Serrahima and the past imperfect

Xavier Pla

In a literary tradition like that of Catalonia, which is so lacking in personal documents, autobiographical texts, portraits and accounts of the inner life of writers, the publication of the diaries of Maurici Serrahima should be unanimously applauded. Born into a family of Barcelona lawyers, Serrahima (1902-1979), a Catholic, was a well-known Catalan nationalist and republican who was also notable for an intense career as an essayist, literary critic and, above all, as a discerning reader of contemporary Catalan prose. His novel-writing attempts with vaguely psychological works or detective stories, however, were more modest.

There can be no doubt that the fact that Serrahima is the author of Dotze mestres (Twelve Masters, Destino, 1972), an indispensable essay for the study of contemporary Catalan prose writing and one of the true landmarks of twentieth-century Catalan critical literature, would be sufficient in itself for his name to figure on the roll of honour of the history of Catalan literature. One might also add that he published (Nº. 63 in the "Antologia Catalana" (Catalan Anthology) Collection, Edicions 62, 1971) a too-little recognised personal interpretation of the work of Marcel Proust, one of his great passions. Like the collection of literary essays La crisi de la ficció (The Crisis of Fiction, Destino, 1965) and Sobre llegir i escriure (On Reading and Writing, Selecta, 1966), this small book has never been reissued. Also like the other two works, it bears witness to his interest in the literary phenomenon and aesthetic reflection. Furthermore, Serrahima published a biography of Joan Maragall (Bruguera, 1966) and a biographical essay on Josep M. Capdevila (Barcino, 1974). Finally, one might also mention that Serrahima was the man who wrote the famous response to Julián Marías about the reality of Catalonia, a text that is distinguished by its democratic and tolerant Catalan nationalism.

However, the personality and his literary legacy would still not be fully portrayed if one did not also attest that Serrahima is one of the most outstanding memoir writers of the twentieth century. He is the author of some very extensive and punctilious diaries, which were published in the 1970s, at a time when the genre was not so well known and less appreciated than it is today. From 1940 until his death in 1979, Serrahima kept an "open" diary (to use Josep Pla's expression), which allows today's reader to plunge into Catalonia's clandestine cultural life after the Civil War. In 2003, Edicions 62 reissued the unabridged first volume, covering the years from 1940 to 1947. Another publisher, Publicacions de l'Abadia de Montserrat, has now undertaken to bring out eight more volumes (until 1974), all of them edited by Josep Poca. These include a considerable quantity of unpublished material.

This is one of those works that give substance to a culture, that help in affording a better understanding of the human matrix that fashions a literary society and that, in a nutshell, breathe life into our written heritage. There are large numbers of brief, almost daily notes detailing the writer's introspective ponderings (on family irritants, professional travels and his readings, which were so influenced by the works of Proust and Pla) and his social life. There are also entire pages that are bound to give pleasure to the reader who is interested in the dark underbelly of literary prizes, the inevitable "human factor" in the wrangles between writers, and how the critics were unjust with the work of Josep M. de Sagarra. It is perhaps worth highlighting, therefore, the finesse with which Serrahima applies adjectives, colours and contrasts when writing of the three great figures of Catalan literature after the Civil War. If it were only for his accounts of the deaths of Carles Riba and Josep M. de Sagarra and of his acquaintance with Josep Pla, reading these volumes would be well justified.

Serrahima had begun to make his name as a literary critic with the publication of the volume Assaigs sobre la novel·la (Essays on the Novel – La Revista, 1934), a collection of his articles published in the daily El Matí, for which he had been writing since 1929. This is a volume that can still be read, even today, as an echo of the disputes over the Catalan novel and the morality of the genre that prevailed at the end of the twenties. Serrahima was a staunch proponent of Catholic Catalan nationalism but there was no room for this position during the war. Exiled for a time in Bordeaux and protected by François Mauriac, his political profile of the open-minded reformist always in favour of the third way, shapes an intellectual biography that brings Maurici Serrahima quite close to the figure of the French intellectual of the post-war period, that of the committed writer who advocates a collective quest for new human values. Serrahima, then, perfectly exemplifies one of the great historical dramas of political Catalan nationalism: that of those people who, as upholders of Catalan republican values, were progressively sidelined from public life because of their Catholicism.

The opening volume of Del passat quan era present (From the Past When It Was Present) first appeared in 1972. It brings together his diary jottings from 1940 to 1947 but was appreciably bowdlerised and mutilated thanks to the censors and some references to still-living personalities. Leaving aside his small (and not so small) personal vanities, which repeatedly appear, and some ingenuous comments by a young, immature writer, the volumes of this extended diary, generally consisting of brief almost daily jottings, more political and civic musings than strictly literary writings, provide an intimate portrait of Barcelona's cultural life, which was effectively condemned to the catacombs after the Civil War. Modest clandestine dinners in people's homes, private readings of plays written in Catalan, frustrated attempts to bring out periodical publications, and the first positive symptoms of cultural resistance are recounted here together with descriptions of courtesy visits and some minimal concessions that had to be made to the administrative impositions of the Franco dictatorship. Outstanding in this almost always sordid milieu is the constant presence in Serrahima's diaries of Josep M. de Sagarra who was then, for example, giving the first readings of his unforgettable translation of the Divine Comedy, and also the regular visits of the poet J. V. Foix. These two men bravely and serenely took on the role of mentors to the young intellectuals of the day as well as performing the task of keeping the literary tradition alive since, in the early 1940s, Carles Riba was still in exile. One should also highlight the frequent digressions or recollection of events that were important in Serrahima's life, for example his attendance at a congress of the review Esprit, where he met Emmanuel Mounier and Jean Lacroix, as well as José M. Semprún, or the detailed account of his return journey by train from Bordeaux to Barcelona on 8 September 1940. Three days later, on 11 September, the National Day of Catalonia, Barcelona woke up sad and mute, its inhabitants showing hunger and suffering on their faces, the scars of war still clearly visible on the city's buildings and on its grubby out-of-date cars. The young Serrahima was aware that the first principle of changing reality in the future is accepting it: "Awareness of the defeat is present in the spirit of everyone, even those who believe they've won."

It's said...

Two literally "bourgeois" novelists are Maurici Serrahima (Barcelona, 1902) and Xavier Benguerel (Barcelona, el Poble Nou, 1905). Serrahima, critic and essayist, made his debut in fiction in 1934 with the novel El principi de Felip Lafont (The Principle of Felip Lafont). Three collections of short stories – El seductor devot (The Devout Seducer, 1937), Petit món enfebrat (Small Feverish World, 1947) and Contes d'aquest temps (Stories of These Times, 1955) – plus two more novels, Després (Afterwards, 1951) and Estimat senyor fiscal (Dear Mr. Prosecutor, 1955) make up the sum of his subsequent forays into fiction. These are brief, not especially brilliant works, constructed on the foundations of outstanding writing skills and finely-honed analytical insight. Serrahima, indifferent to "uneven transcendence" and "outside interest" presented by men and the things that happen to them, is chiefly concerned with the fact that "men exist and things happen", and no more than that. For him it is sufficient to engage in passionate exploration of everything that feeds into the framework of his existence. With one-dimensional characters and insipid plots, his stories acquire a singular vigour in which motives, gestures, words and atmosphere take on clear and convincing contours. This is the "psychological novel" in its most representative form. In the realm of Catalan literature, it may well be that his version of it exhibits the highest degree of technical maturity. Both writers, Serrahima and Benguerel, concede a certain importance to the religious sentiment, less as a problem than as an inferred social meaning. Espriu went so far as to describe Serrahima's fictional world as being of the "haute bourgeoisie".
[...] And this brings me to the need to comment on his literary style. He himself provides us with a description. "When they tell me – and, in particular, women – that, reading me, they have the feeling of being engaged in conversation with me, they are by no means mistaken. When I am writing, I feel much more an 'interlocutor' than a 'locutor'. And the models for my style come from conversation much more than they do from thinking, or the memory of any reading. From spoken language. From the way in which we use language for speaking." This direct style, resembling a friendly conversation, is more evident in the first draft of his writings. Subsequent polishing ("I have written very few pages without redrafting them") sometimes takes away some of their initial freshness and spontaneity. Serrahima states, "I've always been an enemy of linguistic anarchy [...], have striven to write, and even to speak, as well as I know how", but he was no great friend of copyeditors and openly opposed any changes being made to his texts. "If, on the one hand, I consider that Catalan copyeditors are absolutely indispensable and believe that they carry out an essential and highly praiseworthy task […], they do tend to impose an abstract, theoretical, sanitised Catalan, the same for all writers and harking back to the [anti-modernist] "noucentista" period, or the "pre-noucentista" stage, which are well out of date." [...]

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