The Gray Notebook

Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist as “the greatest realist writer of all time.”

Proust resolves the childish oversimplification of the realism of his time by bringing to the foreground, with unique insight and a fabulous means of expression, a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements. It is very likely that great writers are significant in that they function as a kind of crossroads – in their ability to overcome contradictions that human petty-mindedness had transformed into rigid structures. I think it is evident that Proust banished from his literary horizons petty, low-ceilinged, reductive realism. On the one hand, he is much more realist than the writers in this vein and, at the same time, succeeds in sublimating reality by getting much closer to its essence, by re-creating it in its essential entirety, in its immense, wondrous complexity.

Pla shows what he has learned from Proust in The Gray Notebook, the first of his works to be translated into English. (Archipelago Books will be releasing another one of his books in the fall.) In fact, The Gray Notebook can be seen as Pla’s version of In Search of Lost Time, although, interestingly enough, Proust had only published two of the seven books at the time Pla had originally written this. Even though Proust’s name has come up a lot lately (thanks to writers like Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard), comparing him with Pla seems appropriate.

Even though Pla initially wrote these journal entries when he was in his early twenties, he returned to them decades later, so, like Proust, he was looking back upon his youth during a time when it had been so far away from him. Pla’s writing also shares some other similarities with Proust, such as his eye for detail, but the Catalan is no imitator: Where Proust favored long, digressive sentences about the French aristocrats that populated his world, Pla offers fragments of the less fortunate town and city folk that surrounded him. Throughout these fragments, Pla’s humor and wit shine, even during the darkest moments.

In fact, Pla started The Gray Notebook during one of those dark moments in time. In 1918, as World War I was ending, a deadly influenza pandemic was spreading throughout the world. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of the world’s population was infected, and an estimated 50 million died from this flu.) As a result, the university Pla was attending in Barcelona closed for a time, so he had to return to his parents’ home in Palafrugell along the eastern coast of Spain. Even though he was studying law, Pla wanted to be a writer and, on his twenty-first birthday, he started composing his notebook entries.

After briefly mentioning his ancestors and some of his earliest memories, Pla starts to describe small-town life, which is filled with many colorful characters, including Roldós, the bohemian pianist at the local cinema, and Josep Bofill de Carreres (also known as Gori), the town magistrate. Gori has some pretty interesting opinions about everything, including justice, marriage, and the war. One night, in the café where Pla and his other friends get together, Gori talks about what he believes was the biggest effect of the war. “It introduced short underpants,” he says to Pla. “After centuries of wearing long underparts mankind today can finally breathe.” Gori also criticizes Pla for his love of realism and believes literature should be an escape from reality.

However, as seen in the quote mentioned earlier, the young Pla has plenty to say on that subject, too. Besides Proust, Pla also appreciates Catalan writers such as Josep Carner, who was also known as the “Prince of the Catalan Poets.” “Catalan literature today has a very attractive quality: It is a literature completely devoid of mannerism. Mannerism palls immediately. Its style is so difficult, so hard, so stiff, and so rigidly written and hedged with obstacles, that everybody writes as best he can . . . and make of it what you will!” He also defines realism as the “new rule” in literature because of the passion that inspires it.

Pla demonstrates this passion for realism even during the most humdrum moments. For example, his description of relaxing on a boat near the El Canadell beach is so vivid and realistic that a reader cannot help but be drawn into the scene.

At two o’clock, the toast-colored shadow is a foot wide and the sand the sun has just deserted is still warm. But as it gets later in the afternoon, the shadow spreads and the sand cools. . . . The light is a hazy, effervescent, dazzling white. It melds with the air, white walls, and pinkish sands to create misty vapors that glide, twist, and turn. The pale, bluish void of the sky seems to shimmer with light. The herd of foaming white horses gallops monotonously over the azure of the sea. Everything happens so quickly and spontaneously and in the red-hot frenzy the shade is so cooling that a drowsy stupor spreads through your body releasing and relaxing your entrails.

Not everything about Pla’s life is idyllic, though; this is particularly evident in the second half of the book, which covers most of 1919. By January of that year, Pla was able to return to Barcelona, although he was less than enthusiastic about getting his law degree (and returning to that city, which he describes as being “like one endless cemetery”). In fact, the entries for Barcelona present a sharp contrast to the ones for Palafrugell.

One of the reasons for this contrast is Pla finds himself surrounded by chaos at times. Even though the war is over, a general strike leads to the military occupying the city (Pla ends up doing some part-time service). He also witnesses unruly students wreaking havoc in a mineralogy and botany class. Meanwhile, Pla’s family becomes a source for other worries: His brother catches the still-lingering flu, and his father’s financial situation, which was never great to begin with, worsens.

Furthermore, Pla sometimes isolates himself from others. He calls himself a “chatterbox” but admits that he has “no talent for friendship”; after rudely interrupting a poet who is proposing a festival, he wins “another enemy.” Even when he is around friends, he leaves them to go out for strolls. “It seems I am fated to be a wanderer,” he writes. In fact, walking around Barcelona is something Pla likes to do a lot. At one point, he skips classes for four days so he could take strolls along the Rambla, one of his favorite streets in the city.

Still, Pla doesn’t spend this section of the book dwelling on the negative or living a life of solitude. For instance, Dr. Joaquim Borralleras (or Quim, as Pla calls him) eventually becomes a significant part of his social circle. (This circle also included Eugeni d’Ors and Francesc Pujols, who would both become famous in their own right.) While Quim criticizes Pla’s initial attempts at writing, he ultimately helps Pla fulfil his dream of being a writer by encouraging him to be a journalist. Pla apparently took Quim’s advice very seriously: He worked as a journalist until the 1970s, when he started preparing his complete works. (Incidentally, Quim was also the one who recommended that Pla read Proust.)

Pla’s remark that Proust composed “a reality that is infinitely richer in sensuous and spiritual elements” arguably applies to this work as well. Some readers may initially find it too rich: The multitude of characters, anecdotes, and opinions can seem overwhelming at times. However, Pla’s search through lost time is definitely one worth accompanying him on, especially as he grows as a writer and a man. Peter Bush’s translation is equally appealing, as he brilliantly retains the idiosyncrasies of these characters for English readers. (Having Pla call d’Ors “Frenchified” was a nice touch.) Overall, while Pla originally questioned the value of his notebook within its own pages, the reader who becomes enchanted by it will not only be thankful that it was preserved but will look forward to reading more from him in the near future.

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