In some societies, language is a way to restrain experience, take it down to a level where it might stay. It is neither ornament nor exaltation; it is firm and austere in its purpose. It is thus a form of calm, modest knowledge or maybe even evasion. Work written in the light of this, or in its shadow, has to be led by clarity, by precise description, by briskness of feeling, by no open displays of anything, least of all easy feeling; it implies an acceptance of what is known. The revelation comes from what is left out. The smallest word, or the holding of breath, can have a fierce, stony power.
This way of toning down expression happens most fruitfully in fragile places, or indeed in languages that are themselves under pressure. In the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners, for example, the tone of ‘scrupulous meanness’, as Joyce himself describes it, allows his characters to wander in a solitary place for the spirit as much as a real city. Also, the calm, precise style which Elizabeth Bishop used in her poems of Nova Scotia allows for a vast unspoken-of pain to emerge as though pushing its way through the gaps between the words.
These two artists, throughout a long exile, sought to be exact about feelings as much as places. When they allowed the tone of their work to soar, they had earned the right to do so by holding back so much in the pages which came before.
Bishop wrote, using this restrained style, about the life and longings of a young girl in poems such as ‘In the Waiting Room’, ‘First Death in Nova Scotia’ and ‘The Moose’, just as James Joyce wrote about the uncertain consciousness of young boys in the early stories in Dubliners.
Mercè Rodoreda, in her novel The Time of the Doves, written in Catalan and published in 1962, deals with innocence and inexperience, as Natalia, who works in a shop, takes in the world as though it might soon break on her, or disappear, as it indeed does, because of the Spanish Civil War. Natalia’s consciousness is fully delicate, yet she maintains an astonishing ability to notice details, to render what is visible. The tone moves between the fully ordinary and the strangely incantatory.
Mercè Rodoreda was born in Barcelona in 1908. At the age of twenty, having received ecclesiastical permission, she married her mother’s younger brother. They had one son. Between the early 1930s and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, she published several novels and pieces of short fiction, all in Catalan. In 1935 she began work for the Catalan Ministry of Information. Franco’s victory in the war forced her to go into exile, first outside Paris but then, as a result of the Nazi occupation, elsewhere in France. Before she left Spain, she broke up with her first husband. After much difficulty and hardship, she finally settled in Geneva, returning to Catalonia in 1979 where she died four years later.
In her best fiction, she allows the details to speak for themselves; the mind through which the world is seen is almost naive, almost detached. This means that much is achieved or hinted at by tone, through rhythm, by coiled implication.The world is viewed as though helplessly, as if it might not bear the weight of much analysis. It is up to the reader to understand the extent of the suffering, the quality of the pain. The less these things are actively named, the more deeply they will be evoked.
If The Time of the Doves is a book of tender and subtle grace, filled with a deep innocence, Death in Spring, published in Catalan three years after Rodoreda’s death, is a much darker book.
Rodoreda wrote from an exile more intense and lonely than that of Joyce or Bishop. She had not merely lost Catalonia, but she was writing in a time when the very language she wrote in – Catalan – was effectively banned by Franco, consigned to the private realm. She wrote her best novels at a time when they had little chance of finding many readers. She wrote in a language which was alert to silence, danger, fragility.
Death in Spring is like an ominous painting by Miró, made up of some essential elements – tree, lake, re, mountain, wind, summer, winter, blood. Told through the consciousness of a boy soon to be a young man, it works through a mixture of simplicity and density of texture. Some of the sentences read like lines in a poem; others are replete with calm, casual, convincing detail.
If the book uses images from a nightmare, the dark dream is rooted in the real world, the world of a Catalan village with its customs and hierarchies and memory. But Rodoreda is more interested in unsettling the world than describing it or making it familiar. ‘The village,’ she writes, ‘was born from the earth’s terrible unrest.’ She is concerned to dramatize that unrest using tones that are estranging, while also harnessing closely etched detail, thus creating the illusion that this place is both fully real and also part of an unwaking world of dream.
Writing one declarative sentence after another, setting down facts, explaining nothing, allowing the rhythm to become increasingly more urgent and the tone more disturbing, Rodoreda can create an atmosphere that is vivid and frightening. Rodoreda takes enormous risks as image after image of death and violence and grief are set down in a prose that is close to reportage but can also become soaringly beautiful, almost apocalyptic. (‘In black night, standing in the moonlight on top of the stone clock, I was Time. The moon gazing at me. Time moved forward with difficulty, and as I stood there, something fled from within me, from the hour, from Time.’)
The style is urgent, serious, unplayful; it shifts between the language of fact and the sound of prayer and then soars beyond the ordinary, as in the novels of László Krasznahorkai, to evoke panic and unrelenting dread.
Rodoreda’s genius in this late masterpiece is to lure the reader’s attention away from her terrain as merely emblematic or symbolic and make it seem introducing
lived-in, real, part of history rather than fantasy. This is a landscape of the soul; but it is also full of dark feelings and forebodings that are sharply present and ominous and persistent.
The fact that it was not published in the author’s lifetime adds to the book’s mystery. It was written in an exile not merely physical but also a place of spiritual alienation. This distance Rodoreda travelled between the carefully managed tones of The Time of the Doves and the uncompromising horror and dazzling complexities and energy of Death in Spring is one of the great journeys taken in twentieth-century fiction.