Salvador Espriu

Víctor Martínez-Gil (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

Santa Coloma de Farners, 1913 — Barcelona, 1985. Catalan poet, playwright and novelist

Salvador Espriu was born in Santa Coloma de Farners in 1913. His literary opus soon became a symbol of the peaceful resistance and the hopes of post-war Catalonia. The poetry of Espriu is essential if one is to understand modern Catalan literature at all. He had been the great hope of the short story in Catalan before the Civil War. But after that event, he chose to go into an 'internal exile' in which he decided to contribute towards 'saving our words' so that for him it was necessary to start anew. Espriu turned to poetry because among other reasons it allowed him to elude the uncultured Spanish censorship of the time. The work of Espriu is a long meditation on death and on the passing of the time that leads us to that end. His verse is baroque in content, but extraordinarily austere and precise in style.

The oeuvre of Salvador Espriu (Santa Coloma de Farners 1913 - Barcelona 1985) should be defined on the basis of two main strands. First, is his quest for diversity (marked by its relationship with everyday matters, by plurality of genres and the wide range of compositional techniques that coexist even in a single book) and, second, is his aspiration to attain unity (through a moral and philosophical thematic interweaving that governs the relations between his different works). Espriu considered that these two poles were inextricable in the dialectical process of apprehending reality to which he aspired. Scholars tend to cite the speech at the end of Primera història d'Esther (The Story of Esther, 1948) when referring to this: "Remember that the mirror of truth was shattered at the start into tiny fragments, yet each bit holds a spark of true light." This sentence has been explained by way of Cabbalist thought: the relationship with God (light, or truth) is only possible through Creation, which is structured on the basis of ten sephirot or principles that make it possible to create a path of mystical ascesis or knowledge. It is only through variety that unity can be attained and this principle, which is moral and philosophical, is, with Espriu, also literary since the desire for a unitary structure starting out from a variety of genres reflects the crisis of the modern subject who is caught between a loss of identity and the longing for transcendence, a crisis that is indivisible from a good part of the problems that modern literature has placed upon the table.

Josep M. Castellet stressed the capacity of Espriu's work to assimilate culturally the mythical inheritance of humanity: the Book of the Dead from Ancient Egypt, the Bible, the Jewish mystical tradition and Greek mythology. Building on these references, Espriu would create his own myth of Sinera (an anagram of Arenys de Mar, the home town of Espriu's maternal and paternal family and setting of his childhood). Castellet also offered the first classification of forms on the basis of which the literary variety of Espriu's oeuvre may be organised: lyrical, elegiac, satirical and didactic.

A Young Narrator in the 1930s

Salvador Espriu's literary career began in 1929 with the not insignificant publication of a book in Spanish, Israel, a collection of biblical scenes that, according to the findings of Rosa M. Delor, present a Cabbalistic thematic order around the figure of Christ. One year later, in 1930, Espriu began his studies at the Universitat de Barcelona where he met the poet Bartomeu Rosselló-Pòrcel. Espriu's prestige in university circles soon came to be based on his activity as a young writer in Catalan.

Even though he provocatively accentuated the black notes, Espriu's fictional work is in keeping with the different models that predominated in the 1930s. In this regard, it is necessary to reject what has now become the cliché of a rootless Espriu who was confronting the prevailing literary climate of noucentisme. El doctor Rip (1931) has some relationship with the inner monologue then prevalent in the psychological novel in the style of Carles Soldevila; Laia (1932), a novel-tableau in a maritime setting that mixes different narrative registers (the tragic, psychological, elegiac, and realist), represented the first appearance of diversity in Espriu's work and situated him within the trend of recovering the modernist novel; the collection of short stories Aspectes (Aspects, 1934), including some that are grotesque and others that are lyrical and elegiac, represents his acceptance of stylistic multiplicity and abandonment of the novel, while linking him with the satirical and demystifying trend in Catalan literature that we find, although with different nuances, in the Sabadell Group or even in writers like Llorenç Villalonga, a connection that is confirmed with the magnificent stories of Ariadna al laberint grotesc (Ariadna in the Grotesque Labyrinth, 1935). Espriu's world, which is also related with that of writers like Valle-Inclán and Pirandello, came to be one where the author pulled the strings of anti-psychological marionettes just as death (an omnipresent motif throughout Espriu's work) moves the strings of human beings in the theatre of the world, a baroque image par excellence. Espriu came, by this means, to a literary formula to which he would remain faithful. With this, he started out from a critique of the political and cultural reality of the time, while fully accepting its nature as an artifice and hence its capacity to take on different tones, registers and forms. It was a literary procedure that related everyday life with the classical myths and literary clichés in a complex interplay of demystification and, at the same time, evaluation.

The Civil War and an Exploration of New Genres

In his novellas Miratge a Citerea (Mirage in Citerea, 1935), Fedra (1937, inspired by a play written by Villalonga that Espriu had adapted in a Catalan version in 1936) and Letizia (1937), allegorical discourse was used by Espriu to describe the situation of a Catalonia that was embroiled in the Civil War. At the same time, he used the prose poem to express the rupture caused by the war in La pluja (Rain - which was published in 1952, but written between 1936 and 1938). The death of the ailing Rosselló-Pòrcel, which appears in the two latter prose works, symbolised the tragedy of the destruction. Espriu's form of expressive concentration had also crystallised in a satirical poem (written about the same time as his stories of the same tone and also bearing some relation with the Sàtires (Satires, 1927) of Guerau de Liost), Dansa grotesca de la mort (Grotesque Dance of Death, 1934) and, in 1937, in the metaphysical poem El sotjador (The Watcher), where Espriu presented the idea of the blind gaze of God tragically fixed on man. In 1939, immediately after the fall of Barcelona, he wrote the play Antígona (Antigone). Anticipating the use that playwrights such as Anouilh (Antigone, 1944) would later make of the Greek myth, Espriu employed it to convey a message of pardon and reconciliation between contending parties. If his previous works tended to portray Good in the negative form, in other words, from the standpoint of material and spiritual degradation, Antígona clearly established the didactic discourse in Espriu's work.

The Poet and his People

A brilliant student, with degrees in Law (1935) and History (1936), and having studied classical languages, Espriu aspired to become a lecturer in Egyptology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, which had been created during the time of the Second Republic. This professional ambition was frustrated by the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1940, his father, the notary Francesc Espriu, died after a heart attack brought on by the upheaval of the war, and this obliged him to go to work in the notary's office of Antoni Gual Ubach. Espriu, then, is yet another of the twentieth century's bureaucrat or office-worker writers, like Franz Kafka and Fernando Pessoa, who were also hermetic and Cabbalistic and, like Espriu, thinkers dwelling on the Divinity and seekers of unity in dispersion.

Among the factors that ended up drawing Espriu into poetry in the post-war period, apart from the process of expressive concentration that I have already noted, was the fact that it was easier to publish in a genre that did not need as much space as prose and that, because of its more hermetic nature, meant that it was also easier to overcome the obstacles of censorship.

In his first book of poetry, Cementiri de Sinera (Sinera Cemetery, 1946), Espriu evoked "lost days and suns" and a world destroyed by war, which he called Sinera. This name, which appears here for the first time, gave new sense to the maritime settings of works like Laia and to well-established themes in Espriu like memory and his view of literature as a dialogue with the dead. In the next book of poems, Les cançons d'Ariadna (Songs of Ariadna, 1949), Espriu recovered the world of Arenys in satirical verse, linking his poetry to the fiction he had written before the war (and perhaps it was because of this that he later wanted this book to give the name to his complete Poetic Works). A year previously, in 1948, the play Primera història d'Esther, a true high point in Catalan literature after the Civil War, had woven together the biblical myth and the world of Sinera by means of a grotesque and caricaturesque aesthetics. The text, which Espriu had conceived as a testament of the Catalan language, included the message of pardon that had appeared in Antígona by means of a Cabbalistic structure and the overall framework of a puppet theatre ruled by the Almighty, who is blind like the classical soothsayers and poets. This is an image of the author, who would also appear in his own works as the child Tianet and the young man Salom, who is symbolically killed in 1936.

Along with Cementiri de Sinera, the four books Les hores (The Hours, 1952), Mrs. Death (1952 [the original title is in English - translator]), El caminant i el mur (The Wayfarer and the Wall, 1954) and Final del laberint (The End of the Labyrinth, 1955) comprise the so-called lyrical cycle (which included, however, grotesque and satirical elements as well) of Espriu's work. As Josep M. Castellet has found in his study of Espriu, these books trace out a path of interiorisation that culminates with the mystical experience of Final del laberint where Espriu follows the principles (intimately linked with the Cabbala and present in his work from the beginning) of negative theology, according to which God, blind in his relationship with humanity, would be the "name of nothingness", the negation of what exists, because man is unable to refer directly to attributes that are, for him, incomprehensible. The different books of the lyrical cycle, given the form of itineraries, also embody the tension between the poet and his people, as is reflected in the very famous poem "Assaig de càntic en el temple" (Trial Hymn in the Temple) from El caminant i el mur. After Cementiri de Sinera, the poetry of Espriu, who was then actively involved with reviews such as Poesia and Ariel, should be situated within the general trend of Catalan poetry after the Civil War, with the evolution and humanisation of his art of poetry, which was post-symbolist and capable of integrating the poet's individual space into the poem along with the cultural and linguistic heritage of his people.

The Civil Poet: Espriu and Realism

The mystical blind alley of Final del laberint was superseded by La pell de brau (The Bull-hide, 1960), Espriu's best-known work. His poetry, which comprehended metaphysical discourse only on the basis of everyday occurrences, was then assessed from the standpoint of its realism. The epic or didactical tone seemed to be extremely modern, an example of ideological combat despite the social vagueness of the discourse of Espriu, who always limited himself to speaking of freedom, justice and tolerance in general terms. He expressed his thoughts (on diversity and tolerance) in La pell de brau using old techniques (personal use of symbols and a mixture of satire, epic and elegy), but the emblematic character that the book acquired as a civic discourse, a reading that was prompted by the general climate of Catalan literature at the time, and in the fact that he had focussed his attention on the Iberian Peninsula, and hence Spain, acted as catalysts for a new relevance, even international, of the poet. Espriu had thus fixed, in mythical terms, a geography that he had begun to structure before the Civil War: Lavínia (Barcelona), Alfaranja (Catalonia, which, metonymically, is also Sinera), Konilòsia (Spain) and Sepharad (Iberian Peninsula). The epic-theatre version of Espriu's work by Ricard Salvat (who, in 1966, staged a play Ronda de mort a Sinera (Death around Sinera), consisting of a number of fragments from his books) and the considerable repercussion of the fact that some of his poems were set to music by Narcís Bonet (La pell de brau, in 1969) and, in particular, by Raimon (Cançons de la roda del temps (Songs from the Wheel of Time, 1966)), meant the popularisation of an oeuvre that would be read, virtually until the poet's death, as a patriotic gesture and with a moral and national awareness of Catalan society. In 1963, the poems of Llibre de Sinera (Book of Sinera) represented a complex and hermetic return to the strictly Catalan domain. Again, Setmana Santa (Holy Week, 1971), a book that is not easy to read and that had been preceded in 1967 by Per al llibre de Salms d'aquests vells cecs (For the Psalm Book of These Blind Old Men), would take up again in poetry, and with other metaphysical echoes, an imagery vis-à-vis the poet that had been present since Laia had appeared.

The Last Books

In the 1970s and 1980s, Espriu's work became more disperse. In fiction, the stories in the short-story collection Les proses de "La Rosa Vera" (Prose Writings of "Rosa Vera", 1951-1956) had signalled a project of retrieval that Espriu had wanted to continue with his book Les Ombres (The Shadows), but which was never completed. In 1981, however, with Les roques i el mar, el blau (Rocks and Sea, the Blue), he offered a highly original collection in which the grotesque world of Sinera was mixed with the universe of classical myth and the intersections of different points of view relativised the narrative material, as in the pre-war stories. In theatre, we only find works that, even while they were fully incorporated in Espriu's literature as a whole, they were circumstantial (which also applies to the book of poems of 1975 inspired by Apel·les Fenosa Formes i paraules (Forms and Words)). Examples of this are Una altra Fedra, si us plau (Another Phaedra, Please, 1978 - a play commissioned by Núria Espert) and D'una vella i encerclada terra (From an Old Encircled Land, 1980 - which he wrote in homage to the Cercle Excursionista de Catalunya), the poems from which were included in Per a la bona gent (For Good People, 1984), a book that has been described by Rosa M. Delor as a "cabbalistic testament", ordered around the Sephira of Daath (the combination of Wisdom and Intelligence). Not long before he died, Espriu completed a final revision of his oeuvre in keeping with a practice that had long been a constant in his work, once again demonstrating his aspiration to achieve unity out of diversity: the adaptation of his already-published books to the subsequent work as a whole in order to achieve thematic coherence and consistency in style. Espriu's work, which is characterised by a blend of extreme intellectualism and frequently caustic descriptivism, is singular. His idiomatic richness, the complexity of his themes and sources, his ability to portray collective history in transcendent terms and even the historical representativeness he achieved after the 1960s, ensure that his body of work is one of the most significant of twentieth-century Catalan literature.

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  • Massa mare
  • Música de poetes
  • Premi LletrA