When I thought about the families I knew well, I saw the woman as the foundation stone

Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal

As a rule, the British reading public (with the honourable exception of crime fiction fans) don’t like books in translation. As another rule, they don’t much like novellas either. Not even the crime fans this time.

Peirene Press is a new publishing house (new to me anyway) specialising in novellas in translation. And not just any novellas in translation, novellas by writers who are not already well known in the UK market.

Clearly, the folk behind Peirene are in for a challenge. What they bring in response to the massive indifference (if not outright antipathy) of the British reading public is books which are are interesting and unusual in their own right and which are beautifully printed and bound.

So far, Peirene have three books in their catalogue (with a fourth, translated by Anthea Bell, on the way). I’ve just finished the second of those: Catalan writer Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide.

Stone in a Landslide is an unusual work. It’s the story of a Catalan peasant woman named Concepció, known to everyone as Conxa (pronounced, I believe, Concha). The story, such as it is, is told in Conxa’s own words. It opens with her as a small child being taken by her parents to go live with her childless aunt and uncle. Her own family can’t afford to keep her, and the aunt and uncle could use another pair of hands. I shan’t say how it closes.

What’s impressive about Stone is how Barbal fits a whole life into so few pages. Conxa is a fully realised character. Hard working, respectful, perhaps not the brightest but not a fool either. She’s a woman who swallows her disagreements with others in the interests of harmony; she is unambitious and has little interest in matters beyond her own village and family; but too she is a loving wife, a mother and of course in time a grandmother.

In order to make Conxa credible Barbal fits her within a family and a community, and brings those to life too. We meet her constantly industrious Aunt Tia (Tia just being Catalan for aunt), her independent minded friend Delina, her husband Jaume and later her own children each different to the other. Not every character is as developed as the next, but how developed they are follows how important they are to Conxa so that those she cares for most are most real to the reader. That’s clever, because that’s how it would be were Conxa really telling us her life story.

Conxa comes of age in the years before the Spanish civil war. Her village is a poor one, with even the richer among them owning little. Life is hard work, and the people are unsentimental. They are peasants and have little formal education, but they know what they need to and are keen that their children should have better lives than they do.

Food and religion are at the centre of their world. The villagers come together at annual feasts, the family each day around communal meals. It’s a way of life as alien to our own atomised existences (mine anyway, for all I know this may be read by members of an agrarian commune) as it could be. Here, Barbal uses a description of food to show how Conxa’s aunt and uncle come to accept her as part of their home:

At first she tasted everything and she didn’t trust me at all but gradually she saw that I had sense and patience and she let me prepare the salads on my own. After that, the omelettes and vegetables, later the stews, and last of all, the soup. For my aunt and uncle, soup was sacred, and it was the badge of their trust in me when they at last let me make it. We had soup every day. Like bread, you had to have it.

There isn’t really a plot to Stone. Conxa grows up, falls in love and marries. She sees tragedy during the Spanish Civil War and experiences both joy and terrible suffering. She lives a life and tells us of it.

The language Barbal uses is simple, sparse even, as you’d expect given Conxa’s lack of formal education. At times the sentences even drift towards the obvious – but then that too helps it persuade. The focus flows as memory does. Things important to Conxa are described in intimate detail, such as her first meeting with her future husband. Then a decade can pass in a paragraph. In my own life too there are some half hours that stand out more in hindsight than other whole months.

Here’s that first meeting with her future husband. I thought this a lovely passage:

That Monday I went down to market with Oncle. We needed to buy something for the house and Tia sent me. When it was time to go back, Oncle said we had a lift from the blacksmith at Sarri. I was glad not to have to do that walk! When I got up onto the cart, my heart leapt into my mouth when I saw a bright smile and heard a voice say: How are the people of Pallarès? It was a young man, maybe the blacksmith’s son, who was making room for me. He was shorter than he appeared at first glance because he was very slim. Dark chestnut hair, a little bit wavy and combed with a side parting, wide forehead and small but lively eyes under finely-drawn eyebrows. A mouth that wasn’t too big but was always about to laugh, so much so that if he wasn’t smiling, the seriousness of his face was striking.
Oncle prefered to sit beside the driver in case he had to help lead the animals. At first I didn’t dare lift my eyes from my feet, almost hidden under my skirts, but soon I was laughing as I listened to Jaume. He was so open and full of charm that I quickly forgot my shyness. Even so, for the whole journey I couldn’t hold his gaze when he looked me in the eye.

Stone isn’t a flawless work. The vast bulk of the novella is Conxa speaking in the past tense. At one critical point though a chapter consists of a letter from cousins. I found the sudden change in style jarring. Similarly, for a chapter or two thereafter the tense changed from past to present. Again, this reminded me I was reading a book, not listening to Conxa speak.

Another criticism I’ve seen aired is that as a reader you are an observer of Conxa’s life and slightly distanced from it. I think that’s true, but I don’t think it’s an issue (it wasn’t for me anyway). Conxa is not an introspective woman. She tells you what happened to her and how she felt about it at the time, but she gives little thought to wider meanings. The reader’s role as observer puts them in the place of Conxa’s audience. As reader, you are hearing her story, not living it.

The final chapters of Stone have real power to them. Barbal captures the sense some old people have of having lived beyond their time. Conxa lives through the 20th Century, a time of huge change particularly for peasants (as Berger portrays in his Pig Earth which I discuss here). In a sense she survives to see the passing of her way of life and so finds herself in a world quite different to the one she regards as her own.

There’s a final point I want to bring out about Stone, and that’s the social comment it contains. Although Conxa doesn’t analyse or criticise her surroundings, through her they’re still visible. The tension between the republicans and the more traditional elements within her village are brought to life through the local priest’s increasingly pointed sermons. The class tensions of the village come through in how people react when Conxa’s family hit misfortune after having done well for themselves in the past. Gender roles too are addressed, again indirectly as here where Conxa reflects on her desire for a son:

I wanted a boy. I don’t know why. Maybe to protect us in the future, because he wouldn’t do anything he didn’t want to, he wouldn’t say he was fine when he was sick, and he wouldn’t see pitch black as white.

That paragraph speaks to me of how in Conxa’s world women must shape themselves to their circumstances, where men have a chance to shape their circumstances to them. It speaks of narrower choices, and freedoms curtailed by tradition and expectation. But then, there’s the quote I title this piece with too, recognising that for all women’s constraints they remain in these communities more important than the men who nominally rule them.

I didn’t love Stone in a Landslide, but I did enjoy it and I found the quiet stoicism it portrayed highly effective. It’s a good companion read to Pig Earth, and the way in which it shows the working of memory, the impact of history on the people within it, the passing of a way of life so ancient and so recently removed, all this is hugely impressive. All that and at its centre is a memorable character portrait of a woman of a sort not generally given a fictional voice. A woman acted on more than acting; one who simply wishes to live her own quiet existence with her family and her friends.

For me too many novels are about middle class writers or academics struggling with minor emotional crises within fundamentally comfortable lives. Too many novels give voice to people whose voice has always been heard. Stone in a Landslide gives a voice to a peasant woman with no desire to change the world and that perhaps is the most revolutionary thing about it.

By way of credit where it’s due, I first heard about A Stone in a Landslide through a review at A Common Reader, here. It’s seen a fair bit of attention from the blogosphere, there’s a slightly less positive review from Lizzy Siddal here (which itself links to a couple more reviews). Kimbofo had similar reservations here. I’ve also found a review by Andrew Blackman here. I’m sure I’m missing others, if you know of some please link to them in the comments.

Stone in a Landslide

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26 Comments

Filed under Barbal, Maria, Catalan Literature, Novellas

26 responses to “When I thought about the families I knew well, I saw the woman as the foundation stone

  1. A very thoughtful review (as usual) and your last few comments do move this one on to the possible list. The other reviews that I have read have tended to concentrate on the “character” angle (and I don’t fault them for that) — your contextual placement increases my interest in what is obviously a worthwhile work. In my reading schedule, this will fit as a “fall” book when I catch up on some things.

  2. It’s still mostly character Kevin, the other issues are refracted through Conxa. Hers is the narrative voice and she has no interest in politics or wider affairs, so you have to read into what she does talk about.

    That said, there is context there to be found and that was partly what I found interesting in it. On the gender front, this is a woman’s perspective and a world in which women are key. The men are almost ancillary, important but not central in the same way.

    A man’s narrative would I think be very different, Conxa a near silent character. That is part of what makes it interesting though.

    And of course, as I’ve said before with other works, it has the merit of brevity.

    The imprint itself is lovely. I’ll definitely be picking up more Peirene’s. The choices seem imaginative and the execution excellent.

  3. On an unrelated note, to my shame I forgot to name the translators. I normally try to make a point of doing so in the body of my writeup, and here I somehow managed not to.

    Stone in a Landslide, Pedra de Tartera, is translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell. Their fine translation deserves better than my neglecting to credit their efforts.

  4. Max – a fine review indeed. I found Conxa’s “voice” totally convincing (not that I know much about how peasant Catalan women speak!), and the sparse tone worked very well. The character aged convincingly and overall, the book seemed to be authentic in its background and history. Yes, the translation was good too

  5. Imperator

    Your understanding of the pronountiation of Conxa is correct 🙂 In Spanish that name is spelled and pronounced as Concha, though.

    Great review.

  6. leroyhunter

    I ordered Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi after seeing the blog over at Guardian Books. I wasn’t taken with this one but your review makes me think again, Max.

    It’s a tough venture Peirene are embarking on so I guess they need all the support they get. The upcoming Anthea Bell translation should be worth a look.

    Incidentally, I see they have a blogroll on the Peirene site. My first thought looking through it was: where’s Pechorin’s Journal?

  7. Thanks Max, I hadn’t heard of this publisher so I will take a look.

  8. That sounds interesting but it hasn’t been translated in French. I’ll have to wait.
    Though I never thought reading translations could be an issue, I don’t want to read English translations. I would miss too much from the original text.

  9. Max, thank you for this beautiful and insightful review and being so generous about Peirene.
    @bookaroundthecorner: The French translation is called Pierre d’éboulis and was published in 2004. In my view the English translation, and indeed the German translation, are far better.
    @leroyhunter: There are a number of lovely litblogs still missing on our blogroll, usually litbloggers I have only become aware of over the last few weeks. I always like to write a few words about the blogs I link to and updating the Peirene blogroll is on my to-do-list.

  10. @Meike Ziervogel.
    Thanks for the info. I guess I’d better change of online bookstore.

    I wasn’t judging the quality of the English translation. But I know I miss things when I read in English as it is still a foreign language for me. Reading English translations would mean placing a double screen of languages between the original text and me.

  11. “or me too many novels are about middle class writers or academics struggling with minor emotional crises within fundamentally comfortable lives.”

    And too many smug reviewers make unsubstantiated right-on claims.

  12. leroyhunter

    Only reason it struck me Meike was because some of the others you list would link back to Max and/or feature his comments. It’s fair to say he’s a friend of good work in translation.

    Best of luck with your venture, I haven’t read my copy of Beside the Sea yet but it’s certainly a beautifully produced volume. I plan to pick up more from you….

  13. Tom, I don’t disagree on any of those points. Yours was the review that caused me to pick this up. I only had a few criticisms and I don’t share the main one I’ve seen elsewhere – of being too distanced. Thanks for putting me on to it.

    Imperator, thanks for the confirmation.

    Leroy, I’ll be picking up the Olmi myself. It does look tempting.

    Meikie, thank you for publishing it.

  14. Steve,

    Did the “For me” not make it clear I was speaking in terms of personal preferences? Those aren’t stories I’m looking to explore as a rule. You can call that right on, but I don’t think that’s the point. I’ve no left wing colleagues to impress, I don’t really care whether readers of my blog agree with my politics or not (I care what they say about books and the arts, but not really the politics). Truth be told, I’ve no real idea of the politics of most people who read this blog and while some of mine can probably be worked out if you read my posts here regularly (and the fact I comment at the Guardian a fair bit) that’s not really the point of the place.

    I’ve said before (and may devote a whole blog entry to it) I think the frequent advice to writers to write what they know is by and large fairly poor advice. There are great writers, some of the greatest, who write about being a writer. But personally I have encountered too many novels which are simply a retread of the writer’s own experience where that experience simply isn’t very interesting.

    I am more interested in hearing other voices. Were you to look around the blog you’d see a fondness for Central European fiction. That’s part of that. I’m not a huge fan of much of what’s currently going on in contemporary Anglo/American literature. That said, there’s so much of it that even though I think we’re in a very dull period there is still great work being produced.

    You’re welcome to disagree. You may think this is a great time in Anglo/American literature. That’s cool. There are excellent blogs (some of which I follow) that don’t I think share my views on their being a certain dullness to much contemporary literary fiction and I’m delighted every time they review books which suggest I’m wrong. For all that, I’m still more interested in the voice of Catalan peasants than I am London/Manhattan urbanites and if that’s smug and right-on so it goes.

  15. Max: I just finished reading a book called The Good Novel which will be published by Europa next month. I have an ARC from Mostly Fiction. The book is about two people who open up a bookshop in Paris and they sell only ‘good’ books. They have a whole system for selecting books–including a secret committee of 8 writers who have to submit lists of the best books they’ve ever read.

    Anyway, to make a long story short (er), the bookshop acquires (and it’s easy to see why) a host of enemies–publishers whose books aren’t offered and writers whose books aren’t sold there.

    I had a problem with the notion of elitism and these people selecting what should and shouldn’t be selected, but then again I wanted those lists!

    I get fed up with coming away from book shops empty-handed, and I start to feel they are stocked for everyone else. I could see the point of what the bookshop owners were trying to do (they were frustrated with the current fiction market and the advertising that buried decent books under the other stuff). They also argued that there were plenty of other shops selling the popular books, so there was no need to feel threatened. And after all, the premise of offer pre-selected novels is in itself a marketing strategy.

    Anyway it was a good mystery tale which examined some of the big questions (and problems) about book publishing these days.

    Currently reading a wild collection of down and dirty noir tales…

  16. I also am a fan of quiet stoicism.

  17. Dustbowl poetry Shelley, I can see that you would be.

    Tough times breed tough people I suppose, or perhaps only the tough people survive the tough times.

    With economies as they are at present, sadly there’s a fair few people right now finding out which of those is true.

  18. sshaver

    Max,

    You’re right. And just as in Trollope a change of circumstance can throw new light on a character we thought we knew, so in these hard times, a new set of values and virtues begins to emerge in people as they make their way.

  19. Picking up your novella point, I must say that I’m a bit of a fan – and not just because they are short and so I can get through more books. LOL. The reason I tend to like them is that they fill that gap between short story and novel: they tend to have the tightness or ellipticism (is that a word?) that I enjoy in the short story form alongside that little extra development (particularly of character) or spreading of the wings that we like in novels. Have no idea whether I’ll ever get to this book but it certainly appeals.

  20. I don’t know if it’s a word but I do know what you mean WG. A novella takes a single idea and explores it fully and tightly. That’s a powerful thing.

  21. Sorry not to have got here sooner, Max, but glad that when I finally did I read that we’re broadly in agreement on this one. I do love your detailed reviews. A very enjoyable book that didn’t impress nearly as much as Peirene’s first title, Beside The Sea, which I think is fantastic. Very much looking forward to their Anthea Bell translation too.

  22. Pingback: I put my head against his neck, necks are the softest bits on a child « Pechorin’s Journal

  23. Phil

    there’s a review of Stone in Independent in Britain, 18 June 2010

  24. I’ll have a look for that, thanks Phil.

  25. Pingback: she did not want to worry | Pechorin’s Journal

  26. Pingback: Stone in a Landslide – Maria Barbal | A Rat in the Book Pile

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