Friday, January 08, 2010

Mercè Rodoreda

Christmas surprised me with a copy of Death in Spring, a poetic novel by the Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda, a writer I'd not heard of until a couple of months ago, when I read a review by Natasha Wimmer in The Nation. It's not the kind of novel I'd normally be drawn to: a little too close to Magic Realism, perhaps. Yet now that I've read it I find much of it oddly staying with me. Wimmer's review will tell you much more than I will, here, about the content of the novel — plot, characters, setting and all that. I think she's a little unfair in calling the book "a clumsy expressionist painting" (in contrast to the Vermeer represented by Rodoreda's earlier novel The Time of the Doves).

Nor am I sure Wimmer's on point referring to Death in Spring as Symbolist. The pages are full of color, literally: birds, butterflies, aprons, leaves; the very dust with which the mouths of the dead are cemented closed; all these colors vibrate with an intensity that brings Rimbaud's vowels to mind. But the book is solidly grounded in elements: wind and water, wood and dirt. And throughout the book the reader's immersed in narrative, as the characters in the book are haunted by and compelled to their own narrative.

Rodoreda was born in Barcelona in 1908, married rather badly, wrote fairly early but retired from publication in her thirties, when she participated in the short-lived autonomous government of Catalonia until the Spanish Civil War ended with the Franco regime, which led to a self-exile in France and, later, Switzerland. She returned to Catalonia in the 1970s; just when, I'm not quite sure.

You won't find much about her in this Wikipedia article, but on a hunch I typed her full name — Mercè Rodoreda i Gurguí — into Google's search box and hit the much fuller article in the Catalan Viquipèdia. Here we read of the influence on her writing of such European psychological writers as Woolf, Proust, and Mann "except for the mytho-symbolic works of the last period of her life": but I think there's much of Woolf's most experimental kind of writing in Death in Spring — particularly such short prose pieces as "The Mark on the Wall."

In fact, Death in Spring seems to form a bridge springing from Woolf to Calvino, a span I'd never thought of before — how to characterize the stream below? Perhaps it's like the fatal, violent, necessary river running below the town in Rodoreda's novel, at once a Lethe and an Oceanus; a powerful yet essentially aloof stream Heraklitus would recognize. Perhaps she's a Symbolist after all.

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