The Russo-Catalan connections – a short presentation

Originally posted on January 16th, 2013

Today has been an incredibly positive day for me. First of all, I have been awarded a modest yet key Student Research Award by the University of Glasgow to carry out some research in the following months in Barcelona, to investigate and complete my article. Secondly, I had the chance to present my work in progress in front of a rather remarkable amount of people, considering the time and the freezing conditions in the hall. I am very pleased with how the day turned out and I believe we all ended up with a satisfactory feeling, especially my colleagues Joe and Tom.

Here I reproduce the speech I gave today (the theoretical part only, of course).

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and let me thank you for staying over and give us the chance to present our work in progress. I would especially like to thank Margaret (Dr Tejerizo) for giving us this opportunity and CRCEES for organising this event. I believe there is perhaps not a better scenario to have an improvised annual general review of our work than an audience with such a highly recognised selection of peers. You being here is important for us, so thank you.

As Margaret has kindly said, my name is Noemi Llamas-Gomez and I am a PhD student in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Glasgow. My research falls under the category of Hispanic Studies due to its main content in Catalan literature, however the best way to describe it is with the title “the Russo-Catalan connections”, as I am aiming to find the influences of Russian literature in the narrative of Catalan novelist Mercè Rodoreda. This is a very specific topic that tries to explain a phenomenon very common in the history of democratic Catalonia: the wish to look out, to “look abroad”, to seek for references of modernity, of progress and advanced ideas. The same way Catalans are looking out into Europe nowadays, we can find that the tradition started in the 1930s with the Spanish Second Republic, and perhaps even further back, with the renaissance of Catalan literature that slowly started halfway through the 19th century.

In a nutshell, my research will explore two distinguished époques of Mercè Rodoreda’s life and literary production. On the one hand, I will be looking into her development years, spent in Barcelona in the 1930s, when she learnt to write and to live, and she had the chance to make cultural acquaintances and to enjoy a fervent, lively atmosphere of Catalanity and literary production, one of the most splendorous periods in the history of Catalan culture. I believe some of her earlier works may have enjoyed the influence of some Russian classics such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky thanks to the translations made available by Catalan politician Andreu Nin.

On the other hand, I will be looking into one of Mercè Rodoreda’s masterpieces, Mirall Trencat [A broken mirror], the novel of a family in a large house with a Gothic garden, a novel of secrets, passions, tragedies and the inexorable footprint of time. With the unspoken reference to Anna Karenina in the shape of an unhappy family that can only be unhappy in its own particular way, I wish to thoroughly analyse the elements of this novel, and compare it to Lyudmilla Petrushevskaya’s Vremya Noch [The time: night]. I believe that the depiction of the strong female characters and the complex mother-daughter relationships have very interesting points in common that have never been previously considered. I am not opening the door by myself: there is an actual field of Russo-Catalan literary connections waiting to be discovered.

So let me just give you a brief introduction into the field. To start with, let me introduce you to Mercè Rodoreda. Mercè Rodoreda (Barcelona, 1908 – 1983) is considered, by both critical and popular acclamation, the best Catalan novelist of the 20th century, perhaps the best female writer in the history of Catalan language, and a symbol of Catalan literature. Her masterpiece novel, La plaça del diamant [Diamond Square, although published in English under The time of the doves], has been translated into more than 30 languages, and reprints and re-editions of her books have been published constantly since her death in 1983. The scholarly world around her figure is remarkable, especially in English-speaking countries, and despite the difficulties and the slow speed at which she obtained her literary prizes (La placa del diamant, for example, was published in 1962 and lost all the awards it was presented to, only to be named the best novel about the Spanish postwar in the 1980s), the experts and critics in Rodoreda’s literature are now abundant in Catalan language. Her novels are now finally part of the compulsory curriculum for secondary schools, for example, and I believe that is perhaps the highest recognition: her literature is being taught to the newer generations.

Rodoreda went into exile in 1939 after the end of the war and did not return to Catalonia until the late 1970s. Whilst in exile, she lived in Paris, Limoges and Geneva, and she had a publishing hiatus of 20 years, in which she only wrote poetry and short stories. She only wrote and published in Catalan throughout her entire life.

Merce Rodoreda witnessed and lived through very important periods of the history of Spain and Europe: the Spanish second republic and the Civil War, as well as World War two and postwar Europe. As I have previously mentioned, her beginnings as a writer coincide with the proclamation of the Spanish Second Republic in 1931, which was supposed to bring a new democratic dawn to a historically backwards country. The Catalonia of the 1930s, with its capital in Barcelona, was a land of cultural progress and economic prosperity, which would look abroad for references, influences, exchanges and ‘role models’. The Soviet revolution of 1917, and the development of the working and communist movements was closely followed by many working activists, both in Catalonia and in the rest of Spain. The introduction of Russian literature in the Barcelona cultural world was the next step of the ladder towards a “culturised” society.

The man behind these developments was Joan Puig i Ferreter, chief of Editorial Proa, who wanted to provide Catalonia and Catalan language with the solemnity and international importance it required to be a modern nation. Puig i Ferreter developed the Biblioteca A Tot Vent, with the intention to publish works of the higher standard in Catalan, as well as translations into Catalan from renowned classics. The collection included works by Dickens, Wilde, Stendhal, Zola, etc.

Following an idea from this first part of Rodoreda’s life, I am currently researching and writing my first article. I wish to explore the influence of the figure of Andreu Nin, Catalan politician and translator, in the early works and the literary development of Merce Rodoreda, in three main aspects: from the ideological point of view, from the argumentative and plot-development point of view, and from the perspective of his collaboration to the spread of Russian literature and culture.

But who was Andreu Nin? Andreu Nin was a good friend of Puig i Ferreter, chief of Editorial Proa, and he was one of the collaborators of his collection, as a translator and a social critic. Nin was originally a politician and had spent ten years of his life in Russia, working for the Red International of Labour Unions, the Profiterm, and he was held in great consideration by Lenin and Trotsky. However, after Lenin’s death he aligned with Trotsky’s ideas and was gradually isolated and lost his position of privilege under Stalin’s regime, until he was finally expelled from the USSR. When he returned to Catalonia in 1930 with his family, he had no means of income, so he started translating for Puig i Ferreter as a side job: his main interest was still politics. Thanks to his remarkable skill and craft in writing Catalan and understanding the Russian culture and language, Nin awarded Catalan literature with the full version of Anna Karenina, as well as Crime and punishment and The Village of Stepanchikovo, by Dostoevsky, and A shooting party, by Chekhov, as well as translating many books and pamphlets written by Trotsky about the labour struggle. Andreu Nin was sadly a victim of Stalinism: in 1937, amid a trade unions vs communists war within the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, he was arrested, executed and buried in Alcala de Henares, near Madrid, by NKVD officers, and his remains have never been found.

Years after Rodoreda’s death, her former confident Anna Muria, published a book in which she said that Rodoreda confessed to her that she had had a platonic love affair with Andreu Nin, and that she had a letter that he had written to her as a proof of their love, a proof she had the courage to show her husband to demand a separation. He, of course, torn up the letter – she picked it up and glued it together and confessed going around the world “with a torn letter”. This is all very well documented by Rodoreda’s biographers Casals, Ibarz and Pessarrodona. Beyond any overdetailed incident in her life, I believe that the work of Nin had an impact on Rodoreda’s early writings and her development as a novelist. To begin with, Rodoreda had a chance to read the Russian classics translated by Nin, and in this aspect, we can say that Nin influenced, or helped the “culturization” of an entire generation. Secondly, Nin’s revolutionary ideas were in tune with the Catalanist ideas that Rodoreda’s family, especially her grandfather, had passed on to her, and that she proudly displayed in the pages of Clarisme, the newspaper she co-edited. Finally, the affair with Nin provided Rodoreda with fantastic biographical material to turn into literary plots and books full of disenchanted characters, covered with a veil of sadness, and sudden, unexpected deaths. It is not surprising that her novels are abundant with secret passions, forbidden lovers, deceit and adultery. This is very significative: Rodoreda was very secretive and refused to speak about her own life but those who knew her have seen a strong biographical content in her books. In many ways, to read her was to know her.

To sum up, even though my research has barely just begun, I feel I have made very important progress in the last three and a half months, and I am really looking forward to completing this particular article and keep up the good work, and hopefully with more of these events to come in the future to give us the chance to broadcast our work. As a final note, I would just like to say that I am a self-funded student and I work part-time in the Hospitality Services at University to fund my doctoral course, so may kindly please ask you to eat all the biscuits that they may serve you with coffee as otherwise they’ll probably go in the bin, and it’s just such a waste. Thanks very much for listening.