This summer, as I read Anne Sexton’s Self-Portrait in Letters, I was assigned a task perhaps more difficult than that of writing a poem (creation doesn’t necessitate the adoption of a literary position; creation need not mean setting forth an opinion or delving personally into the history of literature—or rather, it does, but in the creative act, we do all this with fortitude, and with responsibility): the task was to write an article on the poetic works of Miquel de Palol.
Reading Sexton and thinking of Palol, knowing how feeble these comparisons are, I hit upon the confession of the North American author cited above. Could the same be said of Palol? Could we split him into two halves: does the beast have two hearts? Attempting, over the course of weeks, trying to work out in my mind a mechanism that would unite my disparate themes, this question weighed on me, and I tried as I could to divide poet from novelist (and essayist from storyteller) until I began to consider giving up: there was no comparing Anne Sexton and Miquel de Palol—they were different breeds, endowed with different callings.
In Palol, we are faced with a total writer (an artist, as I will clarify further on—and no, not all poets are artists). Consummate. A specimen far from common in this, or in any, time or place. True, there are poets who dip their toes into narrative or even submit to the demands of the novel (do they emerge unharmed?). And there are novelists and storytellers—the Updikes, the Carvers—who do not hide their envy of the poet’s laurels and go in for composing verses and turn out a few with greater or lesser fortune.
But when all is said and done, what is their real body of work? How do we evaluate their literary corpus? And what are they trying to prove to us, to readers and critics, as they leap capriciously from genre to genre? To add breadth to their legacy? To show us that they know it all? Is there not always a dominant tendency? Are they not novelists dabbling in poetry, or poets trying their hand at the novel?
Those beasts who master both fields—or three, if we include the essay, and yes, I insist here on the word “master”—are few and far between. Initially I consider Borges (poet, essayist, and master of the short story, but whom the mechanics of the novel eluded); Baudelaire (a poet of the first rank, a magnificent essayist, but again, without a novel to his name); Paul Valéry (also a poet and essayist, author of that strange jewel Monsieur Teste, but of a type too idiosyncratic to fit the category of “absolute”); Virginia Woolf (a novelist and essayist, author of short stories, too, but with no poetry to speak of); José Ángel Valente (poetry and essay, a little bit of narrative, but again, the novel eluded him). I head off to Mitteleuropa, and there, Palol’s type of work (and his character) find more suitable peers. There is the colossus, Ingeborg Bachmann, novelist, essayist, playright, and of course, a poet in spades; Goethe, the universalist; even Cesare Pavese is something of a kindred spirit . . . Crossing the pond: in her short life, Pizarnik will try everything, but her attempts at the novel will never bear fruit; Plath, to an extent, but this is another talent lost too soon; Poe might be another, but the shorter works cast a long shadow over The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym . . . I make no pretense of an exhaustive catalogue here—that would be a theme for another essay—but at the least, with this overview, we can see that finding the “complete” author is difficult, and the examples are few and far between.
When I read Miquel de Palol, I see reflections of such authors as Claudio Magris, Robert Walser, Cortázar, Ray Bradbury, Clarice Lispector, Stendhal, Szymborska, Casares, Karel Čapek, Pessoa, Proust, Flaubert, or Novalis; but also of painters like Brueghel the elder (the first of many predecessors of the surrealism of the detail) or the cinema of David Lynch, Fellini, or Wong Kar-wai. This is true irrespective of the genre, for the poet under discussion works not in a specific genre (save for that of language), but in the broader category of art. As a literary artist, he employs genre in the manner of a simple tool, employing the one that works or those occasions when it works. He is a poet when poetry is what is called for.
Miquel de Palol is a species to be studied, like a rara avis. It’s true that “here,” in Catalonia (I put the word “here” in quotation marks, because the local vision of literature interests me little), we’ve had authors of what might be called a “similar” profile: Rodoreda, though frankly, her poems are vastly inferior to her narrative works; Marçal as well, though he wrote only a single novel, the success of which is a matter of debate. A better example, if we insist on considering Catalan literature “our own,” would be Maria Aurèlia Capmany (why is she so rarely spoken of now?) or, above all, Espriu (and it is not for nothing that he is one of Palol’s major points of reference).
In my approximation of Palol the artist, I come to recognize Palol the architect (with his undeniable archeological roots), and with that, we could easily establish a bridge with the humanist figures of the Renaissance, though obviously, we are now in the twenty-first century. And so we have, returning to themes I invoked a few paragraphs before, an artist of the Renaissance confined to a culture that is not of the Renaissance. He would best be compared to one of those creators who paints, sculpts, designs cathedrals, or composes cantatas in the fashion of his master Bach (master, I say, because Palol relies on the—recondite, astonishing, clandestine—resources of the Leipzig composer to weave together his literary partitures).
By chance, but luckily for his readers—more and more of them outside the borders of Catalonia, which is also a matter for discussion, as it relates to the competition between the culture industry and literature, but alas, I will save that for another time—as I was saying, luckily one day the architect Palol dropped his pencils, Rotring pens, rulers, compasses, and blueprints, and made the switch to parchment. The structures, though, didn’t change. The structures—language, formal intricacy, for which the Valeryan perspective is significant—these he has maintained, and they will serve as the basis of his work: a work not limited to individual books, but encompassing all that he thinks and writes.
Turning aside from the artist in general, focusing now on the writer, I ask myself: How can we speak of Kafka without mentioning the diaries or stories? How can we talk about Espriu if we draw clear lines between his poetry, his narrative, and his theater? The same dichotomy strikes me as I attempt to address Palol’s poetry in isolation.
To get to it, you need a salakot and a serrated machete. And a willingness to explore a creator, and not only a concrete book. Though I can situate his works chronologically, it is hard for me to place them properly speaking in time—because we are looking at a classic who can be read and exported readily, irrespective of the era or country.
Indeed, it might have been (more) interesting had this article been written by a reader from Bavaria, Montreal, or Stuttgart—because universal authors need universal readers and critics. Weltliteratur requires a reception, a gaze, that rises to its level. Recollecting the title of his recent book of poetry Dos cors per una bèstia (Two Hearts For One Beast), we could invoke the idea of a creature too ferocious for a literature confined by borders, too headstrong for such limits, as Palol at times seems.
The first scene of the film by Paolo Sorrentino, La grande belleza, is a crystal-clear portrait of Stendhal syndrome. The Italian film portrays a group of Japanese tourists so rapt in the contemplation of all that surrounds them that things turn miserable—they are incapable of taking in the overwhelming beauty of Rome, and they have to bring their reverie to an end with a frantic trip to the nearest emergency room.
Something similar has happened to me now and then, not in cities, but with books: tremors, knots in my neck or stomach, skin turning red, other physical reactions following on the encounter with texts that, when I read them for the first time, I felt incapable of “taking in” at one go.
It happened the first time when I read the poetry of Alejandra Pizarnik—I had to stop, I couldn’t go on, I was suffocating . . . I can still remember the image, and that was twenty years ago. It happened when I first read Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. Literature stopped me in my tracks, physically and emotionally, when I had believed that what happened with Pizarnik had been an isolated incident. Then I read Mai (May) by Felícia Fuster, and even now, when I have recited it hundreds of times, I still tremble, and the hair on my legs stands on end. The same occurred with L’esfera insomne (The Sleepless Sphere) by Màrius Sampere; and once again, this past summer, when I read El porxo de les mirades (The Porch of the Gazes) by Miquel de Palol. For weeks, I had to stop; I didn’t even want to look at the book. What are we doing? I thought. What are we writing? What have we read, what have we failed to read, before sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper? What does and doesn’t deserve readers?
For me it was a revolutionary book, where Valéry’s formula (“Poetry must be the Paradise of Language”) shined evidently, with moments like the following:
I will not answer any question—nor may I make of myself
that gold-flecked ring—
and I must be eaten by the sphinx that then will die
with a smile, as at the beginning,
for light and shadow do not struggle in the signet
of the rings
and you are death beneath the somber worm I have become.
And that was hardly long ago, after reading many of his other books, at a moment when I am becoming increasingly finicky about what I read, and especially, what I do not—because by not reading, we also read.
How is it no one had ever spoken to me about this book? How did this poet not appear in a certain anthology many have considered the most important in Catalan letters? How is it we go on celebrating the most mediocre poets—what is happening to us?
Obviously, a single book is different from a poet’s collected works (or is it?), and I lack the space here to comment on the many books he has published (each of which, moreover, is a project that stands on its own rather than the eternal rewriting of the same thing); but, specifically in Porxo de les mirades—a book I linger over because it is as fundamental to his body of work, and to universal literature, as, say, Espriu’s El caminant i el mur (The Walker and the Wall)—I rediscovered an archeologist of language, a connoisseur of precious words, an ornamentalist with a voracious appetite for images, a tireless searcher for poetic beauty, but also for ugliness, which acts as an inevitable counterpoint for the closing, point by point, of the poetic circle: his own totality. And apart from all this, a writer for whom form is inseparable from content.
Nothing is hazard here, everything is the outgrowth of a formula decided upon in the specific artistic case, and yes, there is spirit behind the extreme precision of the work’s components. It inheres to what he says as well as to what he doesn’t, as with the mystic who wields the explicit symbol while acquainted with the occult reality behind it. Porxo offers hints of that very Anglo-Saxon achievement, the narrative poem, and it seems likely that these poems indicate scenes that would appear later in his novels, particularly in the most successful of them, El jardí dels set crepuscles (The Garden of the Seven Twilights).
In an earlier book, Salamó (Candelabrum), we find a poet at play—the same one we will encounter in Llet i vi (Milk and Wine)—toying with all the word can offer him—that is to say, us—but at the same time, an already stern foundation that will point toward a constant and relentless evolution. Here there are poems that remind me at times of the works of Felícia Fuster (a poet who has, incidentally, taken a great interest in Palol’s work) and even of Sampere. If you don’t agree, take a look at these verses from Porxo:
The day’s annulled . . . there are no clocks . . . pus lies on the apples . . .Or from Nocturns:
the skies have ever been fixed (blood would console . . . )
the old question: Miquel, what did you take?
there’s no great undertaking, no trough
to gather the win from the heart gushing blood . . .
. . . walls . . . loss of intersections . . .
What aftertaste of avarice, what authentic
emptiness over the other emptiness that had been nothing
but the hollow vanity of the impulse
whence I imagine I derive that taste for life
the fearless pessimist requires
to keep from slipping on the numb ice of tedium.
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
These are Kafka’s words, and they apply to great art as well as great books, though at times we can’t face up to them, or do not want to.
Miquel de Palol brings us face to face with our weaknesses, makes us work, requires an active reader, one willing to labor away, one who understands that picking up a book is something other than whiling away the afternoon eating churros and chocolate. Not a frozen sea, but an iceberg we must crack however we can. Thankfully, Miquel de Palol offers us his knowledge, converted into art, to cut through it.
For him, perhaps, it is an act of intellectual subsistence, breathing in and extracting from his material all that he will later give structure to as a writer and artist; for us, it is an act of generosity that we can take or leave, depending on how much we are willing to devote to the person we are and wish to be.