Josep Maria de Sagarra’s masterpiece on the decadence of Spain’s upper classes has lost none of its satirical bite over the past 80 years.
Book review: Josep Maria de Sagarra’s ‘Private Life’ retains its bite, more than 80 years on and in a new English version
Josep Maria de Sagarra (1894-1961) was a literary force to be reckoned with. Regarded as the Catalan Balzac, his capacious oeuvre includes volumes of journalism, poetry, criticism, translation, drama, essays and three significant novels.
His greatest one, Private Life, appeared in 1932, after he set himself the formidable challenge of producing the great Catalan novel.
An excoriating critique of Barcelona’s decadent aristocratic class between the wars, the book scandalised society on publication and went on to be bowdlerised by Franco’s censors in the 1960s.
More than 80 years later, Sagarra’s masterpiece is available in English for the first time. It may no longer shock but it most definitely stuns.
At the centre of the novel is the once high and mighty Lloberola family. Sagarra sketches tempestuous patriarch Don Tomás and long-suffering wife Leocádia in their large estate but saves his strongest brushstrokes for their spoilt offspring, brothers Frederic and Guillem.
Locked in an unhappy marriage, Frederic is a dissolute pleasure-seeker who enjoys a string of “afternoon adventures” and plays baccarat until the early hours. Guillem is more prudent and refined, and yet “when he needed some cash, he didn’t waste time on scruples”.
When Frederic starts to drown in gambling debts, Guillem steps in and blackmails his brother’s nagging creditor – although not out of filial devotion, more to uphold the illustrious family name.
But Guillem is either in the dark or in denial because the Lloberolas have squandered their fortune and their reputation is already tarnished.
Their decline is not unique. Sagarra notes that while a great number of Catalonia’s factory-floor workers have graduated into enterprising industrialists through initiative, gumption and sheer hard graft, the idle and unimaginative nobility have become “deflated, impoverished, and utterly annihilated”.
Orbiting the waning Lloberolas are a vibrant collection of secondary characters. There is Dorotea, one such self-made success story, who has gone from Leocádia’s personal seamstress to the head of her own fashion house – but juggling a job on the side as a shady facilitator of secret liaisons. There is Frederic’s on-off friend Bobby, a fellow philanderer who reintroduces him to old flame Rosa, a kept woman looking for a new start. And there is the widow Xuclà, who in her decrepit majesty is both a character in her own right and a symbol of aristocratic Barcelona – “popular, proud, and a bit childish, all traces of which were fading”.
We witness Sagarra’s characters intermingling in elegant salons, the Liceu Opera House, the Club Eqüestre and the cafés on La Rambla. But in one of the book’s most memorable extended scenes, Sagarra shows his high society guests first at play in party-hostess Hortènsia’s soirée and later spilling out to ogle the demi-monde in the sordid taverns, dance halls and strip-joints of Barcelona’s Chinatown.
As strutting peacocks turn into leering vultures, Sagarra’s novel becomes more inclusive, opening up to incorporate all walks of life and explore all corners of the city.
Sagarra pads out his cast and even his fleeting bit-parters prove alluring: from the ravishing Conxa with the heart of “a hysterical medusa”, to an outrageous, acid-tongued marquesa who attends bawdy revues with her chauffeur and manservant; to a vengeful killer called the Monk.
Murder and suicide shake lives but so do exposed affairs and peccadilloes. If Sagarra loses steam in his closing section dealing with the romantic exploits of a new generation of Lloberolas during the Spanish Republic, there are still enough surprise marriages and reshaped loyalties to keep us entranced.
Sagarra also holds our attention with his sumptuous and at times sensual prose. One woman has eyes that are “between green and grey, without sparkle, like the wings of those quiet insects that blend into the leaves of plants”.
Another woman possesses “the disconcerting perfume of a boat that has sailed over many seas, picking up the contradictory resonances of all the ports where it has berthed”.
Mary Ann Newman’s translation gives Sagarra’s sentences beauty, punch and verve.
Private Life is a scathing satire of class and privilege in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. However, the novel’s vivid tableaux of a Barcelona undergoing radical societal change are exclusively the skilled handiwork of Josep Maria de Sagarra.
Hats off to Archipelago for publishing this, and Sagarra’s countryman and champion Josep Pla. Now all we need is more.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The National.