Not that Catalonia is a country as such, but the Catalan language has long been a proud symbol of the region’s separate identity from the rest of Spain. And Pla, who died in 1981 at the age of 84, is a recognized master of this language. Yet only now is any of his immense body of work being translated into English.
“The Gray Notebook,” his best-known book, is a journal begun on his 21st birthday on March 8, 1918, and kept until he became the Paris correspondent of a Barcelona newspaper 20 months later. “I’ll write whatever happens — simply to pass the time — come what may,” he notes in his opening entry. But the journal has a higher purpose, he later explains: “These pages help me to learn to write.”
This solitary apprenticeship evidently worked because Pla did learn to write — and write well. He showed little interest in novels, but in the decades that followed, in journalism, travel writing and other nonfiction, his realistic, direct, ironic, self-deprecating and sometimes caustic style broke with the baroque formalism of earlier Catalan writing and won him acclaim as the modernizer of Catalan literature.
Then, well into his 60s, his reputation secure and his global wanderings over, Pla turned again to the handwritten pages of “The Gray Notebook.” Before its publication in Catalan in 1966 and in Spanish in 1975, he reworked it, blending the reflections of a young writer learning his trade with those of a mature wordsmith elaborating on his memories. Occasionally it’s possible to distinguish the old from the new, in a change of tense here, a contradiction there. At one point, the young man admits to not having read Proust; at another, the older author applauds Proust as “a great realist writer.” Unchanging, though, is Pla as the central character in what reads like an extended literary autobiography.
Does it matter that “The Gray Notebook” is written in Catalan? In Peter Bush’s excellent English translation, it is a delight. And the journal is inseparable from Catalonia because, as much as a self-portrait, it evokes the lives of the region in a distant era. The first half takes place around Pla’s sleepy birthplace of Palafrugell along the Costa Brava; the second in a politically restless Barcelona.
Pla spent much of 1918 at home because the Spanish flu pandemic had forced the closure of Barcelona University, where he was studying law. Already bent on becoming a writer, he tapped his daily routine for material for his journal. A visit to a family farm prompts musings on nature. “To look at the sky, listen to the swallows, daydream and contemplate the hazy life of things calms my nerves,” he writes. “Youth is a time of sadness — I think — because it is the only age when we respond to the intangible, that is, to what doesn’t exist at all.”
He takes delight in sketching the people around him, like his neighbor, Señorita Enriqueta Ramon, “a small, plump old spinster, who every day squeezed into an elaborate corset, and was ruddy-cheeked, despite her refined sensibility, beneath a steep pile of permed hair.” Or the village priest, Mossèn Soler, “a pinkish-white old man with fine straw-colored hair; he was small and well preserved, with a celluloid sheen and as dumpy as a baby rabbit.” Or Almeda, the local pharmacist, “a systematic, lucid cultivator of adulterous love,” who seems more interested “in irritating husbands than in possessing their wives.”
Pla devotes a large amount of time to reading — not law books but works by French authors, finding none more inspiring than Montaigne’s essays. Many afternoons and evenings are also given over to cafe chatter on subjects both frivolous and weighty. A good listener, he takes note when his friend Gori spouts off on, say, capitalism, pronouncing it “irrational, chaotic, incomprehensible, disorderly, capricious, unjust, painful, sad and ridiculous . . . just like nature and life.”
At times, Pla simply picks a subject — fatness, women, hangovers, death — and gives flight to his thoughts. These riffs might pass for literary exercises were they not so witty and sophisticated. Yet he feels insecure. “I’ve written ever since I was a child, but writing for me is an artificial, superfluous activity,” he notes. But he has made his choice. “My passion for writing is intense,” he later observes. “In truth, it’s the only thing I think about.”
Once Pla returns to his law studies in 1919, he prefers to spend time in the Barcelona Athenaeum, a private club of intellectuals, where he joins informal debating circles, again as an eager listener. Known as tertulias, the debates are led by influential thinkers, some of whom become his mentors.
Alexandre Plana, a poet and critic, warns him against following the refined classicism of a fading Catalan movement known as Noucentisme. “You use these archaic words, these medieval expressions, simply because you have read such things,” Plana tells him, adding sternly: “You must break with rhetoric, precious subtlety, verbosity, with highfalutin literature.”
Today, with the region gripped by separatist fever, Pla is once more a figure of controversy, ignored by nationalist purists because he never endorsed Catalan independence and held in esteem by writers and intellectuals who fear that obsessive nationalism is isolating Catalonia from the rest of Spain and even from Europe. For the moment, then, the Catalonia portrayed in “The Gray Notebook” might seem like a far-off land. Yet what survives in its pages is a vibrant testimony to the power of words to transcend time. 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.
THE GRAY NOTEBOOK
By Josep Pla
Translated by Peter Bush
Introduction by Valentí Puig
638 pp. New York Review Books. Paper, $19.95.