Friday, January 23, 2015

`It Makes Me Feel Light and Free'

“There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” 

I remembered Dr. Johnson’s happy thought, as reported by Boswell, while reading The Gray Notebook by the Catalan writer Josep Pla (1897-1981). I had never heard of Pla before this week nor have I read any other work translated from Catalan. New York Review Books in 2013 performed a service to English-language readers and published Peter Bush’s translation of the journal Pla began keeping on his twenty-first birthday, on March 8, 1918, and maintained for twenty months until he became the Paris correspondent for a Barcelona newspaper. In his first entry he writes: “I’ll write whatever happens — simply to pass the time — come what may.” Pla revised his journal throughout his life, adding layers of thought and recollection, and polishing the prose, and didn’t publish it until 1966, as part of the forty-five volumes of his complete works. Most of his work consists of journalism, travel writing and other nonfiction. In the passage that reminded me of Johnson’s observation, Pla writes of his home town, Palafrugell, on Spain’s northeastern coast: “Gervasi’s on plaça Nova is one of the most pleasant taverns in town to drop by. The wine is usually good and the company is agreeable.” 

Pla goes on to describe the central role taverns play in Catalonian life, and while doing so reveals his pride in being a provincial. He betrays no sense of cultural inferiority, though neither is he a nationalist, Catalan or otherwise. Even as a young man, Pla seems without pretensions: 

“To write the history of Gervasi’s tavern would be to write the history of my beloved birthplace. It would be a peculiar history because, apart from being very short, all that would stand out would be the absence of glorious deeds or famous people. Many people, I suspect, would find this lack of brilliance depressing. Personally, I am delighted to have been born in a town that has produced no redeemer, no connoisseur of exotic sensations, no stentorian preacher. It makes me feel light and free.” 

Pla would make ideal company in a tavern. His mind is practical, not given to theory. He is amused by life, not outraged. He pays studious attention to his surroundings and the way people speak. In all of this he reminds me of Sir John Hawkins’ report in his Life of Johnson (1787): 

“In contradiction to those, who, having a wife and children, prefer domestic enjoyments to those which a tavern affords, I have heard [Dr. Johnson] assert, that a tavern-chair was the throne of human felicity.—`As soon,’ said he, `as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience an oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude: when I am seated, I find the master courteous, and the servants obsequious to my call; anxious to know and ready to supply my wants: wine there exhilarates my spirits, and prompts me to free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those whom I most love: I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinion and sentiments I find delight.’”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Yes that cut and thrust delineated in the final two lines of your post are true pleasure. A taking pleasure in the mental exploration of the human condition by challenging wrong-headed ideas about it. What fun!