Translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman
(Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2015)
In 1932, revered Catalan novelist Josep Maria de Sagarra put it upon himself to produce the great Barcelonan novel. Determined to produce a raw and gritty representation of the fallen Barcelonan aristocracy, Sagarra wrote Private Life, a novel heavily censored in its time and just recently brought to English readers. Through Mary Ann Newman’s accessible translation, the vibrancy of Sagarra’s narrative speaks with nuance and clarity, enwrapping readers in the tantalizing downfall of the aristocratic Lloberola family.
Rather than casting light on the entirety of Barcelona’s government and people, Sagarra expertly focuses his vision on a select cast. Primarily, Private Life is a biography of the fictional Lloberola family. Once a revered and powerful lineage, the novel follows the Lloberola’s degrading and humiliating financial and moral downfall: Don Tomás, the weak and miserable patriarch; Fredrick, reprehensibly selfish and financially reckless; Guillem, cruelly manipulative and desperate for financial, mental and sexual domination; and Fredrick’s neglected and rebellious children, left misguided and prone to sexual deviance. The novel’s close examination of moral and societal corruption not only reveals a vicious yet captivating cast, but serves to analyze pre- and post-war 1920s Barcelonan society as a whole.
Within the near five hundred pages of the novel, there are only a mere handful of positive phrases used in reference to the characters. Sagarra’s scathing critique of Barcelona’s fallen aristocrats is so severe that his characters border on the humorous. Sagarra paints an unforgiving portrait that spares no unpleasant detail, describing one character as “exceedingly selfish and lacking in the habit of reflection, incapable of the slightest critical thought, and never having observed the need to compare his own sensations with those of others.” Through this, the reader is encouraged to disconnect their empathy from the novel’s expansive cast, thereby allowing them to watch each character’s devastating fall from glory with interest and humor rather than pity and sorrow. Mimicking the structure of a Greek tragedy, it is apparent from the first pages that there is nowhere for the characters to go but down, falling from atop their thrones.
The novel’s characters are explored beneath a microscope, no gesture or movement escaping the narrator’s eye. Sagarra’s analysis and critique of the culture is explored through an exhaustive pathology of each character, spanning from his or her ancestors to their offspring. In exploring each character we discover his or her grandparents’ dispositions, mother’s fashion, the company their spouses keep, the restaurants or brothels their friends inhabit, the affairs (or chastity) that prevail in their intimate lives, the principles of the children they raise. Several pages can explore a single thought or action, such as the misunderstood touch of Farrar to Maria Lluïsa, which leaves the brother “distressed for hours” and sister unable “to erase her impression” that Farrar had incestuous intentions. It is through this unforgiving, unrestrained view of these characters’ internal and external worlds that Sagarra’s societal critique gains it voice and strength. Rather than casting broad strokes, his prose depicts the smallest specks that, ultimately, build the image of a corrupt aristocracy as a whole.
The satirical genius of the novel reveals itself most prominently through long bouts of exposition. Sagarra’s expertly detailed prose manages to grasp the reader’s attention through lengthy backstories and descriptions. Although action and scene are scarce throughout the novel, a vivid plotline driven by financial and familial scandal, tangled social webs, and events ranging from sordid affairs to dramatic suicides, pushes the narrative forward.
While Private Life is firmly planted in a single time and place, the vibrant and gritty narrative is sure to grasp the attention of contemporary readers. Heavily censored and considered scandalous in its time, the novel maintains its ability to shock and unsettle in our more modern, liberal society. Although some of Sagarra’s passages are not relevant to the modern reader (some excerpts implicate anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny) the novel’s representation of the 1920s Barcelonan social landscape is intense, direct, and complete.
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Briana McDonald’s fiction has appeared in Rozyln: Short Fiction by Women Writers, Marathon Literary Review, and The Stonecoast Review. She is an Associate Online Editor and a prose reader at The Literary Review.