Josep Maria De Sagarra - a scathing critique of the decadent and disappearing aristocratic class of Catalonia.Boudoirs of demimonde tramps, card games dilapidating the fortunes of milquetoast aristocrats—and how they scheme to conceal them—fading manors of selfish scions



Josep Maria De Sagarra, Private Life, Trans. by Mary Ann Newman, Archipelago, 2015. [1932.]


In 1932 Josep Maria de Sagarra set out to write the great Catalan novel, an urban antidote to the rural tales and timid novels of customs that prevailed in the Catalan literature of the time. Private Life is the result: a scathing critique of the decadent and disappearing aristocratic class of Catalonia. Private Life holds up a mirror to the moral corruption in the interstices of the Barcelona high society Sagarra was born into. Boudoirs of demimonde tramps, card games dilapidating the fortunes of milquetoast aristocrats—and how they scheme to conceal them—fading manors of selfish scions, and back rooms provided by social-climbing seamstresses are portrayed in vivid, sordid, and literary detail.
The novel, practically a roman-à-clef for its contemporaries, was a scandal in 1932. The 1960s edition was bowdlerized by Franco’s censors. Part Lampedusa, part Genet, this translation will bring an essential piece of 20th-century European literature to the English-speaking public.

Sagarra’s novel, a scandal upon its original publication in 1932, is a long account of the decadent fall of Barcelona’s aristocracy under the weight of the new wealth and power of the 1920s and early 1930s. The focus is the dynasty of Frederic de Lloberola, the last patriarch of a decayed aristocratic family that is slowly descending into obscurity and poverty. Frederic is “like all the Lloberolas... weak and cowardly”: he becomes more and more indebted and tries to ignore his troubles through passionless affairs, decadence, and maintaining an inflated, corrupt pride. Yet Frederic and the other Lloberolas, including his brother, Guillem de Lloberola, and children Maria Lluïsa and Ferran, are only representatives of the moldering nobility in general. Through a series of debaucheries, the elite of Barcelona are usurped by history and their own vices. No matter what positive turns occur in their lives—whether it is Guillem falling into a fortune, or Frederic being relieved of a debt—the Lloberolas and the nobility hurtle irrevocably toward inconsequence. As their eminence and fortunes vanish before their eyes, the Lloberolas and old aristocrats refuse to change and instead indulge themselves on their way to ruin. At times slow and monotonous, at others funny and ridiculous, de Sagarra paints a meticulous portrait of the dawn of modernity in Catalonia. - Publishers Weekly

First published in 1932 and newly translated into English, this is a satirical, multigenerational saga about the intricate relationship between Barcelona’s fading aristocracy and the city’s sordid demimonde.
“Aristocratic cynicism” and “decadence” are the subject matter. Digging deep into the crevices of the highborn Lloberola family while following its moral and financial disintegration, Catalan Sagarra displays none of his American contemporary Hemingway’s romanticism in his depiction of Spanish life. Frederic de Lloberola must be one of the least likable protagonists in fiction. As the novel opens, he's already regretting having had sex again with his former mistress Rosa, whom he dumped years ago to marry his rich wife. A hypocritical prig with little wit, imagination, or capacity to care about anyone, Frederic has already pawned his wife’s jewels and is less concerned with Rosa than with a note he can’t pay back to his wealthy acquaintance Antoni Mates. Fortunately for Frederic, Mates has a very dark sexual secret shared only by Frederic’s charming but amoral younger brother, Guillem, who blackmails the debt away with unexpected repercussions. Jump ahead five years, after the great crash, to the start of Republican rule. While Barcelona aristocracy is politically divided, society has become more heterogeneous. Frederic’s daughter Maria Lluisa works as a secretary. Unfortunately, her experiment in living as an independent woman doesn’t work out the way she—or the sympathetic reader—hopes. Expect murder, revenge, and fallings in and out of love as Sagarra tightens the initially loose connections among his characters. The novel comes most alive when the author digresses from his plot: in his characters' back stories, his ruminations on Spain’s socioeconomics, his cleverly vicious bons mots and descriptions (including men as black truffles among pink party dresses), and in some surprisingly graphic sex. Whether Sagarra is anti-Semitic and homophobic or commenting on those tendencies in his characters is troubling but unclear.
In this casual, colloquial translation, Barcelona between the wars is full of tawdry vitality, much like the novel itself. - Kirkus Reviews

"[Vida Privada] is a portrait of the "great world" of Barcelona and its loyalties in the years that preceded the Republic and in the early days of the new regime. Rigorous contemporaneity, stylistic effectiveness, the structural tour de force...and its daring treatment of manners and mores, make this book a unique product in Sagarra's work as a whole." -- Marina Gust a

"Private Life, by Josep Maria de Sagarra is a delightful, intelligent and exciting novel, the best ever written about Barcelona. One of the high points of 20th century Catalan and European literature, it is an unflinching portrait of the social mores of the high and low classes, the desire to be someone, and the destruction of a way of life. The changes that came about in the 20s and 30s have led inexorably to the Barcelona of today. Now that the city is in vogue, it is  providential that the millions of people who visit every year will be able to read Private Life." -- Quim Monzó

"In Private Life, Josep Maria de Sagarra orchestrates the destiny of a rich, decadent family, sucked into an underworld of sexual and economic scandals. Though the events could be happening today, they take place in the late 1920s, when the night life of Barcelona was as intense and provocative as that of early 20th century Berlin or Paris." -- Jordi Puntí

In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:
When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on the events begin to seem more and more extraordinary, and the characters take on a chiaroscuro effect without grays, and the melodrama builds, most people reading the novel will think it’s a bunch of lies, and that such things are impossible in real life. And the truth is exactly the opposite: if you just write down the characters and the “permutations” you can find in a city like ours – right here in Barcelona . . . Believe me, there’s no need to wait for a dark, sensational crime, the kind that scare concierges stiff when they read about them in the newspapers. These splashy, absurd crimes and criminals are not at all important, you see. But, if you could look within high society gentlemen and ladies who appear to live perfectly gray and proper lives, whom no one would ever suspect of anything, who appear incapable of a violent gesture or of any slightly spectacular and interesting act . . . If you could follow in their hideous footsteps, you would have more plots than you could ever know what to do with.
The irony of this quote is that the speaker is one of these “high-society gentlemen” who happens to be partially responsible for a shocking event involving an acquaintance. While this gentleman has been involved in some sketchy business in the past, people would never suspect that he would have anything to do with the events that transpired that very night. Even though he may not have legally done anything wrong, his actions earlier in the novel began a chain of events resulting in the death of this acquaintance.
In Private Life, Sagarra follows the footsteps of the speaker and his associates, and he certainly does find more plots that one could ever know what to do with. In fact, after spending most of the first half of the book focusing on the Lloberola family, Sagarra introduces a bevy of characters just as questionable as the speaker before returning to them. Instead of interrupting the main storyline, though, Sagarra actually manages to weave the different plot strands into a rich tapestry equivalent to the one that the family’s patriarch, Don Tomàs de Lloberola, was forced to sell.
Don Tomàs is not the only one with money problems, though: His oldest son, Frederic, is always trying to get himself out of financial trouble. An acquaintance of Frederic’s, Antoni Mates, also known as the Baron Falset, is willing to give him a loan to help him pay some debts, but only if he can get a co-signer. Frederic tries to get his father to help, but Don Tomàs refuses. As if things weren’t bad enough for Frederic, he and his wife are on the brink of a divorce, and his children don’t care too much for him either. Instead of trying to improve matters, however, he just prefers to ignore them until things come to a head.
Meanwhile, Don Tomàs’s younger son, Guillem, is involved in some shady business with the Baron, his wife, and a seamstress who brings them together. When Guillem learns that the Baron can help Frederic with his financial problems, he interferes despite that fact he “certainly didn’t have any feelings for his brother” and “kept his distance from him, just as he kept his distance from his parents.” After a while, though, Guillem takes things too far. Eventually, his interference in Frederic’s affair leads to consequences that are both tragic and ironic.
But as mentioned before, Private Life isn’t just a story about the Lloberolas and their problems and schemes: It’s about a society dealing with the changes that come during the end of the Restoration and the beginning of the Second Spanish Republic. Toward the end of the book’s first half, the older Lloberolas find themselves even more estranged from the city’s aristocracy and begin to recede into the novel’s background. In their place, socialite Hortènsia Portell puts together an “eclectic crew,” a crew that worships Josephine Baker over the Virgin of Montserrat and includes one of the dictator’s generals. Later, characters with minor roles start to become more prominent; these include Conxa Pujol, the Baron’s widow who ends up in a kind of power struggle with Guillem, and Níobe Casas, the gypsy dancer who is a “powerful magnet for devotees of communism and transcendental nonsense.” Also, as Frederic’s children, Maria Luïsa and Ferran, become adults, they connect with some of their father’s old associates, including Rosa Trènor, Frederic’s on-again, off-again lover; and Robert “Bobby” Xuclà, his former friend whom he had a falling out with. As a result, Rosa and Bobby find themselves tangled in the lives of the next generation of Lloberolas.
As intriguing as the lives of these characters and their connections to each other are, though, what really makes Private Life a compelling read are Sagarra’s vivid details of this crumbling society and his keen observations about it. Sure, they’re not always pretty, especially since many of characters have a tendency to neglect not only their dilapidating properties, but their physical appearances and moral upbringings. Then again, any novelist who begins with scene where a man wakes up to the sight of a stuffed dog isn’t going to marvel about how beautiful life can be. Still, thanks to Mary Ann Newman and her sparkling translation, Sagarra’s masterpiece is finally available in English. - Christopher Iacono


Private Life, first published in 1932 (but only translated into English now), is very much a novel of its times, the second part -- jumping ahead five years from the first -- finding the characters in the contemporary thick of things, after the shift from the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera to the short-lived Spanish Republic under which Catalonia briefly enjoyed much greater autonomy.
       Private Life is a novel of Barcelona that ruthlessly peels away the layers to reveal its beautifully rotten core -- one that Sagarra regards and describes cynically, but warmly rather than coldly, bemused by all the hypocrisy that is also the source of much of Barcelona's wonderful-terrible vibrancy. The family at the heart of the novel is an example of decadence long past full bloom, a family that just barely can maintain the necessary superficial appearance but has collapsed almost entirely from within.
       The novel begins with Frederic de Lloberola, the opening scene having him waking up in the bed of mistress. It's a pretty low point, but then by this point they're all pretty low:
     The story of the Lloberolas was one of many family histories that come to a distasteful and impoverished end, without even a reaction to lend it some tragic nobility or, at very least, a scandalous or picturesque vivacity.
       Frederic -- "the hereu, the heir and firstborn" -- and his brother Guillem (and sister Josefina, who however had: "escaped the conflagration" through marriage) are: "Don Tomès's torment" -- but the pater familias had already steered the family to the point where it's all hopeless anyway. Typically:
Frederic's brain was in a quixotic lather. At every step reality was revealing his mediocrity and his failure but, if nothing more, the blood of the Lloberolas was good for fabricating illusions.
       Frederic finds himself in a spot of trouble over a debt which is about to come due -- and which he of course does not have the funds to cover. He'd rather not force his father to provide surety -- but assumes that, in order to prevent scandal, Don Tomès would. But it's brother Guillem who bails him out, having quite a card up his sleeve, as it turns out he has been rather intimately acquainted with the man Frederic is in debt to. Indeed, the whole affair not only extricates Frederic from one financial mess but lands Guillem with a handy bit of blackmail material, which he takes full, cruel advantage of.
       Frederic's idyll with his mistress -- and Guillem's putting the screws to his blackmail-victim -- last a mere "four months and three days"; it is a touch typical for the book that when Frederic's mistress Rosa Trènor resurfaces in the story, it is as a provider of abortions -- and, in news that falls: "like a bombshell in the world of the posh" that Guillem will wind up marrying the widow of his victim.
       Decadence prevails -- but in the second half of the novel decadence takes on an entirely new air, too, with the advent of the Republic, the noble classes initially fearing for their lives (and status) but soon enough playing right along.
       When the novel begins:
     Outward morality was so fastidious in these families that often it was considered scandalous merely to drop the name of a famous actress or dancer, or intelligent author, or the title of a novel. During visits to the lady of the house no lips would ever mention a topic of conversation that might be considered even remotely free
       But times change -- fast. Barcelona is suddenly a happening metropolis, it: "shimmered like a shooting star". And the goings-on get considerably wilder -- though of course some try to still maintain at least certain appearances.
       Much of the second half of the novel centers on Frederic's children (whom he brought: "into the world without a drop of enthusiasm"), as they begin to mature, especially daughter Maria Lluïsa. A failure in everything, Frederic also failed as a father:
     His influence on his children was disastrous. If ever there was a man who didn't have the slightest idea of what it meant to educate a child, it was Frederic.
       Maria Lluïsa tries to take a sensible path, but of course also gets caught up in the times, the opportunities, and the urges that come with maturity.
       Sagarra ruthlessly exposes personal weakness, from sad sack Frederic to the Barò de Falset, driven to his death by his shameful excesses. Sagarra also revels in the contrasts between affected claims and appearances and realities. Under the Republic there's a more open embrace of the more shocking, but many of the people are stuck in their skin and habits; typically, Frederic is not a practicing Catholic any more -- but can't admit that even to those closest to him: his "anticlericalism was cowardly and shameful, like everything else about him".
       Much of Private Life -- the action, and Sagarra's writing -- is overwrought -- admittedly often appropriately so. Occasionally, Sagarra goes completely overboard in wild abandon:
Like a marvelous sea anemone found at water's bottom, with a wary contractile antennae full of corrosive viscosities that open up at a given moment and expand in a multicolored swoon that brings to mind perfectly denatured chrysanthemums and perfectly artificial orchids, so was the soul of that woman, and her sex and her ferocity and her joy and her enthusiasm and her tenderness began to liquefy, released and rendered in a gelatinous mystery of effusion, in a sighing melody beyond physiology, in a perspiration perfumed with a whole gamut of ultramarine atavisms and dark nights lit by the glow of shooting stars.
       Stylistically, Private Life is all over the map, leaning obviously on everyone from Balzac to Oscar Wilde. From elaborate description to the succinct (and often dismissive) summing-up, Sagarra is hit and miss ("He was a bit past his prime, but he had a perfect command of the use of gardenias and of double-entendres"), but it's not so much that inconsistency that's problematic, but rather that Sagarra can't quite settle on a voice and approach of his own.
       Part of Sagarra's difficulty presumably also stems from the fact that he suddenly found himself within a completely different world: Private Life was conceived and written as Spain (and Catalonia, and Barcelona) made the transition from dictatorship to Republic, and Sagarra wound up writing from within the midst of turbulence that wasn't even close to settling -- and it's all too visible in the novel, the shift too radical for him to fully digest and work into his work.
       The Lloberolas are a fine family to put at the heart of the novel, but Sagarra seems to feel much more comfortable dealing with them (and his peripheral characters) more individually. He describes their various relationships with one another, but generally only in snapshot momentary detail, and the novel falls a bit short as family-portrait, as he simply can't comfortably juggle them all together. That said, the individual stories and episodes are often very good, and well done.
       Private Life is a fine novel of its time and place -- if too immediate, perhaps; it could have used more distance. Sagarra is an often very good but rarely great writer, not quite up to the challenges he gives himself -- though he seems to have a lot of fun trying. And Private Life is good -- and sometimes delicious -- fun. - M.A.Orthofer

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