Salvador Espriu: one of the greatest Catalan writers of the 20th century

Not many Catalan writers present the complexity and multiple facets that Salvador Espriu can offer. An intellectual committed to his nation and language, Espriu (1913-1985) was one of the greatest writers of his time. He left an extensive literary legacy, characterised by his deep words and reflections concerning death, pain and personal identity. His poems have a foundation in Cabalism and Jewish traditions, which is what makes his work so universal and what probably lends him a huge international recognition, even by writing in a minority language. This year has been called ‘Any Espriu’ (Espriu Year) in order to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Paula Montañà

June 25, 2013 08:46 PM

Barcelona (CNA).– Salvador Espriu (1913-1985) was a playwright, novelist and, above all, poet. He is considered one of the most important and relevant authors of Catalan literature although he has not always been well recognised and well understood. 2013 has been designated as ‘Any Espriu’ (Espriu Year) on the occasion of the first century of his birth, in 1913.  The main proposals of this commemorative year are to spread his figure and to impulse a rereading of his work. Espriu left an extensive literary legacy characterized by his deep words and reflections on death, pain and personal identity. His work is founded in Cabalism and Jewish traditions, something which makes him so singular and unique in Catalan literature. He is also considered one of the leading postwar Catalan authors and remembered as one of the national poets of Catalonia.

Some of his quotes have become mottos; ‘We shall be ever faithful to the people of this land’ is one of these. It appears in his poem Beginning of the canticle in the temple, one of the most popular works by the author. Salvador Espriu was an intellectual and a writer compromised with his nation and his language, Catalan. He used sober words impregnated with metaphysics so creating a personal and symbolic literature, between lyricism and satire. Over time and with the current situation in Catalonia, his words have also adopted a more political and social resonance.

Espriu was a leader of the so-called generation of ’36; he was only 23 when the Spanish Civil War began, an experience which deeply marked his thoughts and his work. He has been considered at the same level as other great writers of the 20th century, such as Eugenio Montale, Paul Valéry and Fernando Pessoa which allows us to think that his words do not have an exclusively subjective or local side but also a universal meaning for which he received numerous awards and his books have been translated into many languages, such as English, German, French, Greek or Dutch, books that though written in a minority language, are printed and sold in thousands.

Spanish Civil War and popular success

“It is significant that the first work that grabbed his attention in 1939 was the dramatic poem Antígona, written before the war had even ended: the myth of Antigone thus became the reality of Catalonia, just as death became the central theme of Espriu’s poetry”. The Catalan writer and editor J.M. Castellet, wrote this affirmation in the introduction to Lord of the Shadow: poems by Salvador Espriu (1975).

There is no doubt that the Spanish Civil War deeply influenced Espriu. After the establishment of the Fascist dictatorship he confined himself to interior exile. He kept writing with his personal, sometimes hermetical style, living as he did in loneliness but he was able to express his personal feeling of loss and Catalan society interpreted this feeling in a collective way. In 1946 he published Cementiri de Sinera (Sinera Cemetery), a melancholic poetry book which shows Espriu’s mystical qualities written at the seaside village of Arenys de Mar, some 40 kilometres up the coast from Barcelona, where Espriu spent most of his childhood. This village will appear recurrently in his work, always under the name of Sinera, a made-up name derived from reversing the letters of Arenys.

Later, in 1960, La pell de brau (The Bull’s Skin) appeared. This new poetry book, whose title refers to the shape of the Iberian Peninsula on the map, represented the greater popularization of Espriu; especially because it is less personal and contains poems that readers could better understand. It shows a dialogue with Sepharad, the name given to Spain, around the drama of a fratricidal war and the difficult relationship between Catalonia and Spain. In this way Espriu wrote an intelligent and critical book, maybe more objective and political than the rest.

The writer and journalist Agustí Pons has published this year Espriu, transparent an exhaustive biography of the poet who he defines as “one of the greatest Catalan contemporary writers, but his work cannot be well understood because most of his works are related to Cabalism and Jewish mysticism”.

International acclaim

When the American intellectual Harold Bloom introduced Salvador Espriu into his well-known Western Cannon list it was no doubt due to this international character and the universal acceptance of the words from the Catalan writer. Bloom said that Espriu was a “master of the silent”, comparing him to Romanian Paul Celan. Pons explains that when Bloom read Espriu he was immediately interested in him because of the relation to Jewish mysticism and Cabala: “this fact puts Espriu into one of the universal esthetic families”.

The professor and great expert in Salvador Espriu, Rosa Delor, also says she highlighted Espriu’s universalism and explains that he was very consciousness of it, “he looked into subjects that could involve the whole humanity”. Probably this was the reason that brought him close to the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he knew Catalan was a minority language and Espriu wanted to stay true to his principles and his language.

‘Any Espriu’: 100 years since his birth

Delor has no doubt when he says “Espriu was a good person who loved his nation, his people and his language”. So to commemorate his centenary this year has been officially called ‘Any Espriu’. This initiative is promoted by the Catalan Ministry of Culture in collaboration with many cultural associations and Catalan media. This means recognition as the national poet of Catalonia and through 2013 Espriu’s works will be present in theatres, festivals, and cultural events; as well as many conferences, exhibitions and poetry recitals have been organized to spread his figure and his literature.