Cities of Literature: Barcelona


Barcelona.  (Image Source)

We are back at it!  And in this post, we travel to the north-east of Spain, and the city of Barcelona (pop. 1.6 million).  It is an old old city indeed, founded as a Roman colony in the early first century A.D.  Like many of its sister-Cities of Literature, Barcelona is too ancient and too large to make any survey of its entire literary tradition possible in the context of a short blog post.  So, once again, we will take a look at one element of that tradition, in this case a poet by the name of Maria Mercè Marçal.  Read on…

Maria Mercè Marçal i Serra was not actually from Barcelona; she was born in Ivars d’Urgell, a little bit to the west, in 1952.  But, it was in Barcelona that she studied Classical Philology, and wrote, and taught, and it was in Barcelona that she died in 1998 at the far-too-young age of 45.   And, as we have discussed before, in looking at Cities of Literature, we must also take into account their territories — in the case of Barcelona, we speak of the region of Catalonia.  The name “Catalonia” first appears in the 12th century, referring to roughly its modern location in northeastern Spain, and the region has been part of Spain since the early 18th century.  Catalonia has been much in the news in the past few months, as the region’s independence movement — occasionally quiescent but never absent throughout Catalonia’s recent history — has once again come to the fore.

The Catalan language developed out of late Latin, first appearing as a distinct tongue in around about the ninth century A.D.  It is spoken now not only in the region called Catalonia, but also elsewhere in Spain, in the country of Andorra (Catalan is Andorra’s official language), and in parts of France and Italy.  Throughout the last several centuries, Catalan has been alternately suppressed and tolerated by governments in Spain and elsewhere; that tension has seen the creation of a rich body of modern Catalan literature.


Maria Mercè Marçal.  (Image Source)

Back to Marçal, who, in 1976, won the Carlos Riba Prize for Catalan-language poetry.  She had begun her poetry-writing during the latter years of the rule of Francisco Franco — no friend at all to the Catalan people, and under Franco’s regime the suppression of the Catalan language was intense.  Fiercely left-wing in her politics, Marçal wrote primarily although not exclusively on feminist themes.  Her biographical sketch at the Visat literary translation website (a project of the Catalan chapter of  PEN International), sums up her work as follows:

In her poetry she constructs not only “the autobiography of her soul,” but also a feminine experience shared with primordial experiences: in Bruixa de dol , love and solitude, one’s very identity, enjoyment and pain, relationships between women; in Terra de mai , homosexual love; in Sal oberta , maternity; all of this experienced and poetized in first person. In Desglaç she develops the idea of filiation, the relationship with the father, both symbolic and real, and the pain of his disappearance; and in Raó del cos , the relationship with the mother, and her own death and sickness.

Marçal was not only a poet; she was heavily involved in Catalan nationalist organizations and political parties, including the separatist Partit Socialista d’Alliberament Nacional dels Països Catalans (“The Socialist Party of National Liberation of Catalan Countries,” usually referred to as “PSAN”).  She taught Catalan language and literature at several educational institutions.  She was also a translator, producing Catalan-language publications of the works of Colette, Marguerite Yourcenar, and the Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva.  And Marçal was involved in a number of publishing ventures designed to promote the work of Catalan-language women writers.  In addition to her poetry, she wrote one novel late in her life: La passió segons Renée Vivien.

Marçal is, unfortunately, not terribly well-known outside her native territory.  Her best-known work is a short piece from her first book of poetry, Cau de llunes, the book that won her the Carlos Riba Prize.  The poem is called “Divisa,” and it sums up, most succinctly, Marçal’s political outlook:

A l’atzar agraeixo tres dons: haver nascut dona,
de classe baixa i nació oprimida.

I el tèrbol atzur de ser tres voltes rebel.

Translated (I am not sure by whom):

To fate I am grateful for three gifts: having been born a woman,

of low class and oppressed nation.

And the turbid azure of being three times a rebel.

So why look at Marçal for this post?  Well, later on this week, we will return to Peterborough and examine the life and work of Isabella Valancy Crawford, probably our city’s best-known early poet.  Beyond their gender and literary form (and the fact, tragically, that they both died young), can we find some common ground between a 19th-century Irish immigrant to Ontario, and a 20th-century Catalan nationalist and feminist?  The answer, as they say, may surprise you.

If you are interested in exploring more Catalan literature, I would advise checking out the Visat website linked above.  It includes the works of a number of Catalan authors and poets, translated into various languages including (often) English.  It also contains translations of non-Catalan works into that language, among them some translated by Maria Mercè Marçal.

Thank you for reading!

This entry was posted in Cities of Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s