Life Embitters by Josep Pla (trans. Peter Bush). $20.00, 600 pp. Archipelago Books.
Life Embitters by Josep Pla (1897-1981) is a collection of stories containing landscape descriptions, sociological judgments of the behavior of his fellow Catalans, and ventures into the mores of England, France, and Germany.
Aside from Pla’s Preface, there are two sections: the first, and longest, is 21 separate narratives, and the second, “The Berlin Circle,” presents three tales from the narrator’s time in Germany. Beyond hazy references to the First World War having happened some years ago, and the repeated occurrence of events in 1921, there is scant commentary on world events, inventions, scientific discoveries, and so on. A notable exception occurs in a late story set in Germany, “Portrait of Inflation,” where the narrator describes how he and his friend, Xammer, while working as “special correspondents . . . witnessed Hitler’s first attempts to take over the beer cellars and make the leap from such places to head of state,” which must refer to the Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923. (Due to his political beliefs, Pla experienced external exile in the 1920s while the dictator Primo de Rivera ruled Spain; later, despite supporting for a time the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, he was punished with internal exile within Spain. It may be for these reasons that political affairs are confined to brief mentions of matters in Germany and Portugal.)
“Such was my surprise when a passing reference to, say, traveling by horse and cart or celebrating the end of World War I reminded me that Pla was writing almost a century ago. For the most part, he seemed to be addressing me today,” Alan Riding concluded when reviewing The Grey Notebook in The New York Times, but the same could not be said for Life Embitters. The ease with which people travel, work (or not), and cope with new surroundings, living as they did in a less regulated world in Life Embitters, contrasts sharply with the contemporary situation. At times the narrator is a student, at other times a journalist; mostly what propels him from one place to another and how he manages to live are topics left untouched. “In the years I’m talking about—after the ’14 war—well-off people from our country liked to stay in Paris for a while,” begins “Un Homme Fatal,” so perhaps the narrator is part of that group who had “made money from the war and no doubt that’s why people of a certain social standing started to be very curious about things foreign.”
In almost all of these pieces, some of which are short anecdotes expanded by verbal pictures of men or women, the narrator’s identity is not divulged, except in one or two instances (such as “A Conversation in St. James’s Park” where Pla is one of the speakers). The narrators are generally safe from the close inspection they conduct of the land ladies and other tenants of boarding houses or the habitués of cafés. Self-examination is not a high priority, yet when it does occur, as in the chilling “Roby or Deflation,” it is well done. Variations occur in the way Pla presents his stories, predominantly when the narrator uses the papers of others to provide another voice.
There is also a use of found documents throughout Life Embitters. The focus of “A Friend: Albert Santaniol” is never pictured alive but rather is presented through material found in his papers. He reappears in “An Adventure on the Channel” through “jottings” that narrate an intriguing story involving Calais, Bruges, a quasi-femme fatale, and spying. In “Meanwood, Leeds, Yorkshire” Santaniol shows up a third time, where he makes a remark as appropriate now as it was when coined, and may have always been: “If you have ever lived abroad, you will have noticed that people always act as if you are a rare species. One must be fair to England: they don’t think foreigners are important.” A similar strategy is used in “A Case Study,” which provides a picture of a man named Romaní, a “writer friend . . . who once had quite a reputation in Barcelona,” but who sends the narrator an extraordinarily long letter from “a town in a South American republic” detailing his decline from when they knew each other.
Despite the variations, there is a similarity among these narrative voices: they are eloquent, and ready to describe nature, architecture, or a friend at length and at a moment’s notice. They stay in pensions or shabby boarding houses run by land ladies (widows, most often) who produce poor food, they frequent coffee houses more than bars, and they are flummoxed or outwitted by single women. This much of a muchness makes Life Embitters sag in places.
Some of the nature sketches are extraordinary. Lodgings in Berlin during the winter sum up the position of the narrator, as well as conditions where he has chosen to live: “The mud in the garden was black and icy; everything was lifeless and dreary. The silence in the house was strangely shocking. It was like living in a submerged diving bell or enclosed cistern.” The most astonishing descriptions of sky, land, and water occur in “A First Trip to Portugal,” which is an idiosyncratic word-painting of the narrator’s impressions as he travels via train from Spain into the lands of its neighbor, with a story about a desperate gambler making up the second part:
From my compartment window you could see a large expanse of undulating land that shifted from dark red to purple and was unremittingly bleak and icy. A yolk-yellow sash of cloud extended along the eastern horizon, as if heralding the arrival of a new day. The sky was a cold, lustrous green. It was autumn and the temperature was quite unappealing. The poor land by the rail-track was punctured by huge crumbling granite rocks. The cork-oak woods scarred by the recent peeling seemed to writhe in pain. As day slowly broke, the train chugged along the edge of a deep ravine that looked like the sickly lip of a deep incision; its floor was dotted by pools of freezing water. . . .
When the first rays of sun spread over the earth, a herd of white pigs emerged by the side of the holm-oak woods. They stood still for a moment, snouts up, tails curling, and watched the train. The sun brought the murky gleam of old silver to their pink backs.
For many pages the reader is taken on a tour of Portuguese cities, and the next piece, “With the Sun on Your Back,” similarly explores the Côte d’Azur, selecting towns or cities for the impressions they make much as a travel writer chooses lively places so as to titillate armchair travellers. Lines like “If you ever go to Mentone, look for the Place de la Tête” are staples of this genre, and Pla does them uncommonly well throughout Life Embitters.
With the same careful attention to detail, and unafraid of elaboration, the narrator—to consider the set of narrators as one Narrator is convenient and not completely incorrect— presents encounters with people he meets in various cities. Characters, often living marginal lives, are seen from the outside, their inner existence denied by the single point of view (though the narrator can be everywhere, even when it’s inconceivable he could have witnessed what he reports). Here is a typical example of Pla’s style in this regard:
The registrar was tall, thin, and sallow, dressed in black and, though he had retired from the High Court a good five years ago, he still reeked, no doubt reluctantly, of wax-sealed paper and cigar butts. A recalcitrant bachelor who professed little interest in real life, he had apparently reached an age when it was time to become more human and open to the frailties of others.
Interestingly, in “A Friend: Albert Santaniol,” Pla has the main character tell the narrator through a letter: “Events in life warp us; language betrays us; feeling deceive us; there are no rigid, one-sided characters: there are multiple truths.” Though Pla rarely allows for more than one angle on a situation, this character is aware that what one person perceives does not contain the entirety of things. A conclusion reached by the narrator of “Boulevard Saint-Michel, Paris” applies to most of the narrators: “Within the natural limits of our imagination and the imperfection that life always brings, we can succeed in getting to know someone else. Self-knowledge is extremely difficult. Analytical detachment is for others. We cannot apply it to ourselves.”
Leisurely descriptions of interiors are as common:
After lunch, profound calm and dank fresh air filled the boarding house. It was time for the judge’s supposed visit. Flies buzzed near the ceiling, and a strip of sun filtered through the shutter and came to rest on the romantic balcony scene. Distinctly dispirited by the visit, the maid left the dishes half washed and moved to the dining room, where she rocked back and forth, half asleep, arms dangling, mouth gaping, in the rocking chair where Donya Emília usually sat. Stretched out beneath the shutter, the cat acted as if it were dead. Notes from a piano hung in the air. Barcelona hummed drowsily, under a glaring, African light. Things in the house imperceptibly secreted the greasy, animal juices with which they were impregnated. The flies, yet again, now flew drunkenly in and out of the dining room. All of a sudden, in that silent fug, the sound of someone trying to turn a bedroom door handle.
Pla’s narrators also offer sharp or humourous observations. “When one scrutinizes the way men act, it soon becomes clear that psychological rationalism doesn’t work systematically. Almost all our passions—self-esteem, sense of the absurd, or inertia—get in the way or derail it.” Speaking about England’s love of a certain genre of fiction, one character offers this litero-sociological declaration: “The crime novel is the most innocent, inoffensive form of nosey-parkery imaginable.” In similar sweeping fashion, the narrator of “Portrait of Inflation” says this about a German couple with a complicated history: “They were in good health, had ten thousand marks in the bank and a great ability to wonder at the world. It’s all one needs to be happy. Perhaps they didn’t betray any of their ideas. They simply forgot them. It wasn’t a problem. Germans think freedom is like rhythmic gymnastics.”
In the Preface, Pla describes wandering through Europe as a journalist, and shares his belief that “[a] writer’s first duty is to observe, relate, and portray this era. That is infinitely more important than futile, barren attempts to achieve elemental or eccentric originality.” His work in this book, one of nearly fifty volumes of writing, is belied by the first lines of the same preface, where he says that the current book is “the kind I would have liked to write,” changing that goal a few lines later: “In any case, this is what my attempts have achieved.” Such downplaying is a kind of feint, but it does, deliberately or accidentally, touch on the fact that certain stories in Life Embitters are insubstantial. Those that have the most skill contain vibrant poetic scenes alongside harsh views of society, and that combination, along with other elements, are enough to justify looking for this work and this author.
Canadian writer Jeff Bursey is the author of two novels, Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010). His articles, interviews, and reviews have appeared in Numero Cinq, The Quarterly Conversation, The Winnipeg Review, and other print and online journals.
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