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Review of Private Life in The Times Literary Supplement

Catalan Fiction
by ADRIAN NATHAN WEST

Josep Maria de Sagarra
PRIVATE LIFE
Translated by Mary Ann Newman
240pp. Archipelago. Paperback, €16.
978 0 914671 26 8

From the mid-nineteenth century to the eve of the Civil War, which smothered what vanguardist tendencies Spain might have had, Continental innovations in literary form arrived to the country late. At worst, this gave rise to writers labouring in Zola’s shadow, forcing crude notions of class conflict and heredity onto tales peopled with stereotypes incomprehensible beyond the country’s borders; at best, it engendered a decadent, languid style well suited to the dissection of Spain’s venal elites. Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life is in the second category.

A chronicle of the economic and moral decline of Catalonia’s aristocracy, the novel opens with Frederic, a drunken would-be rake, coming to in the apartment of a prostitute. He ruminates on love and gentlemanliness before recollecting his onerous gambling debts, due to be paid in a matter of days. Too poor for a life of leisure but too proud to soil his hands with work, Frederic appeals to his father, who lambasts him as a wastrel, then feigns an apoplectic fit and calls for a priest to minister his last rites. Frederic’s brother, secretly a prostitute in a brothel for the rich and dissolute, offers to pay off the debt by means he refuses to disclose. His scheme to blackmail Frederic’s creditor unleashes myriad intrigues that draw in Barcelonans from all walks of life.

The large cast of characters offers an ideal canvas for Sagarra’s withering wit. Everyone gets it in the neck: the upper classes, for whom “baseness” is a part of their “merit and grace”; the bourgeoisie enraptured by garden parties and Hispano-Suizas; and the communists, whose revolutionary fervour springs from soured religious yearnings, which, in turn, are the outgrowth of stifled sexual urges.

Private Life’s centrepiece is the 1929 Universal Exposition, when “anyone who didn’t steal simply didn’t have fingers”, and the proclamation of the Catalan Republic a couple of years later. The book’s second half is less convincing than its first; what had been a satire on manners becomes a racier, but also more mechanical, account of prurient liaisons larded with sometimes dreary philosophical divagations. Sagarra shoehorns his anecdotes into an overarching thesis about the centrality of sexual passion to social life. Thankfully, his homilies are brief, and shadow neither his ribald asides, nor his indictment of the frivolity and “mobile indifference” of Catalonia’s wealthy on the eve of the Fascist uprising.

 

TLS, May 13, 2016

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Review of THE BOTTOM OF THE JAR in Chimurenga Magazine

REVIEW of THE BOTTOM OF THE JAR
Chimurenga Magazine, Cape Town – Chronic Books Supplement
August 19, 2013
by Stacy Hardy and Wanjiru Koinange

 

THE BOTTOM OF THE JAR

Abdellatif Laâbi (translated by André Naffis-Sahely)

Archipelago Books, 2013

 

Born in Fez in 1942, Abdellatif Laâbi co-founded the poetry review, Souffles, in 1966. Instigated by a small group of self-professed “linguistic guerrillas”, Souffles staged a linguistic revolution against imperialist and colonial cultural domination in Morocco. Six years later, the magazine was banned and Laâbi imprisoned. After a long solidarity campaign, he regained his freedom in 1980 and later moved to France where he has resided ever since.

 

Although he’s best known in his adopted country as a poet (in 2009, he received the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie and in 2011 the Académie Française’s Grand prix de la Francophonie), Laâbi is also a skilled writer of prose, as his memoir, The Bottom of the Jar, attests. With its childlike surrender to imagination, The Bottom of the Jar is a beautiful roman á clef that follows Laâbi’s experiences as a young boy in Fez, during the final days of French colonial occupation and along the painful road to independence. But this is not merely the ‘sentimental journey’ of a nostalgic old man. He may be 71 years old, but Laâbi is still keenly in tune with the contemporary and recently collaborated with Moroccan rapper, Rival. In The Bottom of the Jar he turns historic space into a medina of interlocking maze-like streets, where the past bleeds into the present, politics morphs into opression, revolution into terrorism, activist into criminal, vice into art and back again. As the Arabic saying Laâbi quotes in the book goes: “Fez is a mirror.” In this case it’s a mirror pointed directly at today; at the Arab Spring uprisings; at 9/11, the ‘war on terror’ and the United State’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; and at the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Reflecting how terrorism has shaped world culture, and how, in turn, our world shapes us, The Bottom of the Jar is ultimately testimony to how language can reshape both. When it comes to “raising a song of possibilities above the dirge of cruelty”, Laâbi is still without rival.

 

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Read David Ulin's review of Yannis Ritsos's Diaries of Exile in the LA Times

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Its power comes from the way it blends the diaristic with the poetic … There is no pity in the book, nor resignation, despite the circumstance.  That clarity … has to do with giving witness, with the idea of poetry as testimony. Again and again, Ritsos records the smallest moments, as if were he to leave out a single detail of his incarceration, the whole experience might disappear. This is what poetry can do: preserve the moments that would otherwise be forgotten, and in so doing, recreate the world.

Read the full review here.

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James Wood names My Struggle one of his Books of the Year in The New Yorker

In Page Turner, The New Yorker‘s book blog, James Wood names My Struggle: Book One one of his books of the year:

I loved My Struggle … This is a book intensely hospitable to ideas, and it is thrilling to witness a properly grave and ironic mind, treating, in a theoretical and philosophical and yet fundamentally unshowy way, all kinds of elements of life: having children, the working of memory, reading Adorno, playing guitar and drums in crappy rock bands, drinking too much, looking at Constable drawings, sex (good and bad), and death.

Read the full piece here.

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Two Archipelago titles in The Quarterly Conversation's Favorites of the Year

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Jeff Bursey names My Struggle Book One and In Red as two of his favorite reads this year in The Quarterly Conversation.

#1: My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. This hit me where I write and in what I think of family relations. To the first: the play of ideas mixed with the recitation of events is powerful.

Continue reading Two Archipelago titles in The Quarterly Conversation's Favorites of the Year