At the end of last year, a number of other bloggers I follow decided to take part in the Classics Club challenge (to read fifty classics in five years). Initially it seemed very much my kind of thing: it involved books and a list for a start. It also identified a problem created by keeping up with the latest releases: never finding the time to fill in the gaps in your personal reading history. Twenty years ago I had taken part in my own classics challenge, attempting to read all the major novels in English beginning with Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and getting as far as Silas Marner in 1861 over the course of four years. This was, of course, a fairly rigorous definition of classic, and the looseness of today’s equivalent (for example, allowing novels only twenty-five years old to be included) was one reason I resisted – that and the fact I knew that I would never stick to a list over five years anyway.
Instead I sought a more straight-forward solution: simply read at least one classic each month. with no need to decide anything in advance of picking up the book. I made it a little harder on myself by insisting that, in order to count, the book would either need to be a universally recognised classic, or published by a classics imprint (though, as this is largely a marketing technique, I wasn’t making it that difficult). This lack of planning paid off when I came across Merce Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square in my local library. I was aware that Open Letter had been translating and publishing some of Rodoreda’s novels, but didn’t know that Virago Modern Classics (you see how it works?) had issued a new translation of her Spanish Civil War novel by Peter Bush in 2013. As it’s regarded as one of the most important Catalan novels of the last century, it qualifies as a classic in every sense.
In Diamond Square is the story of a woman’s life. It begins as Natalia leaves her childhood behind when she meets a young man, Joe, at a dance in the square of the title. Joe is a forceful, charismatic character; he tells Natalia, whom he immediately rechristens Pidgey, she’ll “be his wife within a year.” As Natalia runs from him, perhaps her final childish action, the elastic on her petticoat snaps as she sheds clothes which no longer fit her, just as she discards the notion of herself as a “little girl.”
“I got home and threw myself on my bed in the dark, my little girl’s brass bed, as if I was hurling a stone at it.”
Natalia and Joe marry within the first thirty pages: one of the most invigorating aspects of the novel is the breathless pace with which it proceeds. One way Rodoreda achieves this is beginning sentences, paragraphs and even chapters with ‘and.’ Here is the opening of Chapter XI in which Natalia gives birth (five pages after we discover she is pregnant):
“And that first scream of mine was deafening. Who’d have thought my voice could carry so far or last so long?”
You might worry that such speed necessitates a lack of detail and yet both Natalia and Joe are fully rounded characters. Joe is not the perfect husband but neither is he caricatured as a bad one. He has faults such as his occasional jealousies and the suspicion that the sore leg he so often complains of is largely in his mind, but his affection for Natalia, and later their children, is also evident.
If the novel were only a picture of their relationship it would be a very good one, but this is a marriage which is interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. Joe goes to fight leaving Natalia alone with their two children, Anthony and Rita. This is not a novel for those interested in the causes or course of the war itself; what follows is a moving portrait of how war affects civilians:
“The gas went. I mean it didn’t reach the flat or the underground rooms in the house I cleaned… Joe was also running around on the streets and every day I’d think that would be the last I’d see of him… after several days of smoke and churches in flames, he walked in with a revolver in his belt and a double-barrelled shotgun over his shoulder….The grocer’s downstairs was soon cleaned out…”
As the war goes on, food becomes scarcer and scarcer:
“It was a real struggle to buy food because I had hardly any money and because there was no food to buy. The milk contained no milk in it. The meat, when there was any, was horsemeat, so they said.”
Natalia sells everything she owns and, at one point, has to send Anthony away because she cannot feed him.
In Diamond Square is a wonderful book, the portrait of a woman as a survivor. As Rodoreda says in her introduction:
“Pidgey does what she must do within the situation she finds herself in, and to do what must be done and no more reveals a natural talent that deserves the greatest respect.”