Life Embitters

Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when he was a young law student and aspiring writer. Readers got to meet many of the colorful characters who inhabited both the town of Palafrugell (where he was from) and the city of Barcelona (where he went to school). While Pla socialized with many of them, he preferred to spend time alone, especially along the Rambla in Barcelona. Even though Pla could be both ironic and pessimistic, he would write about humdrum moments in his life in such amazing detail that the reader couldn’t help but want to follow him along his journey.

Now, fans of that book can continue the journey with Life Embitters, the second of Pla’s works to be translated into English. Like the first book, Life was translated by Peter Bush, who has not only captured the spirit of Pla but has maintained a consistent quality over more than 1,200 pages. Life contains many of the hallmarks mentioned above, but it has some noticeable differences, too.

For starters, Life Embitters consists of self-contained stories (most of which take place after the events in Notebook) rather than chronologically arranged anecdotes. Although Pla revised much of the material that made up The Gray Notebook decades after he had first composed it, he kept the diary-like format of his original writings. For example, one day Pla would write about a day at the beach, and the next he would give an opinion about another Catalan writer’s work. As a result, while it’s still highly recommended, Notebook can at times be an overwhelming read.

Life Embitters doesn’t feel as overwhelming because this time the writing is more focused. For example, in the first story, “The Central Tavern,” Pla writes about an event that took place in the title location that involved the owner, Sra Vincetita (Pla refers to many of his characters formally), whom he describes as “a vivacious, middle-aged woman with rather glazed, artificially rejuvenated features.” And even though her monologues are “endless” and “nonsensical,” she probably could have given Pla plenty to write about. Instead, though, he concentrates on Sra Vincetita’s relationship with the dubious Sr Vinardell.

Pla prefaced the story by saying that his doctor had recommended a stay in Cerinyola, the town where the Central Tavern is located, because of its dry climate and its quietness. However, even if his doctor hadn’t suggested it, he would have eventually ended up there anyway, since it becomes apparent that Pla likes to travel. While in The Gray Notebook, he wrote that he was “fated to be a wanderer,” in Life Embitters, he truly proves it, as he rambles through different parts of Europe, including France, Italy, England, Portugal, and Germany. Once again, Pla gives some dazzling—and occasionally surprising—observations; for example, here is what he wrote during a train ride to Portugal:

The lower reaches of the Tagus are astonishing. It is a broad, fatherly river with a gentle flow. The land is moist and flat. River barges glide by on the horizon hoisting square sails tinged with nicotine or orange juice hues. The appearance of these vessels amid the fields makes you wonder: “Where are we? Are we in Holland? Are we in the Po valley, with Venice as its grand finale?” No. It’s not Holland. Holland is even greener, softer, and spongier. It’s a watery, feathery pillow. There is a similarity with Venice. I think the European landscape most resembling what we know generically as Venetian is the lower stretch of the Tagus.

Of course, a book titled Life Embitters isn’t going to be simply a travelogue or collection of amusing stories. As mentioned above, he was a pessimist, and there are plenty of moments where he shows the dark side of human nature. For example, during his stay in Portugal, he writes about a man who became addicted to gambling after his doctor recommended it as a way to forget about the pain in his tooth. Later, while in Nice, Pla writes again about gambling and the effects casinos have on people: “Anyone standing in front of a gaming table automatically ages ten years.” And gambling isn’t his only target: While visiting a zoo in England with a friend, he observes a penguin eating an innocent sparrow and considers it a lesson in justice. In addition, some of the tales, especially the ones that make up “The Berlin Circle” toward the end of the book, show just how bitter life can be.

Yet, despite this tendency, Pla tries to understand the people he encounters or reads about on a much deeper level. For example, in the story “A Death in Barcelona,” Pla witnessed most of the events in the story, but not the final scene between two men walking down the Rambla after leaving a boarding house. Even though he may have added the dialogue decades after the event took place, he gives the story an appropriate conclusion. Besides filling in gaps in his own stories, Pla also dedicates entire chapters to the “jottings” from his friend Albert Santaniol, who has had some pretty interesting adventures of his own. Pla most likely modified these, but once again, he probably did it to better capture the spirit of his friend. Finally, he retells an old Scottish tale about St. Mungo, the founder and patron saint of Glasgow, with the same kind of irony found in his other stories.

That said, if you’ve read The Gray Notebook and enjoyed it, then you’ll definitely want to read Life Embitters. If you haven’t read either, it may be worth your time to read both books. It sounds like a lot, but like all great works of literature that make considerable demands on a reader, these works demonstrate that Pla is not just writing about life—he’s trying to make sense of it as well.

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