Salvador Espriu Critical Essays

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 intensely personal one. (p. 727)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 11, 1968.

Salvador Espriu … is one of the finest living Catalan poets, a writer of outstanding gifts who certainly deserves to be better known outside his own country. Though he has clearly absorbed his native culture in profound and unexpected ways, he has kept his distance from the poetic movements—Symbolism, Surrealism, Social Realism—which have affected other modern Catalan poets, to the extent that his greatest strengths often seem to come from the qualities of the language itself. As Señor Castellet points out in his preface to Lord of the Shadow, Espriu's poetry depends on a series of paradoxes, the chief of which is a constant tension between "the spiritual (almost mystical) experience of a man attempting to renounce the world and … the collective and eminently problematical experience of the national community to which he belongs, which constantly demands his presence and his commitment as a citizen". In practice, however, the search for both personal and collective solutions involves a sense of responsibility towards a language which, in recent years as at earlier stages in its history, has had to fight for its existence against strong political and social pressures.

Arthur Terry, "Between Two Worlds," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 6, 1976, p. 127.

Hopefully, the intense and indeed terrible lucidity of [Espriu's] poetry will be more widely recognized within his lifetime.

Although the poet's work is very different from that of many twentieth-century writers, it is undeniably modern. If Jorge Luis Borges had a social conscience, he might write like Salvador Espriu. An overriding concern with time and illusion, death and memory, unites the two artists. Fascinated by the image of the labyrinth, both draw upon a diverse array of erudite sources such as the Cabala in their writing.

Of course this comparison has limits. Whereas Borges writes some books with a gauchoesque flavor … and others about chimeras and mazes, Espriu consistently fuses the local and metaphysical, injecting a note of contemporaneity and social criticism into even his most philosophical work. Furthermore,… he continues to write not in Borges's Spanish but in his own native tongue. From the publication of his first book at the age of sixteen, Espriu has written in Catalan, even during that period in which its use was illegal. Bearer of a proud tradition dating from the thirteenth century, Espriu works the elements of everyday Catalan life (goat paths, fennel) into a profoundly tragic vision of history which remains both individual and communal….

Seemingly simple, Espriu's style is really extremely complex. His latest book, "Holy Week," contains fifteen octosyllabic, six hectosyllabic, five trisyllabic and four tetrasyllabic poems as well as a variety of other verse forms such as tankas and shedokas. Although relying on a limited number of common verbs ("to be," "to see," "to know"), he uses them in a manner characterized by frequent shifts in person and tense….

In looking carefully at Espriu's poetry, one finds references to the Bible; Shakespeare and Dante; Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian myth; Meister Eckhart; Oriental religious writings and Iberian classics. Even these, however, are usually couched in direct, everyday language. Espriu's most common images include night, dust, eyes and sea. His poetry draws heavily on the four elements…. Symbols associated with dying are also extremely common. Nevertheless, the poet's "meditation on death" remains intimately associated with life and his own measured hope for the living…. (p. 224)

Key monosyllabic words such as death (mort) crop up again and again throughout Espriu's work. Often they link one poem to the next, making many of his books series rather than collections of poems. Although the last phrase of one poem may provide the beginning words for the following, this interlocking is generally more subtle. A word from the beginning or middle of a poem may provide the focus for the next section. Often this element will undergo a significant alteration, as when "our night, heard in fear" in the fourth poem of "The Bulls' Hide" becomes the "night of your hatred" which begins the fifth. Changes like these add a dimension of surprise as well as a certain pleasurable asymmetry to the series.

Just as the same stylistic elements reappear throughout Espriu's poetry, so do common themes. This repetitive linking provides the basic structure for "The Book of Sinera," a representative and particularly beautiful work…. [It] reveals the characteristic meshing of abstract universal questions and concrete political concerns which makes Espriu both an intellectual and highly popular poet…. Symbol of a personal homeland, the community acquires a mythic force….

The setting for these poems is unrelievedly barren. Espriu creates a sense of winter landscapes swept by winds which scatter the torn fog. Commemorating the passage of an already lifeless present, the poet refers time and again to walls and enclosures, opposing their darkness to "the young sun all wet with sea." Confronted by "this strange sadness of time," memory is powerless. (p. 225)

Though fragrant with the mint and aloes blanketing the hoof-pocked hills, this land remains hopelessly arid. Drenched in blood, the earth remains as thirsty as the men who weep crimson tears. Even the galloping showers cannot alleviate the dryness of its fields, roots, wells, cries or sorrows. Clearly, this aridity corresponds to a lack of liberty. Although freedom is described as "not a glory, but a weight," it remains essential. Over and over, the poet insists that "men cannot live if they are prisoners."

Unfortunately, Sinera is not free. The poems therefore prophesy impending death: the end of both an individual life and that of an epoch or a people…. Faced with a choice between contemplation and commitment to his countrymen, the poet merges his destiny with theirs. Nevertheless, these two strands (the individual and communal) remain visible even in combination. This dualism suggests a pattern of paired opposites recurring throughout Espriu's poetry. Hope and despair, light and darkness, word and silence, sun and wintry cold, open eye and sightless mouth occur side by side. Often these pairs reinforce one another as variations on the principal theme of life versus death. In this vein, hope equals light, which is also sun, seeing eye and flamelike words which winds extinguish. Similarly, darkness becomes the cold and silent blindness of the mocking beggar….

Although Espriu refers constantly to death and these "words of the void," it would be wrong to consider his poetry melancholy or morbid. "Hopeless," asserts Espriu, "I speak of hope." Although pessimistic, he is never despairing. Speaking of "the worn clothes" of hope as well as those of suffering, the poet suggests that the two may be cut from the same cloth. Though it may be a strange word to describe a poet who by definition has preserved the child's ability to marvel, Espriu is unfailingly adult. Referring openly to the attraction of the bad, he is one of the few writers capable of giving evil its due without giving in to it….

Clearly, the poet's reflection on his losses far exceeds nostalgia. The very gravity of his sorrow lifts it far beyond petty individual lament. Espriu, the Catalan, and indeed the Spanish nation have lived through defeats whose immensity can only be regarded with dry eyes. Their tragedy is of course only a variant on the human tragedy, but history has given peoples such as the Catalans—or Jews—a particularly acute appreciation of its terrible grandeur…. (p. 226)

Given the seriousness and difficulty of the situation in which he finds man as well as himself and his country, Espriu's assertion that he has given his life for "some naked words" is not an admission of defeat but an assertion of triumph. The passage of his life "like a wall" has earned him the right to speak with the awful tranquility of one in whom "the light rests" and who, converting crag to song, has already "calmed the darkness." (p. 227)

Candace Slater, "The Poetry of Salvador Espriu: Bare Crag into Song," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 224-27.