Eight Questions for Adrian Nathan West on Fortuny by Pere Gimferrer

A rather strange book by a rather strange Catalan writer has just been published in English by Godine in Adrian Nathan West’s translation. The book is Fortuny, and it is the closest thing to a novel Pere Gimferrer has written, despite publishing some 50 books.

I emailed Nate eight questions on this strange book and its strange writer, who, according to one of his friends “writes like Proust.” We talked about just who Fortuny was, why (and how) to write a book novel him, and what this book contributes to American letters at the moment.

Nate previously wrote about Michel Houellebecq in The Quarterly Conversation, and we’ll be publishing a translation of his from a novel by the experimental Spanish author Germán Sierra in the next issue.

Scott Esposito: Pere Gimferrer is the author of some 50 titles. So why did you want to translate this one?

Adrian Nathan West: Years ago, my college French professor, who is still a good friend, said, “There’s a Catalan who writes like Proust.” I didn’t catch Gimferrer’s name at the time, because this person is constantly making recommendations and foisting books off on me, but what he said stuck in my head, and a few years later, I asked him about it again. At the time, I knew nothing of Gimferrer’s work, and I think the Catalan original was out of print, because I had to order a used copy that was old and fairly expensive. I thought the book was marvelous: it’s very challenging, because his Catalan is almost its own language, full of archaisms, unusual variants, and words that are just shy of inexistent, but I enjoy that sort of thing (I only hope others do too, since I’ve tried to mirror that in the translation). This book is special among Gimferrer’s work in that it’s the closest thing to a novel proper, and there is little like it in English: maybe Ruskin, maybe Virginia Woolf in The Waves, but Ruskin is bombastic and Woolf’s sensuality has a warmth and psychological depth that are intentionally absent in Fortuny. I translated the first chapter in early 2013 and was fortunate enough that an editor I showed it to ended up at Godine and wanted to do the book. In the meantime, I did publish a book of his poetry, Alma Venus, with Antilever, but Fortuny was my introduction to his work.

SE: Looking around, the names I see in conjunction with Gimferrer are names like Proust, Claude Simon, Luis de Góngora. Could you give some sense of this author’s context?

ANW: There’s an essay by Bolaño where he talks about winning the Rómulo Gallegos Prize and he calls Gimferrer to ask him where the Venezuelan author had lived in Barcelona, because Gimferrer “knows everything and has read everything.” Having just met him the other day, I can confirm that he gives such an impression, though I did manage to find two writers he didn’t know—Cristina Campo and Harold Nicolson, two favorites of mine. He reads in seven or eight languages and has written in four, and could talk for hours about Ariosto, Dickinson, or Bolaño. If you are looking for direct influences, the writer whose impress I see most clearly in his work is Góngora, particularly in regards to this trick of delayed signification, where discreet and at times seemingly contradictory sensory details accumulate vertiginously and the reader struggles to reconcile them into a concrete image. He’s also written abundantly on film, and his narrative work is deeply cinematic, with episodes framed in the manner of shots married by match cuts and so on. He himself has said that the Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship perverted the course of Spanish literature, particularly with regards to the innovations of modernism, and that he has tried, in a sense, to overcome that breach and to write, not as though the war hadn’t occurred, but as though Spain had been able to follow the kind of formal evolution undergone by poetry in, say, England or France. Of course, he’s Catalan as well, and most of his poetry is in Catalan, so there you are dealing with a separate culture and a separate set of influences: the chivalric novel Tirant lo Blanch, which is one of the great masterpieces of Western literature, and the Valencian poet Ausiàs March, and many other writers who haven’t made it into English.

SE: So the title character of this book, Fortuny, was a real person, quite a cultural force all throughout Europe up until the Second World War. He built stages for Wagner, designed gowns for Condé Nast, was admired by Proust. As you were poring over this text as its translator, what sorts of insights did you get into the question of why write a book based on this individual, and to do it in the way Gimferrer has chosen to?

ANW: To start with, we have to distinguish between the two Fortunys, father and son. Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (1838-1874) was a painter born in Reus, in Catalonia. Several of the book’s chapters, most notably the first, are in essence prose poems devoted to his paintings, and his grandfather, who sculpted figures in wax, makes a cameo as well. Certainly, there is a desire to bring attention to this key figure of Catalan culture, whom Gimferrer has described in a lecture as one of the first European modernists, despite certain fusty aspects of his style. Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo is a different case: here you have a bridge from Wagner to Proust to Orson Welles, a person who excelled in numerous arts and exemplified a special kind of creative dynamism. Gimferrer has said he’d ruminated on the idea of doing a novel for some time, that he had a store of images and threads of plot, and that on a visit to Venice in the early 1980s, he suddenly saw how the dynasty formed by the Fortuny and Madrazo families was the keystone for a story he wished to tell about the artistic spirit from the Belle Époque to the Second World War.

SE This book is composed of many, many little chunks of a page or two, each centering around a different individual or scenario, and many of them deal with great European artists that will be familiar to readers. It’s a little like a pointillist novel, a little of the French New Novel. How radical was it to write a book like this in 1983, when Gimferrer first published it, and what do you think it contributes to Anglo letters now in translation?

ANW: Well, it is very different from anything that was being done in Spanish or Catalan at the time. Of what you might call “experimental” fiction, you had the Latin American writers of the first and second boom, and then in Spain there were figures like Ferlosio, and in Catalan, Pere Calders, Terenci Moix, or Quim Monzó. These are all important writers, but contemporary and a bit edgy, of an extremely different tenor from Pere Gimferrer. On the one hand, Fortuny is formally unusual, but thematically, it is in a kind of time capsule. Whereas something like The Death of Virgil takes a theme from antiquity and imbues it with great vitality, Gimferrer intentionally shows the figures of Fortuny as though dead and covered in dust. This is in part serious and elegiac, and in part an homage to the style of Fortuny y Marsal, whose vivacious brushwork is not devoid of a measure of kitsch. The book had a deep impact at the time of its publication, and was widely hailed as a masterpiece. For an English-speaking reader now, it is, I believe, the best introduction to the themes and style of someone who occupies a position of unquestioned authority in Spanish and Catalan letters; it is an impressionistic history of one of the richest periods of Western arts and letters; and it vindicates a kind of sober, erudite elegance that is in danger of getting lost in English letters amid the fervor for authenticity, in the sense that Lionel Trilling employs the term.

SE: Could you expand on what you mean, about vindicating a kind of elegance that is being lost amid a fervor for authenticity?

ANW: Lionel Trilling makes a distinction between sincerity, which implies a consonance between inner and outer and is inseparable from the moral relation of its possessor to the broader world, and authenticity, which he calls “the unmediated exhibition of the self.” For me, this is important to understanding a great deal about modern art and literature as well as the way various ethical and political discourses are or are not accorded legitimacy. At their best, artists concerned with authenticity rend the fabric of hypocrisy, stress the claims to dignity of people excluded from dominant discourses, and reveal things that cry out to be seen, but are more comfortably ignored. But anything that someone does well, someone else will do badly, and there will always be readers who can’t tell the one from the other. To pick an example of something that arcs more toward authenticity, Marie Calloway’s What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life was timely and heartbreaking and a very laudable book; but alt-lit at its worst betrays a sense that as long as there’s enough violence, drugs, weird sex, and feelings of exclusion, then there’s no need for deliberation, good sentences, or literary culture. Particularly in America, where the stress on authenticity dovetails at times with a widely credited notion that craft means breaking down complicated clauses and cutting adjectives and adverbs, you end up with a huge number of books so uniform as to lead one to despair. There is room for exuberance and risk, for effort and for artifice, and particularly now, when looking things up is easier than ever, there’s no crime in an author’s asking a bit of legwork of the reader.

SE: And to bring it back to Gimferrer, what would you say is Fortuny’s contribution to this authenticity/sincerity (and maybe also craft) issue that you see in American lit?

ANW: It’s an unusual book in that there is an utter absence of psychology, whether with regard to the author himself, who has no voice, or to the characters, whom we see but never hear. From Henry James hitting on the theme of the Aspern papers to D’Annunzio, who sees Eleonora Duse on stage and composes a sonnet in her honor, they are receptacles of very dense impressions and recollections, but their feelings are hidden from us. In this way, the moral as such, and along with it the moral dilemmas that define this sincerity/authenticity dichotomy, are expelled in favor of a vision that may be pre- or post-moral but is in any case thoroughly impressionistic. As regards craft, the prose is immensely polished and lush, but not at all laborious, and is filled with poetic effects which I have tried to reproduce in my version.

SE: Of the many fragments in Fortuny, which are your favorites?

ANW: At the level of diction, I think the first chapter, “The Man in the Turban,” is just short of miraculous. It’s so bewitching, even if you have no idea what’s going on (which was my case when I first read it). It’s a description of several paintings by Mariano Fortuny y Marsal: of an odalisque, of a pair of Arabs shoeing a mule, of a battle in Tétouan, and two self-portraits, and of the interior of the Fortuny palace. Gimferrer has stressed many times that there is no need for the reader to chase down every reference, that the important thing is a kind of poetic vigor, but for those so inclined, the book is a treasure chest: every detail in it is based on some kind of real event or drawn from a film, painting, photograph, or play; my editor at Godine and I discussed illustrating the book with some of them, but for various reasons, that fell through. “Visions” is a lovely re-imagining of Proust’s conception of the character Albertine while staring at a Fortuny gown. I also love the moment in “Table Talk” when Fortuny sees himself portrayed in a painting by his father and utters the words, “It’s me,” which I think is the only instance of direct speech in the book.

SE: Other than the anarchisms, etc, that you mentioned at the top of this interview, were there any particular translation challenges to this book?

ANW: It was very difficult and very slow-going, much more so than anything I’ve worked on thus far. The cast of characters is huge, and for my own understanding of the book, I needed to have a sense of who everyone was. The same is true of the artworks, hidden citations, and so on in the text. When Henry James has a vision of a man in an asylum with “greenish skin,” in a sheet of “coarse” linen, this is a quote from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and the translation needed to reflect that; this is one of numerous similar instances. There are myriad poetic effects that needed to be imitated: thus “la nit californiana és àvida, gruixuda, obsedida i eixuta” became “the California night is restive, firm, obsessive, and burned.” And in the Valentino chapter, which is full of alliterated letter Vs, I read almost the whole V section of the OED before settling on the word “vauntmure,” which, believe it or not, doesn’t form part of my everyday vocabulary.

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