Natasha Wimmer has an interesting piece on Catalan author Merce Rodoreda. It’s great introduction to Rodoreda—considered to be one of the greatest Catalan authors of all time—even if Wimmer does prefer The Time of the Doves (available from Graywolf) to Death in Spring (which we brought out last year and was masterfully translated by Martha Tennent).
I can’t remember the first time I read Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves. It might have been when I was 13, living with my family in the high-rise suburbs of Madrid. It might have been when I was 17, back in Madrid with my mother for a few weeks in a sweltering rented room. Or it might have been when I was 19, on my own in the city, sharing an apartment near the train station with four South American girls. In any case, I read it in Spanish, under the title La plaza del diamante (the original Catalan title is La plaça del diamant). And I read it at about the same time as I read Nada, by Carmen Laforet. These were the first serious books I read in Spanish, and I’ve never forgotten them.
Certainly, few books have been as gorgeously sad. On a personal list of misery-inducing favorites including Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, The Time of the Doves ranks near the top. Set in Barcelona around the time of the Spanish Civil War, it’s tragic simply as a function of its setting, but Rodoreda plumbs a sadness that reaches beyond historic circumstances, a sadness born of helplessness, an almost voluptuous vulnerability. This condition will be familiar to readers of Rhys’s novels, to which Rodoreda’s novels bear a certain resemblance. Rodoreda’s women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty. [. . .]
For those who’ve only read The Time of the Doves, Death in Spring will come as a surprise. In it, Rodoreda works in an entirely different register, heavily symbolic and fable-like. Signs of this tendency are visible in a number of her short stories, some of which are collected in My Christina and Other Stories. In this collection, Rodoreda’s full range of expression is on display, from the almost banal realism of a later novel, A Broken Mirror, through the exquisite impressionism of The Time of the Doves and Camellia Street, to the garish symbolism of Death in Spring. In Rodoreda’s more symbolic fictions, nature comes to the fore and humans mimic animals or morph into them, as in the short story “The Salamander,” in which a woman who sleeps with a married man is burned to death and turns into a salamander, returning to live under her lover’s bed.
The use of symbolism is a form of sublimation, in the same way that the ruthless elision and economy of Rodoreda’s writing in The Time of the Doves is a form of sublimation. In both cases, Rodoreda heightens and transforms the brutal reality of existence in a world of endless war. The artfulness of the latter method, however, stands in contrast to the often garbled mythmaking of some of the short stories and Death in Spring. Like “The Salamander,” Death in Spring is set in a village that’s part medieval, part contemporary and part infernal. A river runs beneath it, through a rocky passage, and every year one man must swim it to make sure the village isn’t about to be washed away. Most emerge near death, their faces torn by the rocks, but even this is benign compared with the village’s rituals of death, in which living villagers are stuffed full of pink cement and entombed upright in trees.
Catalan Days — a month-long festival celebrating the arts, food, and literature of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands — really got underway on Saturday with a performance by Jessica Lange of Merce Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves.
This event was arranged in part to celebrate our release of Death in Spring, Rodoreda’s final novel, which she spent decades on, and which was left unfinished. (Well, sort of. The book ends the only way it can—the “unfinished” nature of the manuscript seems to be more editing-based than plot-based.) Martha Tennent was on hand to introduce her translation of Death in Spring and Rodoreda in general. Martha’s a great translator and in fact, she translated the abridged version of Time of the Doves that Jessica Lange performed. (The novel is actually La Placa del Diamante and the “doves” in the title are actually pigeons—stinky, smelly pigeons—which is how Martha translated it. That said, “The Time of the Pigeons” isn’t really a selling title . . .)
Jessica Lange was pretty amazing. Her reading of the novel lasted almost two hours, encapsulating the whole book, from the narrator’s memories of the festival where she met her future husband (he convinces her to leave her fiance for him), through their early years as a married couple and her fairly submissive role in the relationship, to the Civil War years when Quimet goes off to fight and Natalia almost kills her children to end their suffering, through the marriage of her daughter. (Not to give too much away. Although it’s not like the plot of this book is really what matters. Rodoreda’s beautiful prose and compelling characters are the real draws.)
The book can be pretty intense, and when Jessica Lange broke into tears on stage, she really ramped up the emotional content of the novel and had everyone sucked into Rodoreda’s world. Everyone I talked to afterward was stunned by just how incredible the performance was, but what’s really amazing—and what is the definition of “professional”—is the fact that she received the translation of the script on Wednesday . . .
Rodoreda was a remarkable writers, and as I said in my brief intro about why Open Letter decided to publish this book, she can easily be categorized as one of the great women writers—in the same league as Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, etc.—but that’s actually somewhat limiting. The Time of the Doves, A Broken Mirror, and Death in Spring are three of the greatest novels of the twentieth century and demonstrate the evolution of Rodoreda’s aesthetic and writing style. She never repeated herself, and although there are certain similarities between Time of the Doves and Death in Spring, her artistic ambitions are quite different—almost amazingly so. This constant search for a new way to tell a story is why she’s not just a great woman writer, or one of the best contemporary novels, but one of the all-time Great Writers.
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