A Domestic Existentialist: On Mercè Rodoreda
© ARXIU MERCÈ RODOREDA DE L’INSTITUT D’ESTUDIS CATALANS
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.
This, of course, is what made them so appealing to my moody adolescent self. In the midst of great upheaval, Rodoreda's characters--and Laforet's--lead cloistered, almost solipsistic lives, oblivious of politics and warmaking. Natalia, of The Time of the Doves, is an unworldly girl swept off her feet by Quimet, a charmer with a cruel streak who joins the Republican army and leaves her with two small children and a roof full of doves. Andrea, of Nada, comes to Barcelona just after the war to study at the university and moves into a crumbling Gothic apartment that houses three generations of her troubled family. Both women are immersed in the squalid details of domestic life, as famished for a glimpse of beauty as they are for a decent meal. With their senses sharpened by hunger, they're almost overwhelmed by the intensity of daily existence.
Though I didn't realize it back then, The Time of the Doves and Nada are part of a small canon of coming-of-age novels by Catalan women published in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. This was a remarkable flowering of talent and a bounty yet to be fully appreciated by English-language readers. If anyone has heard of Rodoreda, it's probably because of the award-winning 1982 film adaptation of The Time of the Doves, by the Catalan director Francesc Betriu, though even that has mostly faded from memory by now. The Time of the Doves and a collection, My Christina and Other Stories, are still in print, both in translations by David Rosenthal published by Graywolf Press in the 1980s, but Rosenthal's translation of Rodoreda's novel Camellia Street is out of print. Laforet has fared better, with an excellent new translation of Nada by Edith Grossman, recently issued by the Modern Library. This brought Laforet some well-deserved attention, but the sense persists that she is part of a generation lost to American readers.
It was a generation lost to itself, too. When the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, many of Spain's writers (and publishers and critics) fled into exile or were intimidated into silence. Most had supported the short-lived Republic, and their prospects were dismal under the new fascist regime. Literary organizations were shut down or co-opted, fiction was expected to cleave to the fascist cause and even the greats of Spanish literature were tossed on the trash heap of history. In 1942 one young journalist wrote that Spaniards should no longer look to Don Quixote as a model, because he represented decadence and defeat; better to look to Hernán Cortés, conquistador and man of action.
Barcelona, of course, was the capital of Republican Spain, and the situation of Catalan writers was particularly bleak. Catalan language and culture had been undergoing a revival since the nineteenth century, but when Franco came to power, regional languages were banned. A generation of children grew up in schools where Castilian was the only language taught, and writers who wrote in Catalan (a language most closely related to the French dialect of Provençal) were marooned in the past, their future uncertain.
Mercè Rodoreda, born in 1908, never considered writing in any language but Catalan. Her grandfather was a writer for La Renaixença, the journal of the Catalanist movement, and her father loved to read aloud from the works of the Catalan poets, especially Jacint Verdaguer. Despite the family's literary inclinations, Rodoreda was sent to school for only three years, until she was 10, because it was assumed that she would marry. Her mother's brother, a successful businessman recently returned from Argentina, was a suitor close at hand, and when she was 20 they were wed. They had a son, but Rodoreda, eager for independence, began to write and sought entry into literary circles.
After self-publishing a novel and writing short stories for various newspapers, Rodoreda managed to establish herself as a regular contributor of political articles to the Catalanist journal Clarisme. A few more novels were published (which she would later repudiate), and she began to get to know other writers and journalists, notably Andreu Nin, a translator of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, who would become her lover. Then came the war, in 1936. Rodoreda never said much about her life in Barcelona during the war years, but The Time of the Doves stands as testament to the hardships endured by those living in the city in the late '30s. Nin was killed in 1937, and Rodoreda separated from her husband. In 1938, remarkably, she had her first real literary success, with the autobiographical novel Aloma.
When Barcelona fell in early 1939, Rodoreda went into exile, but she expected to return soon. She and a group of fellow writers left the city in a bus belonging to the Institució de les Lletres Catalanes, as if on some grim field trip. They took up residence in a castle designated for refugees in the town of Roissy, near Paris. There, Rodoreda began an affair with the married writer Joan Prat, who went by the pseudonym Armand Obiols. Their romance caused the group of writers to break up, and when war came to France, Rodoreda and Obiols fled to Limoges and later Bordeaux, where Rodoreda supported herself by sewing. After the war, they moved to Paris, and in 1954 they settled in Geneva, where Obiols worked as a translator for UNESCO.
The fate of refugees from Franco's Spain was cruel. War followed upon war with just a few months of respite, and those who had barely survived the destruction of their country were ill equipped to piece together an existence in war-torn France. During World War II, as during the civil war, Rodoreda often went hungry. Few writers have written as starkly and convincingly about hunger as she does in The Time of the Doves. One night, lying in bed with her two starving children, Natalia decides to kill them rather than watch them slowly die. Not only is there no food, but she's lost the strength to go looking for it. "What's a crust of bread when you're starving?" she asks. "Even to eat grass you've got to have the strength to go out searching for it."
In the early 1950s, at perhaps the low point of her career, Rodoreda mysteriously lost the use of her right arm and was unable to write much but poetry. She took up painting instead, until a collection of her stories won a prize and she was encouraged enough to write what would be her masterpiece, The Time of the Doves. It was published in Catalan in 1962 and translated into Spanish in 1965. Like Nada (published in 1942), it was a popular and critical success. Around the same time, she wrote La mort i la primavera, a very different book, which didn't find a publisher until 1986 and has only just now been translated into English, as Death in Spring, by Martha Tennent.