Sunday, October 19, 2014

A poet looks back

Back in the late 1970s I read this translation by the late Gabriel Berns of what is actually only the first volume (comprising Books One and Two) of La arboleda perdida, the memoirs of the Spanish poet and artist Rafael Alberti, but I've only just now finished reading it in the original for the first time. The translation, published by the University of California Press in 1976, is now out-of-print, which is a bit of a shame although it doesn't really surprise me, Alberti long ago having been displaced in general literary circles as the one peninsular Spanish poet whom one is obligated to know by his contemporary and friend — how close a friend is a bit of a matter of dispute — Federico García Lorca.

In fairness, Lorca, in addition to having died the death of an unwilling martyr during the Spanish Civil War, was the better poet, but not by such a margin that Alberti's achievements should have been forgotten. It's true that Alberti wrote too much and that inevitably some of it is of uneven quality, but the best of what he wrote — the poetry collections Sobre los ángeles and Retornos de lo vivo lejano, as well as the present volume — still holds up rather well. For those interested there are a number of selections of his poetry in English, including volumes translated by Ben Belitt (badly), by Mark Strand (nicely), and by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno.

As for The Lost Grove, it covers the first decades of Alberti's life, beginning with his birth in Andalusia in 1902 and ending in 1931, that is, well before the Spanish Civil War, the outcome of which led to his long exile in South America and Italy during the Franco years. An ardent supporter of the republican side, Alberti would also become, and remain until his death, a committed communist, but that aspect of his life is in this volume largely held in abeyance; the focus here is on his childhood in Andalusia and his search for a vocation first as a painter and later, definitely, as an artist. By the end of his twenties he had gained a solid reputation, published a half-dozen volumes, and become acquainted with such prominent literary and artistic figures as Lorca, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, and at least three future Nobel laureates in Literature: Pablo Neruda, Vicente Aleixandre, and Juan Ramón Jímenez. He had also met the woman — the writer María Teresa León — who would remain his wife and creative partner for the rest of her life.

Much of Alberti's most interesting work was prompted by crisis and loss, whether it took the shape of bitter romantic disappointment, war, or exile. (As he tells us here, even his shift from art to poetry was prompted by an illness that kept him away from his easel.) The writing of this initial volume, which seems to have been done at widely-separated intervals over a long period, is shadowed but also enriched by his separation from his homeland, in particular his beloved Andalusian seacoast. Memoirs are inevitably self-serving, and at times Alberti appears to write with the freedom of assuming that he would never see many of his old friends and relations again. As it would happen, he outlived virtually all of them, as well as — by decades — the Franco regime, and survived to the age of ninety-six.

Gabriel Berns's translation is capable and reads smoothly. It clarifies (or footnotes) a number of allusions that would be likely to confuse the English-language reader, and in one case, perhaps due to the censorship of the original text (my copy of which is a Seix Barral reprint from the 1970s), it provides a fuller account than the Spanish version, specifically of a comical anecdote involving a purported relic in the possession of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos. One section of several pages has been left untranslated; it describes a notorious lecture ("performance" would be a better word) that Alberti gave to a women's literary society, leading to a minor scandal. The account of the incident, while perhaps not completely untranslatable, would undoubtedly remain somewhat opaque in English, and its omission is perhaps understandable.

In the coming months I hope to move on to the untranslated second volume of La arboleda perdida, which covers the period from 1931 to 1987.

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