The Ideal of Figueres

May 23, 2014

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From The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla:

I personally enjoy city milieus that have the spirit Figueres embodies.  I feel at ease there.  I think this is a city, properly speaking, what one should call a city.  Denser, more extensive concentrations of humanity may exist…but without the same degree of urbanity.  Figueres is a small, yet fully rounded city.  And if it is enchanting because it is fully rounded, it is all the more so because it is small.  Large cities are tiring, stressful, uncomfortable, pretentious, and grandiose:  they tend to give a false idea of life.  Small cities seem more made-to-measure for ordinary mortals, more advantageous for work and leisure, and offer a life that is more direct.  One doesn’t waste so much time, though naturally one doesn’t earn so much money.

Amen to that. Figures was nice, and so was Narbonne!


News from Ampurdan

May 5, 2014

Salvador Dali - The Pharmacist of Ampurdan Seeking Absolutely Nothing - 1936

I like that dusty, maritime region of Europe known as Catalonia, and, in France, Languedoc.  Josep Pla is from that area, specifically Ampurdan.  His diary from the period at the end of WWI, heavily reworked over the succeeding decades, has just be translated and published by the NYRB.  It is a delightful read.

 

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Catalonia and Pla

This book is long, and before starting it, I asked myself, “Do I really want to spend this much time in this man’s life?”  Almost immediately after starting, I realized that the answer was yes.    Here’s a bit from one of his countless arguments in a café:

Literature,” he said, “should be idealistic, delicate, out of the ordinary, It should come from here” — and he placed his hand over the heart.

“And why must literature be like that?” I asked.

“Because literature is for moments when there is nothing to do, when nothing is pressing, the only time there’s a vague possibility that people might want to curl up with a book.  Man wasn’t brought into the world to read books.  Make no mistake…the single serious problem we face in this world is how to get by, that is how to earn or spend money.  Men and women devote ninety-eight percent of their conscious life to that.  And that’s probably an understatement.  So, literature will always be a Sunday-afternoon activity, a moment on the day in the week when maybe — and this was truer years ago, since nowadays people to the movies — maybe they’ll feel like some distraction from their abiding obsessions.  And you expect them to pine for your raw, spare, realist fiction?  Why?  They’ve already had more than their fill of your real life.  Your kind of literature is redundant, flat–footed, commonplace, blindingly obvious.”

Well, I like fantasy, and I like realism.  And Pla hardly wrote any fiction at all – perhaps none at all.  And yet he gives full billing to these somewhat crackpot ideas in his journal.  And clearly, he’s somehow sympathetic, at least to the spirit of his friend.   Then there’s this;

Today Enric Grigola said that he knows a big fat man with a sensitive soul who feels immediately relieved of all material needs and worries , in a state of grace, whenever he loosens his belt a notch.

Coromina laughs when he hears this piece of information, and Frigola launches into him with feigned indignation, half ironic, half annoyed.  “You mock everything!” he says.  “I give you physical proof of states of mind that are purely spiritual, and you laugh.  What more do you want?  You’re never satisfied.”

Another book that I am reading takes up the theme of distraction, in an almost medical sense, and with a good deal of irony. The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox is remarkable and entertaining for several reasons.  It was written by a woman, who had help in the writing business from Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson; it is very funny; it is an inversion of another Spanish tale, i.e. Don Quixote.  Instead of a man bewitched by tales of chivalry, bent on rescuiong damsels in distress, we have an intelligent and sharp-witted young lady intent on playing the role of female heroine of romance.  She insists on interpreting the behavior of all around her through the lens of her books, but though she is ridiculous, we end up rooting for her.  Maybe it’s because she’s a woman in a man’s world, or maybe it’s just the sheer determination she brings to having things (in appearance, at least) her own way that is so winning.

Charlotte_Lennox_The_Female_Quixote_Cooks_Edition


Is the war over?

January 20, 2013

LA-GUERRE-EST-FINIE-1966
Yves Montand stars in the Alain Resnais film, La guerre est finie, from 1966.  It takes place a year or two before that, and is a portrait of a professional revolutionary who is getting worn out by it all.  Montand is Carlos, or Domingo, or any one of a bunch of different alias, a dedicated communist in the anti-Franco resistance.  He’s been hiding his own Spanish identity for so long, moving back and forth across the border with Spain, that he says he sometimes he forgets himself that he is a Spaniard.

Spain was a fascist state in those days – Franco didn’t die for another ten years or so.  People resisting his rule are killed, imprisoned, and harassed. Meanwhile, millions of Europeans and Americans see Spain as the perfect summer vacation spot.  Carlos is wondering if times have changed so much that the old strategies need an update.

Unfortunately, being a member of a communist underground means he has to discuss, theorize, and justify everything in terms of the approved catechism of The Party.  In the image above, he is learning that his controlling committee no longer trusts his judgement: how could he doubt that organizing, yet again, for a general strike is the correct strategy?  He has been in Madrid too long, too close to the day to day struggles.  He has lost site of the bigger picture, the true state of ‘historical conditions.’  He needs a rest for six months, or longer.  Time to reacquaint himself with the timeless truths of Lenin and The Party.  Of course, when the man picked to replace him in Madrid has a heart attack, Carlos is suddenly suitable for work ‘on the ground’ and is told to return immediately.

While all this is going on, Carlos meets Nadine, a young student who with quick thinking, gets him out of a fix with the authorities.  She’s in the anti-Franco movement too, and she involves him in a meeting with her committee.  They are all very young, and they are scornful of the fuddy-duddy Marxists in Carlos’ group who continually use the same old tactics.  He has to admit, they have a point – exactly his criticisms.  But what do they plan to do?  Detonate plastic explosives in a terrorist action to disrupt tourism in Spain.  Carlos walks out in disgust.

What’s a thinking man to do?  He follows orders, and returns to Spain, but Nadine finds out at the last minute that he will be trapped.  The committee taps Carlos’ lover to rush to Spain to try to head him off and warn him.  The film ends without us knowing if she succeeds.  Seems either way, the war is over for him.

Resnais uses his signature editing techniques to disrupt the viewers normal sense of narrative.  It effectively raises the level of suspense while allowing us to follow Carlos’ plight with intense interest.


Jo sóc un jueu autèntica.

September 2, 2011

Wandering around the medieval quarter of the wonderful town of Girona, peeking into the courtyards in the Jewish quarter, reading plaques about this and that bit of Iberian Judaica that vanished with the Inquisition of 1492, never to return – no Jews here now! – I felt like declaring to the curators or restauranteurs, Jo sóc un jueu autèntica!  (Catalan for, “I am an authentic Jew!)  Maybe get a free snack, or a discount museum admission?  I thought better of it.

Gerona is beautiful and fascinating.  It’s one of those medieval towns that urban planners like to rhapsodize about:  the organic growth; the variety of spaces and spatio-temporal experiences as you walk through it; the multiple uses assigned to spaces – street, square, parking lot, market all in one!  The old town sits on a rock at the confluence of rivers, and is filled with winding streets, surprising squares, a fine set of walls, and a stupendous set of steps to the cathedral.

Urban views don’t get any better than this one from the old bridge in town, up towards the ‘new’ bridge, a metal affair designed by Gustave Eiffel.  The image on the right is of a Romanesque portal to an abbey near the cathedral.   Most of the time, I only get to see this sort of thing in museums, in pieces, but here it is intact, although the paint that originally livened it up is long gone.  The shapes are weird, looking almost like diatoms.  (Click the image for a shot of the full portal.)

The cathedral itself is monumental, and a bit surprising.  I plan another post on the characteristics of Catalan Gothic, but suffice it to say that although the arch on this side portal is pointed, this is not your Frenchman’s gothic.  The church is enlivened, or ruined? by an enormous late baroque façade applied over the original sober elevation.  At that time, the steep and positively enormous flights of steps to the main entrance were added.  I imagine that before that, a winding ramp led the faithful to the door.

Drainage always and everywhere…