Jaume Cabré: “I owe my personal and intellectual development to Barcelona”

The sky is overcast. The photographer Pere Virgili and I walk up the last stretch of les Fogaroses that leads us to Jaume Cabré and Margarida Barba’s front door. Despite having to negotiate the early-morning lassitude of Terrassa’s city centre, we arrive ten minutes early. They’re already waiting for us. Everything is ready. The house exudes a warm, homely, silent, serene atmosphere. We get to work immediately. Marga makes sure we have everything we need and then withdraws, truly excited and happy, even after so many years. Pere takes a few photos in the garden first. Jaume attends to the photographer’s needs. Between photos, he tells me that German photographers are tireless. The garden is shrouded in the dense peace of a low morning mist. We go up to his studio and start to talk, as the photographer snaps away. The conversation takes over everything.

Jaume Cabré

© Pere Virgili

ABRAMS: The last time I interviewed you was in 1994. I remember it perfectly. It was for the Catalan Writing journal and the text was in English. After the success of Senyoria [Your Honour], it was an attempt to take your success abroad. It was a modest contribution. Now, almost 20 years later, I’ve returned and things are so different: successful author, international star of Catalan literature, the Premi d’Honor de les Lletres Catalanes lifetime achievement award…

CABRÉ: Yes, yes… Was it that long ago? (He smiles happily, remembering and meditating.) Wow!

Robert Louis Stevenson once said that Treasure Island arose from a map he drew for fun. Stevenson always began his stories by setting the scene. On the other hand, Henry James’ starting point was always character definition. So where do you begin: the setting, characters or something else?

It depends. Each case is different. It depends on the novel in question. You probably remember that I literally invented Fra Junoy o l’agonia dels sons [Fra Junoy or the Agony of Sounds]. In my mind I could clearly see a sleeve and a gesture. I just took it from there. What was the sleeve like? Whose was it? On the other hand, Les veus del Pamano [The Voices of the Pamano] was totally different. It all began with a school building I’d seen. I then relocated the building to another town because it worked better that way. With Jo confesso [I confess], it all began with a symbolic place, the Inquisition. I had a vision of Eymerich the Inquisitor, who gradually became Rudolf Höss as I wrote. In fact, the novel started out as a series of short stories… Although it wasn’t that either… Explaining how it all happened is really rather complicated; it was so long ago… The only thing you know is that anything around you could be a source of inspiration.

People tend to forget that you’re from Barcelona. You’ve lived in Matadepera for so long and also in Terrassa for some time, and before that in Vila-real. What’s your Barcelona like? What does Barcelona mean to you?

You’re so right. I owe my personal and intellectual development to Barcelona. I lived in Barcelona’s Eixample district until I was 27, in a little flat on the corner of carrer de València and carrer de Llúria. I received all my education in my own backyard, so to speak: kindergarten, the Jesuit school on carrer Casp, the “Preu” [former pre-university course], philology at the University of Barcelona. In a nutshell, that part of my life was spent on my home turf, doing the typical things of the time, going to Tibidabo and the breakwater on holidays. When we ventured further afield it was with my parents and the five children all crammed into a Renault, nicknamed Kon-Tiki… When I got married I moved to the Guinardó district.

In Barcelona you discovered something crucial for you: music. I think that for you music is always associated with Barcelona and your personal memories of the city.

I certainly did discover music in Barcelona! We’d a piano at home, and it was always open. My mother played and my father even composed. The whole family used to sing. All our family gatherings invariably ended with a singsong. I remember when my sisters started to go out with boys, my father was almost more interested in how well they could sing rather than pragmatic matters such as their job or future plans.

What changes have you seen in Barcelona over the years?

Entrevista Jaume Cabré

© Pere Virgili

I remember when they surfaced carrer d’Aragó, and the houses blackened by the smoke from the trains. I remember the city trams. I used to get about by tram until I bought a third- or fourth-hand motorbike. I remember the old paving stones and how they were replaced by tarmac. I remember a very self-sufficient city, built up from self-sufficient districts. Then, for love and work reasons I started to venture beyond the confines of my district and discover other realities. I started to go out with a woman from Poble-sec and discovered another kind of life in Barcelona. I frequented Verdum, Roquetes, the world of the Besòs. Meanwhile, Barcelona was gradually becoming the big city it is now. And I was gradually moving further away from it. In Castelló, in Vila-real, I discovered my own country, which was much bigger. On returning from Castelló we didn’t want to live in Barcelona; it was too big. We wanted somewhere smaller, more manageable, where our children, Martí and Clara, could settle. In Terrassa and Matadepera I discovered another way of looking at Barcelona. Now my relationship with Barcelona is very different. To be honest, I find it bewildering. I rarely go there. The Rambla isn’t what it used to be. My Barcelona, part of it, is still there, but subsumed within the big organic Barcelona.

Regardless of your relationship with Barcelona, the city is very present in your work, directly or indirectly. For example, Senyoria is Barcelona. Although La teranyina [The Cobweb] takes place in Feixes (Terrassa), all the main characters are waiting for news from Barcelona on account of the Tragic Week. And Barcelona plays a major role in Jo confesso.

I can’t add much more to what you’ve already said!

But even so, there is a concern that the great novel about Barcelona has not been written yet. La gran novel·la sobre Barcelona [The Great Novel about Barcelona] is a short story by Sergi Pàmies!

I don’t think things should be forced; they have to just come out of you. I’ve always done things by letting them out. I don’t think that the great novel about Barcelona can be imposed or self-imposed. Moreover, I think that some great novels have been written about Barcelona. Earlier you were talking about Vida privada [Private Life], by Josep Maria de Sagarra; a great novel about Barcelona. Maybe the great novel about Barcelona cannot be written because it’s such a fragmented city. Sagarra talks about his Barcelona, the Barcelona he knew and that was his own.

Poets have contributed a lot to the great portrait of the city. I say this in the knowledge that you’re an avid poetry reader.

It’s true. There are poets like Verdaguer, Maragall and Comadira who’ve written specific poems about Barcelona, important poems, major poems that have had a huge influence. Then there are poets such as Joan Margarit’s and David Castillo who have worked on the city more consistently, perhaps from a more everyday angle. I know Margarit’s work best. I think that Castillo writes from a more delimited territory: the el Carmel area. Margarit addresses the city in a more organic, all-encompassing way. Even so, you can only really write about the city if it comes out of you. If what comes out is a one-off poem, as with Maragall or Verdaguer, that’s fine. But if things flow out of you constantly, as with Margarit, that’s fine too. You have to do what you cannot help doing; when asked why I write, I usually say: “Because I can’t help it.” You write because you want to: art is free. You cannot force yourself or be forced to do anything. Doing what comes naturally is difficult enough!

But places are very important for you. You always need to write from a specific place, a place you know, a place you can totally relate to. The philosopher Martin Heidegger distinguished between space and places. Space was a neutral, technical, physical area, whereas place was a space that was lived in, known and inhabited by men and women.

Your questions really make me think. You make me rationalise things I wasn’t really aware of. Yes, yes. In Galceran, l’heroi de la guerra negra [Galceran, the Hero of the Black War] and in L’home de Sau [The Man from Sau], this place is the Plain of Vic. I spent many summers in Tona with my parents and brothers and sisters, and then in Vilanova de Sau with the family. Carn d’olla [Stew] depicts the other Barcelona, the other districts I gradually discovered when I met Marga: Poble-sec, Sant Antoni, Guinardó and so on. Senyoria and La història que en Roc Pons no coneixia [The History Roc Pons Didn’t Know] are my Barcelona, the Barcelona of my childhood and youth, although it might not seem so because both are set in the 18th century. Although they’re disguised, they take place in the Barcelona I know. La teranyina, Fra Junoy and El llibre de preludis [The Book of Preludes] make up the Feixes cycle, where Feixes is Terrassa and Vallès. L’ombra del l’eunuc [The Eunuch’s Shadow] is Vallès again, with the backdrop of Barcelona. Les veus del Pamano is Pallars, a place I’ve made my own. And Jo confesso is where I start to put things in order; I roam Europe a little, but always from Barcelona’s Eixample district. I was born in Barcelona, but above all I was born in the Eixample.

Places are social spaces, memory spaces, spaces laden with cultural, political, ideological and identity significance. In this regard, do you feel that Barcelona doesn’t quite fulfil its role as a national capital? Do you feel that to a certain extent Barcelona still lives off the Francoist “Barcelona-ism” of the mayor Porcioles, who sought to sever it from the rest of the territory? In your work, Barcelona is part of a reality that is larger than the actual city.

And all that coming from a foreigner!

I’d like to talk about the importance of the city in literature. And I’d also like to talk about literary cities. I know you’ve visited many.

All cities can be literary cities. I spent an hour and a half in Trieste. I was en route to Ljubljana, I was in a hurry, but I just had to stop for a coffee at least. There was something about Trieste. I could see Rilke there, and Magris, and Svevo. Reading had given me an idea about it, the fruit of my reading fantasy. Through reading you build new scenarios, new places. Then there is the contrast with the real city if you actually go there. You have to negotiate the transition from the ideal to reality. Sometimes it doesn’t make any difference because there have been no great changes. The town of Grasmere and the famous Lake District in England are not that different from the era of the great Romantic William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. But sometimes there is a major difference between the ideal and reality. Some settings recalled by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoyevsky still survive in Saint Petersburg, but the city’s day-to-day life has nothing to do with its literary past. Sometimes it’s all attrezzo or a museum-like distortion. I recall a visit to Guimerà’s house in Vendrell. I really liked it, but what was really fantastic was finding a copy of one of my books on the great playwright’s desk. It would be great to know that Guimerà had read me! Sometimes, now that I travel less, I think: why should I visit such and such a city if I carry it inside me? If I know Lisbon through the best Saramago, evoked in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, and the novels of Lobo Antunes, then why go there? It’s a manner of speaking, naturally.

Your work navigates the separation between the ideal and reality perfectly. Places always have three levels. There is the level of personal memory, the real level and then the more symbolic or conceptual level of significance.

I see myself reflected in what you’ve just said. Amen!

You’ve always been very aware of your readers’ presence. And your interest in places is catching. I remember the speech by Manuel Royes, then mayor of Terrassa, during the presentation of El llibre de Feixes [The Feixes Book], a compilation of the Feixes cycle, the trilogy you dedicated to Terrassa and Vallès. At one point Royes said it was more important for a city to be on the literature map than on a road map.

Agustí López, the mayor of Sort, made a similar observation to me on the Barbal novels or Les veus del Pamano. Let me see: yes, I do take my readers into account. I don’t work for the reader. I work for myself; otherwise it would be the death of me. What I do think about is whether people are interested in what I’m writing about. My interest in things must be passed on to the reader. I aim to inspire passion in the reader. I want that poplar tree with leaves that turn yellow that I’m looking at to stir up interest and passion. I want the reader to internalize my poplar tree, make it their own. I want the trees to grow inside the reader. I read up on places, but I don’t want the reader to feel that I’m regurgitating page number 159 of my own research on them. Perhaps we should be talking about documentary passions. It’s true that there is a certain topographic slant to my work. I heard that some readers from Bordeaux were so moved by Les veus del Pamano that they felt the need to visit the Àssua valley. That’s some distance! I have it on good authority that some German readers have visited, too.

Literature makes places part of our heritage. It somehow consecrates them. I also believe that literature reaches readers in a very special way and makes them want to visit places. And if they do go there they always end up discovering something new about the place the author has added to our heritage. Your novels have mobilised many readers.

Just as you were saying that, the image of Llorenç Soldevila and his routes for visiting the literary landscapes of Verdaguer, Maragall and Porcel in his ongoing work Geografia literària [Literary Geography] sprang to mind. In the Àssua valley there’s a route along the Pamano river that traverses the settings of Les veus del Pamano. In Barcelona there is a route for visiting the spots in Barcelona related to the Senyoria novel. This has also happened to me in my dual role as reader and author. After reading Journey to Armenia, by Osip Mandelstam, I went straight to Google to get a look at the island of Sevan, Sukhum and other places mentioned by the author.

In your work, exteriors are just as important as interiors.

You’re right. At the end of the day, I’m after a well-distributed ensemble of exteriors and interiors. You know the expression “God is everywhere”. The novelist is like a god in his narrative world and tries to be ubiquitous. The novelist wants to have it all! Although sometimes you have to work hard for it. I remember how hard it was to imagine the inside of the monastery of Sant Pere de Burgal in Jo confesso. I had been inside other smaller Catalan monasteries, such as Sant Pere de Casserres, but it wasn’t the same. It had to be Sant Pere de Burgal, I mean the monks’ refectory in Sant Pere de Burgal. It’s important that everything you say in the novel has a meaning, a clear justification, and is necessary. All the details, of exteriors and interiors, must be there for a reason. Painting can help you out. The 18th and 19th-century landscapes; the finely detailed interiors of the Flemish Primitives. Every element has to contribute to the whole. I think it was Chekhov who said that if your story refers to a rifle hanging on the wall then that rifle had better be a necessary part of the story, otherwise you shouldn’t bother mentioning it. Stefan Zweig, on the other hand, talked about necessary words. There should be no extraneous words in a narrative work. Words must refer to things in the world that have a body and a soul. Words must embrace both realities. The cat in Les veus del Pamano is a real cat, but it’s also a great deal more. It’s no coincidence that the novel ends with a cat!

I believe that in Jo confesso you try to synthesize all the good and best aspects of the great 19th- and 20th-century novels. You tap into the huge scale and plot complexity of 19th- century novels and the expressive precision, conceptual depth and experimentalism of 20th-century works.

That was my intention, although it’s not for me to say whether or not I achieved it. That’s up to critics and readers. The truth is that your observations have given me food for thought, but you’d have to come back tomorrow or another day for me to be able to give you a proper answer!

D. Sam Abrams

Journalist and writer

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  1. Pingback: Jaume Cabré, Premi Ciutat de Barcelona a la projecció internacional | Núvol

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