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Shaping a Style

An Interview with Peter Bush, translator, by Albert Lloret:

You have recently published an English translation of Víctor Català's novel A Film (3,000 meters) with Open Letter Press. What kind of a novel is it? Does it belong to any genre?

No, it playfully skates between genres. In her prologue, Víctor Català refers to her book as a light-hearted movie the reader doesn’t have to take seriously. She even says the reader doesn’t even need to connect the threads of the plot. The orphan protagonist’s agitated quest for his parents means, on the contrary, that the reader is always trying to see how the rapid sequence of events interweave. Nonat’s journey through life—from orphanage to leader of Barcelona’s most successful criminal gang via a series of factory jobs—has elements of noir, picaresque, bildungsroman, penny dreadful as well silent-movie melodrama. He is at once victim and villain, providing the spine of the novel whose six parts focus on different social dramas.

It was written off by contemporary critics when published in book form in the mid-twenties, by men who didn’t think Víctor Català had any knowledge of the city, factories, and the industrial working-class, and who were blind to its experimental take on nineteenth-century realism. The novel’s form, style and content were anathema to the staid Catalan noucentista literary establishment that advocated narratives in a high-flown, poetic key that precluded movies, the masses and popular culture.

This is a book originally published in Catalan, in a Barcelona magazine, between 1918 and 1921. It had been practically forgotten about, but when it was republished in 2015, the first edition sold out in a week. Why do you think that happened?

When it was published as a serial fiction, readers would have perhaps felt its focus on factories, city life, and class conflict more immediately. In the wake of the Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War, Barcelona and Catalonia experienced a surge in strikes, demonstrations and direct action led by anarcho-syndicalists, many of who believed that social revolution would be achieved through a series of general strikes. In the first two parts of the novel, Nonat and his friend Peroi—who work first in Girona and then in Barcelona as locksmiths and engineering workers—read radical newspapers and pamphlets and believe that the “present era is the epoch of the working-class.” As Nonat ascends from apprentice, shop-worker to foreman and manager, he retains the Bakuninist language of emancipation from the bosses and transforms it into the linguistic soundtrack to his personal vendetta against his would-be wealthy parents and his factory bosses. When he fights with his last boss, Senyor Ramoneda, he knocks him to the ground and proclaims the anarchist slogan, “No more masters.”

When it was published in book form during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship, critics simply panned it, and Víctor Català never wrote another novel. I think its success on republication was partly down to the energy of the publisher, Maria Bohigas, at Club Editor, who recognised the novel’s pioneering narrative technique and nuanced portrayal of Catalan society. Readers and critics in the twenty-first century are also much more responsive to the various feminist threads in the novel’s sub-plots and enjoy Català’s gallery of female characters. The dynamic of the intrigue has perhaps shifted: readers now are gripped by the interplay between Nonat’s rise from factory apprentice to mafia boss, the series of women drawn into his milieu, and the ironic, quirky style.

“Víctor Català” is the male pseudonym of a woman, Caterina Albert. How is the pseudonym still relevant for us today?

Caterina Albert i Paradís adopted the pseudonym after a furor in the provincial town of Olot in 1898, when members of a literary prize jury discovered they had awarded a prize to an infanticidal mother’s dramatic monologue written by a woman, and not a man, as they had assumed. So the change of name was a response to a specific act of prejudice and discrimination. Subsequently, she insisted that, as a writer, she always wanted to be known as Víctor Català, and to her death in 1966 and to this day, her books have been published as written by Víctor Català.

If you read her correspondence and prologues, it becomes clear that she thought extremely carefully about the artistic decisions she took. They were often criticised by male writer acquaintances, like Narcís Oller and Joan Maragall, but she remained fiercely independent and categorically defended her choices. I think her insistence on retaining her pen name reflects that independent, critical spirit, and that’s why today we should respect her choice and continue to refer to her as Víctor Català. Just as we still call George Eliot “George Eliot,” rather than “Mary Ann Evans,” and George Sand “George Sand,” rather than “Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin.” Besides, her literary name proclaims her attachment to the Catalan language in a symbolic way that has only gathered strength over the years, and who can doubt that she too was aware of that?

This is a novel that is partially, but significantly, set in Barcelona. Is this a different Barcelona from that of other Catalan authors like Josep Pla, Josep Maria de Sagarra or Mercè Rodoreda, some of whom you have also translated?

Víctor Català was forty-eight when she started writing the novel. Josep Pla wasn’t yet twenty when he started on The Gray Notebook almost in the same year, but of course, his was a diary and remained unpublished until the 1960s. I think you can say that all these writers, and Joan Sales as well, write about Barcelona ironically and with a keen sense of social and political tensions as well as the history that has visited the city’s streets, buildings, and squares. But they all give us a different Barcelona.

Perhaps the polar opposites are A Film and Sagarra’s Private Life (lusciously translated by Mary Ann Newman). Sagarra concentrates on the dissipated upper classes, a milieu he was familiar with, and Català on the poorer strata of society. always from the perspective of an outsider, Nonat, who has his envious sights on the wealthy. A Film predates these other writers and, despite the thorough manner in which it was buried by contemporary critics, I am sure they were all influenced by it. I was struck when translating the sequences set in Girona by similarities with the pages on Girona in Pla: both Nonat and the diarist see their changing emotions reflected in the gray-stone façades, colonnaded squares and churches of the old city. Pla always writes positively about Víctor Català and at one point remarks that she could have been a great author of noir.

The fact is that these authors all created wonderful, distinct visions of the city. Nonat is a ruthless, nasty piece of work, but at the same time he is seen to be a good mate to his fellow workers and criminals, treating them fairly as long as they tow his line; he is a good manager of men. He is also someone who is proud of his Catalan, to the extent that he decides he can only operate successfully and feel fully confident in Catalan-speaking milieus: excursions to Spanish- or French-speaking territories leave him with a sense of disappointment. He also has an active imagination when furthering his factory bosses’ business or his own criminal empire. His story gives the novel its frame and source of development.

Víctor Català’s innovation was to fill this frame with a series of separate social dramas focusing on women’s lives: Maria the Chicken Woman, Quimeta the salted-cod seller, Pepita the haberdasher’s daughter, Pepa the priest’s housekeeper and mistress, Margarideta the ironer, Carmeta the spinster. . . . The narrative draws out these women and their families and opens windows on oppressive urban life. This structure isn’t emulated by the other writers, but you can see traces of the interest in working-class women’s lives in Sales and Rodoreda. Víctor Català didn’t write a third novel. Perhaps she felt she’d done what she could with the form and decided to expand her fictional universe through short stories?

How does A Film compare to Víctor Català's short stories, and to her other novel, Solitud?

A Film was published after a literary silence of over thirteen years. Solitud (1905) and the previous collections of short stories had built her reputation as a writer of one great feminist, modernist novel and of rural dramas. That served to marginalise her as an interesting but lesser figure, a provincial writer from a small fishing town, L’Escala, someone who was never part of the Barcelona literary elite.

There is no definitive biography of Víctor Català, but we do know she owned a flat in Barcelona, was involved with radical theatre and literary groups there and experienced the social unrest. We also know that there is a scattering of factories in the Catalan countryside; the distinction between rural and urban isn’t always so clear-cut. We can assume her experience of Barcelona life led her to shift her attention to the city and to the relationship between the city and the provinces. A Film, and, to a lesser extent, the Mare Balena collection of stories (1920), support that perception of the development in her fiction.

When readers began A Film and the story of Mary the Chicken Woman and Josep, her retired sailor husband, they must have thought they were back on familiar territory—the tale of a hard-working woman who “wears the trousers” in a marriage in a small fishing village. That all changes when the locksmith from Girona knocks on their door on a stormy night and asks questions that will eventually lead him to Barcelona. The title story of the Mare Balena collection and “Novel·lita,” its longest story, both focus on the tensions between the urban and the provincial and between the class and gender divides that are sharpened and challenged when individuals change their location and social status.

In Mare Balena, the arrival of the posh boy with a Barcelona Catalan accent makes the local L’Escala youth conscious of their non-standard accents and their ragged clothes. The daughter of a factory worker in Banyoles has hopes of marrying up that are thwarted by class and gender expectations: the heir to the factory must marry the daughter of a Barcelona politician, though nothing can prevent his father from marrying down in the most shocking of ways. These sensitivities are present in all of Víctor Català’s work.

I read that your translation underwent 8 different drafts before you sent it out to the editor. What was challenging and difficult and what was particularly rewarding for you to work through in this project?

I think it’s quite normal for a translation to need 5 or 6 drafts. Translating the work of a writer who uses irony, parody and colloquial speech and is a meticulous stylist makes huge demands of a translator. The fact this novel was written a hundred years ago adds another layer of challenges. Víctor Català’s language often has a density that you must respect, not dilute. You must be bold and recreate the originality of style.

The only way to proceed is to write and re-write, draft and re-draft. As many of the character names are symbolic, I provide the reader with a glossary. Every translation involves hundreds of thousands of choices that go into shaping a style. The narrator often calls Ninot “a bastard,” which he is in all senses of the word. I decided to keep that, as it strikes a humorous note when she is chronicling his life. And that’s just the choice of a single word. Then there are the detailed descriptions of locations or characters’ physical appearance. The narrator’s tone can vary enormously from withering to ecstatic, and I had to work hard to re-create that, often leaving a draft for weeks before returning. Fortunately, my publishers at Open Letter are aware and gave me plenty of time!

There begins to be a sizable number of recent translations into English of Catalan works. What would you recommend the reader in English of A Film read next?

Yes, I’m glad to say there has been a real spurt by publishers in the UK and USA to translate Catalan writers. I’d recommend any of the following classics. In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (Virago), Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales (The New York Review of Books), and Private Life by Josep Maria de Sagarra (Archipelago Books).

ALBERT LLORET is an associate professor of Spanish and Catalan at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, specializing in the literature of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period.

PETER BUSH is a freelance literary translator who lives in Oxford. His translations to watch out for in 2023 are Gemma Ruiz Palà’s Wenling’s. (The Héloïse Press), Dolors Miquel’s The Pink Plastic Glove (The Tenement Press) and Eduardo Fernando Varela’s Patagonia Route 203 (Mountain Leopard Press).


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