It's been said...

Joan Sales (Barcelona, 1912-1983) was a writer and publisher. He obtained a degree in Law in 1932 and was a member of Bloc Obrer i Camperol (BOC – Workers’ and Peasants’ Bloc) and PSUC (the Catalan Communist Party – [literally] “United Socialist Party of Catalonia”). In the Civil War he fought on the Madrid and Aragon fronts, after which he went into exile in France in 1939. In 1942 he moved to Mexico and then returned to Catalonia in 1948, after which he became a publisher. His collection of poems Viatge d'un moribund (A Dying Man’s Journey) was published in 1952 and this was followed by his most famous novel Incerta glòria (Uncertain Glory), which did not appear in its definitive edition until 1971.

There are few writers like Joan Sales, who leave in the reader a sense that is so alive, direct and intense of his desire to explain himself: to explain himself and explain everything as if wishing to preserve from oblivion and confusion all that he has experienced. His response to this desire seems to have been all the episodes and characters making up the great frieze of Incerta glòria(Uncertain Glory), and the constant narrative meanderings that detain and disperse the narrative thread, giving the impression of having been driven by the imperative of testifying to their world without holding back any memory, any nuance or any sensation. Then again, the constant corrections and amplifications to which Sales submitted the novel - in 1956, 1962, 1969, 1971, 1981 - also make one think (censorship aside) of this same wish not to overlook anything and to give reverberation to what has already been said so as to make it even more revealing of an unrepeatable experience. Finally, this also seems to suggest that Joan Sales' entire literary work - Incerta glòria, Cartes a Màrius Torres, (Letters to Marius Torres) and Viatge d'un moribund (A Dying Man's Journey) - is nothing more nor less than variations on the theme of the same literary world, the same experience, to which he returns again and again. The literary sensibility transpired by all this material is, I insist, that of a great conversationalist. This is a fervent conversationalist who is passionate about his story - a mixture of moral duty and narrative passion - and who wants to bear witness to what he has seen and felt as if it depended on him, and him alone, to let us know.

And it did depend on him. Even if only with regard to the material of the novel, Sales must have been aware that telling stories about the Civil War from the point of view of the vanquished was not precisely the most propagated version in 1956. Still less when the leading characters, who are unequivocally portrayed as defending the legality of the Republic by taking up arms, should have Christianity as a constant theme in their epistolary conversations - and in their lives - thereby compensating for the ideological schematisation and polarisation that each of the two sides encouraged.

This, however, is a stance that goes far beyond an honest desire for historical equanimity. Joan Sales' characters have dense inner worlds and thus really live the war without being merely its symptom. For Joan Sales, a man is not the side he is on, and to understand this it is necessary to recall that the characters - and Sales himself - do not think twice about risking their lives for their convictions. The war, in this sense, is an inescapable circumstance, but not the identity, of Sales' narrative world. This perspective bestows on the historical frieze a complexity that is as uncomfortable as it is valuable and characters as different as an anarchist and a soup noodle manufacturer are presented to the reader with direct, authentic and convincing emotional proximity. Sales does this with the naturalness of one who speaks of personalities and not, therefore, of figures that are ready-made for the consumption of idealisation or discrediting.

What I am noting, however, might make the reader think that we are talking about a sort of vague tolerance that is either trotted out as a display of some moral imperative or that is distilled by a neutral or indifferent intellectual scepticism. It is neither of the two. Sales' characters share, rather, the anti-intellectual attitude of the ordinary man for whom a crime is a crime and a political careerist is a shameless opportunist however much ideological make-up is applied. For Sales, the problem is not one of tolerance but of complexity and when he narrows his narrative focus on a particular character it is to reveal an intricate moral story. This complexity also becomes patent in the structure of the novel, which is woven with the direct testimonies of the characters and is hence made up of contradictions and different perspectives - "dialectical" said the reviewer in Nouvelle Critique, explicitly accusing him of demiurgic intervention as a narrator.

Ramon Pla i Arxé, "L'obra literària de Joan Sales", Avui (23/11/1983)

So what kind of novel does Sales propose and defend as a critic and publisher? It is worth pausing for a moment at this important point in order to understand, too, his intentions as a novelist. Indeed, Sales has some clearly-defined ideas of what he wants a novel to be. These ideas take off, in good part, from the ones he expresses and defends in Quaderns de l'exili (Notebooks from Exile). In 1969, when the second edition of Incerta glòria appeared in what Sales then considered the definitive version, José Cruset asked him in a interview where the novelist came from. Sales' reply was this: "I would say that, more than anything else, from the things that we have unfortunately had to live through... I have the impression that, if the lot of our generation had been a quieter... bourgeois... life, I wouldn't have written any novel." It is his existence itself and war in particular, with the tragedy it brings, along with adventure, that probably leads him to write a novel that describes precisely that. And, in an answer he gave in an interview with Busquets i Grabulosa, he stresses, "I believe that the writer must become a witness to the truth. I have attempted to do that with Incerta glòria. I might have written about other events, a parricide for example. But I could not have dispensed with the truth. The value of a book is in the truth it brings us." Nonetheless, when it comes to defining what the truth is, Sales and Grabulosa agree in thinking that this task is virtually impossible. So, in Sales' answers, we find two words that help us to understand his aims as a novelist and that, at the same time, have conditioned his choices as a publisher: life and truth. However, we can identify another word that is related with this: witnessing. We have already drawn attention to Sales' rejection of the fantastic novel and even of imaginative works and stories, especially in the intransigence of his early days. It was somehow excluding.

Carme Arnau, Compromís i escriptura. Lectura d'Incerta glòria de Joan Sales (Barcelona, Cruïlla, 2003)

Literary Self-analysis

Joan Sales

I believe, in all frankness - and also with total respect for those who are different from me - that the author is the least appropriate person to analyse his own work, unless he is narcissistic.

When we give a work to the public, we submit ourselves to the judgement of others. One's own judgement is no longer of interest. One can't be both judge and part of it.

It won't ever bother me if they speak unfavourably of anything I might publish because from the moment I publish something I have already submitted myself to what others have to say. I must say that I am truly grateful to all the critics - Catalan, French and Spanish - who have concerned themselves with Incerta glòria, and maybe the French critics most of all, especially Count Ricaumont to whom I am indebted for some really valuable suggestions which I had very much in mind when I went ahead with the definitive version (that of the second Catalan edition and then the fourth).

What I do regret, because I think it is unjust, is when they say that I have not written much. They don't take into account the fact that Incerta glòria has nine hundred pages, that Cartes a Màrius Torres has seven hundred pages and that I have published an adaptation of Tirant lo Blanc in novel form with modern prose and another version, Tirant lo Blanc a Grècia (Tirant lo Blanc in Greece), in opera-buffa verse form, plus a translation of The Brothers Karamazov and another of Christ Recrucified, and both of these are very long novels, (especially Dostoyevsky's), not to mention the other translations of innumerable prologues, some of them really long (the Notícia biogràfica (Biographical Note) that introduces the fourth edition of the poems of Màrius Torres runs into seventy pages and then there are more or less the same number in my prologue to Joan Coromines' Lleures i converses d'un filòleg (Leisure Hours and Conversations of a Philologist), not to mention more than a couple of other cases). Add to that all the hard work of La Història dels catalans (The History of the Catalans) and several other things I have done, either for pleasure or obligation. But let's not go on about that so as not to seem immodest.

Those who say I am the author of just one novel don't take it sufficiently into account that Incerta glòria is not one novel but four: the first part is the novel of Lluís Brocà, the second of Trinitat Milmany, the third of the young Cruells and the fourth of the old Cruells. All three are obsessed by one character, Juli Soleràs and that is the link that brings the four novels together. Juli Soleràs is the real hero, or the antihero, perhaps, of Incerta glòria. And this is by no means a "war novel" as has sometimes been said. The war is no more than a backdrop. The war appears because there was a war going on. And the title is from Shakespeare: "the uncertain glory of an April day". All of us in this world seek a glory that the world cannot give. I have said before that I am truly grateful to all the critics who have spoken of my quadruple novel. There is one, however (whom I shall refrain from mentioning because I don't want to hurt his feelings), who baffles me. He wondered what this "glory" that is "our end" was. The best bit is that this critic was writing in the Catholic Spain of the generalissimo, RIP. What sort of Catholicism were they teaching in that Spain?

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