Salvador Espriu

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Espriu, Salvador

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Espriu, Salvador 1913–

Espriu, a Spanish novelist, playwright, short story writer, and poet, began his career with an unsuccessful and critically rejected novel. After his initial failure, he concentrated on developing a clear, unadorned poetic style and turned to his native province of Catalonia for his subject matter. Using Catalonia as his focus, he created a mythical world around imaginary villages and wrote critically acclaimed poems which called for unification and understanding among the various peoples of Spain.

Sr. Espriu was slow to achieve a reputation, and his final acceptance coincided with a feeling that the Symbolist phase in Catalan poetry had come to an end. Sr. Espriu's poetry is intensely personal and owes very little to anyone else: though it is highly sophisticated it shows an astonishing awareness of the vocabulary and nuances of popular speech. The maturity of his first book of poems, published in 1946, probably reflects his earlier experience as a prose-writer. Several of the older stories collected in Narracions already show what was to become a characteristic polarity in his work: a controlled anger at the false values of the urban middle-classes, and an elegiac tenderness towards the vanishing rural and mercantile community of Arenys de Mar, the "Sinera" of his poems and fiction.

A certain overvaluation of the purely aesthetic, visible in a story like "Letizia", was probably a necessary stage in Sr. Espriu's development. The fact remains that the most successful of the early stories are the most human: "Teresetaque-baixava-les-escales", a series of monologues in which the life and death of one woman is made to reflect the decline of the society she represents, and "Conversió i mort d'En Quim Federal", a richly grotesque account of the death of a confirmed atheist whose mistress wishes to be legally married before he dies…. "Tres sorores" is a small masterpiece, the nearest thing in Catalan to Joyce's "The Dead". Again, this is a study of a whole sector of society—the genteel lower middle-class of Barcelona—which is living on the edge of an abyss, "a crowd of people whom no Messiah, political or social, would ever redeem". Of the three sisters of the title, one is already dead and survives only in the memory and the daily rituals of the other two. The failure of their hopes and their attempts to maintain their independence are incomparably rendered in the space of a few pages….

The complexity of Sr. Espriu's reactions to the Civil War appeared for the first time in a remarkable piece of dramatic writing, Primera Història d'Esther, originally published in 1948. This "improvization for puppets", though not in the first place intended for performance, has since been adapted for the stage with extraordinary success and is justly regarded as a landmark in the postwar Catalan theatre.

One of the reasons for Sr. Espriu's high reputation at the present time is the way in which he has extended the range of his writing in the direction of public issues. This is particularly clear in one of his finest collections of poems, La Pell de Brau (1960), a sequence in which the collective situation of the Peninsular peoples is focused through themes and images taken from the history of the Jews in exile. Primera Història d'Esther also shows Espriu's highly personal way of combining Biblical themes with traditional Catalan forms of life. By imagining the performance of a play on the Biblical episode of Esther in the small Catalan town of Sinera he is able to superimpose the Old Testament story on the world of his own childhood. Like all Espriu's best work, this depends for part of its effect on the extraordinary linguistic agility with which he creates a situation in which the barriers of time and place are abolished, and where the dead generations of Sinera are as real to the Biblical characters as they are to the author himself….

Sr. Espriu's view of the collective situation is all the more profound for being an...

(The entire section is 2,020 words.)