Lydie Salvayre: Cry, Mother Spain

#WIT Women in Translation month I don’t know why but I’ve been unable to upload my photo of the book’s cover; here’s a link to the Maclehose Press website which has a blurb and fine picture of it.

I returned yesterday from a holiday in north Mallorca – more on that maybe another time. It seemed appropriate to read there this novel by Lydie Salvayre: Cry, Mother Spain, translated by Ben Faccini and published by Maclehose Press, Quercus London. It was first published in French in 2014 (when it won the Prix Goncourt) with the title Pas pleurer (Don’t cry). In an interview at the World Literature Today site Faccini explained that he wanted to avoid using a negative term. The author told him she wanted to highlight, with that French phrase, the protagonist Salvayre’s mother Montse’s determination not to cry in the face of humiliations, political and personal disasters arising from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Faccini himself wanted to accentuate the central theme of mothers and daughters, of interrogating the past in the context of one’s mother country from a place of exile. There’s maybe an echo of the title of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.

It’s a deeply moving, powerful account of that bloody conflict, fusing elements of autobiography, political history and literary allusion – threaded through the narrative are references to the account by the monarchist Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, Les Grands Cimetières de la lune. In an author’s preface Salvayre says she read that book in 2012 and was ‘shocked by it’. Bernanos describes in it the Francoist atrocities he witnessed in the opening months of the Civil War in Mallorca in 1936 – crimes carried out in many cases with the complicity of the Catholic clergy (‘that despicable institution’ is how the narrator describes the church, when it showed its ‘true and terrifying face’) who dominated Spain’s life – spiritual, social and political – at the time, as the opening words of the novel starkly show:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. A ceremonial ring on his venerable hand, the Most Reverend Archbishop of Palma pointed at the chests of the “guilty poor”, singling them out to the vigilante firing squads…[these victims] were those who dared to open their mouths, and on July 18, 1936, my mother opened her mouth for the first time. She was fifteen. She lived up in the hills, cut off from the world, in a village where wealthy landowners had kept families like hers in the most abject poverty for centuries.

Montserrat, known to her intimates as Montse, is a name Salvayre is ‘happy to appropriate and revive for a short while, rescuing it from the oblivion to which it has been consigned’:

For the time being I don’t want to introduce any invented characters into my account…She’s ninety years old as she sits and remembers her youth in the crossbred, trans-Pyrenean language she has adopted since Fate hurled her into a village  somewhere in the south-west of France more than seventy years ago.

That language Salvayre describes in another interview at Music and Literature as ‘Fragnol’ – a hybrid of French and Spanish. Montse was raised speaking Catalan, but her Andalusian husband insisted on Castilian been spoken in his household. It’s a novel as much about the struggle of women in the face of patriarchal social oppression as it is about the class struggle and the insurrection against the stifling Catholicism of early 20C Spain.

When the main local landowner considers Montse for a job as a maid – about the only work available to a girl of her class outside of peasant toil in the fields – she’s deeply insulted and outraged at his assessment of her as seeming ‘quite humble’. When the war breaks out next day she feels liberated from that destiny of drudgery in that month when she ‘discovered life’: she never worked as a maid for him or anyone else. She’d found her voice.

Her brother José returns from Lérida full of utopian ideas and slogans of the Anarchists, and he fuels her incipient feelings of mutiny against the oppressive social norms for women by instilling in her those same idealistic political dreams. Sadly for him and his country they come to nothing, defeated by the forces of Fascism, aided by the Germans and Italians, and with the growing support of an ignorant, timid, ultra-conservative peasantry, and self-interested bourgeoisie.

After an initial period of euphoria when the remote, backward village, ‘where things repeated themselves, identically and endlessly’, where ‘the rich had their prosperity, the poor their burdens’, and ‘nothing new ever came along to add hope’, becomes elated by those naively optimistic ideas of José’s, the peasants gradually shift to adopt the cynical and manipulative ideologies of the Stalinists. The lukewarm support of Soviet Russia – the only nation prepared to provide  political and financial aid to the Republican, anti-fascist cause (the foreign volunteers of the International Brigade were eager but mostly ill-equipped and poorly led and trained) – evolved inevitably into an anti-revolutionary, anti-Trotskyist purge as vicious and treacherous as that of the Francoists – as Orwell has starkly described in Homage to Catalonia.

This novel is more affecting than his account, because it has at its heart the true story of a Catalan families caught up in the internecine turmoil and factional viciousness, denunciation, betrayal, retribution and shameful slaughter. More importantly, it’s told from a woman’s perspective, filtered through the modern sensibility of her novelist daughter, who perceives, and subtly weaves into the narrative, the parallels with events today in which cynical media manipulation and shameless courting of ultra-nationalist bigotry have become too familiar; here’s an example, where she considers the fascist supporters’ fervent advocacy of ‘nation’ and ‘nationalist’: this ‘thrusting’ of those terms about ‘like a banner’ is done

to mask their true aim of separating nationals from non-nationals. In other words they are creating a system that differentiates and categorises humans. This is, I suppose, just another form of xenophobia, and the objective is to go on and discredit the non-nationals, to marginalise them, and finally to get rid of them like parasites.

 

Former Prime Minister Cameron comes to mind, likening migrants to ‘swarms’. Orwell said in ‘Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War, talking of atrocities committed by both sides, that they are ‘believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.’ And on fake news:

Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists.

Elsewhere Salvayre quotes Bernanos:

‘The wealthy despise those that serve them, either through conviction or foolishness, as ultimately they only believe themselves to be defended by the corrupt; they only put their trust in the corrupt.’

José and Montse leave their stultifying village for the heady revolutionary hub of Barcelona, but the brother quickly becomes disillusioned by the ‘interminable squabbles’ between the communists and anarchists, ‘one blinding and the other self-deceiving’. Disgusted by the hatred and casual murders perpetrated by his fellow militiamen, he returns, sickened, to the village to face its increasing hostility which leads to inevitable catastrophe for him – and them. Instrumental in José’s fate is the character of Diego, an interesting character whose sad past has embittered him and encouraged him to adopt a communist stance for opportunistic reasons. Their two lives play out with the sombre inevitability – like the civil war and the lives of those caught up in it – of Greek tragedy.

Montse has a more uplifting experience in Barcelona which, though short-lived, transforms her life – to the chagrin of the daughter to whom she tells her story. For she insists that she remembers or cares for nothing that happened after 1937 and that love affair – not the terrifying flight across the border with other refugees from the fascist regime; the struggle to settle in a foreign land which viewed her with suspicion.  All that matters in her fading memory is the brief moments of exhilaration and love in the Catalan capital in that dazzling summer of liberty and hope, never entirely erased by the horrors that followed.

There’s an excellent post on Cry, Mother Spain at Grant’s blog 1st Reading

 

The spider in the corner: André Breton, Nadja

André Breton, Nadja. Translated by Richard Howard for the American Grove Press edition of 1960, and by Penguin when they added this title to their Modern Classics series in 1999.

I’ve found this a particularly difficult post to write. Magnolias and daffodils are blooming and spring is on the way. More important than troublesome books, perhaps.

Nadja has some fine passages that make rewarding reading. But it’s a morally bankrupt book, I feel. I know I should be assessing it from an objectively literary or artistic perspective. But there it is: it’s beyond my control. This is a blog, not an academic journal.

André Breton, 'Nadja': PMC cover Nadja’s opening paragraphs set the tone of strangeness and authority that resonate through much of the book (I can’t call it a novel or romance – a generic problem which the Breton biographer Mark Polizzotti discusses in his informative Introduction). If anything it’s an unreliable autobiography. The narrator bears AB’s name and many of his views, though of course it would be naïve to take this at face value: he’s a literary construct.

He begins with an attempt to set out the answer to the question with which the narrative begins: ‘Who am I?’ His first response is to suggest he is whom he ‘haunts’. He plays a ‘ghostly part, evidently referring to what I have ceased to be in order to be who I am.’ He goes on:

Hardly distorted in this sense, the word suggests that what I regard as the objective, more or less deliberate manifestations of my existence are merely the premises, within the limits of this existence, of an activity whose true extent is quite unknown to me. My image of the “ghost”, including everything conventional about its appearance as well as its blind submission to certain contingencies of time and place, is particularly significant for me as the finite representation of a torment that may be eternal.

These looping, intricate sentences have a poetic-philosophical potency that is both weird and elusive while at the same time existentially dramatic. That final phrase is tremendous. Artful.

He goes on to suggest he is ‘doomed’ to try and learn just a fragment of what he has forgotten –

an idea of irreparable loss, of punishment, of a fall whose lack of moral basis is, as I see it, indisputable…I strive, in relation to other men, to discover the nature, if not the necessity, of my difference from them.

This is typical of the plaintive quest for truth and identity that the book presents – but I’ve quoted them at length because, for me, these extracts also show where I have a problem with it. It’s all about HIM. And ‘men’. Women play a secondary role in the surrealist world Breton constructs.

Perhaps I’m reading this wrongly; it’s not an easy text to understand. Breton is surely trying hard not to be coherent, comprehensible or to create a conventional, linear narrative. As he says later on, the psychological novel with its empiricist basis is, for him, dead. He has no interest in the nature of bourgeois reality; his focus is on himself and his own experience.

This is all very interesting, for a while. But I found it palled – and there are 60 pages of it before Nadja herself appears. 60 pages full of the dropping of names of his important avant-garde friends, from Aragon to Picasso. The influence of Huysmans is acknowledged (not a good sign).

When Nadja does appear the narrator clearly suspects she might be a prostitute. Only French male intellectuals can be flâneurs in Paris (as Lauren Elkin has recently demonstrated in her challenge to this assumption, Flâneuse, reviewed in the Guardian HERE.)

 

He immediately invites her for a drink in a café, the first of many assignations (bizarre trysts) over a ten-day period. He’s clearly infatuated, fascinated by ‘the soul in limbo’ as she describes herself, this proto-beatnik with the kohl-rimmed, fern-coloured eyes and the sultry (inauthentic) Russian name, who clings on to existence by smuggling cocaine, and possibly selling herself.

He clearly tells her he’s a writer, for she makes him promise to bring her some of his books when they arrange to meet next day. He urges her not to read them:

Life is other than what one writes.

She leaves him glowing with self-satisfaction, for she confides that the quality about him that touched her most was his ‘simplicity’ (his italics). Really?! All this is transparently disingenuous and pompous of him.

As their strange liaison develops she reveals disturbing details about her past, and is evidently a troubled soul. She speaks in sphinx-like aphorisms and paradoxical, portentous riddles (‘I am the thought on the bath in the room without mirrors’): the very essence of surrealism. Breton is beside himself: she’s his dream woman, for she symbolises…him and all his beliefs.

But as her frail hold on sanity becomes more apparent, and her haunted eccentricity becomes increasingly extreme, he realises he’s mistaken incipient insanity for the embodiment of a surrealist’s rejection of rationality. Even her surrealist drawings, reproduced in this text in blotchy monochrome (a technique Sebald was to make more interesting use of), he chooses to see as preternatural signs of her role for him as Muse. Freud would no doubt interpret them differently.

It’s at this point that Breton finally lost me. Even by their second meeting he’s writing ‘it is apparent that she is at my mercy’. Yes, he loves that she seems ‘so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares for so little, but so marvellously, for life’. She’s a ‘Melusina’ spirit, in his eyes. That’s how he chooses to see her at first, rather than as the psychologically vulnerable young woman (she was 24; Nadja is based on a real-life person) he comes to recognise. Which is when he rejects her.

This renunciation comes as no surprise. Soon after meeting her he writes:

How does she regard me, how does she judge me? It is unforgivable of me to go on seeing her if I do not love her. Don’t I love her? When I am near her I am nearer things which are near her.

His egotism excuses for him every exploitative moment he spends with her. He discusses her with his wife and friends. Nadja is not autobiography, but I find the way he portrays his callous treatment of this damaged young woman inexcusable (‘unforgivable’). Not a particularly valid literary response, but one I can’t avoid.

He took her to be ‘a free genius, something like one of those spirits of the air, which certain magical practices momentarily permit us to entertain but which we can never overcome.’ Ominous that he doesn’t say ‘love’, but ‘overcome’. She’s important to him only as long as she inspires him, and ‘takes [him] for a god’, ‘thinks of [him] as the sun’, her ‘master’. Being adored by a gorgeous, abandoned waif is a tremendous aphrodisiac, and he gorges on it.

Towards the end his guard drops, and guilt begins to show:

perhaps I have not been adequate to what she offered me.

 

What did she offer? ‘Only love in the sense I understand it – mysterious, improbable, unique, bewildering…’ Soon after this adolescent self-analysis he declares baldly:

I was told, several months ago, that Nadja was mad.

So all of this has been written retrospectively, in the knowledge that she was becoming insane. What pushed her over the edge? It’s hard to resist the conclusion that it was his inability to return her love. He used her, and when she gave him her essence he took it and then rejected her. It’s all very well spend much of the last 30-odd pages of the book fulminating against the profession of psychiatry (Breton had medical-psychiatric training), denouncing the kinds of sanitarium to which Nadja has been committed (and where he never visited her, though his friends did); this doesn’t exculpate him. This is his heartless response to news of her incarceration:

…I do not suppose there can be much difference for Nadja between the inside of a sanitarium and the outside.

He’s making a cheap surrealist jibe against the relative madness of bourgeois society: Nadja has become nothing more than a convenient tool to facilitate the construction of his private aesthetic-political manifesto.

His denial of Nadja was the ultimate expression of this smug and callous character. I just hope it wasn’t the real André Breton, and he chose to create this monster for some kind of surreal literary exercise.

This is the same character who earlier wrote about writing Nadja in the Manoir d’Ango as he liked, ‘where I was able to hunt owls as well.’ When I first read this I thought it a surreal joke (there’s an equally good one about ‘the spider in the corner’). When I got to the book’s end that sentence took on a different significance; he’s using Nadja’s mental implosion as another aspect of inspiration, pulling fragments of her shattered psyche out of the wreckage and making them into beautiful literary objects. I can’t countenance that, no matter how beautiful they are.

But I’m willing to acknowledge that all of this might be a wilful misreading of a surreal text as if it were written by one of those empiricists Breton hated – you know, charlatans like Flaubert.