Josep Pla i Casadevall (March 8, 1897, Palafrugell, Girona - April 23, 1981, Llofriu, Girona) was a Spanish Catalan journalist and a popular author. As a journalist he worked in France, Italy, England, Germany and Russia, from where he wrote political and cultural chronicles in Catalan. The use of Catalan and therefore his works however was illegal in post civil war Spain.
His figure is somewhat controversial for present day Catalans. On the one hand, his prose is widely acknowledged as the finest standard of contemporary literature in Catalan but, on the other hand, his -nowadays, usually downplayed- ties to Francoist Spain are frowned upon by the current Catalan establishment.
The son of rural business owners of modest means from Baix Empordà, he obtained his high school diploma in Girona, where, beginning in 1909, he was a boarding student at the Colegio de los Maristas (Marist School). In his last academic year (1912-13), he had to take his final exams without having taken the courses because he was expelled from the boarding school. In 1913 he registered to study science at the University of Barcelona and began his studies in medicine, but in the middle of the course he changed his mind and registered to study Law. The emptiness that he felt in his life at the university did not prevent him from adapting himself to another environment that would focus the intellectual disorientation of his youth: the Barcelonan Ateneo Club, with its library and above all the daily tertulia that took place there under the strategic entertainment of Dr. Joaquim Borralleras and with celebrities such as Josep M. de Sagarra, Eugeni d'Ors and Francesc Pujols. His admiration for Pío Baroja came from this period – a constant allusion for his generation — as well as the influence of Alexandre Plana, a childhood friend and teacher, whom he credits with nothing less than his decision to distance himself from the pretentious style of the 19th century and decisively support “a literature for the whole world” based on “intelligibility, clarity, and simplicity,” ideas which would be constant features through his entire literary career.
In 1919 he graduated with a degree in Law and began to professionally work in journalism, first in Las Noticias (The News) and soon after in night publication of La Publicidad (Publicity). He started his journey as a correspondent in various European cities (Paris, Madrid, Portugal, Italy, Berlin). A modern Catalan nationalist, in 1921 he was elected as a “diputado” (Member of Parliament) of the Mancomunitat de Catalunya (Commonwealth of Catalonia) by the “Lliga Regionalista” (Regionalist League” in his native region, Baix Empordà. En 1924, under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, he underwent a military proceeding and was condemned to exile because of a critical article about the Spanish military policy in Morocco, published in Majorca’s El Día (The Day) . During the years of his exile, he negotiated with some of the principle Catalan opponents to the dictatorship, such as Francesc Macià. He continued traveling though Europe (Paris, Russia, England) and in 1925 he published his first book, Coses Vistes, which was a great success and sold out in a week. It was about a good preview of his aesthetic: “to write about the things which one has seen”. In 1927 he returned to Spain, left La Publicidad and began to collaborate with La Veu de Catalunya, Lliga’s newspaper, of a liberal-conservative tendency, to the orders of Francesc Cambó –leader of moderate Catalan nationalism-- , whose famous tertulias (gatherings of writers) he attended reguraly. In April 1931, the same morning of the proclamation of the Republic, he was invited to Madrid by Cambó as parliamentary correspondent of La Veu and became a witness of the first days of the Republic. Madrid’s book of the notable events of these months, of great historic value, is saved in his work Madrid. El advenimiento de la República (The coming of the Republic). He remained in Madrid during nearly all of the republican period, practicing parliamentary feature writer, which allowed him to mix with the Spanish political and cultural elite. Pla, who was neither an anti-republican nor an anti-monarchist, but a pragmatist that looked for the modernization of the State, he at first expresses a certain sympathy for the Republic: he believed that the new political system could get off the ground in Spain if it consolidated itself according to the French Republican model, even though little by little he was becoming disillusioned with the course that the events took place until considering it a complete “a frantic and destructive madness”.
Claiming health reasons, he abandoned an agitated and dangerous Madrid a few months before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Not even Barcelona seemed safe to him and he fled in a boat of the Catalan republic towards Marseille, in September 1938, in the company of Adi Enberg, a Norwegian citizen born in Barcelona who worked for the Francoist espionage service. She was the only person from his secretive and often meager romantic life we know for sure he was involved to. He continued his exile in Rome, where he wrote a good part of the immense Historia de la Segunda República Española (History of the Second Spanish Republic), an assignment by Francesc Cambó –one of the financiers of the military uprising--, which Pla would refuse to re-publish during his entire life, despite being about a history book of great interest. In the fall of 1938, Adi and Pla traveled to Biarritz and from there they managed to reach San Sebastián, where they joined the Francoist controlled portion of Spain. In January 1939 he, Manuel Aznar and other journalists entered Barcelona along with the victorious Francoist troops. Between February and April 1939, when the war ended, he became the assistant manager of La Vanguardia, under the direction of Aznar. Overwhelmed by the course of events of the immediate post-war period and before the unexpected failure of his project at La Vanguardia, he moved to the Empordà (Girona) in a some sort of domestic exile and separated from Adi Enberg.
In September 1939 he published his first article in Destino, the weekly publication that his Catalan friends created in Burgos and in which he started to write weekly a few months later, since February 1940. These are the years that he traveled through his native region, he discovered its landscapes and its people, its small towns and, of course, the sea. Also he finally accepted his role of lower rural bourgeois and never again resided in Barcelona.
Due to his regular collaboration with the magazine Destino, of which he would stop being one of its principle driving forces, he returned to traveling the world, not as a correspondent anymore, but as an observant journalist, which allowed him to complete magnificent reports: he visited France, Israel, Cuba, New York, The Middle East, South America, Russia… Regarding Israel, for instance, he left a unique testimony of its first years of existence as a State: he visited it in 1957, arrived at Tel Aviv in one of the boats coming from Marseille, which was full of displaced Jews. He arrived during the enthusiastic construction on the cities and amazing Hebrew infrastructures in the middle of the desert. As a curiosity, Pla had a fondness for travels in very slow oil tankers, which allowed him to write his works peacefully and do without the distractions gotten from contact with tourists.
In the 1970s he fully dedicated himself to the preparation of his complete works, a crucial stage since it involved a nearly complete re-writing of his work and the construction of Pla’s stylistic program, with which he would go past mere journalism and crafted his own style. In order to publish them, he counted on invaluable support of his countryman Josep Vergés, editor of the editorial Destino. Meanwhile, culture in the Catalan language was reappearing little by little.
After Francoism was terminated by the Spanish Constitution of 1978, despite already being the most read writer in Catalan language, fellow authors in Catalan (overwhelmingly leftists) did not forgive him for his past support to the Francoists during the civil war and his later coexistence with the regime (Pla counted on a peaceful and ordered evolution towards democracy). He was also criticized by fellow Catalan authors because of his disdain towards fiction literary forms.
He proved himself equally distant: his often sarcastic criticism towards some Catalan political and cultural figures caused him, same as with Dalí, that leftist Catalan culture denied him recognition in the form of prizes (the refusal to grant him the Premi d’Honor de les Lletres, which would seem now created for an author like him, was controversial) they alienated him from his magazine for life and they did not recognize his extraordinary worth until many years later.
Even so, in 1980, near the end of his life, Josep Tarradellas gave him the Medalla d'Or de la Generalitat de Catalunya (The Gold Medal of the Autonomous Government of Catalonia). It is worthwhile to mention, as it represented a minor fisure within so far monolithic rejection from writers in Catalan, that Joan Coromines, a fundamental Catalan etymologist, supported Pla in hiw own acceptance speech for the gold medal he was also granted.
Pla died in 1981 in his native Empordà, leaving thirty-eight volumes (over twenty-five thousand pages) of Obra Completa (Complete Works) published and plenty of unedited papers that have been published after his death.
Pla had to live under censorship for much of his life: during Primo de Rivera's dictatorship, later in Italy and Germany (where he worked as a correspondent during the rise of the Falange), and during Francisco Franco's long rule. Although he initially sympathized with the dictatorship (he wrote in 1940 that it was "in the general interest"), his support only lasted a few months. He soon began to show skepticism, especially as it became impossible to publish in Catalan. Although he always kept a moderate political stance that allowed him to publish, he was deeply uncomfortable with Franco's tireless censorship (he wrote in one of his diaries that it was "the worst that [I] have known", carried out by "servants of fanaticism"). He hated the regime’s disdain for Catalan language and culture and its stubborn inability to turn itself into a democracy, not even a tutelary one.
The most important characteristics of the “planian” style are simplicity, irony, and clarity. Extremely powerful and ridiculously obvious, he detested deceptions, the empty rhetoric of the Jocs Florals (an event celebrated in Catalonia and Valencia dedicated to the Roman Goddess Flora) and the sickly-sweet style. During his entire literary life, he remained faithful to his style: “the necessity of a clear, precise, and simple writing” and his disinterest of literary fiction, developing a dry style, apparently simple, practical, and devoted to that which is real. He was a strong witness of reality in its basic truths (the sea, the rocks, the olives) and its smallest details (a sofrito [chopped onion and garlic fried in oil] with black rice and black pudding or the dreary face of the captain of the boat he was on) and he gave a faithful testimony of the society of his time.
His works show a subjective and colloquial view, “anti-literary”, in which he stresses, nevertheless, an enormous stylistic effort by calling things by their names and “coming up with the precise adjective”, one of his most persistent literary obsessions. An untiring writer, from his viewpoint life is chaotic, irrational, unjust, and the longing for equality and for revolutions are a delirium that incites worse wrongs than those that it tries to put a stop to. Conservative and rational, he doesn’t feel action, but voluptuousness and sensuality: the pleasure of putting the world down on paper. A good conservative, a good eater, and the best drinker (now elderly, whisky made up a good part of his diet), a hardened smoker of rolled tobacco, he wore a bowler hat since his youth and later was inseparable from his country beret, he hated predictability, cultural mannerisms (he never includes quotations in his works, despite being a reader of the classics) and “people who talk just to hear themselves.” So he wrote: “It is harder to write than to think: so everyone thinks”.
Pla lived completely dedicated to writing. The extent of his Obres Completes - Complete Works (46 volumes and nearly 30,000 pages), which is a collection of all his journals, reports, articles, essays, biographies, novels, and some poems gives an idea of its daunting work ability while complicating its chronological classification. Many of these pages are the fruit of a hard process of rewriting texts from his youth and weekly articles that were published in Destino for nearly 40 years, as well as hundreds of articles published in different newspapers and an abundance of correspondences.
The thematic classification is not easy either, since many articles appeared in different locations with some changes, his thematic repertoire is extensive and, above all, the boundaries between the genres that he developed are not always clear. However, we can make an attempt at organizing into genres (the years outlined correspond to the original publication, not to the translation or the reissue of Complete Works). • Narration: Coses vistes (1925), Linterna mágica (1926), Relaciones (1927) are books in which narration predominates but foreshadow and hint to other genres which later will be fundamental in his work. La vida amarga, El carrer estret (1952) and Aigua de mar are later narrations • The books of notable events and memories: the book of notable events gives Pla great liberty in the combined use of different genres: the personal diary, description, narration, dialogue, personal reflections, advice to the reader, the portrait and analysis of the customs of people and towns. El quadern gris is a book of notable events that was devoted to Pla. It was not about an authentic diary, but a “literary” book of notable events, compiled later. The central themes of the book of notable events are the countryside and geography of Ampurdán, the description of daily life and the narrator-author’s obsession with writing. Other apparently biographical works are Girona (1952), Primera Volada, Notes disperses y Notes del capvesprol. • The anthropologic and folkloric essay: Los labradores (1952), El payés y su mundo y Les hores (1953). • The biography: Vida de Manolo (1928), Santiago Rusiñol y su tiempo (1955), Francesc Cambó (1928-1930), Homenots, Retrats del passaport y Tres senyores. • Travels: Les illes, Viatge a la Catalunya Vella, Italia i el Mediterrano, Les Amèriques, Sobre París i França, Cartas de lejos and Israel, 1957 (1957) • Political reports: Madrid. El advenimiento de la República (1933), Crónicas parlamentarias (1933-1934) and (1934-1936)
During the first years of the Francoist regime, and because of the complete restriction of the Catalan edition, the following works were published in Spanish: Guía de la Costa Brava (1941), Las ciudades del mar (1942), Viaje en autobús (1942) – considered one of his greatest works, and which proves his skillful grasp of the Spanish language -, Rusiñol y su tiempo (1942), El pintor Joaquín Mir (1944), Un señor de Barcelona (1945) y La huida del tiempo (1945). Very soon, in 1947, as soon as the censorship permitted it, he returned to publishing in Catalan (Cadaqués, one of his most successful books).
After 1956 he started the first series of his Complete Works, which arrived at 29 volumes and in which he began to publish his extraordinary portrayals titled Homenots (Grandes tipos). The year 1966, Ediciones Destino began the publication of the definitive Complete Works. The first volume was an unpublished work, El quadern gris, a book of notable events initially written at a little over 20 years of age (although rewritten and substantially expanded later), translated to Spanish with the title El cuaderno gris by Dionisio Ridruejo and which was considered a before and after in the public consideration of Pla, much more than as a journalist, as the best narrator of contemporary Catalan literature. The success of the criticism and public of this work convinced Vergés to continue publishing the complete work, which has now reached volume XLVI, with unpublished manuscripts (such as his Notas para un diario, written in the mid 60s), not free from controversy, by the supposed amendments and manipulations to which Vergés himself was subjected (apparently, in order to suppress certain obscene passages), later Keerl, his heir, much more preoccupied about economically exploiting the documents than putting them at the disposal of investigators or the Josep Pla Foundation.
Even though he did not write plays, his life and work inspired various significant works after his death, among which are: Ara que els ametllers ja estan batuts (Now that the almond trees have been knocked down) 1990, in which Josep Maria Flotats creates a portrait of Pla through a collage of his texts. Also La increíble historia del Dr. Floït & Mr. Pla (1997), a production by Els Joglars, which recreates the work of Stevenson where the characters Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are, respectively, a Catalan industrialist obsessed with wealth and, on the other side, an educated and indulgent writer which personifies the opposed values of industrial bourgeoisie, based on Pla.
His liberal-conservative thought, skeptic and uncompromising, filled with irony and common sense, keeps sounding contemporary, completely current, even though it seems to contradict the current cultural establishment same as it did with its completely opposed antecessor. His books remain in print and both Spanish and Catalan critics have unanimously recognized him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
• Espada, Arcadi: "Josep Pla". Editorial Omega, Barcelona, 2004, ISBN 9788428212465 (in Spanish).
• Josep Pla, Cristina Badosa, Lletra UOC.