Catalonia and the Time of the Doves

Last August I reread one of my favorite books, The Time of the Doves, by Merce Rodoreda, for the fourth or fifth time. I re-read it because I was about to travel to California and give my copy away as a thank you gift to my editor, Neesa Sonoquie, or as I’ve called her in print, my editorial Kung Fu Master. If you’ve ever had an editor turn your manuscript into confetti, in the most magnificent way possible, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a transcendent experience. I wanted to give Neesa this book because The Time of the Doves isn’t just one of my favorite books, it’s one of the greatest works of art I’ve ever come across in my life.

I first heard of Mercè Rodoreda from the writer Sandra Cisneros in 1995. I had the chance to meet Sandra in California, because she was speaking at an event my boyfriend at the time was organizing, and I rode along in the car while he drove her to her hotel. She was gracious and kind, shook my hand with a wonderful warm smile, and said after that if her mom could see all the flowers in the hotel garden she would start crying because they were so pretty. When I told her how much I admired her work, she told me about Rodoreda.

Not long after the event I found a second hand copy of of The Time of the Doves in a bookstore, and packed it along with several other books in a large backpack. I’d been saving my money and was off to Spain to travel and then see if I could make a living teaching English. The boyfriend was supposed to follow me there a month later, but he never showed up. That’s another story.

I was 24 and this was my first time traveling alone. Email wasn’t much a thing yet and neither were ATM cards. I had $3000 in travelers checks stuffed down the front of my pants and that was pretty secure. Even if I fell asleep on a train, no one was going to be able to undo my belt and rob me. When I needed cash I’d go to a bank and wait in line behind people who were smoking, and then when it was my turn I’d exchange for enough pesetas to last a few days.

If I’d wanted to supplement my funds before such time as I was established as an English teacher, I could have accepted the offers of a few old men who assured me that money was no object, or that what they proposed would not take long. This was attention you could get if you did something really provocative like be young and sit alone on a bench in the middle of the day, or carry a backpack at a bus station, even dressed like a boy. The first time that happened I was so shocked I truly realized the meaning of “You could have knocked me over with a feather.” That’s exactly how I felt. Later I just started threatening to hit people.

Traveling alone was illuminating in many ways, and my time in Spain (teaching English, etc.) turned out to be an important period for me, not just at that stage of my life, but for the stages that came next. The books I took with me were great companions, though I was hardly loyal to them. Every time I finished one I left it behind to lighten my load. I read them in no particular order, but as it happened I read Time of the Doves when I was traveling through Catalonia, Rodoreda’s native land. I hadn’t realized she was Catalán, and I knew nothing about her history or that of the region.

When I left for Spain I had the name of just one person I could look up, someone I had never met, a woman named Lizzie who was my father’s cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s step-daughter. Lizzie’s address included a city or province called Lleida, but once I was in the country I couldn’t find it on any maps. Paper maps were all you had to navigate with back then. Where was this mysterious city that didn’t exist? I must have spoken with someone, I don’t remember, who informed me that Lleida was Catalán for Lérida, or rather Lérida was Castillian for Lleida. That may have been evidence of the history of Franco’s war on regional languages, but as I say, I knew nothing of that at the time. So I went looking for Lleida, and found Lérida, and from there I managed to get ahold of Lizzie by phone, where she worked near a tiny village in the Pyrenees as an instructor at a rafting school. She invited me to come out for a few days, and so I took a bus up there. It was October now and the air was crisp and vivid, with bright clouds suspended over the road, in the gaps of blue sky I could see between the mountains. Different from the big cities I’d been in, the hot, arid south of the country, and the humid Mediterranean coast.

I’d been in Barcelona, Rodoreda’s city, walking the streets several decades after Natalia, her protagonist, survived the civil war there in the 1930s. Natalia tells her story, which begins before the war and continues much after, like a dream, but the most lucid, hyper-real and resonant of dreams. Today if you buy a copy of one of Rodoreda’s books you will find in them introductory essays by Sandra Cisneros. Naturally the publisher wants to pull these books written in the 1960s into the contemporary era, though these efforts are already over 20 years old. Rodoreda, who died in 1983, was a highly acclaimed writer with an international reputation who wrote many books. As far as I can tell, only three were translated into English. David Rosenthal, her brilliant English-language translator, was an important translator of Catalán literature, a poet, an editor, and an author who wrote mostly about the history of jazz. Sadly, he died young, at only 46. I wonder how many native English speaking writers exist that speak perfect enough Catalán to translate more of Rodoreda’s books. If the books have been translated into Spanish, I wonder if someone like me (an author with a translation background) could attempt it, but it would hardly be the same. Translators have to make thousands of decisions when doing their work, especially in literature. It’s an interpretation at many points. If you don’t translate something from the original, but from a previous translation, you will get something really strange, like the Bible.

In one of her essays, Cisneros quotes a French critic who says of Rodoreda and Time of the Doves, “One feels that this little working woman in Barcelona has spoken on behalf of all the hope, all the freedom, and all the courage in the world. And that she has just uttered forth one of the books of the most universal relevance that love—let us finally say the word—could have written.”

My days in the tiny mountain village with Lizzie, her Catalán husband and her younger sister who was there visiting too, were rare and magical. We hiked up into the mountains, where shaggy horses grazed, and picked buckets of tiny blackberries to make a cobbler back at home, which added to the best meal I’d eaten for ages. I’d been eating and sleeping on the cheapest scraps I could find during my travels and eating well was a thrill. Even better, I slept in the attic on a kind of traditional futon stuffed with wool, which is the best thing I’ve ever slept on before or since. They say wool has many extraordinary qualities, like the ability to wick away both moisture and any kind of negative energy. I would attest to that.

Once after midnight we drove along a small winding road and crossed the unmarked border into France to visit an ancient Roman hot springs. We took off our clothes in a pitch black shed and then stepped into the steaming water. The sides of the tub—if tub is the right word—were perfectly even, rounded stone that the water just superseded, so that the surface was an unbroken mirror of stars.

When I left the village to get back on the road I left my copy of The Time of the Doves with Lizzie, having read the last page on that marvelous wool futon.

Several years later in grad school in Massachusetts, where I went to study “Hispanic Literatures,” I read The Time of the Doves for a paper I was attempting to write on the modernization of Spain, comparing Rodoreda’s novel with a classic of Spanish literature, La Gaviota (The Seagull). The book struck me in this second reading in a way that it hadn’t quite before. Maybe being a little older and a little more mature helped. I was so in awe of it that I seriously considered changing my concentration from Latin American literature to Spanish, but in the end I didn’t. I was already in too deep, and was also too interested in seeking out Latin American Jewish writers. So my relationship with Rodoreda’s writing never turned academic, it stayed personal.

I read The Time of the Doves again several years later when living in Vancouver, Canada, a reprieve from the days of medical crisis that dominated the first few years of my child Asa’s life. I reached the last page and was as floored by its beauty as if I’d never read it before. I spent some minutes staring at the ceiling, held motionless under its powerful spell. Several more years later, in Victoria, more than 20 years since the first time, I read it again so I would have it in my mind and heart while I didn’t have it on my shelf—the temporary interim between giving Neesa my copy, and replacing it with another one. I tend to forget most of the details in the years between readings, and since we read differently in different life stages, the experience, though familiar, is always new.

I look forward to the next time.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of House of Rougeaux, recently published and available in print and audio.

Publishers Weekly called House of Rougeaux a “rich tapestry of a novel” in their starred review.

Find out more on the publisher’s site.

 

 

Reminiscing ~ Iona

Of the contemporary minds that I admire, one that stands out is the author Zadie Smith. I find it insane (and frankly unfair) that someone that brilliant is also that beautiful. It can be difficult to know which is more dazzling, her beauty or her brilliance, when you watch an interview with her, but it all comes through in a rare, bold, and piercing eloquence. I mean, seriously.

Recently I took in a conversation from a few years ago, with Zadie Smith and the wonderful Paul Holdengraber of the New York Public Library. At one point in the conversation, talking about how the idea in hip-hop of “keeping it real” applies to literature, Smith said, “If you’re extremely honest, you will always be extremely weird….The honest expression of experience is always strange.”

I’m really glad she said that. It gives me a lot of courage, and will help bolster my telling of the following small story:

When I was 18…

Many years ago, which can sometimes seem like yesterday, when I was 18, on a sunny day in San Francisco, I went to a hilltop park with two friends. Gwen and Lily, and I sat in the grass and ate little graham crackers shaped like teddy bears; we were out for a day of art and adventure. Eventually we made our way to the playground, the sand and the play structures scattered with kids.

Gwen had brought a camera with a roll of black and white film, and we took turns with it. I was absorbed in taking pictures of some kids on the swings when I noticed Gwen climbing all over one of the play structures and laughing her head off. Gwen and Lily and I had the advantage of being teenage girls, and white, in that we could hang around a playground without anyone suspecting us of being dangerous, even playing with two random kids, as Gwen was now doing.

The kids were a sister and brother pair, Iona and Melvin. Iona was the older, eleven (Melvin was only seven), and confident in the way that eleven-year-olds are, at the apex of mature childhood, before adolescence starts to sneak in and undermine things, and she was directing the game: obstacle courses.

“First you climb up this ladder, then you slide down this pole…” she explained, along with numerous other directions, and I quickly got on board. So then we were all over the bars, one after the other, breathlessly finishing one sequence and then starting another.

When the game came to its natural end, Melvin had a lot of sand in his hair, which I tried to help brush off. He was a quiet guy, though smiley, but Iona had a lot to say. We sat on a curb between pavement and sand.

“My Rocky Robot won first prize,” she said, filling me in on the science project she and her dad had made in the garage, and a lot of other things. I was generally interested in meeting people with stories to tell, and Iona was a really, really cool kid. I got my notebook and a pen from my backpack and began to take notes.

I liked kids. I had no siblings and always wished I did. I had a big, unspent love for a younger sister, that somehow I always felt was missing. When I myself was eleven my dad had a girlfriend named Barbara, who had two little daughters, two and four years old. I hoped my dad and Barbara would get married, so the girls could be my sisters. The older one, Addie, was especially charming. If she couldn’t pronounce a word, she’d put an “FR” at the beginning. That summer we spent a lot of time “frimming” in pools, or sometimes “friving” in the car to a lake. But it wasn’t to be. I lost them in the wake of change, like I’d already lost so many people I had wanted to keep.

Sitting with Iona, talking about her life and writing things down I was mostly quiet, especially when Iona told me that her mother had died. I was struck, and so sad. The revelation took me by surprise and I didn’t know what to say. I would know now, maybe, almost 30 years later, having slowly acquired some social skills. But that day, that moment, I just watched her face, her eyes looking down, listening to the tone of her voice as she said the words.

I don’t know how long we sat there, but at some point Iona said that she and Melvin had to go; they were expected at home. Gwen and Lily and I collected our things and walked with them down to the corner. On the way, down a long set of wide concrete stairs, Iona sang “Rockin’ Robin.” I knew that song too and sang along.

Rockin’ in the treetops all day long

Hoppin’ and a-boppin’ and a-singin’ his song

All the little birdies on Jaybird Street, love to hear the Robin go tweet tweet tweet

Rockin’ Robin, tweet, twiddly-deet, Rockin’ Robin…

Gwen took a picture of me and Lily with Iona and Melvin in the middle, and someone took a few pictures of Iona by herself. And then we said goodbye and went on our separate ways.

Goodbye Melvin.

Goodbye Iona.

“The honest expression of experience is always strange,” said Zadie Smith. I’m sure it will sound weird if I say that every time I’ve thought of Iona since that day, I’ve missed her, like I missed that younger sister I never had. Too bad we couldn’t have met as neighbors or something, and maybe I’d help her with her homework once in awhile, if she was working on it on her front steps, or we’d go to the park and do her obstacle courses, and sing songs. If she didn’t have a mother, and I didn’t have a sister, then maybe, in that alternate reality, we could have kept each other.

I still have a few pictures from that day. At some point, shortly after saying goodbye to Iona and Melvin, Gwen opened the camera by accident and the pictures of them got over exposed. There are two dream-like portraits of Iona, one where she must be in the middle of a monologue, and another in a reverie, with her scarf blowing like the Little Prince on his asteroid.

Somewhere out there, in the real world, I hope, Iona is alive and well, and almost 40, and Melvin is 36 or so. I hope they are happy.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of House of Rougeaux, recently published and available in print and audio.

Publishers Weekly called House of Rougeaux a “rich tapestry of a novel” in their starred review.

Find out more on the publisher’s site.

 

 

Why Do You Write?

I love it when I hear the question posed to writers, “Why do you write?” I listen with avid interest to the answers, which are sometimes elusive, like, “It’s just what I do,” or a conclusion arrived at by a process of elimination like, “It was the only thing I was good at,” or, “There’s nothing else I want to do more.” The writer Jhumpa Lahiri once quoted someone to say that the writer is “the reader who can’t control himself,” which must speak to the love of the medium, a love so fierce, that when you dive into a book, as into a swimming pool, that level of participation is not enough, and you have to, upon reaching the bottom, carve out another pool, and so on, so you can keep swimming forever.

Writers also talk about hating writing, and I love that too. Paul Beatty, the genius who gave us The Sellout, has said in interview that he hates writing, because writing is hard, and yet he devotes his whole soul and intellect and the years of his life to it. He’s not alone in this feeling, which of course gives rise to the question of why do it. Personally, I seem to write because I need to. I have a love for it, it’s one of the activities that seems most to be in harmony with my soul, and it’s also a strategy I lean on heavily, to deal with myself and the world, the inner and outer spaces, and the interconnections throughout them.

A big part of that mediation goes out in the desire to connect with others, by reading and by writing, via that special sort of communication that Stephen King calls “telepathy” between reader and writer. It’s a funny kind of communication because at any one point, in real time, there’s only one person present, either the reader or the writer, and yet it works. It works brilliantly well.

            Now that House of Rougeaux is launched, now that we’ve broken the champagne bottle over the hull, and the thing has lurched out of the harbor, it goes off on a sail that has little to do with me anymore. I spent two years (or so) building it, and now off it goes, in wind and water that I didn’t create, and while I’m very invested on its voyage, it’s now an entity separate from me. Actually, during the making it also felt like an entity separate from me, even though I was very intimately involved. The books I am working on now, two new novels, one of which is a Rougeaux sequel, have a stake in Rougeaux’s success, because these are two new entities that also want to be born. They want to be born, and also to have a life (publication, readership, participation in the culture of reading, in the activity of life on earth), and it’s the life part that depends on forces outside my own sphere. And after that, likely there will be others, because I’ll keep writing, because I need to, though that personal need, in itself, is not particularly interesting. More interesting is the question of why humanity does this at all.

One of the few writers to whom I have a deep, personal attachment—someone who feels like an important friend, even though I’ve never met him and never will, unless it’s in the afterlife—is David Foster Wallace. Wallace once said in interview:

Fiction has a very weird and complicated job, because part of its job is to teach the reader, communicate with the reader, establish some sort of relationship with the reader, where the reader is willing, on a neurological level, to expend effort, to look hard enough at the jellyfish to see that it’s pretty. That kind of effort is very hard to talk about, and it’s real scary because you can’t be sure whether you’ve done it or not. It’s what makes you sort of clutch your heart when somebody says, ‘I really like this. It didn’t strike me as gratuitous.’ Cause that’s, of course, your great hope when you’re doing it. The point of art has something to do with loneliness and something to do with setting up conversations between human beings.

This is as good a description of the point of art, and the intention of the attempt to get to that point, as any I’ve ever heard. Or it’s better, I don’t exactly keep track, I just know when I hear something like this that I have to write it down. And I have to reread it and share it, and keep it for myself, because it helps me understand what the hell I am also trying to do.

Thanks for reading.


Jenny Jaeckel’s latest book House of Rougeaux was published in April (2018) and is available in hardcover, ebook and audio wherever books are sold!