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Joan Fuster: Essay Writing

Vicent Salvador (Universitat Jaume I)

Sueca, 1922-1992. Essayist, historian, literary critic and poet

Joan Fuster was undoubtedly the most important Catalan essayist of the generations that emerged after the Civil War. The force of his intellectual personality and the breadth of his work — which expresses both a profound humanist view, undeniable political voluntarism, critical scepticism and corrosive humour — have gone beyond the literary ambit and have projected themselves into the cultural and civil life of the Països Catalans, making a major contribution towards the shaping of their unitary conscience.

Joan Fuster (Sueca 1922-1992) is, as an essayist, a leading figure in the Catalan literature of his time, apart from his extensive activity as a literary historian and critic, and social historian of the language. Also noteworthy is his brief career as a poet, at the end of the 1940s and early 1950s. This left its trace in poems like the famous "Criatura Dolcíssima" (Sweetest Child), which appeared in the book Escrit per al silenci (Written for Silence, 1954) and was also set to music by Lluís Llach. However, the polymorphism of this "homenot" (big man) whose unforgettable features Josep Pla portrayed with agile pen, revolves around his production in the form of essays, which is, in essence, no more than an epiphenomenon of the never-ending diary where the writer leaves a daily record of his reflections on the world.

Vindicating the Essay

All in all, Fuster upholds the essay as the most appropriate genre for his literary activity: the essay is "shirtsleeves" writing. And he brings back the memory of the European master of the genre, Michel de Montaigne, this first, disbelieving, self-analytical and sceptical essay writer who was so aware of the physiological basis of all humanism, which Fuster humorously referred to as "the autonomy of the trouser fly". Montaigne had proudly inaugurated, at the dawn of the sixteenth century in Europe, this egotistical and intellectual genre, without any narrator or fictional characters interposed between author and reader. It was a long way, too, from the intimate shamelessness and exclamatory character that were associated with lyrical poetry. Fuster amply theorises on this, offering yet another display of the self-sufficiency of this literature of ideas that is born in the personal diary, frequently by way of the daily newspapers -through journalistic opinion pieces- to end up in the pages of the bibliographic volume.

In effect, one of the characteristic features of the genre lies precisely in its innate fragmentary nature. It has often been remarked that a good essay can be read in any of its pages because it lacks a closed structure, revealing a clear intention of unfinished discourse, and also becoming an eternal preparation for what, in the work of theatre, would be the definitive fixation of the play through its premiere. The interior deliberations of the essayist for the reader's eyes do not so much pursue definitive conclusions as the pleasure of silent conversation through the pages of a book, developing the lines of an argument that is always reversible or at least open to modification.

On the one hand, the book - or the incorruptible laws of the bibliographic product in the publishing market -imposes a minimal determined length and certain expectations of thematic coherence bringing together different themes. Auto-prologues, or prologues written by the author himself or herself -frequent in these volumes of collected pieces- are the ideal place to justify the publishing manoeuvre of compiling fragmentary writings. In his first book of essays -Les originalitats (Originalities, 1951)- Fuster explicitly addresses this aporia and concludes that the unity of the volume being presented will have to be sought in the personality of the author, in the internal coherence of an intellectual trajectory of which the book is simply a faithful example. In a much later volume, Sagitari (Sagittarius, 1985), he justifies in the following words the title he has given to a whole heap of texts that are diverse and yet in harmony as a whole, "If the collection I am presenting today with all the digressions that obsess me is to be sustained by any rhetorical reference, it might as well be 'Sagittarius'. After all, I was born on November 23rd". In other words, the writer's ego itself, along with its intellectual concerns, constitutes a guarantee of the profound coherence of the polymorphic discourse. Continue reading...

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