Reading Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook

Context N°21

Thanks to a Barcelona bookseller, who intuitively grasped my literary tastes, bent down, and pulled a slightly damaged out-of-print French edition from a dusty bottom shelf, I have discovered the Catalan writer Josep Pla (1897-1981). The book is Le Cahier gris, that is Pascale Bardoulaud’s vivid and enjoyable version of El quadern gris (1966), the magnum opus of Pla’s vast and varied output. (In Catalan, Pla’s Obra Completa, with El quadern gris as its first installment, runs to forty-six volumes.) It’s always better to be late than never: The Gray Notebook deserves to be translated into English as soon as possible and studied as a classic of modern European literature. As far as I can tell, this absorbing and oft-funny tome of 612 finely printed pages otherwise exists only in Spanish, Dutch, and Serbian renderings. Apparently a German translator is about to tackle it. Purportedly a diary, it is much more than that. I have never read a book quite like it.

The impetus for Pla’s project, which he initiated when he was only twenty-one years old, was the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. A little-motivated law student at the time, he found himself relegated to an early and prolonged summer vacation because the University of Barcelona had closed down in accordance with a public health measure. The first diary entry is dated March 8th. Pla has returned home with his brother to live with their parents in Palafrugell, their native village. “I see my brother, who adores playing soccer—although he once broke an arm and then a leg while doing so—only at mealtimes,” begins Pla. “He lives his own life. As for me, I get by as I can. I do not miss Barcelona, even less so the University. Life in the village, with my friends who live here, suits me fine.”

What this disabused avowal already hints at is the birth of a writer—the central theme of the book. Because Pla is forced to flee the Spanish flu (and thus, gladly, his dismal law studies), he can finally give rein to his urge to write. In one early passage, dated April 12th, he reports his father telling him to take his textbooks up to the attic. “Whenever you want to study,” his father suggests, “no one will bother you there.” “After wandering around the whole house for a while,” adds the author, “I ended up climbing the stairs.” But instead of opening his textbooks, Pla contemplates the “gentle, sweet, mellow light” that is coming from the skylight. He then describes the attic, complains about his mother’s omnipresence in the house (“if she could, she would tidy up our feelings” as one puts a messy room back in order), evokes the hilly seaside landscape that he can spot from a window, and finally reflects on his Catholic upbringing. After this auspicious stint of writing, he concludes that the attic is too cold.

Little else will be heard about the attic and the textbooks. Pla thereafter spends most of his time outside. As the days go by, he scrutinizes everyday life in Palafrugell and, when summer comes, that of a nearby sea resort, Calella. He has little if anything to do except pass time with his sidekicks, hang out in cafés, sometimes get drunk (“I’m having lots of difficulties, and it is very unpleasant, trying to recover from a Pernod binge”), sharply observe the comings and goings of villagers, record and often satirize overheard conversations, poke fun at the local bourgeoisie and their facetious manners, read Catalan authors (such as the “affected, violinist-like” Xènius, the theoretician of Noucentisme, a national literary and philosophical movement), recall his childhood and its vicissitudes (the move to the new, chilly house has provoked a sort of permanent existential unease), think hard about the Catalan language (the ongoing grammatical and orthographic codification of which was a current topic), and think even harder about the personal literary style that he envisioned and was in fact already forging—and it differed significantly from the flowery academic idiom that was in vogue.

The idle law student, now a budding writer, thus actually has much to do in Palafrugell, especially as regards the perfecting of a style that was to become one of the finest in Catalan literature. As Pla explains several times in acute critical reaction to his literary elders, simplicity and clarity are his goals. But this is not all. As he rejects the temptations of stylistic ornamentation and seeks the most specific nouns and adjectives for his perceptions, he never neglects irony. It is masterfully applied in countless passages of The Gray Notebook. The epithet “realist,” which is sometimes applied to Pla, is insufficient, at least by American standards. (Hemingway was by one year his exact contemporary.) So witty and subtly intricate are Pla’s precisely crafted objective descriptions that The Gray Notebook is brilliantly chromatic throughout. It is emotionally colorful. It is also richly sensate, for Pla excels at transcribing physical sensations, especially those relating to temperature. The author’s subjectivity is disclosed as often through carefully recorded details from the outside world as through his lively opinions, frank confessions, and sometimes rather brutal self-appraisals.

Pla, who revised and expanded his initial diary manuscript much later in adulthood and first brought it out nearly a half-century after the events recounted, structures the somewhat haphazard contents of a normal diary into narratives on several levels. Because he thinks back on and analyzes his childhood (which already seems remote and forever lost, even though he is sojourning in his hometown at the mere age of twenty-one), the book sketches the broad lines of a coming-of-age novel. Because each entry is dated, the diary self-chronicles a work-in-progress, only later to be entitled The Gray Notebook. For the same reason, the notebook charts Pla’s development as a writer; it is a literary logbook that includes probing passages on creativity, literary innovation, and the author’s Catalan literary heritage. It offers the first chapters of his autobiography, in both anecdotal and intellectual senses of the genre.

The second part of the book traces the author’s return, in January 1919, to Barcelona, where he resumes his law studies but is now convinced that his destiny lies elsewhere. His textbooks have “yellowed,” he admits. “They look like old-fashioned things, like lifeless, useless objects. Things can indeed be ordinary; they can even possess a profound, massive, inherent ordinariness. But in this regard, there is nothing like textbooks.”

Pla’s satirical pen turns to the hypocrisies and pretensions of academic life. In the evenings, he delves into the literary and artistic life of the city. From these descriptions emerges still another narrative, that of Barcelona as an active locus of European modernism. Through these various story lines, which are discarded, then picked up again and set forth, the book displays much less heterogeneity than is commonly found in writer’s journals. And bringing these different narrative strands together on a personal existential level is the deadly flu epidemic, an invisible leitmotiv in the first section. Arguably, the epidemic catalyses Pla’s desire to write in the first place; it provokes him into summing up his young life. All along, he is writing and living intently because his days may be numbered.

Among other curiosities, the notebook comprises an extensive and somewhat unsettling description of Pla’s physical appearance. This passage is ostensibly penned for one “Lola S.,” though it is never sent to her because the author suffers from “an excessive feeling of ridiculousness.” At the same time the diarist speculates on his ethnic origins, noting that his mother’s maiden name, Casadevall, can often be found on lists of Jews burned at the stake during medieval pogroms. However, as Pla boasts to Lola about his seductive handsomeness, he claims that he has no “typical” Jewish nose or neck, let alone the “sad eyes of a begging, beaten dog.” Instead, he has “very lively eyes” and his neck is shaped “like a well-composed melody.” Although he is obviously being self-ironic here and, elsewhere, goes on to ridicule his facial appearance, these few sentences may strike readers as racist. All told, it is not that easy to determine what Pla intends, as irony is superposed on irony. Interestingly, he visited Tel Aviv in 1957, traveling from Marseille on a boat full of homeless Jews. His Les Escales de Llevant (1969) comprises an important eyewitness account of Israel in those days.

Despite the respect that his style and literary sensibility immediately command, some aspects of Pla’s life have disturbed Catalan and Spanish intellectuals. During the Civil War years, and especially in 1938-1939, his stance toward Franco showed political ambiguity, or at best revealed the writer’s survival instincts. Although he hated the Caudillo’s prohibition of the use of Catalan, a law that was strictly enforced during the Second World War and only somewhat mitigated during the 1950s and thereafter, Pla seems to have believed that, despite the dictatorship, democracy would gradually establish itself in Spain. His advocates refer to his “interior exile,” as opposed to the genuine expatriation undertaken by countless Spaniards. Pla was no revolutionary, but instead a conservative skeptic. During the rigorous prohibition of Catalan, he turned to Spanish, writing the well-known Viaje en autobús (1942)—just one example of his passion for getting around by all conceivable means of transportation—and several other books. Throughout his career, he traveled far and wide, and produced an impressive amount of journalism. After Franco’s death in 1975, which was followed by a democratic Constitution in 1978, left-wing Catalan writers held it against Pla for a while that he had initially supported, or at least tolerated, the dictator.

The Gray Notebook is, of course, also a notebook, that is a high-precision laboratory for literary experiments. A splendid instance consists of several long dialogues that take place between two young bourgeois lovers. These dialogues are inserted into the diary as trial runs for what resembles a projected satirical novel. The couple’s conversations—earnest for them, hilarious for us—bring the young man (who, by the way, is a law student) and his fiancée fully to life on the page. Their remarks and perceptions also illustrate telltale aspects of the summer resort beach life that Pla has been investigating with his sharpshooter eyes, perfect-pitch ears, and hypersensitive epidermis. Whether he scrutinizes societal mores as in this case or turns inward and wonders who he is, Pla compels throughout this little-known, formally original Catalan masterpiece.

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