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The creative outburst of a waning language

The creative outburst of a waning language

The editorial reorganization has promoted an outburst of a generation of great authors when the social use of Catalan is at its lowest.

Recently, the lecturer Josep Murgades stated, on his retirement, that “our literature has more vitality than its language”. This paradox shows the determining moment our culture is living: the literary creation is undergoing a golden age regarding quantity and quality when language is suffering its biggest decline in history and the editing and publishing sector is experiencing the outburst of many independent initiatives that work to create their own catalogue.

“Those who consider it supremacist for Catalan to be homogenic are those who assumed the continuation of our cultural extermination”

We talked about all this topic with three real experts: Antoni Martí Monterde and Jordi Marrugat, lecturers at the Faculty of Philology and Communication, and Mireia Sopena, head of the editing and publications area of Publications and Editions of the UB, and expert of the editing field in Catalan.

Marrugat, author of Narrativa catalana de la postmodernitat, believes the recovery of the Catalan Government did not solve the problem with language: “This government has some economic resources, but has no real power, as seen every day. Therefore, it has been impossible to turn Catalan into a necessary language”. Despite this, he notes that “our literature has an extraordinary vitality, which made possible some trajectories that would be unthinkable of in some countries, some great works that would be the envy of any western culture”. He wonders who will read these “in some decades if the social use of Catalan continues to decline”. Martí Monterde, director of the Figura collection on comparative literature, coincides with Murgades’ opinion, but he notes that “it is not only now that Catalan literature has more vitality than its language; this had happened in much more adverse conditions”, be it during the Renaissance, in the 19th century, and during the 20th century dictatorships.

During those times, “the literature is the State of a nation without a state, or like Von Hofmannsthal would say in a different context, writing is the spiritual space of the nation”. Sopena, on the other hand, limits the situation to a more general frame: “Traditionally, there has not been a correlation between social use and literary practices. Although the objectives of language normalization in the eighties have not been achieved yet, during the last decades the access of writers to training, exchange between professionals and diffusion channels to reach readers have expanded in an unprecedented way”.

The construction of a modern Catalan literary system, which started during the Modernism, was consolidated with Noucentisme and it developed, although it may seem contradictory, during Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship. In the thirties, those citizens who wanted to be a writer in Catalonia, whether they were more nationalist or not, whether they felt more Catalan or Spanish, became writers in Catalan. Marrugat thinks that system was eliminated by Francoism: “As Vilanova, Gallofré, Llanas or Gassol had studied, this system was destroyed and replaced by a system exclusively in Spanish. It was a forced artificial construction with violence (physical and symbolic) with the clear intention to eliminate all its language, literature and culture”. It seems clear to him that those who now “consider supremacist the will for Catalan to be hemogenic in Catalonia are those who assumed as their task the continuation of this cultural extermination”.

Bookstores are still the main diffusing tool of literature
The emergence of a series of new bookstores has been essential in the dissemination of the creative outburst of our literature.

Martí Monterde thinks “there is nothing more supremacist than the attitude of Spanish writers towards the other literatures of the Iberian literary polysystem, which is an inter-literary community under conflict”. Regarding writers who write in Spanish in Catalonia, he believes we cannot talk about Catalan literature written in Spanish. “What we can do is to learn from other similar context like in Belgium, where comparatists such as Jose Lambert have managed to think through this complexity in order to talk, not about Belgian literature but literatures in Belgium”. Likewise, this complex polysystem exists within the Catalan literatura itself, with five territories distributed in three states that have not vertebrated an only space for communication. Martí Monterde thinks “everyone should do some self-critique, mainly in the media, but there is an autonomic structure with law fare, that fragmented corpus, market and cultural community turning the free circulation of symbolic goods, travellers and goods into a problem.

The other great referential node on which Catalan literature is based is its relationship with its tradition and the open relations it has maintained with other literatures through translation, which is undergoing a golden age parallel to the level of its creation. Marrugat believes “the idea that our tradition is full of gaps and weaknesses is a very common idea that I consider to be wrong: Catalan literature, apart from assimilating its own tradition, was born in the modern world with the desire to enrich itself by incorporating all other traditions without exception”.

But all this creative explosion would not be possible without a powerful publishing industry behind it to disseminate and shape it. Although over the recent years we have experienced an unprecedented concentration of publishing houses, which has led to the absorption of most of the imprints created between the seventies and the present day, at the same time we are witnessing the emergence of numerous independent publishing houses with highly suggestive proposals. Martí Monterde makes it clear in his analysis: “Catalan literature had had Selecta and later Edicions 62 as powerful cultural engines. But decades of abysmal economic management and publishing elites who did not know how to keep up with the times were degrading the literary level of what became Grup 62. The fact that Grupo Planeta took those historic Catalan publishing houses, with the freezing and destruction of their holdings, is a real disgrace. Their aim is to destroy the continuity of tradition, and to make Catalan literature disappear by entering through the Diagonal, with the collaboration of an important part of the gauche divine and pseudo-progressive and falsely cosmopolitan academic and political circles”. In his opinion, “distinguished literature publishing houses are small and medium-sized, maybe small regarding their commercial volume, but big from a cultural and historical perspective over the last twenty years, absolutely independent and radically cultural”, and he concludes hoping that “this editorial present, together with magazines such as L’Espill, Mirmanda, Afers, Revista de Catalunya and L’Avenç, is very important and has coincided with relatively young writers that are creating an incredible European literature in Catalan”.

Marrugat specifies the role of these small publishers: “They make a very commendable effort to republish and keep the Catalan tradition alive. And this has a great influence on today’s creation and canons”. But he has some objections on the creation of this canon: “There has been no great change in the Catalan canon since it was established academically between the 1970s and 1980s. In the recovery and reinterpretation of tradition that has taken place in recent years, there have been very questionable operations culturally. A false image of the Catalan tradition has been created and it hides the produced knowledge, mainly at the university, in order to respond to commercial and personal interests”. For Marrugat, it is clear that “the publishing world has opted for the recovery of the Catalan tradition in most cases in order to ignore the knowledge of researchers and specialists”. He suggests to two main causes for this: “The destruction of Catalan literary studies at university and mistaking criticism for opinion, which has moved from newspapers and magazines to social networks”.

Sopena, looking more pragmatic, believes that “just as the book sector is only one of the multiple stimuli for creators, it seems unquestionable that publishers and critics, in their various platforms and expressions, are the main definers of literary fashions”. “On the other hand, the historians of literature are the ones that will be able to define, with a historical and aesthetic perspective, a canon that is essentially heterogeneous and mutable”.

Editor and essayist Mireia Sopena.
Lecturer and critic Jordi Marrugat.
Lecturer, writer and critic Antoni Martí Monterde