In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:
When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on the events begin to seem more and more extraordinary, and the characters take on a chiaroscuro effect without grays, and the melodrama builds, most people reading the novel will think it’s a bunch of lies, and that such things are impossible in real life. And the truth is exactly the opposite: if you just write down the characters and the “permutations” you can find in a city like ours – right here in Barcelona . . . Believe me, there’s no need to wait for a dark, sensational crime, the kind that scare concierges stiff when they read about them in the newspapers. These splashy, absurd crimes and criminals are not at all important, you see. But, if you could look within high society gentlemen and ladies who appear to live perfectly gray and proper lives, whom no one would ever suspect of anything, who appear incapable of a violent gesture or of any slightly spectacular and interesting act . . . If you could follow in their hideous footsteps, you would have more plots than you could ever know what to do with.
The irony of this quote is that the speaker is one of these “high-society gentlemen” who happens to be partially responsible for a shocking event involving an acquaintance. While this gentleman has been involved in some sketchy business in the past, people would never suspect that he would have anything to do with the events that transpired that very night. Even though he may not have legally done anything wrong, his actions earlier in the novel began a chain of events resulting in the death of this acquaintance.
In Private Life, Sagarra follows the footsteps of the speaker and his associates, and he certainly does find more plots that one could ever know what to do with. In fact, after spending most of the first half of the book focusing on the Lloberola family, Sagarra introduces a bevy of characters just as questionable as the speaker before returning to them. Instead of interrupting the main storyline, though, Sagarra actually manages to weave the different plot strands into a rich tapestry equivalent to the one that the family’s patriarch, Don Tomàs de Lloberola, was forced to sell.
Don Tomàs is not the only one with money problems, though: His oldest son, Frederic, is always trying to get himself out of financial trouble. An acquaintance of Frederic’s, Antoni Mates, also known as the Baron Falset, is willing to give him a loan to help him pay some debts, but only if he can get a co-signer. Frederic tries to get his father to help, but Don Tomàs refuses. As if things weren’t bad enough for Frederic, he and his wife are on the brink of a divorce, and his children don’t care too much for him either. Instead of trying to improve matters, however, he just prefers to ignore them until things come to a head.
Meanwhile, Don Tomàs’s younger son, Guillem, is involved in some shady business with the Baron, his wife, and a seamstress who brings them together. When Guillem learns that the Baron can help Frederic with his financial problems, he interferes despite that fact he “certainly didn’t have any feelings for his brother” and “kept his distance from him, just as he kept his distance from his parents.” After a while, though, Guillem takes things too far. Eventually, his interference in Frederic’s affair leads to consequences that are both tragic and ironic.
But as mentioned before, Private Life isn’t just a story about the Lloberolas and their problems and schemes: It’s about a society dealing with the changes that come during the end of the Restoration and the beginning of the Second Spanish Republic. Toward the end of the book’s first half, the older Lloberolas find themselves even more estranged from the city’s aristocracy and begin to recede into the novel’s background. In their place, socialite Hortènsia Portell puts together an “eclectic crew,” a crew that worships Josephine Baker over the Virgin of Montserrat and includes one of the dictator’s generals. Later, characters with minor roles start to become more prominent; these include Conxa Pujol, the Baron’s widow who ends up in a kind of power struggle with Guillem, and Níobe Casas, the gypsy dancer who is a “powerful magnet for devotees of communism and transcendental nonsense.” Also, as Frederic’s children, Maria Luïsa and Ferran, become adults, they connect with some of their father’s old associates, including Rosa Trènor, Frederic’s on-again, off-again lover; and Robert “Bobby” Xuclà, his former friend whom he had a falling out with. As a result, Rosa and Bobby find themselves tangled in the lives of the next generation of Lloberolas.
As intriguing as the lives of these characters and their connections to each other are, though, what really makes Private Life a compelling read are Sagarra’s vivid details of this crumbling society and his keen observations about it. Sure, they’re not always pretty, especially since many of characters have a tendency to neglect not only their dilapidating properties, but their physical appearances and moral upbringings. Then again, any novelist who begins with scene where a man wakes up to the sight of a stuffed dog isn’t going to marvel about how beautiful life can be. Still, thanks to Mary Ann Newman and her sparkling translation, Sagarra’s masterpiece is finally available in English.