Review: Life Embitters by Joseph Pla

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books through NetGalley.  This is my second contribution to Spanish Literature month host by Richard at http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.com/ and Stu at https://winstonsdad.wordpress.com/.

My Review:
Life EmbittersThis is an interesting book to categorize as far as literary genre is concerned. At first glance these narratives are really a set of short stories and each have their own plot and can be read individually.  However, they also remind me of the popularity nowadays of fictional autobiography: the works of Karl Ove Knausgard, Elena Ferrante and George Gospodinov all come to mind.  Pla relates to us different experiences in his life with some creative embellishments or inventions of conversations for which he was not present.  Pla takes us across Europe, from his native home in Barcelona to Paris to Rome he describes interesting characters and beautiful settings.

The 600 pages of this book take quite a while to get through and such a long book makes it difficult to write a focused review.  But I want to highlight a few patterns and themes that I noticed are weaved throughout the stories.  What struck me most about Pla’s narrative is that one is never really sure where he is going next with his tales.  We follow him on this meandering path of sentences and all of a sudden a new character is introduced, or a character dies, or a story abruptly ends.

Pla is never a permanent resident at any one place for a long time; as a result of his extensive travels, one of Pla’s favorite settings is the boarding house, many of which he resides at in various cities.  His story entitled, “A Death in Barcelona ” is a great example of the unexpected twists that appear in the narrative and is also set in one such boarding house in Barcelona.  The male boarders fight and bicker with each other and there seems to be a division along the lines of those who pay and those who live off of the others for free.  They all seem to be secretly in love with the mistress of the boarding house, Sra Paradis.  The story takes an unexpected turn when one day, a Swiss boarder living in the house dies and the story revolves around arrangements for the funeral of the Swiss man.  All of the boarders dress up and attend the funeral and on the way back a fight breaks out among the boarders.  Their petty complaints and annoying habits bubble to the surface as the funeral procession is winding its way home.  The story ends when two of the residents decide to leave but have no real prospects of where to go next.

Another patten of  Pla’s is that he likes to tell stories about his friends.  We are introduced to many friends and acquaintances who have interesting life experiences.  One of my favorite of his “friend” stories is about a fellow Catalan named Mascarell who, at age thirty-four, is engaged to a woman fourteen years his junior.  He is embarrassed and depressed when she breaks off their engagement.  Pla goes through a long and interesting story about why the young woman broke off with Mascarell.  Apparently the young woman’s father all of a sudden decides that he does not approve of his daughter marrying an old bachelor.  What really pushes her father over the edge is when she adopts a kitten and names it after her fiancé; the father is horrified that she does such an impulsive thing and demands that she break off the engagement.

At this point Mascarell disappears to Paris where he will not run into anyone he knows.  He meets a woman named Fanny that he is attracted to and with whom he has many interesting conversations.  But Mascarell’s old melancholy keeps creeping up on him and one day at dinner she calls him an “un homme fatal.”  This upsets Mascarell greatly and, in typical Pla fashion, the story takes an unexpected turn when Mascarell consults his Neopolitan barber, Sr. Giacomo, about Fanny’s comments.  The narrative at this point includes a long description of the barber, his clientele, and his relationship with Mascarell.  The barber is finally direct with Mascarell and tells him that being an ” un homme fatal” means that one is a “moron.”  Mascarell is so upset by the barber’s answer that he immediately decides to leave Paris and with Mascarell’s departure from this city the story ends.  We are left wondering what happened to Mascarell and if he was ever able to get over being a “homme fatal.”

I am so glad to have come across Pla’s stories in time for Spanish Literature month.  I highly recommend giving these stories a try–the book can be read all at once or the stories can be read individually over an extended period of time.

About The Author:
Joseph PlaJosep Pla i Casadevall (known as José Pla in Spanish) (March 8, 1897, Palafrugell, Girona – April 23, 1981, Llofriu, Girona) was a Catalan journalist and a popular author. As a journalist he worked in France, Italy, England, Germany and Russia, from where he wrote political and cultural chronicles in Catalan.

The most important characteristics of the “planian” style are simplicity, irony, and clarity. His works show a subjective and colloquial view, “anti-literary”, in which he stresses, nevertheless, an enormous stylistic effort by calling things by their names and “coming up with the precise adjective”, one of his most persistent literary obsessions.

Pla lived completely dedicated to writing. The extent of his Obres Completes – Complete Works (46 volumes and nearly 40,000 pages), which is a collection of all his journals, reports, articles, essays, biographies and both long and short novels.

His liberal-conservative thought, skeptic and uncompromising, filled with irony and common sense, keeps sounding contemporary, completely current, even though it seems to contradict the current cultural establishment same as it did with its completely opposed antecessor. His books remain in print and both Spanish and Catalan critics have unanimously recognized him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

5 Comments

Filed under Literature in Translation, Spanish Literature

5 responses to “Review: Life Embitters by Joseph Pla

  1. I want get to this at some point having read the other books that were published in uk last year by Catalan writers Confessions by Jaume cabre and uncertain glory by Joan Sales

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  2. I had this down as one I’d like to read – though now I know it’s 600 pages, I’d better wait until I have a bit of spare time! (Interestingly, both of the novels Stu mentions above are also quite long).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s a really interesting review and possibly a book that I would like to read at some point.
    My novel, “The Defeatist” is free on Amazon today and I’m currently looking for reviewers. Would you be interested?
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00WEIF1ZK

    Like

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