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.