Posts Tagged ‘Merce Rodoreda’

Books of the Year 2021 Part 2

December 28, 2021

For the second part of my ‘Books of the Year’, here are some older books I discovered for the first time:

The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe

I have always had a soft spot for novels which take the crime genre as a starting point but soon divert to somewhere similar but different – an uncanny valley, if you like, of genre expectations. No surprise, then, that Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map (translated by E Dale Saunders) was one of my favourite novels of the year. It begins like a traditional noir with our narrator hired to find a missing husband; however even his client is an unreliable informant in a novel where every character is difficult to pin down and so-called ‘clues’ only introduce further ambiguity. That our detective is undergoing his own existential crisis adds to the uncertainty, and the unreliability of the maps suggests a more profound difficulty in fixing reality. Highly recommended.

The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen

Another Penguin Modern Classic reissue, Tove Ditlevsen’s The Faces (translated by Tiina Nunnally) was originally published in 1968 (only a year after The Ruined Map). Presumably at least partly autobiographical, it tells the story of a writer, Lise, whose success leads to a breakdown where she comes to distrust all those around her. Ditlevsen’s skill lies in the initial plausibility of Lise’s fears, and the convincing perspective she presents throughout, particularly when she is eventually hospitalised. Rather than the fragmentation or incoherence sometimes adopted by writers to show madness, Ditlevsen presents a frighteningly rational irrationality.

Garden by The Sea by Merces Rodereda

Like 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 character of its narrator, a gardener at a summer villa belonging to a wealthy couple. Rather than search for a story to tell he allows the story to come to him, and in this way Rodoreda explores the lives of the rich. From this distance we see that the ways in which they indulge themselves – including the drunken parties which damage the garden – are often a distraction from unhappiness and compare poorly to the joy the narrator finds in his garden.

Forty Lost Years by Rosa Maria Aquimbau

A second Catalan novel which impressed me this year was Rosa Maria Aquimbau’s Forty Lost Years (translated by Peter Bush), originally published in 1971 but beginning with the declaration of the Catalan Republic in 1931. The central character is Laura Vidal, a seamstress from a poor family, who is fourteen years old at this point. In the course of the novel, she becomes a successful businesswoman, the novel’s title suggesting (or at least asking the question) whether she has lost out on love in order to achieve this. The skill with which Aquimbau covers forty years of history as well as Laura’s own personal journey, in only 140 pages is remarkable.

Pigeons on the Grass by Wolfgang Koeppen

Although I had already read Wolfgang Koeppen’s first novel, A Sad Affair, I wasn’t prepared for the brilliance of his third (the second has never been translated into English) published 17 years later, Pigeons on the Grass (which benefitted from a new translation from Michael Hofmann in 2020). In the tradition of Ulysses or Berlin Alexanderplatz (but shorter) it provides us with a portrait of Munich shortly after the end of the Second World War. What makes it particularly daring is the lack of any central character for the reader to identify with, but the complexities of its structure are over-ridden by the vibrancy of its prose.

Garden by the Sea

August 2, 2021

“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.

Death in Spring

May 11, 2018

Death in Spring is not my first exposure to Merce Rodoreda’s work, but neither her Spanish Civil War novel, In Diamond Square, nor the wider historical sweep of A Broken Mirror, had prepared me for the intense otherness of this late novel, published posthumously in 1986 (here in a translation by Martha Tennent originally published in the US in 2009). On the opening page its adolescent narrator lowers himself into a river, a descent into cold water which mirrored my own feelings as I read. A few pages later he tells of the cave from which the villagers gather a red fungus to mix with water and paint their houses pink:

“We lowered ourselves into the damp, black well; it was streaked with veins that would glisten in the sun, then slowly extinguish as we moved deeper, and darkness fell, swallowing everything. Through the well we entered the cave, which was like the mouth of the infirm: red and damp.”

This reverse birth, which the narrator will later undertake with his stepmother, similarly foreshadows something of the emotional experience of the reader. The insidious idyll of the opening gives little indication of the disconcerting glimpses of village life which Rodoreda will drip-feed into the pages which follow. The picturesque pink of the houses will quickly come to suggest blood-washed walls, just like the ivy on the Senyor’s house “that on late afternoons looked like a wave of blood.” Every year the ivy is beaten from the walls, part of the destructive cycle of village life which includes sending a man through the river which runs under the village in fear that one day it will be washed away:

“…every year a man entered the water on the upper side and came out on the lower side. Sometimes dead. Sometimes without a face because it had been ripped away when the desperate water hurled him against the rocks which supported the village.”

Rodoreda’s village exists on the debatable land between everyday life and nightmare. The villagers believe that the soul leaves the body at the point of death and therefore fill the mouths of the dying with cement. Their bodies are then entombed in the hollowed trunk of a tree. The narrator witnesses his father opening up a tree and then walking backwards into it before sealing himself in: presumably an attempt to avoid having cement poured down his throat. When the villager discover this they pull him from the trunk:

“He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don’t kill him, shouted the cement man.”

Later, the Senyor, a figure of distant aristocracy, will also attempt to resist the cement ceremony, suggesting perhaps, that the old life cannot carry on unchallenged and unchanged, while brutally demonstrating the futility of rebellion. And yet, despite this, I immediately recollected the villages of Jean Giono’s early novels. The customs may seem unearthly, but Rodoreda embellishes them with a vibrant natural landscape, and the villagers’ behaviour – pettiness, vindictiveness, suspicion – is all too recognisable.

The novel’s second part focuses on the developing relationship between the narrator and his stepmother, who is only a few years older. Rodoreda deftly paints a picture of their tenderness:

“She told me her feet were cold and asked if I wanted to warm them. I don’t know how she was sitting, but she put her feet in my lap and I took hold of them. They were freezing and, as I held them, I must have fallen asleep.”

The relationship is disapproved of by the village – the village children pelt them with stones – and they take to sleeping in the cave where the red dust is found. Throwing the dust in the river is the first of a number of rebellious acts they undertake: hiding the paintbrushes used to paint the houses and removing bones from the trees. But if this section ends optimistically with the birth of a daughter, its brief moment of hope is not in keeping with the novel as a whole – as Orson Wells said, a happy ending depends on where you stop your story.

The novel’s atmosphere, where fable wrestles with an earthy realism, reminded me of Ivan Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, and it is difficult not to speculate that Repila may have been influenced by his predecessor. It is not only the preponderance of wells and human cruelty which unite the novels, Death in Spring also features a caged prisoner whose message is echoed in the later novel:

“Man is made of water lives with earth and air. He lives imprisoned. All men. …they all said he was a prisoner, but he wasn’t a prisoner, he said, he lived differently from others, only that.”

Where Repila’s work is anguished anger, however, Rodoreda is closer to despair.

Death in Spring is an auspicious start to Penguin’s European Writers series – a truly vital work, the vision of a great artist, to be embraced.

A Broken Mirror

August 1, 2017

That the final chapter of Merce Rodoreda’s A Broken Mirror is told from the point of view of a rat gives some indication of how far behind she had left the first person narration of her previous novels by the time she came to write her ninth, her first to be published since her return to Catalonia in 1972. “A novel is a mirror carried along a road,” claimed Stendahl, warning his reader that it is as likely to reflect the mud beneath as the blue skies above. Rodoreda certainly shares Stendahl’s intent to show us the high and the low, but her fractured viewpoints suggest that what appears in the guise of a nineteenth century novel is in fact its epitaph.

The novel opens as a young wife, Teresa, is presented with a brooch – “a bouquet of flowers made with diamonds and as big as the palm of his hand” – by her elderly husband, Nicolau Rovira. Teresa is not of the same class – the daughter of a fishmonger – and already has an illegitimate child by a married man. She later returns to the jeweller and asks him to buy back the brooch, using the money to pay the father to adopt the child, telling her husband she has lost the brooch while at the same time arranging to become her son’s godmother, “a rather mature infant who had no mother, poor little thing, she’d died in the hospital in childbirth.” Teresa is no Becky Sharp, however: she is simply practical, contriving the best outcome for all concerned, a cool-headed capability that will be shared by many of the women in this novel of three generations. Neither is her married lover a cad (she remembers him fondly on her death bed) nor her aged husband a breathless letch; from its opening pages, Rodoreda’s humanity shines through. Her characters have flaws and failings, but we will not be expected to boo and hiss from the stalls as they pantomime their way through a nineteenth century melodrama.


We also quickly learn how quickly she will turn our heads. We have only just begun to follow Teresa with our eyes when we must look to Salvador Valldaura, who makes his entrance trailing a seven page love story that ends tragically, only to be introduced to Teresa, “the widow of the financier Nicolau Rovira.” (We only looked away a moment!) Rodoreda flits between her characters’ feelings with ease, as we see in the obligatory ball scene where they fall in love:

“If I could, Valldaura thought, I would take her to the end of the world. The applause was deafening. Teresa, panting, her head thrown back, was telling herself that she’d never known a night like this one. She was hot. She took of her gloves slowly – they seemed endless – and wiped her face with her hand.”

By the time we reach the phrase “they are endless” we are no longer even certain whose consciousness we inhabit. Rodoreda is equally at home with the servants. In one memorable scene, in the heat of the summer, they undress in the yard and cool themselves with water sprayed from a hose:

“Since the hose was very long, Armanda started to chase the terrace, and for a long time they did not stop running and screaming.”

Such moments of joy stand out as the overall atmosphere of the novel is elegiac. It’s one of a number of scenes which are repeated either exactly or in echo, an inescapable recurrence which suggests that, for all its wealth, the family are trapped within a life which changes little. Attempts at wilful independence (see Teresa’s grandson, Ramon, and the ‘adopted’ (another illegitimate child) Maria) tends to end badly. As Teresa ages she loses the use of her legs, a paralysis which further emphasises a frozen existence. There is little sense, however, that Rodoreda therefore approves of the violence which will sweep it away. The civil war provides the novel’s endpoint but hardly features of itself, perhaps because it is a topic Rodoreda has explored elsewhere, but also, I think, to emphasise that her characters are largely detached from politics, and, indeed, the twentieth century. Teresa’s daughter, Sofia, leaves Spain, and when the house is taken over, even Armanda moves out:

“She spent the remaining wartime in an apartment very near the villa, an apartment that after the war would become hers… As soon as the war ended she went to see the villa.”

In these few sentences the war is over and Sofia returns, but with no intention of returning to the life she led before. Perhaps that is why the novel ends with Armanda recalling an act of disobedience from Sofia’s childhood, walking the gardens of the villa where only ghosts are left:

“…very near her, level with her eyes, the black trees as background, something drew her attention: a shard of mist almost nothing, hesitant, a transparent wing that moved away and finally vanished as if the earth had sucked it up.”

Even the rat dies.

In Diamond Square

January 26, 2016

diamond square

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.”