the same general attitude as he does with the maid:

“I had already noticed with Mariona that it was better to play dumb and then she would tell you everything. If you asked her directly, she was quiet as a mouse.”

He is honest, but in a kindly way, for example when Rosamaria asks him if he likes her horse:

“I liked the other one better, but I couldn’t see the harm in pleasing her.

‘Handsome, very handsome,’ I said.”

In return he is generally trusted by others and treated well, saying of Fransesc:

“He might have been less than perfect, he drank and lazed about, but with me, truth be told, he had always been kind.”

Since his wife’s death, the garden has been his only love, raising him above the flirtations and jealousies of the villa. Rodoreda’s commentary on the carelessness of the rich is generally focused on the damage which their drunken parties cause:

“It pained me to think about the gladiolus and the fate they had met: the whole stretch of garden was ruined. But those who have the money make the rules.”

Their indulgences include a pet monkey which is allowed to run wild causing further damage – it’s difficult not to assume some sort of comparison is implied. The novel includes numerous conversations where the narrator demonstrates both his love and knowledge of gardening. He, and perhaps Rodoreda too, believes in the superiority of the natural world to the artificial – when Feliu, an artist who visits Francesc and Rosamaria every year, asks him for an opinion on his painting, he answers:

“What can I say? No matter how it’s done, I still prefer the real thing to any painting of the sea.”

Life at the villa changes when a new villa is constructed next to it by Bellom, who has made his fortune in South America and is building it for his daughter and son-in-law. While the villa is being built, with no expense spared, the gardener has a visit from an elderly couple who are looking for their son, Engeni, who they have not seen for a number of years. They hope he may have been in touch with Rosamarie, who was once close to him. Though this is not the case, after his parents leave, it soon becomes clear that Engeni is the son-in-law who will be arriving at the new villa within weeks with his new wife, Mirabel.

The situation has the potential for melodrama, but the distance created by the narration creates an atmosphere of uncertain suffering instead. There are warning signs when Engeni befriends the gardener, helping him to collect seeds and tend the garden, as he says he did when he was a child. “I have a feeling you’re one of those people who lives in the past,” the narrator tells him.

“It’s hard to say if I do or I don’t. Sometimes I think I do, other times, no. I’m rather detached from the past.”

Perhaps what he means is that, although he has left the poverty of his youth behind, he still loves Rosamaria.

In a sense love and wealth are the two poles of the novel. If the rich are different, it is because they find love difficult, from Francesc’s flirtation with the Brazilian maid, Miranda, to Bellom’s confession that his dead wife, whom he claimed to love as much as the narrator loved his, “slept with every known friend and acquaintance”- and he had only married her because her father was rich, the same reason we suspect Rosamaria married Francesc. In contrast, the only married couple we see closely, Engeni’s parents, are clearly devoted to each other, despite their disagreements and troubles. The narrator’s attachment to the garden, meanwhile, is also an attachment to his wife:

“…while I’m here she won’t be gone, not completely… believe me, it’s true: she won’t be completely dead.”

Appropriately, Garden by the Sea is as beautiful a novel as the garden we imagine its narrator lovingly tends.

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7 Responses to “Garden by the Sea”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Just skimming this for the mo because I bought a copy of the book when you mentioned it in the comments to my recent WIT Month piece. (You see how suggestible I am when it comes to these novels from the early-mid 20thC? Very suggestible indeed!) I’m glad to see that it’s quite subtle yet layered – and not too melodramatic, which is reassuring.
    The cover design is beautiful, isn’t it? Simple, yet very effective!

  2. MarinaSofia Says:

    Very, very tempted indeed…

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds absolutely lovely, Grant – the quotes you use really do give a strong sense of the narrator’s voice which is obviously crucial to the book’s success.

  4. Books of the Year 2021 Part 2 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Ditlevesen, Merce Rodoreda is a writer who really should have had more recognition in English. Garden by the Sea (originally published in 1967) is gentler than some of her other novels thanks, in part, to the […]

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