My infatuation with Mercè Rodoreda (1908–1983), the great Catalan writer, began in the early 1990s when I discovered the two books of hers that Graywolf had reissued in the mid-80s: The Time of the Doves, her classic novel set in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, and My Christina and Other Stories. I was bewitched—by the writer, by her books, by the pure, aching beauty and foreignness of the language and worlds. (I was captivated much as I had been by the New Directions paperbacks of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart and Soulstorm: Stories around that time as well.) Rodoreda’s collection, especially, struck a chord: each story was a short burst of light and heat, by turns dreamlike and allegorical yet often cut through with the terrifying epiphanies of women on the verge of some sort of a nervous breakdown. But for all her manifest powers, over time, Rodoreda, like Lispector, gathered dust on the shelves.
Recently, however, Rodoreda has begun to enjoy another moment of rediscovery in English translation, this time launched by Open Letter, which published her final novel, Death in Spring, in 2009 and has now released The Selected Stories of Mercè Rodoreda. It is a pleasure to delve back into the stories of Rodoreda, which in this collection give a full sense of the breadth of her work, from the finely etched realism of the collections Twenty-Two Stories and It Seemed Like Silk (some of which first appeared in Words without Borders, including in its October 2007 “Rambles through Catalunya” issue) to the stream-of-consciousness fever dreams of My Christina. Rodoreda’s characters struggle with the crushing realities of life—airless marriages, the shrinking of dreams and horizons brought on by war and poverty, illness and grief, separations and departures. There are radical mood swings, even within individual paragraphs: bursts of fleeting happiness and dizzy euphoria alternate with bouts of profound sadness and melancholy. Rain pours down across her dreary Barcelona landscape (and later in the Paris and Geneva of her Spanish exiles), but this is “not the rain of lovers, but the rain of those made sad by life’s repeated bitterness.”
Even when her highly sensitive lost souls appear satisfied by what their lives have wrought, there are moments of shattering self-awareness—recognition of their faded youth, the secrets and lies of married life, and the silent, almost imperceptible end of love. In “The Mirror,” a sixty-year-old widow recalls an afternoon years earlier when she was frozen with fear that “the most insignificant gesture would shatter that mirror of sad, fragile happiness.” While in “Happiness,” Teresa, still aglow with her new husband in Paris, nevertheless anguishes over her repressed doubts and the feeling of being “tyrannically imprisoned within four walls and a ceiling of tenderness.” Tenderness, indeed, can be a sign of both comfort and crippling anxiety. “She squeezed his arm tenderly,” writes Rodoreda in “Engaged,” “but she wanted to weep. Houses, trees, streets—everything seemed false and useless.”
As the stories gather steam over the course of the collection, the effect crescendoes. Several, like “Friday, June 8” and “Before I Die” from Twenty-Two Stories, are absolutely devastating, full-blooded portraits of personal disintegration that read like condensed novellas in the span of just a few short pages. Rodoreda is fully in her element here, and even as the pieces become more surreal and otherworldly toward the end—“The Salamander” features a metamorphosis redolent of Kafka—Rodoreda’s passionate vision continues to pulsate on every page. It’s a testament to the translator, Martha Tennent, as well, that the stories remain so alive and arresting today. In an essay on the publication of Death in Spring, Natasha Wimmer, the translator of Roberto Bolaño among others, called Rodoreda “a domestic existentialist, a brilliant composer of interiors, both physical and mental.” Reading this newly assembled collection, I was moved to realize how powerful that small, cloistered world still is.