Introducing Mercè Rodoreda [Two Month Review]

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As you hopefully already know, the third season of the Two Month Review podcast will be dedicated to Mercè Rodoreda. Since most of her books are relatively slim (a.k.a., of readable length unlike the beasts that we’ve worked through in seasons one and two), we decided to do two of her books: Selected Stories and Death in Spring. You can get 20% off of both of these by using the code 2MONTH at checkout on the Open Letter site. (BTW, this link is good forever, so feel free to use it to buy any of the books featured in the Two Month Review.)

We’ll be starting in on her actual work next week, with author Quim Monzó joining our November 2nd podcast to talk about first six stories from Selected Stories (pages 1-50). But before you get started on reading this, I thought I’d post a short overview of Rodoreda’s life and works for anyone who isn’t already familiar with, arguably, one of the greatest Catalan writers ever.

Patriots Stand Erect!

Her Life

Admittedly, I’ve spent many more hours reading Rodoreda’s books than studying her biography, so this is really just a basic overview pulled from a few different sources. In pulling this together though, I was reminded of just how great it would be for someone to write a new biography of her and her work. Something like what Ben Moser did for Lispector. Hmm . . . Anyway . . .

Basics: Rodoreda was born in Barcelona in 1908 and passed away in Girona, Spain in 1983 at the age of 74. She got married young—at only 20—to her uncle, who happened to be fourteen years older than her. They had one child together, a son named Jordi.

She was working for the Catalan Government when the Spanish Civil War started, and fled the country shortly after the war ended. This isn’t the place for a history lesson on the Spanish Civil War (which, again, not an expert on), but suffice it say that when Franco won, things didn’t go so well for Catalans. After the Nationalist troops run roughshod over the region, destroying, looting, wrecking everything in sight, Catalonia lost its autonomy, and its language and flag were explicitly banned. And don’t forget the destruction of all Catalan newspapers along with the burning of banned books! These prohibitions lasted throughout the Franco regime, and are an unsettling basis for why things are so messy today, in 2017, in Catalonia.

When she left Barcelona, Rodoreda first lived in Paris (a setting for a number of her early stories) and then, well, World War II happened and the Germans arrived. According to the bio on the Fundació Mercè Rodoreda site, “when the Germans arrived, she had to flee on foot, facing horrifying sights, particularly the burning of Orleans.” (We’ll be reading “Orléans, Three Kilometers” in just a few weeks.)

It was in Switzerland that she started publishing again, and since it’s really her works that we’re interested in, let’s leave her bio here, after pointing out that there is a Catalan prize for short stories named in her honor, and that she was named as a Member of Honour to the Association of Catalan Writers.

Select Works

To put the two books we’ll be reading into the context of her career, here’s a rundown of some of her most famous books.

Aloma (1938): Of the early novels that she wrote, Aloma is the only one that she didn’t end up rejecting. This hasn’t been translated into English, although we have considered it in the past. It’s a short novel in the vein of Time of the Doves and Camilla Street, both of which are detailed below.

Vint-i-dos contes (1958): Twenty years, a civil war, and two major changes of scenery later, Rodoreda finally published another book. This time it’s a collection of stories—twenty-two to be exact. Twenty of these ended up in our Selected Stories, along with seven from Semblava de seda i alters contes (1978; “It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories”) and three from My Christina and Other Stories (which was published in full by Graywolf in the 1980s). In other words, this collection is more or less what we’ll be talking about for the next month.

La plaça del Diamant (1962): This is Rodoreda’s most famous and popular novel. It’s the second most translated book from the Catalan (behind Albert Sánchez Piñol’s La pell freda or Cold Skin, which, whatever), and is oftentimes held up as one of the three or four most important works of Catalan writing. In fact, back in 2009, Jessica Lange performed the entire book as a single monologue for the Catalan Days festival that took place in New York.

A realistic novel that employs some stream of consciousness techniques, La plaça del Diamant is about a single woman’s life, the complications of marriage and motherhood, love and its deterioration, and the impact of the civil war. It’s a beautiful book that features a woman developing her own singular viewpoint and understanding of the world, and is both empowering and emotionally intense. It’s very much in keeping with the tone and nature of the early stories, and is incredibly well crafted. Anyone who likes Lispector, Ferrante, Sarraute, etc., will love this novel. Without question.

Before moving on from here, it’s worth noting that this has been translated twice. The Time of the Doves (translated by David Rosenthal) came out from Graywolf in 1986 and is still available here in the U.S. This is a semi-controversial translation, since the title has little to do with the original (which is just the name of a plaza in Barcelona—one that now features the statue pictured below), and the “doves” of the title are generally referred to as “pigeons,” a nitpicky thing that creates a totally different tone in English. (Can you imagine naming a book, “In the Time of the Pigeons”?) There is a more recent translation from Peter Bush and Virago entitled In Diamond Square. I would love for Open Letter to publish this version in the U.S. But alas.

El carrer de les camèlies (1966): This is Camellia Street, which we will be reprinting next year. It’s the story of a woman raised by nuns after the Spanish Civil War who becomes a prostitute. In terms of literary technique and emotional power, this novel fits in perfectly with the early stories and La plaça del Diamant.

Jardí vora el mar (1967): Another forthcoming Open Letter book, Garden By the Sea is told from the point of view of a male gardener who relates the goings on at the house where he works. Although it was published after La plaça del Diamant and El carrer de les camèlies, Rodoreda started working on it before those two novels and claimed that it was what allowed her to find the way to write those other books.

Mirall Trencat (1974): Translated as A Broken Mirror, this was the first Rodoreda novel I read, and god damn! That reading led to all of our Rodoreda publications, which led to a great deal of success for Open Letter, which lead to this new podcast featuring her work. Such is life. A relatively short novel, it relates a family’s dissolution over three generations, and is told in three distinct styles: part one is very naturalistic; the second uses a lot of high modernist techniques; and the final part is incredibly fragmented, ending in little poetic gems and no singular narrative. Although it may seem simple, the way form reflects content is absolutely masterful and reminds me of António Lobo Antunes and other more experimental writers. If this book ever goes out of print (if you’re reading this University of Nebraska Press, just let it go!) we’re going to reissue it immediately.

Quanta, quanta guerra . . . (1980): War, So Much War! This was the last book published in Rodoreda’s lifetime, and we brought it out in English a couple years ago. It’s a phenomenal book about a young boy wandering a war-torn landscape. Much more surreal and strange than La plaça del Diamant, a lot more in keeping with A Broken Mirror and Death in Spring.

La mort i la primavera (1986): Published a few years after her death, Death in Spring is, in the eyes of some readers and critics, the true high point of Rodoreda’s career. She worked on this for years and, as we’ll see, it’s a book that’s rife with symbolism and open to be interpreted as a representation of Spain under Franco, of the natural order of life, death, rebirth, and all sorts of things. Hold tight—come December, this book is going to blow your mind.

Other Resources

If you’re looking for more information about Rodoreda, a good place to start is the aforementioned Fundació Mercè Rodoreda. Their mission is to oversee her works and papers, maintain a library of all her works and translations of those works, promote her legacy, and offer grants to support research into her writing.

One of the most famous pieces about Rodoreda ever has to be this one (original Spanish) by Gabriel García Márquez. Here’s the opening:

While in a Barcelona bookstore last week, inquired about Merce Rodoreda, and y told me that she had died the previous month. The news caused me great sad-first, for the much-deserved admiration I have for her books and, second, for the unwarranted fact that the news of her death had not been publicized outside Spain with due coverage and honors. Apparently, few people outside Catalonia know just who this invisible woman was who wrote some wonderful and enduring novels in a splendid Catalan rarely found in contemporary literature. One such work, La Placa del Diamant (1963; Eng. The Time of the Doves, 1980), is, in my opinion, the most beautiful to have been published in Spain following the Spanish civil war.

(I have no idea why there are so many weird typos and snafus in this text, “great sad” being the most comical. Rather than edit this, I’ll just leave it as is, since the logic is still present despite the odd language.)

Fun fact! This appeared in the forerunner to World Literature Today.

I haven’t dug too much into the scholarly work that’s been done on Rodoreda in the States, but Kathleen McNerney has edited two volumes about her work, Voices and Visions: The Works of Mercè Rodoreda, and The Garden Across the Border: Mercè Rodoreda’s Fiction.

There are tons of reviews out there about her novels, including a bunch from the past year that include War, So Much War, but two notable ones that relate to this season of the podcast have to be: Jesmyn Ward’s You Must Read This piece on Death in Spring for NPR, and Paul Kerschen’s piece in the Quarterly Conversation, Mercè Rodoreda and the Style of Innocence, which covers the Selected Stories, Death in Spring, A Broken Mirror, and The Time of the Doves.

Tune in on Thursday for a bit more information, and then next week we’ll dive into the first six stories!

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