Lydie Salvayre (1948) is the author of twenty books and a number of works for theater. A half-dozen of her novels are available in English, among them Lecture, The Award, and Cry, Mother Spain, which won the 2014 Prix Goncourt. Cry, Mother Spain tells the story of her mother’s life in Northeastern Spain from the beginning of the Civil War in 1936, when she was a fifteen-year-old peasant girl, to January of 1939, when she escaped to France with her husband, two suitcases, and her first daughter in a pram. Throughout, Salvayre contrasts recorded history with her mother’s fragmented and idiosyncratic recollections—at ninety years old, there is much her mother no longer recalls, but the memories that remain are extraordinarily lucid, and personal down to their mode of expression: a hybrid of French and Spanish Salvayre refers to as “Fragnol.” Cry, Mother Spain is translated by Ben Fallaci and has been recently published in English by Maclehose Press. This interview was conducted via email between June 2 and June 29, in Spanish and French.
Your book has a contrapuntal structure, alternating between the recollections of your mother—at times interrupted by your questions or comments, or anecdotes from the present—and quotations from Georges Bernanos’s Les grands cimitières sous la lune, which recounts atrocities committed by Franco’s Nationalists in Mallorca in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. Richard Rees, who was a friend of George Orwell and a participant in the war himself, called Les grands cimitières one of the few honest books written about Spain. Yet it is nearly forgotten, and has been out of print in Spanish and English for decades. What is the importance of Bernanos in your book and why is he so little known?
In France, Bernanos has recently begun to emerge from Purgatory, and most of his writings have been republished.
Without condemning him, exactly, a number of things kept him on the fringes of literary life.
Above all, I believe Bernanos paid for having been fiercely solitary, a free spirit, his entire life.
Solitary and free because he would leave France in 1938 for Brazil, where he would ruminate and write of his shame at being French after the disgrace of his country’s failure to intervene in Spain, followed by the disgrace of the Munich accords.
Solitary and free because he consistently refused every honor that might have compromised his freedom. He refused the Legion of Honor. He refused admission to the French Academy. And he refused General De Gaulle’s prestigious offer to participate in the post-war government.
Solitary and free because he loved to write in cafes, to chat up the regulars, the deliverymen, the waiters and the workers, admiring their spirit of resistance. He had little or no contact with the writers of his generation. Most of them came from the same bourgeois milieu as he, but he despised their lives of ease. A person is only at ease sitting on the toilet, he declared.
Solitary and free, he asked questions intended to expose the truth, wherever it might come from.
The gravest of these questions were those he would submit to the Church in 1936. Bernanos, a fervent Catholic, lover of the Gospels, and ex-militant from Action Française, could not find words harsh enough to express his disgust at los nacionales, at the terror they exercised over the wicked poor, the poor who rebelled, who went on strike, who refused to keep their mouths shut, or his even more violent disgust at how the Spanish Church gave its blessing to this terror. Such positions would make him an outcast in his own family.
This outcast condition was made worse by the publication of his Écrits de combat (reissued in the prestigious Pleiade collection), writings in which he never ceases to fulminate against the hypocrisy of bigots, the selfishness of the bourgeoisie, against the indifference of the well-meaning, against Pétain’s pestilent regime, and against those in France who supported the “ignoble crusade” of the Spanish Catholics. He also expressed his alarm at the future of a world obsessed with notions of revenue, efficiency, and profit, where greed no longer made people blush. Eventually, he wrote, this mania for speculation will give rise to periodic economic crises and wars that will hurl millions of the unemployed, or millions of soldiers, into their graves. A phrase that could have been written today.
In adopting a Marxist agenda for revolution, the Spanish left, like the Russian left before it, attempted to impose a philosophy developed as a response to industrialization on a largely agrarian, even feudal society. Your book shows the arrival of leftist ideas to the village after José, Monste’s brother, returns from his time in the provincial capital of Lleida. The villagers are quick to embrace his ideas, but when the Nationalist victory is assured, they reject them just as expediently. Other writers who have examined the Civil War—for example, Ramiro Pinilla in his trilogy Verdes valles, Colinas rojas—suggest that the urban proletariat, which stood at the vanguard of the Republican left, couldn’t grasp the psychology of people in the countryside.
I don’t have any special understanding of this aspect of Spanish history. I’ve just heard what my mother and uncle had to say regarding the two experiences they lived through: first, the experience of the countryside, narrow, controlled, timid, submissive, and puritanical, a place where as soon as they were born, they were at the mercy of the great landowners; and then, the experience of the city, which they discovered in 1936, a place of unity, a place of emancipation, a place of revolt and freedom.
Your book is set in the province of Lleida, which was a flashpoint in the Reapers’ War and is a center of Catalan nationalist sentiment today. Cry, Mother Spain has few references to Catalan language or culture. Is that by chance or deliberate?
I should make a confession. In the first version, the story took place in Lleida. When it was printed, I realized I was making the Catalan peasants of 1936 speak… in Spanish and not in Catalan, which was a grave error. An error that can be explained by the fact that my own Catalan mother spoke only Spanish at home because that was the language my father imposed on our family. As I was unable to write in Catalan, I decatalanized the book in later versions: Josep became José, Lleida became Lérida, etc., and the peasants spoke Spanish.
But what mattered to me most in Cry, Mother Spain, beyond questions of setting and language, was to affirm that something on the order of a utopia had occurred in 1936, that the thing young people of the time thought unattainable, impossible, chimeric, had actually taken place, that the world order they believed would never change had shifted toward justice and sharing. Even more, perhaps, what mattered to me was to recreate the language my mother invented when she arrived in France, a trans-Pyrenean language, a language split in two, an inventive, joyous, poetic tongue that laughed at and manhandled the dominant language, and thereby opened new horizons of meaning. And this language, which my sisters and I called “Fragnol,” this language I was ashamed of when I was a girl but later loved with all my heart, could only have been invented between Spanish and French. With Catalan it would have been unthinkable.
This “Fragnol,” which Francophone readers comprehend effortlessly, has been a nightmare for translators, I believe. Most have looked for equivalents in their respective languages. The Spanish translator decided to omit it, or most of it. For me, that’s a great source of sorrow.
There are few references to Diego (the author’s father) and his family after the war; the most you say is that he had difficulty finding construction work in Toulouse. Did you have contact with your Spanish family in your childhood? Is your father’s disappearance from the text a mere question of form, or something more?
Under no circumstances did I want to write a maudlin book, a book that wallowed in sorrow. I didn’t want to speculate about the suffering of exile or write a book about the defeated. I didn’t want grievances, lamentations, victimized moaning, exploitation of misfortune for profit. From a literary perspective, these things repulse me. They are tourist traps.
But if I had dwelt on my father’s life in France, which was a truly tragic life, I would inevitably have lapsed into pathos and tears.
You know that sculpture by Giacometti, The Walking Man? It’s the figure of a battered man, laid low by life, but on his feet, coping, holding himself erect, walking ahead resolutely, as my mother did, I believe, when she arrived in France in 1939—my mother, who is the central character in Cry, Mother Spain and incarnated for me that valor and that tenacious will to live.
My father was knocked down, broken irreparably by the war and exile. There was no place for him in Cry, Mother Spain. Another book would have to be written for him, a book of despair. And I have neither the desire nor the courage.
In Cry, Mother Spain, your grandmother casts a cynical eye on her son José’s newfound political convictions. When he talks of the delights the revolution will bring, she says sure, and the sea will taste of anise and everyone will have the right to go on vacation with the pope. Montse, your mother, inherits her skepticism, and her anarchism has a sensuous aspect that contrasts with José’s doctrinaire approach. This reminded me a bit of Nuria Amat’s Amor i Guerra, which examines the Civil War through a love affair involving Ramón Mercader and uses gender to analyze the discrepancy between freedom and ideology. Is there something specifically masculine about this confusion of ends and means so frequent on the militant left?
Big ideas, abstractions, theoretical discourse for the men; for women, cooking, domestic common sense, and trivial reality, with affections and sentiments to liven up this last bit. In the 30s and 40s, these criteria still determined what attributes were accorded to women and men. My sense is the character of Monste lies at the end of that history and is an herald of our present.
Monste does take pleasure in her brother’s emphatic declarations of justice, equality, liberty, and all those grandiose emancipatory themes. But she doesn’t just take pleasure in them (and perhaps she mocks them a bit, too). They are things she will live, with her body and her soul. In this sense, you could say she is a rather modern representation of woman.
I’d like to say one more thing about “Fragnol”: because it had an absolutely unique sound, and gave a particular accent to every word that was spoken in it, asserting its resistance to the language of the majority.
Because this language of resistance shakes up the linguistic hegemony official voices employ, and frees us from the repulsive French of France 2 and the repulsive French of the media, I mean that smooth, proper, insipid French, that perfectly mediocre, perfectly dismal, and perfectly dead French, that agreed-upon French that harbors no surprises and no audacity and tries to pass itself off as the sole legitimate language.
Because this is a language that rejoices, that takes liberties, as I said, with regard to the dominant language, but gaily, thumbing its nose, sticking its tongue out. A language Rabelais and Céline would have loved: roguish, blissful, and with a constant inclination to diversion. A language that returns us to the spirit of play (after the Rabelaisian ludic principle was misunderstood and betrayed by classicism, with its love for clarity, proper measure, and order—this is something that should be developed more, but I don’t have the space for it now).
A language that, with its mischief and mistakes, pushes away away the veil, the seriousness, the solemnity of well-spokenness.
A language that introduces a bit of levity into things.
A language that reinvents itself every day, that displaces words, that opens them to their polysemy, that deflects their everyday meanings: a language that happily dismantles the idiomatic; a language that opens up passageways and lets the air through.
A language far away from any hierarchical principle, with learned and vulgar phrases beloved of the same heart: fuck it, if I may be so bold.
A language that confirms what Carlo Emilio Gadda never tires of repeating: that language is always renewed in the streets, by the people, and not by the academicism of literature and culture, which strive to codify it.
An impure language which, without ostentation, welcomes the other, welcomes Spain, welcomes the different Spains, that welcomes the foreign, that welcomes the differently said, the differently thought.
A language that “leaps out of range of the murderers,” and here the murderers are armed not with knives or axes, but with stereotypes, and imbued with that policeman-like fervor for purifying, regulating, normalizing, and homogenizing language.
A language that retains a bit of opacity inside in a society that this new universe of perpetual communication would like to make clear as water. Clarity, my mother would have said, is the cadeau de mes soucis (the least of my worries, in Ben Faccini’s English translation).
In brief, a living, living language that has served me as a constant example.
Lydie Salvayre is a former psychiatrist, who grew up near Toulouse after her exiled republican parents fled Franco's regime. As a child she spoke Spanish, only learning French after starting school. Her novel La Compagnie des spectres won the Prix Novembre in 1997 and was named Book of the Year by Lire. Pas Pleurer (Cry, Mother Spain) won the Prix Goncourt in 2014.
Adrian Nathan West is the author of The Aesthetics of Degradation and translator of numerous works of contemporary literature including Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny and Marianne Fritz’s Weight of Things.
Banner image credit: Martine Heissat