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Salvador Espriu

Víctor Martínez-Gil (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

Santa Coloma de Farners, 1913 — Barcelona, 1985. Catalan poet, playwright and novelist

Salvador Espriu was born in Santa Coloma de Farners in 1913. His literary opus soon became a symbol of the peaceful resistance and the hopes of post-war Catalonia. The poetry of Espriu is essential if one is to understand modern Catalan literature at all. He had been the great hope of the short story in Catalan before the Civil War. But after that event, he chose to go into an 'internal exile' in which he decided to contribute towards 'saving our words' so that for him it was necessary to start anew. Espriu turned to poetry because among other reasons it allowed him to elude the uncultured Spanish censorship of the time. The work of Espriu is a long meditation on death and on the passing of the time that leads us to that end. His verse is baroque in content, but extraordinarily austere and precise in style.

The oeuvre of Salvador Espriu (Santa Coloma de Farners 1913 - Barcelona 1985) should be defined on the basis of two main strands. First, is his quest for diversity (marked by its relationship with everyday matters, by plurality of genres and the wide range of compositional techniques that coexist even in a single book) and, second, is his aspiration to attain unity (through a moral and philosophical thematic interweaving that governs the relations between his different works). Espriu considered that these two poles were inextricable in the dialectical process of apprehending reality to which he aspired. Scholars tend to cite the speech at the end of Primera història d'Esther (The Story of Esther, 1948) when referring to this: "Remember that the mirror of truth was shattered at the start into tiny fragments, yet each bit holds a spark of true light." This sentence has been explained by way of Cabbalist thought: the relationship with God (light, or truth) is only possible through Creation, which is structured on the basis of ten sephirot or principles that make it possible to create a path of mystical ascesis or knowledge. It is only through variety that unity can be attained and this principle, which is moral and philosophical, is, with Espriu, also literary since the desire for a unitary structure starting out from a variety of genres reflects the crisis of the modern subject who is caught between a loss of identity and the longing for transcendence, a crisis that is indivisible from a good part of the problems that modern literature has placed upon the table.

Josep M. Castellet stressed the capacity of Espriu's work to assimilate culturally the mythical inheritance of humanity: the Book of the Dead from Ancient Egypt, the Bible, the Jewish mystical tradition and Greek mythology. Building on these references, Espriu would create his own myth of Sinera (an anagram of Arenys de Mar, the home town of Espriu's maternal and paternal family and setting of his childhood). Castellet also offered the first classification of forms on the basis of which the literary variety of Espriu's oeuvre may be organised: lyrical, elegiac, satirical and didactic.

A Young Narrator in the 1930s

Salvador Espriu's literary career began in 1929 with the not insignificant publication of a book in Spanish, Israel, a collection of biblical scenes that, according to the findings of Rosa M. Delor, present a Cabbalistic thematic order around the figure of Christ. One year later, in 1930, Espriu began his studies at the Universitat de Barcelona where he met the poet Bartomeu Rosselló-Pòrcel. Espriu's prestige in university circles soon came to be based on his activity as a young writer in Catalan.

Even though he provocatively accentuated the black notes, Espriu's fictional work is in keeping with the different models that predominated in the 1930s. In this regard, it is necessary to reject what has now become the cliché of a rootless Espriu who was confronting the prevailing literary climate of noucentisme. El doctor Rip (1931) has some relationship with the inner monologue then prevalent in the psychological novel in the style of Carles Soldevila; Laia (1932), a novel-tableau in a maritime setting that mixes different narrative registers (the tragic, psychological, elegiac, and realist), represented the first appearance of diversity in Espriu's work and situated him within the trend of recovering the modernist novel; the collection of short stories Aspectes (Aspects, 1934), including some that are grotesque and others that are lyrical and elegiac, represents his acceptance of stylistic multiplicity and abandonment of the novel, while linking him with the satirical and demystifying trend in Catalan literature that we find, although with different nuances, in the Sabadell Group or even in writers like Llorenç Villalonga, a connection that is confirmed with the magnificent stories of Ariadna al laberint grotesc (Ariadna in the Grotesque Labyrinth, 1935). Espriu's world, which is also related with that of writers like Valle-Inclán and Pirandello, came to be one where the author pulled the strings of anti-psychological marionettes just as death (an omnipresent motif throughout Espriu's work) moves the strings of human beings in the theatre of the world, a baroque image par excellence. Espriu came, by this means, to a literary formula to which he would remain faithful. With this, he started out from a critique of the political and cultural reality of the time, while fully accepting its nature as an artifice and hence its capacity to take on different tones, registers and forms. It was a literary procedure that related everyday life with the classical myths and literary clichés in a complex interplay of demystification and, at the same time, evaluation. Continue reading...

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