Paperback, 493 pages
Publisher: Archipelago Books (November 2015)
Languages: English, Catalan
Selected by Barbara Epler
Private Life holds up a mirror to the moral corruption of Barcelona high society between the wars, with its card games dilapidating the fortunes of milquetoast aristocrats – and what schemes to conceal their losses! Part Lampedusa, part Genet, and part [Portuguese writer] Eça de Queirós, this multigenerational saga revels in cleverly vicious bons mots, as well as some surprisingly graphic sex.” —Barbara Epler
His eyelids opened with an almost imperceptible click, as if they had been sealed shut by earlier contact with tears and smoke, or by the irritated secretions that come from reading too long under a dim light.
As his pupils struggled to make something out, he rubbed his eyelashes. He flicked at them rapidly, using the pinky finger of his right hand much like a comb. All he could see was a vague panorama of limp, watery shadows, the kind of scene a man blinded by daylight might perceive on entering an aquarium. Against this murky background, a long vaporous blade the colour of crushed oranges on the piers came increasingly into focus. It was a beam of light stealing through the slats of the shutters only to sour in the dense atmosphere of the room.
It must have been about 4.30 in the afternoon. Frederic de Lloberola, the man with the aching eyelids, had awakened on his own. No one had called him, no sounds had startled him. His nerves had had their fill of sleep. They had sapped to the dregs a colourless, absurd dream, the kind that leaves hardly a trace of its plot when you awaken. The kind you have when nothing is going on in your life.
Frederic spent no more than eight seconds surfacing into reality.
On the worn tile floor lay items of his clothing, embarrassed at their own disorder, entangled with chiffon stockings and a woman’s deflated and, frankly dirty, cotton-knit nightgown.
All four chairs were piled with her things. The little vanity was weighted down with miniature bottles, powder cases, tweezers and scissors, and the open armoire resembled a funeral procession. The dresses and coats on the hangers, lively with bright colours and appliqués, brought to mind a series of too-thin carnival princesses who had been decapitated and pierced through the trachea with a hook. Atop the armoire rested empty dust-coated hatboxes, keeping company with a stuffed dog. The dog had been entrusted to an inept taxidermist who had stuffed it deplorably, leaving all the stitches visible between the hairs on its moth-eaten belly. His mistress had adorned the dog’s neck with an old-fashioned garter from which three minuscule roses peeped out, like three drops of blood.
Frederic began to notice the smells in the closed chamber. One single odour, of spent tobacco, dominated like a bitter medicine.
The trapped smoke impregnated the sheets and Frederic’s skin, mingling with traces of a store-bought cologne and all the vapours produced in the abandon of two bodies, which the night maliciously stores up to proffer mercilessly when the storm has passed and sleep has placed a wall of incomprehension between a somnolence of expectant contacts and a livid, sceptical, and unaroused awakening.
To combat the assault of the odours outside and the bad taste inside his mouth, Frederic stretched out his arm and picked up his cigarette lighter and a Camel from the night table. Only two draws were necessary; the experiment with a fresh cigarette was fruitless.
Frederic ran his fingers over the pink fabric of the pillow that lay beside his own, a slightly damp fabric impregnated with smelly oils. His fingers lingered over the fabric, reposing dumbly, his fingernails scratching out a faint sound on the relief of the embroidered initials: R... T... R... T... Ah, yes, Rosa Trènor. His lips said the name softly, repeating it mechanically... A little grease, a little dampness remained behind on her pillow, along with the hollow of her head. But anything she might have left behind of her dreams had already died a cold death.
Josep Maria de Sararra, 1894-1961, was a journalist, novelist and playwright who was a key participant and commentator of Barcelona’s Jazz Age. He also translated works by Dante, Shakespeare and Molière into Catalan.