Josep Pla

Cristina Badosa

Josep Pla was born in Palafrugell in 1897, the son of a family of small landowners. The opus of Pla is immense, and is all in prose. Pla is one of the greatest writers in the Catalan language. Influenced by the work of Montaigne, Pascal, Leopardi, and Stendhal, Pla offers in his own a brilliant testimony of his time. Pla was at heart an extremely lucid journalist who had travelled far and often. For him, travelling was not an exercise in tourism, but a discovery of life - a discovery that he subsequently transformed into literature. A declared anti-romantic, Pla shuns affected and artificial language. More than a novelist, he is a great raconteur who uses precise and incisive words. The work of Pla is also the major ally of the writer himself in the projection of a fictional persona, the selfsame Josep Pla.

The literary dimension of Josep Pla should be assessed on the basis of two qualities that have been essential in the modernisation of the Catalan language and in popularising the historical and cultural traditions of the country. His style combines touches of vernacular, expressive simplicity and creativity in his metaphors and similes. As a result, he has contributed towards the standardisation of Catalan literary language, going beyond the Modernist and noucentista styles to create a form of writing that is at once creative and close to the everyday idiom, thus facilitating continuity after the period of cultural repression during the Franco dictatorship.

“Pla’s work speaks to those who appreciate his travels on foot because there is something to be admired about writers like him, and Rimbaud and Robert Walser, for example, who wore out their shoes in the process.”

Again, his - very personal - recovery of collective memory has enabled divulgation of Catalonia's immediate past in an attractive, humorous and also ironic fashion.

Josep Pla's literary contribution has, nonetheless, undergone a process of creation and consolidation that is closely linked with his own autobiographical and political circumstances. In 1921, after a report he wrote about Madrid, he revealed the essential points of a project that he would not fulfil until after the Civil War. His intention of bringing together all his work in a vast publication of memoirs attained some structural dimension after the publication in 1925 of Coses vistes (Things Seen). However, it was not until 1928, after a frustrated attempt at a novel, Relacions (Relations), which was finally resolved in the form of a collection of stories, that Pla set about organising his disperse body of work into the memoirs of a narrative "I" that pulled together the different genres he had cultivated until then: travel writing, portraits, stories, and notes on gastronomy and customs.

Yet, his initial wish remained reduced to a simple outline of intentions when his political activity obliged him to abandon the project once again. The end of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship awoke in him a sense of political responsibility, and he contributed towards stirring up the debate through the press. From his party, the Lliga Regionalista, and from increasingly radical positions, Pla managed to influence public opinion with his constant criticisms of the Republic and leftists, which happened to coincide with the destabilising aims of the right-wing Catholic organisation CEDA [Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas - Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right -translator]. The Civil War saw him engaged in espionage, working for Franco. It was not until after the Civil War that Pla returned again to the task of constructing the massive memoirs of his time and country, which would start taking shape with the first edition of the Obra completa (Complete Works). His construction of the narrative "I" would give a universal dimension, quality and structural backbone to the testimony, which, as he had imagined in 1921, would enable him to bring together an oeuvre that was too disperse. In this sense, El quadern gris (The Grey Notebook) is the nucleus of this huge and diverse mosaic, and one of the most universal works of Catalan narrative prose.

The Creation of a Journalistic and Literary Style (1920-1925)
The Years of Apprenticeship (1917-1920)

Josep Pla was born in Palafrugell, an industrial, agricultural and seaside town of the Baix Empordà region, on 8 March 1897 or, in other words, around the turn of the century. These circumstances explain in part the content of an oeuvre that is disperse and rich in genres and that the author justifies by way of the need to conserve the collective memory of a country, the Empordà region and Catalonia, along with customs that, beginning with the Civil War, underwent radical changes. Again, his initial hesitation and the subsequent rejection of his novel have as their backdrop the crisis of genre that appeared after the First World War. In the 1920s Pla experienced the whole process in Paris where the newspaper La Publicidad had sent him as its correspondent. The recovery of Dostoyevsky's model of the antihero by writers such as Andre Gide, was also attempted by Pla in his early attempts to construct a character that would enable him to present his critical and sceptical conception of humanity, while avoiding personal commitment.

The final character was the result of a combination in which he opted for the condition of the professional writer, whom he defines as the "rellogat" (subtenant), the aforementioned antihero, and his own personality, and the blend would eventually become confused with Pla the writer and Pla the man. This narrative voice, often standing out as a true protagonist, for example in El quadern gris, is the thread of the whole oeuvre of the Obra completa and also of the majority of articles that, even today, are still scattered throughout a number of different publications. The narrator often turns out to be the protagonist of the early books that herald the coming enormous work of memoirs, books in which the story is predominant, for example Coses vistes (1920-1925) (ed. 1925), Llanterna màgica (Magic Lantern, 1926) and Relacions (1927), but which also feature the outlines of the essential genres in his work such as biography, the anthropological essay and writings on local customs, and descriptions of landscape.

Newspaper Correspondent in Paris, Italy, Germany and England (1920-1927)

The writings in most of these books had been commissioned by the press. Josep Pla's stylistic flair, the dynamism of his prose, his use of the anecdote, the constant dialogue with the reader to keep his or her attention, and his sense of humour, are techniques he learned in his work as a journalist. Pla's literary career needs to be understood in the context of journalistic professionalisation and the immediate result is its effect of a renovation in prose, in turning away from the stiffness of noucentisme, from ruralism and modernist meanderings.

Pla worked for the most prestigious newspapers of Catalonia and Spain. He began his journalistic and literary career in La Publicidad, which would shortly afterwards change its name to the Catalan La Publicitat. He did his journalistic training as this newspaper's correspondent in Paris, Italy, Berlin and London. He experienced the artistic and literary renewal of a Paris that was still recovering from the First World War, was a privileged witness of Mussolini's March on Rome, and also suffered the effects of the devaluation of the German mark during the Weimar Republic and the restrictions imposed in London in 1926, during the first general strike in history.

Political and Journalistic Vocation (1927-1939)
The Political Turnaround: from Acció Catalana to the Lliga Regionalista

On his return to Catalonia, Pla supported the movement to give new life to the Catalan spirit, which was proposed by both right and left. The series of articles entitled Viatge per Catalunya (Journey Through Catalonia) in Antoni Rovira i Virgili's La Nau should be assessed in the context of Joan Estelrich's La Catalunya endins (Inside Catalonia) or, in other words, of the Catalonia of the regions that enriched Barcelona Catalanism. Pla also wrote for the weekly L'Opinió, which was liberal-leaning at first, but then moved left as it radicalised. Pla left as soon as the tone became doctrinal when Joan Lluhí became director. In the spring of 1928, Pla did a political about-turn that led to heated controversy and accusations of opportunism. He justified his move saying it was necessary to adapt in order to engage in more feasible politics.

His joining the Lliga Regionalista, while working for La Veu de Catalunya and publishing a biography of Francesc Cambó, meant that of one of the most intelligent and attractive pens in Catalan letters had joined forces with conservative nationalist politics. From the literary point of view, his engagement with politics meant his temporary distancing from the project of writing his sweeping memoirs just when it was beginning to take shape with the publication of two books, Vida de Manolo (Life of Manolo) and Cartes de lluny (Letters from Afar), and also the publication of the series of his articles in Viatge per Catalunya.

In the Service of Francesc Cambó: the Republic and the Civil War

His work as a correspondent in Madrid and his day-to-day monitoring of parliamentary activity led him into an increasing commitment to the Lliga Regionalista and Francesc Cambó. Pla became the most effective propagator of the new pro-Iberian ideology that took over from Prat de la Riba's particularism and that had no place in Cambó's new interventionist politics. Pla's criticisms of Republican politics became increasingly radical over time, bringing him close to the positions of Gil Robles' CEDA, a political ally of the Lliga, especially after the events of October 1934 [a general strike in Spain, an insurrection by Asturian miners, which was brutally put down, and the declaration of the independence of Catalonia by the Catalan president Lluís Companys, after which the independence movement was also suppressed by Spanish troops]. The period of the Republic was not very productive for Pla in literary terms, although he did publish some books of collected articles that had appeared in La Publicitat and La Veu de Catalunya, for example Cartes meridionals (Southern Letters, 1929), Madrid: Un dietari (Madrid, a Diary, 1930), Madrid (L'adveniment de la República) (Madrid [the Advent of the Republic], 1933) and Viatge a Catalunya (Journey to Catalonia, 1934).

General Franco's uprising against the Republic completely changed the political scene. Josep Pla, like many men of the Lliga, had to go into exile from Republican Catalonia to escape the threat of some anarchist squads. This was the start of a period, about which he remained silent, of anti-Republic propaganda and collaboration with the information services, financed by Francesc Cambó and organised by Josep Bertran i Musitu in the south of France (SIFNE), which supplied the Franco government in Burgos with reports of movements of maritime transport in relation with the Republic.

A Literary Programme after the War: Recovering Memory (1939-1981)
Editions of the Obres Completes

On returning to Catalonia in January 1939, Pla was director of La Vanguardia Española for some weeks, after which he returned to the Empordà when Juan Ignacio Luca de Tena and Ramon Serrano Súñer appointed Luis Martínez de Galinsoga in his place. After a period of not working as a journalist, Pla began to write for the weekly review Destino, and continued to do so for more than thirty-five years (until 1975). His column under the heading "Calendario sin fechas" (Calendar without Dates) became the weekly's star attraction and contributed to awakening and maintaining interest in the political and cultural realities of Catalonia and Europe. After his father's death in 1944, Pla settled in the family farmhouse at Llofriu where he was finally able to achieve a sense of the whole in his writing. The start of publication of his work in Catalan by Editorial Selecta in 1949 was a chance to do justice to its diversity and length. The first publication of his complete works began in 1956 and this would have its definitive version, according to Pla, ten years later in the Edicions Destino edition. It was in these years, too, that he started travelling again, in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, South America, trips that provided the material for his great reports that were published in the review Destino.

The first volume of the definitive edition of the complete works, El quadern gris brought him recognition as the greatest prose writer in contemporary Catalan literature. The 1918 version had helped him to discover his narrative voice. The central themes of his diary are the landscape and his obsession about writing, filtered through recognition of his own personality. The book ends with the professional baptism of the narrator. Writing about the process of apprenticeship is the main thread of the work, the synthesis that permits him to bring together the gigantic tableau of everyday life and of the geography of the Baix Empordà. He had begun enthusiastically, with a great desire to be a writer and ended with the accomplishing of this ambition on the basis of a perspective he had gained after more than forty-five years of journalistic and literary professionalism. The mature Pla had recognised himself in the youthful character, the literary antihero that had been the product of the First World War. If scepticism about the human species had made him shy away from intimist literature, his sensibility to the landscape and social changes established him as an amanuensis of different Catalan personalities and as one of Catalonia's best landscape writers. Josep Pla died early in the morning of 23 April 1981 and was buried in the Llofriu cemetery.

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