ON THE VERGE OF OBLIVION: HOW WRITERS (MAY) FADE FROM SIGHT

We, readers, seem to believe that the permanence of writers is automatic. Nothing needs to be done to have any book we want at our command, whether it is first-hand or second-hand. Only irrelevant authors and works sink into nothingness. We smile smugly whenever someone praises a long-forgotten author nobody else has heard of, never mind that this person was a best-selling writer in his or her time. Matters, however, are not that simple and the process by which the machinery that moves forward a writer’s career grinds to a halt is always worth-considering.

These musings come about because of the two dead authors occupying much of my time this summer and for very different reasons: Patrick O’Brian and Manuel de Pedrolo. I have now started reading the ninth novel in the highly addictive Aubrey-Maturin series by O’Brian, which expands to twenty finished volumes and an unfinished one. As I have narrated here in this blog, I have translated Pedrolo’s SF masterpiece Mecanoscrit del segon origen from Catalan into English (I’m celebrating that Wesleyan University Press has accepted publishing it!). Both writers have something in common, despite their very different positioning at an international level and in terms of their success: they hardly exist for academia and, thus, being dead, they depend now on their readers for their survival into literary immortality. In very different circumstances.

The size and the depth of the Aubrey-Maturin cult is simply staggering. It’s what we call in Spanish ‘un secreto a voces’, which sounds more colourful than the English ‘open secret’, for we mean ‘loud’. I recently came across an article in The Guardian, “Why Patrick O’Brian is Jane Austen at Sea” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/28/why-patrick-obrian-is-jane-austen-at-sea) and I was fascinated by the many comments from readers, explaining that they have read the series several times over, each time loving it even more. I was mystified by a woman who objected to the view that you can enjoy the books without caring very much for the nautical detail by answering that in her all-female weekly reading group they discussed all that detail down to the last nuance. I don’t quite see myself discussing when topgallantsails should be displayed. Um, perhaps not yet.

Since the series is rich not only in nautical lore but also in other matters such as the state of natural philosophy in the early 19th century, O’Brian has inspired that kind of internet resource and companion book that unpacks all the research that he packed into his books. It’s a wonderful nerdish pursuit but I worry that the work done to clarify what kind of dessert is a ‘drowned baby’ (a boiled suet pudding with raisins, see https://www.wwnorton.com/pob/vol3ii.htm#pudding) may throw the baby out with the bathwater. No matter how much information you assemble about a favourite narrative, whether this is the Aubrey-Maturin series or SF equivalent Star Trek, data cannot satisfy if analysis is missing (and for the SF nerds, yes, maybe I’m cracking a joke at Data’s expense). As I noted in my previous post about O’Brian, the number of MLA-registered academic pieces on the series is a scant 32, not including the thesis that my colleague John Styles penned and almost managed to lose. How’s that low figure possible, I wonder?

The negligible academic attention paid to O’Brian (and to many other writers of a much higher impact like Terry Pratchett) apparently obeys the classic prejudice against so-called escapist fiction. In an attractive collection of articles by Neil Gaiman which I have read this summer, The View from the Cheap Seats, he wrongly attributes to C.S. Lewis a witty retort against escapism, which actually came from the mouth of Lewis’s friend, J.R.R. Tolkien: “What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and hostile to, the idea of escape?”, he asked Lewis. Tolkien himself gave, Lewis tells us, “the obvious answer: jailers”. And so, as crowds of readers enthuse over O’Brian, academics take him with pincers and in very small doses, and just because he reminds them of Jane Austen. This, in view of the frantic activity that Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin display in their journeys and of the massive research that O’Brian displays in his books, is a very lazy comparison. Yet, the academic lashing of O’Brian onto poor Jane’s back has given Jack and Stephen’s father at least a foothold onto Literary history, if only as a footnote, and what a strange one, in Austen’s modern legacy.

I don’t think that O’Brian and Manuel de Pedrolo ever met, though O’Brian, who lived in Colliure (Northern Catalonia) and created in Maturin the most important Catalan character in international literature, would have enjoyed the meeting. After all Maturin and Pedrolo share the same political views on Catalan independentism. The lesson I’m learning these days about Pedrolo is that it is not always clear why writers approach the brink of oblivion. Let me explain the case.

Pedrolo is remembered for Mecanoscrit, the best-selling, most widely read novel in the Catalan language, with sales up to 1,300,000 copies since publication in 1974 (we are approximately 10 million speakers). It turns out he loathed its success and often declared that if he’d known he’d be remembered for Mecanoscrit, the book would have never been written. In the excellent documentary by Eduard Miguel Manuel de Pedrolo: Trencant l’oblit (2015, https://vimeo.com/131804610), Antoni Munné-Jordà aptly compares Pedrolo’s case to that of French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a highly accomplished author today remembered only for the children’s book The Little Prince. Understandably, Pedrolo, who poured his endless energy into more than 120 volumes, felt chagrined that a book he regarded as a minor piece would represent all his production and even obscure his best work (the 11-volume series Temps Obert). This is why his daughter Adelais has poured her own energies but limited resources into building the Fundació Pedrolo (established 2005) to maintain the memory of her father alive. Not that this is an easy task.

When I attended this last Sunday a presentation of Pedrolo’s novel Procés de contradicció suficient, rescued and re-issued by Hugo Camacho’s small press Orciny, I learnt from Adelais de Pedrolo herself that only four of her father’s long list of books are available from Catalan bookshops. She is hopeful that by 2018, the centennial celebration of the author’s birth, the list will extend to 10 titles. I’m speaking of an author who is simply indispensable in Catalan literature, a man who was, as Jordi Coca has said, a complete Literature by himself–he wrote poetry, drama, essays, articles, memoirs, letters, short fiction, novels… and in all possible registers from the poetical experimental to the functional prose required for fast-driven plots. Yet, the bibliographical search I have been doing these days has resulted in a list of similar dimensions to the one for O’Brian in MLA, perhaps with just a few more monographic volumes but still with no major study of the works. Even more surprisingly, the number of doctoral dissertations on Pedrolo which I have located is only four, of which none has been produced by a Department of Catalan in Catalonia.

One of these dissertations was submitted in Salamanca, within a doctoral programme in aspects of Spanish fiction, which would have horrified Pedrolo. The author never appeared in the Spanish media and always maintained that Catalonia was a colonized nation. Now, here’s the paradox: having suffered terribly from the restrictions of Franco’s irrational censorship (Pedrolo was the most heavily censored writer between 1950 and 1970), he nonetheless managed to antagonize the Catalan political and literary establishment of his time. Hence, the story goes, his odd ostracizing.

According to Adelais, he was a painfully shy man who was simply bad at small talk and who hated the socializing rituals of his writing peers. Yet, if, despite having been honoured with the Premi d’Honor de les Lletres Catalanes (in 1979), he was buried in 1990 with the only company of his wife and his daughter, something else is amiss. Eduard Miguel’s documentary suggests that Pedrolo’s fierce independentism earned him the enmity of the Catalan nationalists then involved in the delicate process of the Spanish Transition. These nationalists, so the thesis goes, would have blocked Pedrolo out of any significant public positioning, implicitly including the study of his work at a university level. Arguably. Twenty-six years after his death the political situation has changed so much that Pedrolo’s opinions have been embraced by the same political party that back in 1980s labelled him a problematic writer. Yet, he does not seem to be re-emerging from academic limbo, or only very slowly. In the meantime, let’s recall, his books have been practically abandoned by those with the power to make decisions about publishing them. It seems to me that, for whatever reasons, the potential cultural capital embodied by the 1,300,000 persons who bought a copy of Mecanoscrit and its many more readers has been sadly squandered. Please, Catalan Literature colleagues, do something!

All this brings me back to my starting point: how dead writers approach the brink of oblivion. O’Brian, who died in 2000, is still alive in the many readers who praise his work. From what I see in GoodReads, he seems to be recruiting new young readers, some of whom might eventually produce the academic work that turns a popular classic into a canonical figure. Here I’m using canonical in the humble sense of worth writing about from an academic point of view, and not meaning ‘firmly in the canon’ (like, um, Jane Austen). The Anglo-American university is demonstrating a notable flexibility in the incorporation of successful, popular, cultish fiction.

The case of Pedrolo is far more worrying because there is an ill-defined ideological component interfering with the purely academic approach. The rise of independentism may benefit the cause of Pedrolo but let me tell you that I didn’t see any young readers waving independentist flags, literally or symbolically, in the presentation I attended, which was part of the Setmana del Llibre en Català. We’ll see, then, whether the 2018 centennial pushes Pedrolo away from the brink of oblivion and for the best possible reasons: our admiration for the high quality of his immense literary output.

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