Joan Sales, Uncertain Glory

Joan Sales (1912-83), Uncertain Glory. NYRB Classics, 2014. Translated by Peter Bush from the Catalan, first published 1956, revised and expanded several times thereafter.

Catalan writer Joan Sales began Uncertain Glory in 1948 in Barcelona after nine years of exile abroad. I read most of it in La Floresta, near Sant Cugat, just the other side of the mountain from that city this spring while visiting family there.

Sales drew upon his experiences of fighting in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). He relates the struggle from the viewpoint of the losing, divided Republican side. Of course English-speaking readers are familiar with George Orwell’s slightly occluded version of his own experience of initial anarchist freedom in Catalunya followed by internecine hostility between the Republican factions (goaded in part by the Russian Communist commisars) and anarchic preparations of fighters like him in Barcelona during the war, and of the squalor and privations of the Aragon front, in Homage to Catalonia.

Joan Sales, Uncertain Glory cover

My copy of the novel lit by the Catalan sun near Barcelona

This is an epistolary account. It begins with the letters of Lieutenant Lluís, a lawyer before the war, to his brother Ramón. His partner Trini – a member of a fiercely anarchist family, and of forthright independent views herself — is bringing up their child in straitened circumstances in the Catalan capital, from food shortages to indiscriminate bombing and shelling by the approaching fascist forces. It’s a city of factions; the extremist Republicans hunt the priests who are seen to have colluded with Franco’s fascist insurrection against the democratically elected Republican government, while diehard Catholics, even those who oppose Franco, cling on to their old beliefs. Trini is moved to become baptised, despite her innate opposition to Catholicism, as a result of the murderous, vicious treatment of Catholic devotees by those she sympathises with politically.

Lluís hardly ever writes to her – causing her much distress. Instead he becomes infatuated with the carlana – the lady of the local Castel, whose Fascist sympathising husband was murdered by the Republican forces.

His letters reveal his slowly growing awareness that her interest in him is largely due to the influence he can exert on her behalf to protect herself and her own child from the unconstrained violence all around them.

Although there are harrowing descriptions of the atrocities committed on both sides, these are slightly less significant for the conflicted Lieutenant than his attempts to make moral sense of the chaotic world he finds himself in, and of his own emotional volatility.

Trini’s letters to their mutual friend, an eccentric cynic named Soleràs, form the second section. He provides solace and emotional support that Lluís is uninterested in providing. The third section consists of the letters of one of Lluís’s soldier comrades – a former seminarist, one of a number of colourful characters with whom Lluís serves.

If that all sounds a bit muddled, well, it is. But it’s hard not to be moved by the passions of the characters, mediated through their letters – not just political and philosophical passions, but sexual and religious.

This translation uses the expanded fourth edition of the Catalan novel, and in my view would have benefited from a less expansive treatment. The final set of letters in particular reprises much of what’s gone before, or offers little of greater interest than the first two parts. Quotations and allusions abound from Spinoza, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire and others, adding a portentous tone to the novel.

Lluís’s heartless treatment of Trini hardly endears him to the reader. She’s a much more interesting, rounded and mature character.

The ardour, suffering and inexperience of the Catalan Republican fighters are familiar from Orwell’s (and Hemingway’s) accounts, but Sales is able to give a more detailed, impassioned, insider’s portrayal. His insight into the betrayals, split loyalties and divided allegiances of those caught up in the struggle just about makes up for the over-long and repetitive digressions.

There’s an interesting interview with the translator, Peter Bush, at Lizzy’s Literary Life blog, posted in May this year.

Update 4 June: I forgot to mention the film version of the novel, with the Catalan title Incerta glòria, directed by Agustí Villaronga in 2017, available on Netflix (can’t comment on it as I haven’t seen it yet). Not to be confused with the 1944 Raoul Walsh film Uncertain Glory set in WWII.