marginalia || Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal; translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell

My second read from the folks at Peirene Press: Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal [translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell]. A Catalan classic, and in its first English edition, the novella is the reminiscences of 80-year-old Conxa: where she came from, how she grew up, the work she did, the love she had, the children she cared for. The heartaches too, of course.

I read the first book from Peirene, Beside the Sea, a while back, and I loved to bits and pieces. And I gladly dipped in to this one. But something wasn’t right, even from the very start. I’d read the first twenty or so pages, and found that it couldn’t engage me. I set it aside. And then I picked it up again after a couple of days.

And the same thing pretty much happened. I found Conxa’s voice too calm, too restrained. It put me at a distance, though it felt like I was just sitting beside her, looking back at her life with her [in my head, we're knitting -- don't ask why, as I don't know what to do with a needle].

Theoretically, that could’ve worked: the sparse prose, the matter-of-factness of it all. No hysterics, no histrionics. Just the story. Just the key moments of her life. I have loved many books that bear a resemblance to Conxa’s voice, to Barbal’s language.

But I simply wasn’t part of Stone in a Landslide. With her voice, that calm/placid tone — it felt like Conxa herself was intent on not reliving her life. And I kept asking myself why I was with her in the first place.

Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood for the tone, I couldn’t welcome those calm reminiscences, couldn’t appreciate the contrast of the hardship and passions of Conxa’s life and her actual storytelling. Because as much as I like the calm, the dignified, the stoic — I need a jump in my pulse once in a while. I didn’t like feeling I had to read on, because I had to be polite to Conxa.

I’m not saying the shortness is the flaw, or that Barbal packed too much. I am conscious of how Barbal told the story, aware of why a contemplative tone was needed in this kind of reminiscing. But. Again, I wasn’t getting it. I wasn’t getting the book, I wasn’t getting my reaction to the book. I’ve been almost certain that I love this.

A quick look around the blogosphere says that this is an almost universally loved book. And I feel kind of bad about that, because I do understand the merits of the work, I get how it could have appealed. A part of me thinks that maybe it just wasn’t the right time.

Maybe I’ll return to this. Yes, I think so. Because a part of me still deeply feels that this is a Sasha Book. And it’s so disconcerting to be wrong about that. Oh well.


  • I am definitely going to read the third offering from Peirene Press, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius. It’s a novella-length sentence, y’all. It’s risky work, and I’m excited for that. I’m trying to feel it out, waiting for the “right” time to devour it.
  • As always, many thanks to Meike, and Peirene.
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9 comments

  1. Too bad this wasn’t the right book at the right time. From what you wrote about it, I think I’ll give it a try.

    1. Thanks, Vasilly. I mean, I know I’ll be giving it another go as well. But I just had to put on record the first experience of it, as it were. For posterity’s sake? For the sake of honesty? Who knows. Still feel weird that it didn’t work for me, really.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Meike and Maddy, Sasha. Sasha said: I'm in the minority on STONE IN A LANDSLIDE by Maria Barbal: http://bit.ly/bjGfKv Sigh. [...]

  3. Yes, I definitely know the “not the right time” phenomenon – am actually sunk in a mid-August malaise & feel like it’s the right time for nothing at the moment. But I definitely think I’ll check this one out at some point. Feel like I should probably order the whole Peirene catalog! :-)

    1. Augh, I do love Peirene. And this kind of book is usually up my alley. But I just don’t understand my reaction, haha. Yeah, I may be in one of those “Not the right time” periods — but I feel like I have to put this up. I had to add something to the conversation, ya know, even if I know I might take it back in a few weeks’ time. I am strange that way, haha.

  4. Weird, I haven’t even read it, and when I saw that you posted on it, I completely assumed it was going to be a “Sasha book” too!

    1. I thought it was a “Sasha book” as well. Which explains how disconcerted I am that I didn’t like it that much. Oof.

  5. [...] Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal. [...]

  6. What a wonderful honest review. Thank you Sasha. Don’t be too harsh on yourself, though. I think you hit the nail – I believe Conxa is indeed intent on not reliving her life – as she says: “Barcelona, for me, is something very beautiful. It is the last step before the cemetery.” Conxa has come to the end of her road and perhaps that is what you react against.

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