Catalan Novel Exposes Barcelona High Society
In 1932 the publication of Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life boldly depicted the decline of the aristocracy in Barcelona. It caused a scandal in Spain. Suppressed as Catalan literature, bowdlerized by Franco’s censors, never before translated completely into English, Private Life is nearly 500 pages of an almost clinical dissection of high society. In a style reminiscent of Stendhal, with merciless exactitude Maria de Sagarra exposes all the motives and dissembling, the plotting and counterplotting, in Barcelona’s treacherous high social echelons. Compulsively readable, this ferocious attack on wealthy opportunists sleepwalking through their lives has an in-your-face, aggressive style that is the single most distinctive, irresistible aspect of the narrative. Born an aristocrat, Josep Maria de Sagarra knows what he’s talking about and under his meticulous scrutiny, his characters have nowhere to hide.
The sprawling plot is a Machiavellian serpents’ nest of entangled motives and schemes. Juggling about a dozen main characters, the story centers on three generations of one family – the Lloberolas. Once wealthy high-fliers, due to business ineptitude they are now down on their luck and selling off heirlooms. Don Tomas is the head of the family, and his two sons, Frederic and Guillem, are the primary plot-movers. In the sleazy opening scene, married Frederic wakes up in the bed of his former mistress. Frederic is a big-scale bungler, and as a consequence has ended up with a promissory note due and no money to pay it. His younger brother, Guillem, is far brighter and the book’s most fascinating character. Cunning and attractive, casually self-serving, the young schemer disguises himself as a ditch digger and goes to a scandalous seamstress shop, where he is hired to be the lower-class sexual plaything of an aristocratic couple.
Frederic can’t pay his debt and fears exposure. Don Tomas refuses to cover one more of his son’s follies. But his seductive, amoral younger brother decides to protect the family name when he realizes that the debt is owed to none other than the man whose wife he has just shared. Guillem blackmails the man into disregarding the debt – not expecting the man to commit suicide. Briefly remorseful, realizing he has all but murdered the man, Guillem doesn’t take long to also realize that he can save the family’s declining fortunes by seducing the suicide’s wealthy widow.
In the center of the novel, the plot literally stops for two huge party sequences: Hortensia’s party concludes Part One, and Niobe’s performance begins Part Two. Both sequences include dozens and dozens of aristocrats and celebrities, each briefly described, attending both events in a flurry of royal titles and shamelessly entertaining themselves. The young murderer and the widow of the suicide appear briefly among the guests, and share their first shocking kiss.
Part Two takes place five years later, in which “…the private lives of the people we have met in the pages of this book…resolve their daily questions with that blindfold that destiny places on all of us.” (p. 271)
The second half of the novel is dominated by Frederic’s free-thinking daughter, Maria Lluisa, determined not to repeat the mistake of the Lloberola women in submitting to domination by men. Not quite twenty, she violates family tradition by taking an actual job as a bank secretary. Her flirting with Pat, the muscle-boy on the beach who falls for her, is shockingly modern, as is her impulsive decision to stop being a virgin. The seaside sequences in Part Two, the steamy conversations of four young women about the charming beach-boy pursuing them, are realistic, witty and disconcertingly modern.
The sale of the precious Lloberola family heirloom tapestry begins and ends this monumental European novel, with a twenty-year span in between. Rounding out the cast are a treacherous confessor at the cathedral, the seamstress whose shop is secretly a brothel, a sporty young ladykiller chauffeur, and a society woman who has parties around her dance performances in the nude.
Maria de Sagarra never hesitates to remind the reader that he has no romantic illusions about sexual attraction. “No matter what the storybooks say, the exercise of love is monotonous.” (p. 392) He frequently refers to “the monotonous activity of sex” (p. 324) and never describes actual physical acts. Yet he makes his narration intensely erotic with choice details (a drop of sweat, a hand placement, a gleam in the eye), causing more heat with perfectly-worded hints than most writers can arouse with graphic detail.
Besides two other novels, the prolific author also produced a dozen collections of poetry and over two dozen plays, and there are both lyrical and theatrical aspects to Private Life. The playwright in him delights in monologues and seductive dialogue exchanges. The poet in him bursts out in lyrical passages with an ironic or bittersweet aftertaste. Occasionally the novel is wildly funny. Frederic delivers a powerful speech “on the grandeur and decadence of human vanity” to a white spotted cow while she munches on grass.
As the narrative of Private Life incrementally edges toward a tragic, incestuous climax, Maria de Sagarra plays with the reader’s mind, never going where he seems to be heading, presenting the reader with a huge, sprawling patchwork of narrative chunks sewn together into one big mosaic of the end of the aristocratic age. With the poetry of corruption, Maria de Sagarra painstakingly charts the misunderstandings and crossed signals of privileged human beings greedily, selfishly determined to be happy.
Private Life by Josep Maria de Sagarra, trans. by Mary Ann Newman (Archipelago, $18 trade paperback, 9780914671268, Sept. 15, 2015)