About Jordi Amat

Philologist and researcher at the University of Barcelona

Grey journalism

Periodisme gris. Jaume Fabre

Periodistes, malgrat tot. La dificultat d’informar sota el franquisme a Barcelona (1939-1966) [Journalists, in spite of everything. The difficulty of reporting under Franco in Barcelona (1939-1966)]
Author: Jaume Fabre
Published by Ajuntament de Barcelona
409 pages
Barcelona, 2017

Fabre is one the journalists who best knows his city. He wrote a splendid doctoral thesis on 1939 Barcelona and played a decisive role in safeguarding the memory of his guild. His new book, which avoids moral condemnation, returns to the post-war world of journalism.

In recent years, one of the most attractive changes in the historiography of Catalan culture has been the rediscovery of the golden age of our journalism. Whether through symposia or new editions, anthologies or exhibitions, the best written journalism in the Catalan press between the First World War and the Spanish Civil War has entered the canon. There are many reasons behind this reappraisal: interest in the lively language the authors used in chronicles and reports, their clear-sighted political analyses or the freedom with which they looked on their most immediate reality. But this world, which is also in danger of being idealised, was shattered following Franco’s victory, which reduced it almost to dust.

And after that… what next? Following a murder – that of Josep Maria Planes –, then exile, closures of newspapers and the imposition of censorship and authoritarian control over the profession and over news… what next? Death by firing squad: Francisco Carrasco de la Rubia. Repression, intimidation and purges. By the end of 1939, newspapers had been restaffed. This gloomy new world, a rigid, submissive world – but, when all’s said and done, the new world of local journalism –, is the one Jaume Fabre has reconstructed in his fascinating book Periodistes, malgrat tot, the result of a lifetime of research, with a foreword by Borja de Riquer and dotted with moments of autobiographical confession by the author himself.

Periodisme gris. Jaume FabreA veteran press professional, Fabre is one the journalists who best knows his city. Alongside his ‘big brother’, Josep Maria Huertas Claveria, he co-authored the classic monograph on the city’s neighbourhoods, he wrote a splendid doctoral thesis on 1939 Barcelona and played a decisive role in safeguarding the memory of his guild (as editor of the magazine Capçalera and, especially, with his 1996 study Periodistes uniformats: diaris barcelonins dels anys 40). His new book, which avoids moral condemnation (‘it’s not easy to judge human conduct or its consequences without the context of the time it occurred in’), returns to the post-war world of journalism.

Rather than condemning or defending certain figures or analysing paradigmatic pieces of writing (which to some extent he does at the end, explaining some of the topics that were used as surrogates to embed a banal form of Catalanness into printed pages or radio waves), what Fabre does more than anything, in his easy-going, methodical manner, is to tell us how the profession – journalists, photojournalists, cartoonists…– reorganised itself under those miserable conditions. Through dozens of short biographies (of figures swallowed up by oblivion, some indifferent, some picturesque, or known to us only by name, like Sempronio, Manuel del Arco or María Luz Morales) and descriptions of journalists’ associations, legislation or schools, he draws a map of a grey period made up of words and images, and again images, I repeat. Because one of the attractions of this book is the visual record of his systematic research in the press archives, thanks to which we can very often confirm that what was an urban legend in the editorial departments (worth a brief mention in the gossip column) was based on facts printed on a certain day.

This book has many threads. There’s one that ties together almost the entire reconstruction. Fabre in fact discovers the links of the new journalism to a past that falls short of the golden age: the journalism by the staff of outdated, Lerrouxist or conservative media, who took second place in yesterday’s world but who took command in the new situation created by the Franco regime to keep control of things. Perhaps the great value of Periodistes, malgrat tot is discovering how those older generations were replaced and how, through a handful of media – El Correo Catalán more than any other, perhaps – the conditions were created for the emergence of the silver age of this story, that of the committed young who would have to describe the Transition to democracy.

Great (hi)stories

Nacionalisme espanyol i catalanitat. Cap a una revisió de la Renaixença (Spanish Nationalism and Catalanism. A new perspective on the Catalan Renaissance)
Author: Joan-Lluís Marfany
Edicions 62
950 pages
Barcelona, 2017

La voluntat i la quimera. El noucentisme català entre la Renaixença i el marxisme (Willpower and pipe dreams. The ‘Noucentisme’ movement between the Catalan Renaissance and Marxism)
Author: Jordi Casassas
Editorial Pòrtic
319 pages
Barcelona, 2017

El Noucentisme a Barcelona (‘Noucentisme’ in Barcelona)

Aleix Catasús and Bernat Puigdollers

Àmbit Serveis Editorials and Barcelona City Council

301 pages

Barcelona, 2016

For many years, Jordi Casassas has been conceptualizing the history of Catalonia by interlinking three world views: the Renaixença (the early 19th century Romantic revivalist movement), Noucentisme (the early 20th century cultural movement in Catalonia), and Marxism. His most recent work — La voluntat i la quimera (Willpower and Pipe Dreams), which won the Carles Rahola prize — centres on Noucentisme and presents it as a version of other movements that arose in southern Europe in the early 20th century (he makes comparisons with French and Italian cultural movements) in response to the inherent conflict in a democratized society for the masses. The publication of this book coincides with that of another cultural study: Joan-Lluís Marfany’s incredible new take on the myth of the Renaixença, which forces us to rethink everything we know about the first of those worldviews.

The traditional view, which tied it to the emergence of Catalanism, has always seen the Renaixença as a movement that started with Aribau’s poem La Pàtria (The Homeland). The genesis of the poem is well-known. During a stint in Madrid, on the 10th November 1832, Aribau was writing a letter to Barcelona in Spanish (the language in which he normally wrote) and he attached the poem. “For Saint Casper’s day we presented our Employer with some compositions in several languages. It befell to me to write in Catalan”. It was only in hindsight, with the intention of constructing a legitimising story, that La Pàtria was given significance comparable to the first stone of a national building. The foundations would consist of the rehabilitation of Catalan as a literary language. On top of this, a political movement would be built with identity at its centre and the Catalan language as a crucial element.

With his weighty tome, Marfany has demolished the old traditional view. He puts forward an alternative timeline (1800/1859) and fills out his work with texts that have been largely ignored by Catalan philologists. This shift of perspective changes our understanding of this period. During the course of those years, what dominated in Catalonia was the role in forging Spanish nationalism, although that did not stop our own well-to-do and liberal nationalists from unequivocally expressing a dual patriotism (to use Fradera’s term). This Spanish nationalism that was invented in Catalonia was not, of course, a single, solid structure. It evolved over time and various different forms of regionalism grew in significance. As he documents, these forms got under Barcelona’s skin, as we can see in the newly decorated façade of the City Hall, for example, or other important buildings that were designed at that time.

There are many different manifestations of this attempt to consolidate a hegemony, a worldview: by promoting a history, certain symbols, an aesthetic style. These were all ways to project an ideology and some were more successful than others. I believe that Casassas is right when he defines Noucentisme as a system, a political movement fed by intellectuals who acted as a team glued together around the politician Prat la Riba, whose aim was to regenerate a downtrodden population with the help of a systematic and modernising nationalisation process. The implementation of this worldview also left its mark on the city’s surface. It is shown and meticulously described by Aleix Catasús and Bernat Puigdollers in their book El Noucentisme a Barcelona (Noucentisme in Barcelona).

The main reason this lavishly illustrated book is so interesting is that it systematically organizes, in almost encyclopaedic fashion, a substantial part of the art produced in the city in the first three decades of the 20th century. Not all the art, because a range of different styles lived side by side, but the art that can fall under the umbrella of a loose worldview that we have agreed to call Noucentisme. Aside from the first two chapters – on ideology and the literature of this movement -, which are overly simplistic, the book is a very useful reference because it unreservedly rescues figures that have faded into the mists of time and also unifies extremely diverse forms of artistic expression: from painting to applied arts and architecture, from jewellery to garden and parks design.

The authors avoid identifying the genetic code of Noucentisme, but they give us plenty of hints. One example is their analysis of the three versions of Josep Clarà’s sculpture The Goddess. Another is their description of the schools designed by the City Council, highlighting the symbiosis between the furniture, murals and graffiti. There are, in fact, numerous examples. Why did this commendable, civilising project collapse? One of Casassas’s achievements is the way he shows how Noucentisme collided with moments of intense crisis – the Tragic Week of Barcelona, the Great War – and how this set the course it was destined to follow. In the chapter on mural painting, Catasús and Puigdollers accurately describe the role played by Torres-García in the redevelopment of the Palau de la Diputació as the seat of the Commonwealth of Catalonia: they describe his mural La Catalunya Eterna (Eternal Catalonia) (1913) as one of the iconic works of the movement and reproduce the 1917 sketch that was rejected by Puig i Cadafalch, entitled La Catalunya industrial (Industrial Catalonia). Maybe this, along with the ousting of Eugeni d’Ors from his position at the Commonwealth, provides an answer to why Noucentisme collapsed.

Gaziel’s Barcelona elegy, an unpublished anthology

During his internal exile in Madrid, Agustí Calvet prepared two anthologies of articles written after the First World War, one on Catalan politics that was published recently, and another on Barcelona, still unpublished. These articles reveal a city turning from a provincial capital into a great metropolis.

© A. Ribé / Library of Catalonia. Graphics Unit. Gaziel Collection

I keep a strangely precise memory of that day, now more than fifteen years ago. At about half-past seven in the morning, as I did every morning during the last three years of my secondary-school studies, I got on the number 22 bus that went from Bonanova to the Escolapis in Carrer de la Diputació. I sat on the seats at the end of the aisle and out of my bag I took the compulsory book we were working on for the university entrance exam in the Catalan literature class, taught by the teacher Lluís Busquets. I finished Vida privada [Private Life] that day.

Although mine was the third stop on Passeig de Gràcia, if I had enough time I would get off at the Diagonal stop, just past Palau Robert, and I would walk to Diputació via the Rambla de Catalunya. I recall the smell of the lime trees in spring, especially if there had been a spot of rain, when almost nobody walked along the central part of the street and the ground was still a little wet. And the memory of those strolls is concentrated on the day I finished reading Josep Maria de Sagarra’s novel. Pilar Romaní has died at the house in Carrer Ample. Hortènsia Portell, a good friend, arrives in no time to dress the body and give some support to Bobby Xuclà, the grown-up son of the deceased. The narrator risks giving a lofty air to the feelings that the two actors in the scene are experiencing: “Only he and Hortènsia could understand the grace and beauty of an eighty-year-old body which, freezing little by little, was carrying away the sublime air of a long-gone Barcelona.”

Like Sagarra’s Memòries, maybe Vida privada has to be read as a splendid urban elegy dedicated to the end of a Barcelona age. Bobby walks down the street and heads for the Rambla: “Among the red roses there walked, a little unsteadily, a grey man of uncertain age with undefined cheeks, his stomach full of whisky and his heart full of red roses.” What causes a book to move us? Probably the very direct triggering ability of words, a part of our sensitivity that is predisposed to be shaken by an experience. And reading is an experience. I remember that spring day, when I was seventeen, because I contemplated the city with the mournful gaze through which Sagarra made Bobby Xuclà observe Barcelona while, with tears in my eyes, I walked down the Rambla de Catalunya.

Philosopher journalist

“I can perfectly remember, with that monotonous tone, as if I had just heard it, the advice we were given every summer morning, when we left home heading for the beach: ‘Don’t walk down the Rambla de Catalunya’…” This is the opening sentence of Una sombra, unos árboles [A shadow, some trees], the article which Agustí Calvet, Gaziel, published in La Vanguardia, page 10, on St George’s Day in 1919. It is brilliant. While describing the successive contemplation in time of the lime trees on Rambla de Catalunya, Gaziel, almost tempting costumbrismo, gradually reveals himself as what he essentially was: a philosopher journalist, in the words of J.S. de Montfort. The initial sentence of the article drew us back to the writer’s childhood. In the autumn of 1893, the Calvet and Pasqual married couple, who had become wealthy thanks to the cork industry, settled in Barcelona with their children. Until then, they had lived in Sant Feliu de Guíxols, the small port town from which both the mother’s and father’s families came. So Gaziel arrived in Barcelona at the age of six. Soon after he would hear the sentence he recalls to start writing Una sombra, unos árboles. “This avenue was then a never-ending straight line of sun. July’s burning bore straight down on it. Not a soul passed by.”

All the time the article contrasts old memories of the street with a walk that Gaziel had taken recently. “The passers-by paraded in the Sunday peace, under the relatively thick foliage. I remembered the sunny dryness of the avenue as if it was yesterday, and the current tender greenness gently surprised me, with a slight twinge of sadness. Were those the same squalid lime trees we had seen being planted? How could they now offer shade?”

© Library of Catalonia. Graphics Unit. Gaziel Collection
Gaziel, on the left, strolling with the painter Joaquim Sunyer –“one of the best friends I have ever had” – along Avinguda Diagonal in Barcelona, April 1946.

The old heat had been softened by the present shadow. But the description of that urban change, caused by the growth of the trees, was only the specific subject of the art­icle. The main point was the confirmation of how the changes in our city make us aware of our ageing. The subject, in short, was the passage of time. “Leaving our recovered home one spring morning, those lime trees we often forget surprise and charm us with their freshness, and quietly remind us that we are nearing the critical mezzo del camin: that with many ups and downs our life is slipping away, and that the yesterday of our childhood is separated from the today of our approaching maturity – like the dryness from this shade – by an irretrievable period of twenty years.”

Gaziel was thirty-two years old when he published Una sombra, unos árboles and he had become a very successful journalist thanks to the hundreds of reports he wrote from September 1914 on, explaining the First World War, most of which were very soon (between 1915 and 1918) compiled in four volumes published by the Estvdio publishing house. While Paris was his operations’ centre during his years as a war correspondent, on his return home, this prototype of 20th-century Catalanism who had matured under Prat de la Riba’s Mancomunitat [municipal commonwealth] became a leading columnist for La Vanguardia, the newspaper he would later edit.

Sharp political analyst

Among the profiles of that second Gaziel, that of a political analyst of the Catalonia and Spain of his time (the agony of the Restoration, the Primo de Rivera dictatorship and the Second Republic) stands out above all. But he did not only write about national politics. Not by a long chalk. During nearly twenty years he turned to other areas of journalism, offering a shrewd analysis of international politics, reporting on cultural affairs in Catalonia and writing about urban matters in Barcelona, one of his favourite subjects. I believe that because many years later, when he was living in internal exile in Madrid during the post-war Franco period and had been forced to abandon his profession some time before, he compiled all his work published in the press after the Great War, had it transcribed and, with that material, prepared an anthology with articles on Catalan politics (recently published under the title Tot s’ha perdut [All is lost]) and another on Barcelona, which still remains unpublished. The original, preserved in the Biblioteca de Catalunya’s Gaziel Collection, includes thirty articles published between 2 January 1919 and 2 June 1933, which the writer thoroughly revised (especially from a stylistic point of view).

The anthology shows an intellectual with a senatorial attitude who, as he intended with his political analysis, sought to guide, with considerable illustrated pride, a Barcelona middle class that, compared to Europe’s, he judged to be spiritually poor (it had been unable to produce its own newspaper in Catalan, for example, as he explains in one of the articles in La Vanguardia, maybe aimed at Francesc Cambó) and too closely linked to its working class origins (as shown, with some sarcasm, in the second of the anthology’s articles, La incómoda incomodidad, confirmation of the coarseness present in the theatre plays.

Gaziel, as the journalist Enric Juliana maintains, scolds people. He would tell them off, censure them and lecture them. In the articles about Barcelona, the intellectual Gaziel aimed to shape his reader’s feelings as residents of his city, and he sought to make them critically aware of some of the faults that Barcelona suffered. In that sense, there are two recurring topics in the anthology that led Gaziel to fight the authorities from his word pedestal. He criticised the City Council, attacking it more than once for its lack of thoroughness and planning when it came to redesigning Plaça de Catalunya. He dedicated four articles to this matter, the last one of which should have been published on 3 November 1927, but the censors prevented it (and he rescued it, with comments, five years later). Two days before, on Monday 1, Alfonso XIII had inaugurated the new square. The report of the ceremony, published in La Vanguardia, reproduced the conversation that had taken place that midday between the king and the Baron of Viver, the city’s mayor at the time:

“Actually, this project is good and it has the advantage over the previous one of allowing more free space. But has the Council,” asked the monarch, “signed any agreement regarding the architecture of the buildings in Plaça de Catalunya, in order to give it the necessary monumental character?”

“Sire, the Council is very concerned about this and is examining the issue.”

“Good,” answered the king. “But I believe there is also a project to build here, around Plaça de Catalunya, a building with a monumental character in which all the State services can be provided, services that cost Madrid’s public funds about four million pesetas.”

“Sire,” answered the Baron of Viver, “everything Your Majesty has just said is true. The State pays around two million pesetas for the rent of its services in Barcelona. And considering the importance of this amount, the Council agreed to erect the monumental building you referred to, pending a study.”

“With all these big public works,” said the king, “the general interest of the city must always be taken into consideration.”

© Frederic Ballell / AFB
Plaça de Catalunya in 1890, with the Panorama de Waterloo show building and cavalry troops patrolling.

I do not know how Gaziel got to learn about this conversation, but the off-the-record comments in them are not the most surprising thing. What is really odd is that all the arguments the king outlined to the mayor coincided, implicitly, with those defended time and again by the journalist in his articles, namely that the value of a square was to be found not so much in the square itself but in what surrounded it. Gaziel had criticised and would continue to criticise the fact that nobody had taken the trouble to establish some criteria for the buildings around Plaça de Catalunya and this meant that, contrary to the most beautiful squares in the world, the ensemble was characterised by an anarchic design. He had insisted so much, and his opinion was so respected, that the Council even set up a commission to study the case. But in the end, nothing came of it, and his final judgement could not be argued against: the square, he pronounced in 1927, was unfinished. And when, in 1932, he decided to revive that censored reflection, he went even further: “The square is worse than ever. Since then, some of its buildings have suffered mutilation, leaving them disgustingly beheaded for everyone to see. Others have been remodelled any-old-how. New squalid plots have appeared, without being built on. And the frame of the first Plaça de Catalunya offers an unbearable appearance of absolute anarchy, which I would venture to describe as broadly representative anarchy.”

The International Exhibition

The other subject over which he acted as an incisive intellectual, that is to say, as a free and reasoned critic of the established power, was linked to the International Exhibition held in Barcelona between 20 May 1929 and 15 January 1930. Some months after the inauguration, General Miguel Primo de Rivera had an article published, signed by him and dated in Barcelona, where he defended his government and economic policy. Faced with a chaotic past, he argued it was he who had managed to turn the country round and the best proof of his success was Barcelona:

“Barcelona, the city of revolutions and conspiracies, is today a model metropolis as regards its strong and well directed civic life, aware of its importance and influence, appalled by the idea of compromising the homeland’s present or future through mischief, clever tricks and excesses that would merely be despicable if they did not give weapons to Spain’s enemies and competitors, to harm its most vital interests and its worldwide prestige.”

© Frederic Ballell / AFB
Work begins to redevelop Plaça Catalunya in  February 1925.

Two days after its publication, Gaziel wrote the article “To Mr. Miguel Primo de Rivera, contributor to La Vanguardia”, in which he introduced himself as a “true Barcelona citizen” and asked the State to increase economic support for the exhibition. “You, my distinguished journalist colleague, who has so much influence among one and all, who rules everyone and almost everything, I am sure will inwardly say, with the solid intention of revealing it later in public acts, that Barcelona is right.” Even if the dictator believed it or not, the problem was that he only had just over three months left as head of the government. When the ex­hibition closed, Dámaso Berenguer was already the prime minister. Gaziel wrote an article that touched a raw nerve: behind the pomp witnessed on the newly developed Montjuïc mountain there was a huge debt, which ultimately would have to be assumed by Barcelona’s citizens. This burden was confirmed on 3 February 1931, via a decree endorsed in Madrid’s Palacio Real, stating that it would indeed be up to Barcelona’s citizens to pay. Gaziel, who was very critical, devoted two more articles to the subject. The first was entitled “Hemos perdido una guerra” [We have lost a war].

But neither the cost of the International Exhibition nor the criticism of Plaça de Catalunya’s redevelopment form the crux of this Barcelona anthology. There are other collateral threads, for example, the criticism of the type of urban development that was being carried out in contrast to Madrid, or the demand (put forward in the penultimate article, the one pruned the most for the anthology) that the authorities show a firm hand in dealing with the profusion of so many “social parasites”. Because “when there are no bombs, there are gunmen, and when there are no gunmen, then there are robberies, and sometimes, as now, bombs, gunmen and robberies all mixed up together”. What sets this collection apart is the stance Gaziel adopts towards his city’s evolution.

An unstoppable mutation

The philosopher journalist, a keen observer – in the Ortega sense – of what was happening around him, had the impression he was witnessing a definitive mutation of his city. The idea that he was immersed in an unstoppable change – linked to a change of civilisation – is the continuous undertone of the original, from the first article to the last.

The first, “La vitalidad de Barcelona” [Barcelona’s vitality], was published on 28 January 1928. Basically, it is built around the author’s thoughts after he read Un hiver a Majorque [A Winter in Majorca] by George Sand. The book, as its title indicates, describes the author’s stay in Majorca with Frédéric Chopin. They had gone there at the end of the 1840s, to help the musician’s recovery, but they soon decided to go back to France and, during the return trip, they stopped in Barcelona. These are the fragments that had an impact on the Francophile Gaziel and which he transcribes in his article.

King Alfonso XIII visiting the Austrian pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition.

What disturbs him is the confirmation of the profound transformation Barcelona had undergone during those years. “No trace is left of the walls, the drawbridges, the moats, the battlements, the sentinels, the terrifying gunshots at night, the rural forts, the gangs of bandits and Christian patrols. In the stillness of night, very relative in these times, the weary murmur of the sea can no longer be heard. Even the nightwatchmen have become silent.” And a little further on, in a fragment that he had erased from the newspaper article when he revised it for the anthology, he explains in detail what sort of city has been built on top of the one that has disappeared: “Nobody would recognise Jorge Sand’s provincial town in our aspiring metropolis. Barcelona has achieved its modern character: Barcelona is now the city of merchant banks and garages.”

The change from provincial capital to a metropolis: this, I think, is the theme of the anthology. A change that Gaziel does not wish to overlook but tries to explain by focusing on significant moments, detailing what disappears and what emerges – what links the city’s present with its past, thereby projecting itself forward – trying to put some sense and memory into it, so the new city might be more learned, richer and fuller, so it might become a city of bourgeois quality comparable to other European cities and which, in its modernising process, does not end up becoming a dehumanised megalopolis.

Preserving spiritual heritage

These were not exceptional thoughts in the Europe of his time. In October 1923 Gaziel gave a lecture entitled “Les viles espirituals” [Spiritual Towns] in Girona. Its theoretical basis was The Decline of the West, the most influential essay of the first half of the 20th century (in the words of Ferran Sáez). “Today we are,” he said that day, “the first to fleetingly shine Spengler’s light on the Catalan land. We have to admit that the first impression produced by this new light is sinister.”

The first part of Oswald Spengler’s book, published in 1918 and which Ortega had translated into Spanish before the French version came out, stated that European civilisation was heading for disaster. It was an unstoppable cycle. The masses lived on top of each other in the cities, with no moral energy and obsessed by money – “La ciudad de Mercurio” [The city of Mercury] Gaziel would refer to on 24 June 1927. But Catalonia, Gaziel claimed, would save itself if it introduced culture via second-tier towns that still preserved a genuine spirituality.

And it would also save itself if Barcelona managed to preserve a spiritual heritage under siege. This is what the article “Cancionero barcelonés”, published on 10 March 1920, is about. It praises the Catalan music-hall singer Pilar Alonso as an example of “the most local spontaneities of the arte menor [Spanish lyrical form]” that were being extinguished.

He speaks of it too in “Un voto por la barbarie” [A vote for barbarism], which appeared on 8 June 1921 and describes the installation of Planas Park in Les Planes, a leisure centre that disrupted the harmony of the woods in exchange for the “deafening din of the roller coasters, carousels, watching waves, target practice, electric pianos and huge strings of fireworks”. Gaziel saw it as an invitation to turn the public into sheep. “The only thing that matters is to stir up great masses, vast numbers of people, and keep them happy by stupefying them, so they cast their votes and spend their coppers. And nothing moves masses, inert or human, better than mechanisms, whether they are cranes or platforms for laughter.”

Nostalgia: the Sunday walk and the Sarrià train

© Josep Domínguez / AFB
The Via Augusta with the Les Tres Torres stop of the Railways of Catalonia line (now the FGC), in 1932. Gaziel nostalgically evokes the view of the sea from the train before the line was undergrounded.

In contrast to that, Gaziel highlighted in his articles typical Barcelona customs such as the Sunday walk. A tradition that had also evolved as a result of the city’s expansion. His grandfather had practised it after mass in the area round Carrer Ample. When he was little, he had seen him do it around Carrer Ferran, and going uptown, via Passeig de Gràcia to Diagonal. Cars, he sensed, would change that habit forever.

A certain nostalgia can be seen here for a purer world that is gradually disappearing. The mournful gaze appears here and there. For example, in “Un municipio que muere” [A dying town], where he recalls the day that Sarrià’s messenger sounded his trumpet and called the residents together to avoid their town being annexed by the big city. And especially in the colossal article “Pequeña elegía urbana” [Little urban elegy], secretly linked to the one just quoted because its specific subject is the description of the last trip Gaziel took on the Sarrià train. It “has, in mysterious ways, always been the centre of my life,” he wrote on 26 April 1929. “I have been travelling on it for about forty years.” This long experience as a traveller on the Ferrocarrils de Catalunya had given rise to a previous article, “Una franja de mar” [A stretch of sea]. In it, Gaziel described the prettiest areas of the city: Passeig de Gràcia, in winter; “under those beloved lime trees on the Rambla de Catalunya” in spring; round the narrow streets of the Cathedral in autumn. But for summer, nothing could be better than contemplating the sea along a stretch between the Les Tres Torres and La Bonanova stops. A picture which, with that line covered over, he would never be able to enjoy again. It was a spiritual loss for the city or, more accurately, the awareness of the passage of time in our spirit.

The philosopher journalist put it with the following priceless precision: “It is delightful to recall what the Sarrià train and the city of Barcelona were like forty years ago, but it is bitter to imagine that in another forty years we will know nothing more about them. Let the beloved city grow and prosper, as it is ours and we live in it. But, why can we not do the same? Its vitality somehow stuns our own, and every day it leaves us a bit further behind. In confirming its extraordinary changes, we inevitably feel that, in our brevity, everything we used to be in this huge municipal life is gradually being erased, and our own life is slowly becoming a picture of past times.” We jump from the specific subject to the generic. To an awareness of our own life because it is inseparable from its circumstances. According to Gaziel, the most heartfelt, what moves us as readers, was his Barcelona.

And with your sins, ours!

Odes a BarcelonaOdes a Barcelona, 1840–2011

[Odes to Barcelona, 1840–2011]

Selection, prologue and notes by

D. Sam Abrams

Barcelona City Council

Barcelona, 2012

334 pages

At the end of the prologue the critic Sam Abrams says: “Catalan literature has serious difficulties when it comes to correctly studying, documenting, publishing and transmitting its vast and very rich heritage.” This opinion is at least debatable, but that is what Abrams believes, and indeed he undertakes to try to rectify this shortcoming. One of the yields of his undertaking is his collection of odes whose common denominator is that they are all about Barcelona. A generous body of work, which includes poems written over more than 150 years ago and, as the critic holds, which eventually constituted a veritable subgenre of Catalan poetry, it has been disseminated more than twice over the last few decades.

The main merit of this collection is that it seeks to include as many odes as possible. Hence, the underpinning criterion is quantity rather than quality. It features poems, some of them very long, by 41 poets; and not just the classics – Rubió, Verdaguer, Maragall, Pere Quart – but also other less well-known pieces (Abrams highlights the modernist anti-odes of Apel·les Mestres and Jeroni Zanné), and a valuable selection of contemporary authors. Moreover, this survival has its suggestive black holes. Why, I wonder, were none of them written by three of the true greats of our symbolist tradition – three poets from Barcelona: Riba, Manent and Vinyoli? Perhaps because the poetry of the symbol does not work if from the inside of a poem there gushes a stream of dynamic and fleeting symbols like those typical of a modern metropolis.

The reader might initially assume that Odes a Barcelona, 1840–2011 will only contain works written in Catalan, but the second and third odes – by Víctor Balaguer and Amalia O’Crowley, from the time of the Catalan Renaissance (Renaixença) – were written in Spanish. Perfect. However, while Abrams’ prologue refers to more recent Spanish odes (he omits the excellent “Nostalgia urbana” [Urban Nostalgia], by Joaquim Marco, included in El muro de Berlín [The Berlin Wall]), he does not subsequently include them. A pity. In any event, as an ensemble it cuts a dash and is representative of both the great literary movements and the city’s successive mutations.

The first poem is “Barcelona”, by the patriarch Joaquim Rubió i Ors, published on 2 February 1840 in the Diario de Barcelona periodical. This groundbreaking ode already featured two of the subgenre’s most recurring chronotopes: the sea and Montjuïc. A proclamation of brazen romanticism, Rubió’s anachronistic take on the city focuses on a now-endangered glorious past. The accumulation of images from an idealised era intensifies the drama inherent in the ubi sunt, a classic cliché through which the poet seeks to act upon their present. This city is now a “crownless countess”, but “there was a time when you shared the sceptre of the sea with Venice”. Rubió’s intent is to call upon his contemporaries to make Barcelona a great Mediterranean capital once again.

Rubió’s ode is an exercise in civic poetry, seeking, in this instance, to encourage, or instil awareness, and which, in subsequent efforts, as the subgenre became more consolidated, would serve to denounce, proclaim, call upon or craft a message for the collective. Many of the odes set in Barcelona (even the most anodyne ones) have performed this function, from the perennially enrapturing Joan Maragall to the reflection of Lluís Jou (“Tingues cor mediterrani, Barcelona” [Have a Mediterranean heart, Barcelona]), via the schematic and politicised concatenation of Joan Brossa or the brilliant historical heart devised by José Agustín Goytisolo to praise intermingling as the city’s moral backbone.

I wondered at the time, and have yet to find a clear answer, why the great symbolists of modern poetry did not write odes to Barcelona. It is through the symbol, as Octavio Paz explained, that poetry becomes a mechanism for the analysis of contemporary subjectivity. Perhaps the exploration of one’s own individuality is overcome by such a potent, accelerated and plural symbolic whole as the city undoubtedly is. How­ever, for more than a century now, it has been impossible to understand contemporary subjectivity outside the urban circumstance. The subgenre of the ode to Barcelona (unlike the ode to New York, for example) did not find it easy to solve this theoretical paradox. I would say that it has done so through a more meditative poetry. And some of the finest poems in the book – the sublime and magnetic ode by Enric Casasses, those by Joan Margarit and David Castillo – express precisely that. They represent the most valuable transformation of a poetic tradition which now, thanks to this book, we can plot in detail.


“I amb tos pecats, nostra!”[And with your sins, ours!], from the second-last line of “Oda nova a Barcelona” [New Ode to Barcelona], by Joan Maragall.